Wednesday, November 20, 2013

GTA Online's Superfluous Bad Sport System

Once in a while a game will do something that absolutely pisses me off. I tend to be a pretty easy-going guy, so this happens pretty infrequently. However, there are times when a gaming company, a video game itself, gaming fans, or the industry as a whole throws something out there that gives me a truly “WTF” moment. This time, the offender is none other than Rockstar Games for a recent game you may have heard about – GTA V.

Okay, so it’s not actually GTA V but rather GTA Online, but that’s splitting hairs. The odd thing is, my “WTF” moment  had nothing to do with something Rockstar did in their newest blockbuster game that I felt was too violent or obscene – you know, the usual suspects. No, I’m talking about the implementation of the “Bad Sport system” that is used online. For those of you who aren't familiar with this, if you are deemed a “Good Sport” in GTA Online, you are rewarded with $1000 every few days or so. However, if you are tagged as a “Bad Sport” you are banned from “Good Sport” servers, are unable to game with friends (even in private sessions), forced to wear a dunce hat, and must remain in this mode for 48 hours real-time.

I'll go to the time-out corner, but I'm not gonna be silent or calm about it.

It sounds a bit harsh, but obviously this is a way for Rockstar to keep the game playable and make sure people aren't being complete and utter dicks, right? Well, let’s take a look at the ways you can be labeled a “Bad Sport” in online mode:

1) Quitting a job before it’s finished.
2) Reported and kicked numerous times from servers by your fellow gamers.
3) Destroying another gamer’s personal vehicle.

The first two seem to be aimed at people who I traditionally have a problem with online. I hate when people bail on a session because it’s not going their way, leaving me high and dry to try and beat it alone, others are so obnoxious with their mic that I have to go through the arduous process to mute and report them in the menus. No, those seem legit reasons for pushing people out of “Good Sport” servers. It’s the last reason, destroying a player’s personal vehicle, which to me makes absolutely no sense.

Can't touch this!

Before we dive too deep into my full rant, let’s observe for a moment what the Grand Theft Auto series is all about. It’s an open world sandbox game that allows you to do essentially anything you want. And this isn’t just some gimmick or sideshow in gaming; Rockstar prides itself on this gaming innovation that they popularized with GTA III when it essentially revolutionized the way we play video games today. Want to blow up a garbage truck? Go ahead, here’s a grenade! Want to beat a pedestrian to death with a golf club for petty cash (or no reason at all)? Sure thing, do you want to work on your long game or your short game? Care to break into a military base and go for a joy ride in a jet? Don’t forget your air-sick bag! Literally all of those things are possible and much more, yet Rockstar will not allow you to blow up another gamer’s personal care without consequences.

At this point you might be thinking, “Yea GG, but it must be hard to replace a car in online mode, or really expensive. Rockstar wouldn't just do this for no valid reason.” Well, I thought about that myself, but after having my personal car blown up numerous times in the game, I learned that getting your car back was as simple as calling the in-game insurance company, paying a deductible, and picking it up in the city. That’s it – and you’ll have a brand new, shiny ride ready to tear it up across Los Santos. So what I've got here is Rockstar telling me that after hours upon hours and game after game of playing like a crazed-one-man-army-sociopath that now I can’t even blow up cars to kill players in GTA Online, even though you can insure cars and get them back with a phone call? I’m not too sure they thought this one through thoroughly enough.

"I was going to blow up your car, but this seemed more acceptable."

For instance, one might say that it’s unfair to charge another player to replace their car when you’re at fault. That’s a fair argument, but here’s the deal – the person who destroyed the vehicle also gets charged a fee regardless of whether the other player replaces their car or not. I think this is fair, but Rockstar should’ve taken it further and charged the offender more money, and not charged the owner of the vehicle anything. Some cars can be expensive to replace, and if you’re a lower level player with a small bank roll, you’ll learn really quick not to blow up somebody’s supped up sports car. It seems like Rockstar missed a prime opportunity to implement negative reinforcement without ruining one of the aspects that makes the GTA universe so much fun (i.e. – utter chaos).

