Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Frozen Synapse review

Frozen Synapse is the cure to Starcraft 2. This is a game for thoughtful combat, rather than clicks per minute and speed. It's about outwitting your opponent, rather than rushing him. Extraneous activities to tactics such as resource management and base building have been removed, leaving you solely with your soldiers, the environment and the enemy.

It removes issues such as unit balance by having everyone start with the same units. But it introduces an interesting dynamic in that the levels are not uniform, resulting in some one sided battles. But no battle feels completely unworkable. You're always left with the impression that you could have done something smarter, could have out-thought your opponent in a way that would have resulted in victory for you. The result is a crazy, high speed version of chess.

That description brings with it implications that may not be obvious at first glance. Firstly, you can perfectly predict who will win in a fire-fight given the conditions. This is not a game of real world tactics. A shotgunner, aiming as he rounds a corner, at close range will always out-shoot a machinegunner standing still. This helps solidify the idea that each unit has a place and a use. But it also means that it's not truly real world. Games like X-Com and Jagged Alliance held firm in their depictions of combat that reality was key. In Frozen Synapse, the game is key. The most glaring example of this, more so than the predictable fire-fights, is that rocket troops can't hit people, or more importantly, the ground. This forces you to be very judicial in the use of rocket troopers. This restriction in the system is what makes the game more chess than war game.

The basic mechanics of the game are very simple. You take your squad of men and plan for them to shoot, walk, aim, duck, etc. around the battlefield, all with the express desire to kill off your opposition. Like Laser Squad Nemesis, the twist is that the actions themselves take place in real time turns of 10 seconds. You spend time considering what you're opponent will do, where he will go. You're forced to think a move ahead. But due to the real time nature of what occurs, real world tactics begin to be used, like distracting an enemy with a running unit while a second ambushes him a split second later.

The music is ethereal which suits the visuals perfectly. It compliments the periodic action and the planning stages suitably. It feels like a lot of thought went into its composition, the effect of which is noticeable. This polish is clear through not just the music. The visual aesthetic is clean and clear whilst holding to its style.

The game is buggy however. Issues I've had so far are to do with the game temporarily freezing when reviewing a turn or bringing up the right-click menu. These issues, while annoying, are not detracting from the actual game experience, and I found myself more annoyed that they'd slowed down the experience more than anything else. What I'm saying is that the bugs are minor, and forgiveable given the excellence of the game itself.

Something that I'm sure that Frozen Synapse gets compared to, and probably took inspiration from is Laser Squad Nemesis. But the part that Frozen Synapse does so much better is the method of conveying turns to each other. LSN used emails, but Frozen Synapse utilises a central server that communicated directly with the game. The result is that you end up playing four or five games at once, maybe the single player campaign as well. This system also allows you to watch your own and other peoples games, letting you learn from your horrible, horrible mistakes.

The single player campaign is far more than feels like far more than a primer for multiplayer. There's a narrative taking place, with well defined characters and a general feeling of unease as you become aware that something is decidedly off with the world you're in. Almost like a conspiracy that everyone is aware of except you.

The writing is genuinely interesting. Playing through he single player campaign I actually read through all the text. Compare this with Mount & Blade where I have often ended up accepting ridiculous quests because I couldn't be bothered to finish reading the paragraph of text I was on. And generally, I'm a reader. Maybe that's more a comment on Mount & Blade though...

The missions work well within this narrative, and the A.I. is pleasingly intelligent most times, refusing to walk blindly around corners and into bullets. Though there was one game where it managed to kill almost all its own troops, this seems to be rare, and may well have been the results of it simply trying to murder me by blowing up everything in sight. Not the smartest of moves, but as I said before, this behaviour is rare.

I like to rate video games based on how much I'd be willing to pay for them, and Frozen Synapse would get £30 from, except they'd need to increase the price to get it there. And by the way, you get two copies with that purchase. One to give to a friend. How cool is that?

