Indie V Next-Gen / 19th of July 2014
Since the launch of their respective next-gen consoles back in November 2013, both Sony and Microsoft, it seems have been struggling to meet expectations for the future of videogames. I’m not saying the consoles themselves aren’t impressive, or even that they won’t provide us with some outstanding games in the future, I’m sure they will. But as it stands neither console has a single game capable of convincing me that the next generation has arrived, not yet anyway.
By contrast, over the past six months the majority of the best and most critically acclaimed games available today seem to be coming from smaller indie studios and solo developers. So what is it that the little guys are doing right and the big boys, with all the money and experience, are doing wrong? It’s easy to generalise when trying to answer such a question and common answers often given are that publishers are too concerned with ensuring their games have as broad an appeal as possible. That the cost of triple-A development has suppressed creativity in favour of tried and tested methods. Or that their overinflated development costs mean games have to sell in obscene quantities, just to prevent themselves becoming the next big flop.
Smaller studios and Kickstarter funded projects are certainly not without their fair share of fiascos and flops either, but their problems are never as well documented, and it seldom becomes headline worthy news if and when some indie developer implodes. More often than not the news of their demise is submerged beneath a slew of press releases and major announcements. If they’re lucky some well-known website will feature a brief obituary, usually consisting of a few lazy clichés.
But let’s face it we’re on the outside looking in, the truth is we’ll never be certain what goes on behind the curtains of game development studios large or small. We might occasionally have a chance to sneak a peek or hear a conspicuously loud whisper. But when all we have to go on is rumours of internal strife at one studio, or corporate bigwigs dictating major design decisions at another, then all we can realistically do is examine the games themselves.
With that in mind I thought I’d compare some of the next-gen releases available today against a few of the best games the indie scene has offered us since the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 launched. But I do feel I need to set a few ground rules before going any further; firstly I’ll be judging the games on critical appraisals and not sales figures. Of course the likes of Killzone Shadow Fall, or Ryse: Son of Rome sold more units than the indies I’ll be comparing them to. They had massive marketing campaigns and besides it’s not as if there’s ever been a veritable smorgasbord of games to choose from at the launch of any new console, past or present. And secondly, I won’t consider any game that’s cross-generation, if it can be played on an Xbox 360 or a PlayStation 3 then it wasn’t built as a next-gen game first and foremost.
So with that in mind the first game I want to mention, because it’s more than worthy of receiving top billing, is The Banner Saga. Released by Stoic Studio in January 2014, it’s a blend of tactical turn-based combat and moral choice role-play. Created by three former Bioware developers, The Banner Saga is a game reminiscent of both PC cult hits such as Heroes 3 and ‘choose your own adventure’ books many of us grew up reading. The game was widely praised upon release, particularly for its art style, which reminded me personally of Disney classics The Sword in the Stone (1963), Robin Hood (1973), and Don Bluth’s wonderful The Secret of NIMH (1982). The implications of the moral dilemmas presented to the player also drew strong praise from reviewers, with eurogamer.net describing it as “a beautiful game filled with ugly choices and tough consequences”.
However it’s not without its flaws, the mechanics of the games turn-based combat are good but could be better, and for those players more concerned with the fantastic story, it may prove to be an inconvenience. Personally my biggest complaint was when the credits began to roll. Around twenty hours in I was engrossed in what felt like my own unique adventure, and though I got the sense the game was drawing to a close, I was gutted when that final curtain fell. Now I know that’s hardly a justifiable complaint that a twenty hour game - the first in a three part trilogy, funded by Kickstarter and made by a newly formed studio - ended when it did. But that’s the measure of The Banner Saga, it’s so good that I’m annoyed about having to wait on the next installment, and taking all of this into consideration, I have to credit it as the best game of 2014, so far.
Now compare the quality, in relation to the resources available, when creating The Banner Saga to that of Knack. Released on the PS4 in November 2013, Knack was to serve as one of Sony’s flagship games and was included in many PS4 bundle deals. Unfortunately for Sony Knack didn’t receive a warm reception and reviews could be considered mixed at best. Directed by Mark Cerny the game does admittedly hark back towards some of his previous work on titles such as Crash Bandicoot (1996), and Ratchet and Clank (2002) and as a result you might get a brief nostalgia buzz. But once that feeling’s come and gone the games shortcomings are all too obvious. And they start with Knack himself, an incredibly lazy design masquerading behind a game mechanic, described by Zero Punctuation’s Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw as nothing more than an “upturned bucket on a body made up of large numbers of small objects”. As well as this the overall level design was woeful, with Yahtzee going on to refer to it “as bland as it gets”.