Perhaps Rockstar intended to curb trolling or griefing behavior with this system. However, there are two flaws with it that anyone who’s played GTA Online will immediately recognize. One is that you can create a private session to roam around Los Santos with friends away from the general population. Here you can feel safe and secure from those mean people who do drive-bys, plant bombs on cars, and try to experience the open-ended gameplay of GTA Online to its fullest potential. The other is that griefers are now protected if within the confines of their personal vehicles. Granted, I've been sniped dead while driving my car around, so no griefer is 100% safe; however, if someone wanted to constantly run down other players they are now essentially safe from the easiest method of ending their reign of terror – a well-placed sticky bomb or grenade and blowing them to hell! But nope, can’t touch that almighty personal (and fully insured) vehicle or you’ll be put in video game timeout.

The system is broke, yo!

Now why exactly does this make me so hot under the collar? Well, there are a few reasons. For one, I know how harsh the penalty is first-hand, and I don’t think it fits the crime. A buddy and I were rolling around Los Santos last week in his personal vehicle having a good time getting high wanted levels and going on grand cop chases. Once in a while another player would get in our way and suffer consequences, but we generally kept to ourselves on our merry chases. I would ride shotgun and try to keep the fuzz off our tails and once in a while I’d employ the use of grenades and sticky bombs.

Well as anyone who’s played GTA before can tell you, explosives are very much a double edged sword and can cause massive chain reactions when cars are close together. On few occasions I detonated a bomb that eventually and accidentally destroyed me, my friend, and his vehicle. Apparently Rockstar gives you only 3 strikes and you’re out, because after the third botched explosives attempt, I was informed that I was now a “Bad Sport” and I was banished to the lower servers for 48 hours. I was unable to play with my friends, I had to wear a stupid dunce hat, and worst of all, it ruined 2 full days of gaming online for me. Blowing up 3 personal vehicles does not seem to warrant 48 hours of what is essentially being sent to the corner to think about what I’d done.

With this, you are your own worst enemy...and for only $500 a piece!

I eventually served my time, but it was miserable. The “Bad Sport” servers are not much for doing missions since everyone is running around blowing things up, likely because they realize that this is the place with true freedom in the game. Also, I’d heard that any other “Bad Sport” behavior would add to the time I would have to spend there, so rather than risk it I sat in my online apartment and watched the chaos on TV, or simply played something else entirely.

Still, the lack of balance between crime and punishment isn't the biggest reason why this irks me – Rockstar is basically telling people that they cannot play the way they have trained us to play the rest of their games. After playing over 50 hours in the single player mode, I was used to rolling around the map raising all sorts of hell. Blowing up vehicles was a normalcy after playing for so long, but that all changed with the release of GTA Online. Sure you can blow up all sorts of non-personal vehicles in the online mode, but they often look the same as personal vehicles if a player hasn't given them a flashy paint job, and personal vehicles aren't marked in any way on the map. This means that a player could just as easily be driving a personal vehicle as they could a random one off the street, and there’s no way to know. Therefore, good-bye fun explosions, and hello nanny state gaming.

One of these is a Personal Vehicle: can you guess which one?

I will say this – GTA Online is still a blast to play, and one doesn't have to blow up vehicles to have a good time. I’m not saying that the game is ruined by the advent of a “Bad Sport” system. What I am saying is that it’s absurd and frankly hypocritical of Rockstar to punish players for playing a game as they wish it to be played, which is free and open like intended. Sure, it sucks having your vehicle blown up, but if you don’t like it then stick to missions and private sessions with buddies. Besides, complaining about somebody blowing up your stuff in GTA is akin to bitching about getting shot too much in a game like Call of Duty. If that’s you’re beef then I think you've picked the wrong game to play anyways.