Tuesday, 7 June 2011


During my review of X-Men First Class, I mentioned how Moira McTaggart was not really the Moira we knew of from the comics (or in my case, Saturday morning cartoon show). I wondered (aloud) why they hadn't invented a new character. More recently two games that I know and enjoy are getting remakes/sequels/just continuing the franchise, depending on how you look at it. X-Com and Brothers in Arms were both great games (X-Com was actually superb, but beside the point right now). And now they're getting new games bearing their name.

The thing is, the games themselves have seemingly little to do with the original game. Brothers in Arms was a tactical shooter where you commanded a squad of airborne troopers. It was based upon the exploits of real soldiers, had incredible detail and historical knowledge, and was one of my favourite shooters. Except the third one. I hated the third one. But all of them were about the horror of war and dealing with the loss of your comrades. The new game is, as one commentator put it, "Inglourious Basterds: The Game".

He's not wrong. The E3 trailer showed a completely different tone to the game. It's still based in WW2, and you still fight on the Allied side. That's pretty much the entirety of the similarities. The rest is the Tarantino movie. I've got nothing against that, except the name. Why keep the Brothers in Arms name? What does this new game have to do with the old ones? Is it the psychotic hallucinations of one of the main characters? Because that I could understand. But beyond that, I can't imagine the two living in the same world.

I'm told branding is the cause. But I don't understand this. Branding, as a tool, is supposed to work by associating a proven, good product with a new product. And it's a powerful force, the cause of sequels to great films bringing in incredible profits even if the film itself is bad (see Spiderman 3 vs. Spiderman 2, or the top ten animated movies in the UK by profit, they're almost all sequels). If the previous thing in the series was good, the next thing will make a lot of money.

But is this true if the next thing is completely different? Anyone aware of a brand will be able to see that the next thing is so completely changed from the thing they loved, they'll have to judge it by it's own merits. So maybe by using the brand, they're not catering for those who loved it the most, they're catering to the people who have heard the name but know next to nothing about it. But those guys would have heard the name from the first lot. And the first lot will now be complaining about it.

By taking a brand and producing something nonsensical with it, the publisher is creating bad publicity. The game now has something to prove. It has to be great or it will get eaten alive. Fallout 3 is an example of this. When information about the game first began to trickle in, hardcore Fallout fans were appalled (at least the loud ones were). There were a lot of complaints about the change. But, and this is important, it kept the original setting and feel of the first two games. It still felt like Fallout. And the reviews were very positive. They were plenty of faults with it on a core level (combat's general shittiness is my personal pet peeve), but it was still a good game. And it was still a Fallout game. This new Brothers in Arms game is not that.

For the purposes of clarity, I'm going to refer to XCOM as the 2K game coming out sometime soon and UFO as the original Enemy Unknown. This case is right between the two. XCOM is a brand new take on the UFO IP. It's so different that I don't even recognise it as UFO. It could, to me, be made under a different name and I wouldn't feel any different about it. Actually that's not true. If it were under any other name, I would probably be more excited about it. I'd have no expectations of it, other than it's a good looking game and an interesting premise. Currently it looks like a shooter version of UFO, which is harmful to my soul.

Publishers seemingly fail to realise that branding comes with baggage. They want the good stuff of increased profit margins from goodwill towards that brand without the bad stuff of higher expectations of an evolved version of the previous. X-COM Enforcer was a great way to fuck that up. It's probably too harsh an example, as it was a shit game stapled onto a great brand. Once the new XCOM is released, it'll probably sell well. If it's a good game, it'll probably sell very well. But would it sell better or worse than if it was branded under a new name? The setting is so far removed from the original that they'd have no problems doing this legally. And it's not as if they have serious competition (name another triple A, aliens invade Earth, turn-their-tech-against-them-while-they-infiltrate-the-very-organisations-funding-us game out there). I'd bet that if they had put this together under a different title, UFO fans would be clamouring to them. They'd be creating positive buzz talking about it on forums and in comments. They'd be telling their friends about it. Instead they're complaining to everyone about it. When a brand has been clamouring for a comeback from it's fans, they flock to anything that plays like it. the UFO:Aftermath series of games, the fan based creations, I'm sure they get plenty of support from the Enemy Unknown community. XCOM gets virtually none. And they paid handsomely for the privilege to use that name.

