Zelda: Skyward Sword – A discerning look at what we saw

September 11, 2010

It´s been some time since E3, and cologne´s gamescom also took place already. At both of these events, Nintendo showcased the same first playable demo of The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, the new Zelda-game for Wii that is supposedly released some time next year. My first impression of this whole new series entry was rather a negative one, but not long after stating that I warmed up on the overall presentation. However, some of the parts of the E3-demo cannot remain the way they are – at least not if Nintendo wants me to fall in love with this game. Thus, I will now point out just these elements that I hope are occurrences of early development. I am not naming stuff that I wish for on a non-rational base – I did that at other occasions. This is stuff that should and can be changed.

1.) The visuals

Neither do I dislike the chosen art style nor the decision to go for a painting-like look. Actually, I really like that as it makes the game feel more unique, gives it its very own nature, as opposed to re-using either the realistic style of Twilight Princess or the toon-shading style of The Wind Waker. In one video, Bill Trinen himself shows off the game and explains how Skyward Sword has this completely new look. However, what I´m actually shown are low-resolution textures and low-polygon objects that show lots of unattractive, sharp edges. Just take a look at that overview-picture that shows the demo-forest from above. What is supposed to look like a painting just looks like a technical mess. The same goes for the trees while standing in front of them.  They consist of a featureless log with, again, boring low-resolution textures. And then these so-called flowers on the ground that look as if they´re from a Mario-game. The only part of the demo that actually looks good is Link´s model. You can see the painting-like effect especially good on his green hat. But other than that the game lacks technical perfection, or, not to use such overblown phrases, doesn´t look round, yet.

Beautiful? Take a closer look and you´ll see ugly edges and textures all over the place

2.) Blocky environments

This could be complained about as part of the visuals, too, but it is more crucial to the gameplay, so I´d like to point it out like that.  The whole forest-area of the demo of Skyward Sword is surrounded by these terrible even walls. And not only is it this area-limiter, it´s also what natural hills look like. And then you have these typical lianas that Link uses to climb these even walls. It just destroys any sense of nature when you see these completely artificially looking parts of the landscape. In my perfect vision, all these walls would feature options to climb them just like that, but that´s not even necessary. What is necessary, though, is that the environment at least looks believable, even if not interactive. As is, Skyward Sword looks more like a puzzle-collection with themes instead of a plausible fantasy world.

3.) Clunky animations

Probably my most urgent complaint about what we´ve seen so far: Link´s animations. Of course, there´s MotionPlus, which means the player controls Link´s right arm while having unsheathed the sword, but that doesn´t mean that you can dismiss the rest of his animations. The way he normally runs looks so…stupid and goofy. He looks like a model-runner, with perfect stepping. All that while his upper body hardly moves at all. It´s even worse when he jumps, which seems to be the exact same animation from Twilight Princess. You know, that jump-“animation” where he´s uprightly falling down, no bowing forward, no ducking, and no movement while falling at all. Someone would expect Link to wave his hands and feet, but nothing. The animation for fast running is fine, though. But that´s but one part of all the different animations needed. Link has to react more naturally to what he´s doing. And just one other animation that simply sucked: The rope´s animation when Link uses it to swing to another platform. It doesn´t look like a rope but a stiff, long stick.

4.) Fighting enemies

Just let me say that I like the increased difficulty due to enemies blocking your attacks from varying directions. However, when watching that Stalfos-boss encounter I can´t help but feel that fighting this guy felt way too much like solving a puzzle than actually fighting a dangerous monster. You know, watching in what way he´s holding his two swords, then attacking the open side, rinse and repeat. One of my favorite fights was against a couple of Stalfos knights in Ocarina of Time´s forest temple. These guys were a real threat and attacking them was a challenge, as they would  leave themselves open to attack for only a very short time. So instead of this explicit directional guarding, have enemies move their swords naturally and have the player time his attack on-the-fly. That´s what´d make fights feel like fights.

Enemy or puzzle? Ideally both, but not that obvious please.

And that´s it. There´s other stuff that I´m not too fond of, like most of the shown enemy-design, but I don´t have much hope that this kind of stuff is going to change in the final game. However, the four topics I elaborated above have a realistic chance to change and I whole-heartedly hope they will. Of course, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword does a lot of things right, too. But that shouldn´t be necessary to be mentioned, it is a Zelda-game after all. So let me finish this text by saying that I love the fast running and the flying beetle, and that I´m pretty confident that a gorgeous game is awaiting us.

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When gamers and publishers think alike – the death of creativity

August 7, 2010

It might only be the case for me and a a minority of gamers, but I can´t help but feel that the gaming industry has forsaken its creativity. When you take a look at current generation systems´ lineups, you´ll only find all the typical titles and types of games. Besides big, old franchises, there´s all these “Hollywood”-games, games that almost pull you through a level without any kind of self-thinking, of exploration, of sense of wonder. And then you have gamers claiming that there is creativity. But they will point towards simple, “small” games, mostly featuring 2D-gameplay or being flat out puzzle games. But creativity within 3D-games, games that feature an ingame-character that you can control? Nowhere to be found.

There is still no gaming-equivalent to a Ghibli-movie. And even the Ghibli-featured Ninokuni does nothing different in terms of gameplay.