Yet the Katamari-like concept could have proven interesting when applied to a third person brawler, but when the main character has about as much appeal and charisma as your average reality TV reject, and the so called next-gen power on show is wheezing like a fat kid during a bleep test, you have to wonder how Sony approved such a weak game to show off their next-gen potential. All that’s left is a game lazy in design, lacking any story worth mentioning, and is far too content to recycle old ideas without adding anything original at all.
Back to the indies now and the next game under consideration is a side-scrolling fighter by the name of Nidhogg. Developed by Messhof, it won awards at both the Independent Games Festival in 2011 and at Indicade 2013 over the course of its development, but was not officially released until January 2014 on PC and is scheduled to appear on PS4 and Vita sometime this summer. The game itself is designed primarily as a two-player versus game, in which two fencers face off and attempt to defeat one another in a series of duels. Their eventual goal being to progress to the opposite sides of the screen from which their respective characters started. The reward for victory… to be devoured by the titular Nidhogg. If you’ve ever felt the desire to utter the phrase “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die”, then Nidhogg’s duels provide the perfect backdrop in which to do so. With an amazing balance of intense, fast paced combat and tug-of-war like gameplay it creates an excellent sense of tension every time you switch it on.
Sadly, where the versus mode soars, its meager single player offering flounders. Effectively a series of duels against increasingly frustrating A.I. opponents, it fails to provide the same sensation of adulation you get from successfully outfoxing another player. In their review over at videogamer.com Nidhogg was aptly described as “a game to be enjoyed with friends while in the same room together”. A concept they fully embraced when staging an inter-office Nidhogg tournament for their YouTube channel.
In stark contrast to the pixelated graphics of Nidhogg, Ryse: Son of Rome developed by Crytek Studios is an Xbox One exclusive and was released as a launch title in November 2013. Initially devised as a Kinect specific game - the concept was later dropped in favour of a more traditional third-person perspective - it’s an action adventure game focusing primarily on melee combat. Intended to display true next-gen graphical capabilities of Microsoft’s new console it managed to do just that, as reviews universally praised its visual fidelity, with totalxbox.com describing it as “a genuinely promising example of what the Xbox One can do”. Aside from the visuals the game was also praised for its satisfying combat, though it failed to build upon it as the game went on.
Where the game begins to fall short however is in the addition of an online co-op mode for up to four players, an admirable attempt to try and include such a feature in their very first game, but you can’t help but think it might have been a step too far. Trying to connect to another hosting player online can be a nightmarish experience and when it does succeed the sheer amount of players, enemies, and items on screen at once can result in a pretty crippling drop in the frame rate. Despite these niggles Risk of Rain is a lot of fun and at the very least an interesting and original concept that shows just how good any game can be when creativity isn’t hampered by outside influences.
Killzone Shadow Fall stands as a polar opposite to everything associated with Risk of Rain. Developed by Guerrilla Games and released as a launch title on the PS4 in November 2013, it’s the very definition of a by the numbers shooter and has very little to offer in the way of originality. It’s not by any means a badly made game, quite the opposite in fact, but it is a boring one. Guerrilla Games have an uncanny knack for creating pretty looking games that somehow feel a tad sterile and which seem to lack any clear sense of direction. The series plot for example has, by this point, managed to portray the Helghast race as intergalactic Nazis, genocide survivors and cold-war era Communists all at the same time.However drawbacks often cited were the inconsistent spikes in difficulty over the course of the campaign and more significantly the addition of micro-transactions. Within videogame’s media their existence is considered outright greed and exploitation of the consumer by many and an unwelcome compromise by few. Micro-transactions are something that given the choice, just about everyone would happily see removed from modern videogames. Those discrepancies aside, Ryse: Son of Rome is one of the better examples of next-gen potential, it’s a solid game. But we need more than a step the right direction when it comes to the next generation of triple-A videogames.