And here I was hoping for, at the very least, the western version of Valkyria Chronicles...

Saturday, 4 June 2011

The Art vs. The Artist

I like reading Ratfist. Actually, I like a lot of Doug TenNapel's work; Earthworm Jim, Creature Tech, Gear. And then I read about a political debate he had on his comment section. Actually, I read about the abuse he was getting, as I didn't wander into Ratfist's comment section very often. I did read his blog posts underneath each of his pages though, and that's where I heard about the comments incident.

So a quick google of the situation later and it became apparent that Doug's conservative. I always suspected he had a Christian religious background due to the mythology that creeps into his work. I never minded it because it didn't really matter. But what was being discussed in those comment pages does matter. It was about the legalisation of gay marriage.

I'm a big proponent of gay marriage. I wasn't until I saw an episode of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (created by Aaron Sorkin, king of screen writers). Before it, I thought that civil unions took care of the issue. In the episode, one of the main characters explains what's wrong with civil unions as "there's no way to get to the end of that sentence without saying that homosexual love is something less than heterosexual love". And that one line suddenly convinced me. Regardless of the legal differences (even if there aren't any), allowing someone to hold onto that word as the purview of straight people is nothing less than homophobia in the worst way.

All of which is my roundabout way of saying, I was taken aback. I didn't know what to think. I'm also a big proponent of separating the art from the artist, and have argued passionately for this case against people who claim that they never want to see a Tom Cruise flick because he got up on a sofa and is crazy (there's nothing wrong with getting up on a sofa. Anyone who's been in love will tell you that. Belief in Xenu however...). Or people who like to claim that they can't watch Russell Crowe due to his behaviour outside the screen. It never made sense to me; no matter how mind-blowingly insane or how enormous a jackass someone might be outside their work, to us the consumer, the work is all that matters. Sure, if I'm hiring one of them, I might have a reason to question their behaviour. But when it's just the finished product, why should it matter?

And yet, with TenNapel, it does. At least, to me it does. Why is the real question. Maybe it's because the belief he's holding is, instead of just being something that influences how one acts, is instead aimed at the curtailing of a liberty of another. And I could never stand for that. And because of that, it's no longer a question of enjoying the work. It's suddenly a question of supporting the product put out by someone against gay marriage. To put it more dramatically; would you buy ANYTHING, if it was made by a Nazi? A proponent of the death of Jews, and really any minority not of the Aryan nation? 

But flag-burning could be seen as something that affects one's liberty, and if he had spoken against that I wouldn't have cared. Not that I don't have a position on that, it's just that it doesn't matter to me as much as the gay marriage thing, apparently. Weirder still, I'm not gay, so it's not some kind of personal attack on me that's causing this reaction. 

Instead, perhaps it's the difference in the relationship between the art and the artist. The actors act. They pretend to be something they're not, saying the words that someone else has come up with. So regardless of what they do on screen, it's hard to see a corollary between their behaviour and their art as their behaviour IS their art. They have to control it. But with TenNapel, he writes, draws, inks and I think colours Ratfist. Suddenly every story point, every bit of dialogue has a hidden meaning. I mean, they don't, but suddenly that's how it feels.

At the end of the day, we all make choices, and it is these choices that define us. And I am choosing to continue to read Ratfist, and enjoy TenNapel's various work. Were we ever to engage in conversation over this issue, I would come at him with all the passion and verve I could muster, but I won't stop reading his work. And to those of you who would claim that I'm compromising my ethics, I say to you that no one ever changed someone's mind with a closed fist. Removing ourselves from those whom we disagree with, robs us of the chance to convince them. Besides, "so long as there are two people on the planet, someone is going to want someone dead" - Sniper, Team Fortress 2.