I’m not a huge fan of trolling and griefing, especially when it makes a game unplayable, but in the end,  if I had my way I’d rather have a game where it’s allowed but I also had the freedom to play it the way I wanted to. Honestly, I think that a game series like GTA is truly revolutionary and a gift to the gaming world. They've fought through a lot of crap to finally give gamers the freedom to do anything they want, an experience many of us will never forget. However, it appears they’re willing to sacrifice truly free gameplay to accommodate the loud complainers of online communities about how unfair it is for people to blow their stuff up. Those who want to sacrifice gaming liberty for a little bit of security can get the hell out of my servers.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Graduated Gamer Reviews: Tiny Death Star (Android)

Oh Star Wars – no matter how much I bitch about anything not related to the original trilogy, I still love you so much. There’s so much to love, from the iconic music scores to the lovable characters to the universal and relatable themes throughout, that when you apply it to other media outside of film it’s almost a guaranteed win. The Star Wars franchise is certainly no stranger to this with its numerous best-selling novels, popular TV series, and of course highly-rated video games. With the wildly successful Angry Birds-Star Wars crossover for iOS and Android I guess it was simply a matter of time before another crossover happened – this time with the addictive Tiny Towers series.

For those of you unfamiliar with Tiny Towers, it’s a sickeningly adorable game where you create a skyscraper floor by floor with businesses and residential areas, and then move in tenants (aka – Bitizens) and employ them in those businesses to fund further construction. Overall, it’s hugely addictive and therefore wildly successful. With the Star Wars theme in play, you take over as Darth Vader who is tasked by the Emperor to fund and build the Death Star through the exact same gameplay as the original Tiny Towers game: by building new floors and selling products. However, when done through the lens of the greatest space opera franchise of all time, you get an experience that would make any fanboy or girl giddy.

Search your wallet, you know it to be empty.
As I stated earlier, the game is highly addictive. As soon as you build your first floor and you see some Bitizens move in and get jobs in your new businesses, you don’t want to stop. This is heightened by the fact that the floor’s theme is unknown until it’s ready to hire Bitizens. Sure, you know it’ll be a restaurant, but will it be an Ewok Sweets, or a Mos Espa CafĂ©? You get a rush each time a new floor’s theme is announced, and it feels oh so good.

I didn't know the Empire had such a lax dress code...I'm looking at you, Sunglasses!
Oh, and if you’re looking for something adorable, then the Tiny Towers series has got you covered. The Bitizens themselves are cute little pixels with gaping mouths and sometimes idiotic looking faces, but they’re so lovable  This is amplified when they decide to “voice” themselves on the Death Star’s version of Twitter, the Holonet. Some of them are just canned messages about the floor’s new stock or a business closing for the day, but then there are truly clever and chuckle-worthy posts that show a light-hearted nature.

Is this the definition of meta? Don't care, it's adorably funny.
But where the game truly shines is of course in the Star Wars theme. The Tiny Towers addiction is rocketed into the stratosphere when you add in collecting Bitizens from a long time ago and a galaxy far, far away. The game has Rebel and Empire Bitizens, neutral Bitizens, alien Bitizens, Bounty Hunter Bitizens – if it’s seen in any of the 6 Star Wars movies chances are you’ll see it in this game (yes, even Gungans). As mentioned earlier there are themed floors, and if you’re lucky to have a special Bitizen reach the right floor, you’ll unlock a special event. Most of these reenact a scene from one of the movies. They’re very rare, especially given the rarity of special characters and the high price of buying floors in later stages, but when they happen they’re quite a treat.

Leia with Cupcake Dog Eyes?
Still, if you want to collect all the themed stores, Bitizens, residences, and unlock all the secret events, you’ll have to either be extremely patient or shell out some real-world money to expedite the process. This, just like with the original Tiny Towers, is the one key flaw in this amazingly fun game. The game is slow-paced after about the 6th floor or so, and this is obviously a way to entice you to buy more coins and Imperial Bux to move the game along. I personally am not one to give in to such business tactics (hell, I rarely buy DLC for console games), but if you’re okay with that you’re going to find a lot to enjoy by pitching in some extra moo-la. And if you’re more like me and feel patience is a virtue, this game can entertain for hours, provided you last through the rough grinding sessions.