The last couple of games I’ve referred to have focused heavily on melee combat, swordplay and historical fantasy. So let’s mix things up and cover some games with guns and sci-fi future worlds, the first of which is Risk of Rain. A platform based rogue-like, Risk of Rain was developed by Hopoo Games, with an amazing soundtrack contributed by Chris Christodoulou. The game was funded via Kickstarter and released in November 2013. A particularly unique game described by rockpapershotgun.com as “deceptively complex”, the main premise lies in a timed increase in difficulty at intervals of every five minutes. This forces you to choose between powering your character up at the cost of eating up time, potentially making the end of level boss more challenging. Or if you so desire, you can rush through the level, not bothering to track down those power-ups and face the area boss as soon as you find it. That may initially be the easier option, but it could prove to be detrimental to your chances of surviving in later levels. The game also contains a wonderful variety of up to eight characters to choose from such as the soldier like Commando, the quick draw Bandit with his ten gallon hat, or the stoic Enforcer and his impregnable shield. There’s plenty replay value to be had as well, being a rogue-like when you die that’s your lot, you’re whisked back to the start menu and are encouraged to go again. Level design is unusual in that it's somewhat randomly generated, meaning you're never quite sure where you are or which is the best route to take.
Between the convoluted plot and the bland and often confused gameplay, the beautiful visuals fail to pick up the slack. The end result being that all the way through playing Killzone SF you’ll be constantly reminded by the super smooth frame rate and the native 1080p resolution that this game should be so much better. The eurogamer.net review concluded by describing Killzone SF as an “empty spectacle” and I can’t help but agree.
If your sci-fi preferences are geared a little more toward films like 2001: A space Odyssey (1968) or Solaris (1972), than the likes of Starship Troopers (1997), then maybe you’ll be inclined to take a look at Lifeless Planet. Developed by Stage 2 Studios it was released in early June 2014. At its core Lifeless Planet is a third-person platformer with some puzzle solving elements to contend with, but more significantly it’s a game that just wants to tell you a story. A story which could easily have been told via a more traditional medium, the very fact that it is a game and not a piece of art-house cinema or novel is something videogame fans should be thankful of
All alone you must attempt to navigate an unknown and desolate planet and unravel the games mysterious plot. Told through audio log conversations, as well as text logs, they give you narrative breadcrumbs to follow and steadily increase your intrigue in the world Stage 2 Studios has created. The game is confident enough not to hold your hand either and allows you to explore and tackle it at your own pace, some players will be highly appreciative of this, but if you’re more at ease following checkpoints and running towards an affixed map marker then this design choice could frustrate you quite easily. But maybe that’s the point? All in all Lifeless Planet is a game with some very clever ideas and an interesting first outing by Stage 2 Studios.
A game I had hoped would manage to convey some sense of atmosphere when I first saw it running was Dead Rising 3. Developed by Capcom Vancouver it was another of Microsoft’s exclusives launched with the Xbox One in November 2013. Despite not being a fan of the previous games in the series, initial gameplay trailers had given me hope that this installment would take a less ridiculous approach to the zombie apocalypse scenario. Sadly those hopes were dashed within minutes of playing the game. The ludicrous combo system still exists, but has been dumbed down even further by removing any sense of logic to what you need in order to make specific combinations. The inventory system feels about as instinctive and natural to use as a home enema kit. The combat and general movement, despite some improvements, still feels outdated. Sentiments echoed by edge-online.com in their review when they stated that “controls that work well when navigating through the lumbering undead come unstuck against more agile foes”
Finally I have to comment on Nick Ramos, a character even less interesting than either of the protagonists from the series’ previous installments, namely ‘Photographer Man’ and ‘Stunt Bike Man’… and that takes some doing. If the game has any redeeming features it’s the sheer amount of zombies on screen at any one time and the size of the game world. Despite being frustratingly segmented, it’s a big playground to thrash around in even if the toys are rubbish and a bit broken.
All things considered and looking back at the eight games I've discussed, I honestly can't say this next-generation of games has anything significant to offer, yet. There are games such as The Division, The Witcher 3 and Quantum Break that could well blow our collective socks off when they arrive. But the truly good games haven’t arrived yet and the list of delays is piling up worryingly fast. As things stand at the moment, it’s the indie scene that’s thriving, consistently providing us with fun and original games. I’ll keep playing their games, as well as the ‘last-gen’ games for the time being. And forego stumping up the cash on a new console for now and wait until the actual next-gen games arrive.