Gaming has become predictable. Gaming, not games. When a big, hyped title is released nowadays, it´s not the gameplay that you´re wondering about, it´s the game´s story. And that´s exactly the industry´s problem. Instead of pressing forward within the possibilities of video games, developers and publishers AND gamers keep focusing on mimicking Hollywood. One of the highest selling “hardcore”-games is Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, but in terms of gameplay, there is nothing that could explain its success. It is a plain, totally uncreative first-person shooter, completely linear, offering nothing that you hadn´t seen before. And yet, the media praises it, the gamers praise it, and the mainstream, obviously, praises it, too.

You could say, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 is the ultimate evidence for the death of creativity within the industry, but there´s lots more of examples. Simply take a look at all the popular games: Alan Wake, Final Fantasy 13, Grand Theft Auto 4, God of War 3, StarCraft 2, or the upcoming Halo: Reach. None of these games offers a new kind of gameplay-style. Every single one of them is defined by its story, its visuals, or its fun factor (which is good, just not in the context of creativity). Where are these games that make me say “wow, that feels like nothing ever before!“?  These games did exist last generation, with games like Metroid Prime, the original Halo or ICO.

An endless list could be made about ideas that video games have not yet used. Having recently watched Nolan´s Inception makes me ask: Where is this high-budget game that features a concept like that? Putting the player inside a realistic looking world, but giving him the power to change everything! The hell, there has never even been a game that properly used the concept of the Matrix-movies. All we get are games that may use the theme of such concepts, but you never get to play it, you just see or hear of it in cutscenes. Where are high-quality third- or first-person shooters that treat human life as something important, giving each and every enemy a certain weight, and where killing is not a simple matter of crouching behind an object and waiting for the enemy to raise his head? Where are all the games that create an environment that makes me stop at a certain place and grant me enjoyment simply by watching and listening to the scene? But not by having some brain-fart scenery that makes some self-proclaimd art-experts say “oh, that was so beautiful, it made me stop playing“; but instead, making me stop because of a world that feels so incredibly alive! Where is the non-linear, super atmospheric space-adventure (not one where you only control a space ship, but a character, walking inside a space ship, flying it, leaving the space ship and climbing around on its outer surface) with a steady stream of DLC? Where the hell is a first-person shooter that finally properly captures the atmosphere of Aliens (the second movie)?! And don´t you dare bringing up one of these hectic, score-based co-op-shooters. Playing Alien Swarm currently is fine, but never will be able to immerse myself in a game with top-down-camera. Where is a game that lets the player take control over a character that can freely fly around in the sky, but actually making it so that the player can almost feel the wind? Where is the GTA-like game that includes a proper racing game? Where is the MMO-shooter that is happening in real-time, where you are part of a gigantic group of soldiers, and everything is happening in real-time, with every player having only one life. A real, virtual war. And so on, and so on.

There is so much that could be done within the world of video games. So much crazy stuff. I mean, it´s that reason why I love games, why so many of us fell in love with games. This limitless possibilities, opening up a world full of fantasy and craziness.  Instead, the industry, and I mean the whole thing, including gamers, seems to have settled with a certain base-level of gameplay, and the only sales-driving aspects are story and visuals. It is sad, because so much more would be possible. Someone just has to do it.


Emphasis on animations

November 7, 2009

Most games´ focus in terms of visuals lies on the pure impression of the picture you get at a certain point while playing the game. Focus is the ability to present the game as well as possible to the media masses. One aspect that cannot be shown on a picture or not even in videos are games´ animations.

There is no doubt that video games animation have come a long way, and while we´re not yet on Pixar-level, video games are capable of outputting gorgeous animations. Games look fluid, smooth and natural. Still, if you actually play those games you come to realize that it´s not as great as you thought it looked to be. Obvious examples of video games that don´t give a thing about believable, natural feeling animations are first person shooters. It´s simply not something to sweat about when you´ll never see your character anyway. And who cares about perfect animation in a game like Unreal Tournament 3, where all that matters is to shoot the enemy.

The majority of today´s games DOES have good animations, though. At least well-looking animations. That´s where the next split between good and bad (oh well, “not so good”) happens. Dead Rising looks great, but its animations are completely capped. As are Monster Hunter 3´s. You have these stunning moving monsters, but if you keep watching them you realize that it´s one set of animations over and over again. And no matter how you hit them with your weapon, they always react the same.

ico_15

There is a small minority of games, though, that is doing it perfectly right. For one, there is ICO for Playstation 2. Key-difference to most other games is that animations aren´t just pretty, they also feel great. Or to be more precise, they are combined with gameplay-related physics. When you run on a path and it has small obstacles, you can feel those obstacles and you can see your ingame-character moving accordingly. Another even older example would be Super Mario 64. That is in stark contrast to Super Mario Galaxy, where animations became actually less responsive to the gameplay. In the Nintendo 64-Mario, you have to gain momentum, you have to plan your next move or it´s game over. In Galaxy, you can heavily change the course of your jump even when already in midair. The 64-Mario moves, jumps and stops and you can feel and see it. That´s what made this 3D-introducing title the popular game it is even today.

I believe that there is an important connection between responsive animations and a “good feeling”, which in turns leads to higher levels of immersion. The following may be one hundred percent subjective, but I can still play The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time today, and enjoy it, even enjoy its visuals. In contrast, I don´t have that much fun with re-playing Twilight Princess, where animations have become less responsive, where Link jumps in such a weird, stiff way. A detailed blockbuster-game may be nice to look at, but I strongly think that animations are a key-element in the world of video games, that is the connection between visuals and gameplay.