Gaping Mouth = Standard Bitizen Look
However, despite this flaw the game is sure to delight any fan of the original Tiny Towers game and especially Star Wars fans everywhere. You’ll constantly be saying to yourself “just one more minute” or “I need to stock this one item then I’ll quit”, and before you know it you’ll be grinding away trying to build that next service floor, unlock new species, or capture those pesky Rebel spies. Oh, and did I mention it’s free? That’s enough to make even the most dedicated Jedi turn to the dark side. Give in to your temptations – you know you want to.

The Emperor not sure if adorable or cute as a button.

Friday, November 01, 2013

Graduated Gamer Reviews: Silent Hill (PSX)

To say my experience with the horror genre of games is lacking would be an understatement. I've made that clear in a previous post about my relationship with games intended to scare the crap out of you. Still, it’s Halloween and ‘tis the season for games like Dead Space, Amnesia, and Resident Evil. However, I thought that starting my foray into the horror/survival genre with something modern like Outlast would be a bit unfair to some of the classics. Since I had a PSX and N64 on hand I thought of maybe starting with a game from that generation. After putting it to a vote on my blog between Resident Evil, Silent Hill, and Nightmare Creatures, the readers chose the original Silent Hill.

I have to admit that I was a little disappointed (sorry readers!), mainly because I've always heard such amazing things about the Resident Evil franchise; plus it did release before Silent Hill making it sort of the “father” of modern survival horror. But what to do, the people have spoken and I’m not one to disappoint. However, to say that I was excited to play this game would be an outright lie – in fact, I was terrified.

And that fear turned out to be justified. One of the first things Silent Hill did was get under my skin. Every step I took in the first hour was torturous because I knew it brought me closer to some sort of danger. Every creak made my skin crawl, even though I hadn't encountered a single enemy yet! Now obviously this is the purpose of horror games – to make you squirm – and I’m definitely not the pinnacle of bravery when it comes to this genre, but I have to give credit where credit is due. The thing about Silent Hill is that it doesn't rely so much on jump scares and the feeling of complete helplessness like many games today. You’re almost immediately equipped with a weapon and the game usually gives you fair warning when danger is nearby. No, Silent Hill does a great job of just being plain old creepy. It makes you feel uncomfortable about where you are: every corner, every door (whether locked or not), and every room becomes a battle of sheer will to continue, because you never know what awaits you.

Trust me, mailboxes and fire hydrants can be friggin' scary.

And what’s awaiting you isn't always a monster or trap. Sometimes it’s the empty spaces that mess with your mind the most. There were plenty of hallways and rooms that contained nothing, yet they made me uneasy. Some of those rooms would give me a scare with a random noise that sent me running for the door as quick as I could, but most of them were completely and I left them unscathed, but not unnerved. For a game made almost 15 years ago to effortlessly get me off guard – even with the extremely poor graphics compared to the modern games – is quite a feat in my opinion, and shows that the creators of Silent Hill knew their craft.

Okay, so now you know that Silent Hill is scary (yea, I know – duh), but what about the controls? Well I have to admit that I hated them at first. I honestly almost gave up completely on any hope of finishing the game because of the awkward way you control your character, Harry Mason. You use the thumbstick to turn your character and then press up on that same thumbstick to move Harry forward in whatever direction he happens to be facing. It’s very awkward and if this is your first experience with the game you’ll likely run into a few walls like I did. However, two things happened fairly quickly: I got the hang of the controls and I realized that they were a part of the horror experience. It would be very easy for the developers to program the character’s movement in any direction as effortless and turning corners a cinch; however, this would have eliminated any feeling of vulnerability in the game.

Just because you have a gun doesn't mean you’re always safe and it’s easy to fend off enemies. There are times when I had to back away from some demonic being or put some distance between me and monster in order to effectively kill them without sustaining damage. The reason this is important is due to the lack of first aid kits and health drinks around the town. If you’re careless and run towards danger with an itchy trigger finger, you’ll likely still take out any and all enemies, but you’ll also take unnecessary damage that can quickly drain your reserves. So in a way, the confusing controls aren't so much a frustrating lapse in game design, but rather an ingenious way to keep the game from becoming a FPS and too easy. Truly brilliant work by Konami.

Hey buddy...WHACK!

Now, a game can have good scares and creative controls to add to the horror/survival feel, but there’s always one very important thing I look for in games outside of the FPS genre if they’re to become memorable – story. It’s the reason why games like Final Fantasy VII and Mass Effect sit so high in my personal gaming echelon, and I can be quite harsh on a damn great game if it relegates story and plot to the backseat. Therefore, I was curious to know what my incentive was if I was going to risk my sanity to help Harry Mason through so many horrifying trials. Well, it’s a pretty standard motivational tool to use the threat of harm against a loved one, especially if it’s your daughter, and this is exactly what drives Harry to fall deeper and deeper into the twisted world of Silent Hill. But the story gets even more intricate from there, with some exceptionally eerie, dark arts at work, and somehow Harry seems to be the key to it all. I’m not going to give away too much because I hate spoilers no matter how small, but it’s safe to say that once I was pulled into this twisted world I actually wanted to keep going further down the rabbit hole.

Most of the motivation came from the desire to see how far I could go, this being my first trip through a horror game, but there were other factors that made the experience enjoyable. One of those factors was the almost open world feel of the game. Furthermore, as not to misconstrue the game at all, Silent Hill is purely linear; doing a good job of pointing out destinations and, using roadblocks of sorts, cleverly guiding Harry to the next area to explore. Still, I thought it was great that I was allowed the opportunity to run around town a bit exploring alleyways and looking for hidden health packs or potential weapons to give me an edge in my next dark quest. You eventually end up in the same places, but the journey can take as long as you want should you choose to explore.

All in all, I think it’s the various characters you encounter throughout Silent Hill that make the experience memorable and actually enjoyable. Perhaps it was because these NPCs made it feel as if I wasn't truly alone in the world, dealing with all the creepiness lurking in the darkness me as I looked for Harry’s daughter, but I soon found each scene with these characters not only distracting but enjoyable. Sure the voice acting is sub-par at best, but their presence was truly comforting. Eventually, I started to eagerly await these moments of bliss, and at certain parts would get excited if a loading screen took a little extra time because it meant that I would soon experience a cut scene with a new or old companion to share my misery with. Sure, I treated these random citizens from Silent Hill as security blankets of sorts, but they also helped drive the story forward, by adding a little bit of context to the twisted situations I found myself in.

She's 10 years younger and 100% more badass than Harry. Hold me, Cybil!

I wish at this point that I could say more about this game, but in all honesty it’s hard to wrap my head around. I've been so used to playing RPGs and action/adventure games over the last two decades that my first experience with a horror/survival game was mainly a research study in how well I respond to being scared and having to carry on. That being said, I was more than happy to find myself enjoying the game despite the scares. I initially took it upon myself to “nut up” and continue forward, even during the times when all I wanted to do was run to the nearest save point and call it a night. But the further I got in the game, the more I found myself actually enjoying the experience, even the parts where I got a mild form of Tourette’s due to an unexpected scare. I think at the end of the day, the true success of a survival horror game like Silent Hill is whether or not they can scare you but also keep you engaged before, during, and after the scares. A game purely meant to scare would be no fun for me; but if combined with a good story, a spine-chilling ambiance and imaginative controls that actually added to ones engagement with the game, then you've got a winning combination that would keep even the biggest pansy in horror video games for entertained for hours.