Dreaming with the Marketing People – Prince of Persia: Forgotten Sands

Prince-of-Persia-Forgotten-Sands

Last month there was an interview on Eurogamer with Ubisoft PR about their gameplay changes to the latest iteration of Splinter Cell. The argument presented there positioned that Splinter Cell could sell a lot better, and the high brass of the company wants that to be done. Broaden the player base magical code monkeys and bake a cake for everyone to enjoy! It’s not hard to imagine such an ultimate cake which is sweet and sour and salty but also satisfyingly fruity.

I imagine that would be a dream of every person working in the marketing department – a product that everyone would want a piece of. Just shout a bit at them and they’ll come in droves. Prince of Persia: Forgotten Sands feels like a previous attempt of Ubisoft at creating this perfect mixture to appease any type of gamer they can get their hands on.

But it’s also a completely different approach than Splinter Cell: Conviction. In SC they wanted to make a 24/Bourne game and just splat a Splinter Cell logo on it, because it’s a brand with a history of success. In here, they wanted to create a Prince of Persia game for Prince of Persia fans. A rare situation but definitely a nice one. I mean both games are quite good in their own right, but also both didn’t sell the expected amounts. They were made with different marketing ideas in mind, and yet they both failed (relatively-speaking). No wonder, no one in these publishers’ game companies know what they are doing.

But I digress! Forgotten Sands is a safe game. It’s perfectly comfortable, playable, tight and utterly forgettable. No wonder it’s gotten lukewarm reviews because the game is nothing special. That’s the result of looking for a safe spot in the stormy history of Prince of Persia – a sort of creamy failure, a comfy piece of wood.

PoP FS Water

The modern games of the series varied from part to part quite heavily. Each was concerned with a lot of jumping, platforming and trap-avoiding with a bit of sword-fighting here and there. However, the style, oh, that was a wild rollercoaster. Sands of Time was a fairytale, Warrior Within a God of War clone and The Two Thrones a bit of both with some stealth added on top. Then came the reboot with thieving prince, a helpful princess and beautiful artstyle. This one didn’t sell according to expectations. Fortunately, it was 2008 and the movie adaptation was slowly becoming a reality. Ubisoft wouldn’t miss a chance to tie in to that!

So, The Forgotten Sands was born – a movie tie-in in visuals only, a spiritual remake of Sands of Time which makes one shout-out to the previous trilogy and logically places itself as an interquel (really) and last but not least it’s completely stand-alone, done-in-one – open to the new players! How do you not sell that Mr and Mrs Marketing Person?!

That’s the line, I imagine being repeated in Ubisoft PR meetings. It’s all the more sad because there hasn’t been a Prince of Persia title since then. The brother from a different mother – Assassin’s Creed has taken it’s place. It’s a shame because they’ve already moved out of the Middle East, and press ‘A’ for parkour isn’t nearly as enjoyable as gameplay mechanics of PoP.

Anyway, the game. The best part about The Forgotten Sands is its fantastic oriental-inspired music. I’m listening to the soundtrack right now and it’s tremendously enjoyable, definitely as highly refined as in all previous games. It has emotion, it has style and it fits the game’s atmosphere perfectly.

The graphics, on the other hand, aren’t as spectacular, but still quite competent. There are extremely few options to set them up, but it works well, so I can’t whine too much about it. The problem lies in the artstyle, after the visual extravaganza of the reboot, this looks just simple – lacking. A bronze-yellow-black color palette doesn’t help matters at all. Quite obviously, the visual basis for the world was Sands of Time – both the first game in the trilogy and the movie adaptation, but it doesn’t amaze in the same way as either of them.

PoP FS Fight

Also, an immense issue is that of level design. I still find it absolutely absurd how the locations in this generation have only gotten smaller. It’s something that hurts all the more in a game such as this. Especially, taking into account that Forgotten Sands succeeds in replicating that fabulous feeling of being a super agile skillful person jumping around like a mild-mannered monkey on cocaine.

Unfortunately, the smaller levels lead to certain amount of simplification. In a glorious mission to widen the playerbase they accomplished the obvious – killed the thinking, eliminated the slow moments. There’s no looking up into the sky in awe – ‘Wow! I’m going to climb that?!’ No, there’s only running left. Press forward and go, go, go. I believe this may not be necessarily bad in and of itself but, holey moley, does it not get dull after some time. When my mind wanders off and after I come to I find I finished another level, then things aren’t going the way I’d like them to go.

Luckily, the game design as a whole is rather fantastic. Every mechanic is introduced in a timely well-explained manner and then used to its fullest. The difficulty also ramps up in an organic manner. That’s why I believe it’s a grand game for a PoP beginner. Also, the game ends before it can get really boring and the finale is appropriately bombastic.

However, for a veteran there just isn’t enough compelling challenge. There are two new features specific to this game, which while really fun, aren’t enough to hold the whole game together. Though, the freezing water in time is an absolutely lovely ability, which I could do all the time and it should absolutely stay in for the potential sequels – it drives the game forward in the fun department. The same can’t be said about combat, though. The idea was that Prince always fights a horde of enemies. It’s not a bad idea, really, but the execution is dreadful. Just keep mashing X until everyone is dead (or deader).

Eh, I realize I haven’t written anything about the story of the game, but I’ve really gotten disillusioned in the gaming narratives lately, and Forgotten Sands is certainly one of these barely articulate monsters. It’s awfully simple – there are three characters – the villain, the hero and the exposition lady. The lack of any princesses in the game is sad, because they always added some flavor, were likable and allowed for lots of fun banter.

And here we get to my main problem – Forgotten Sands may be a a fun little game, but it doesn’t inspire any meaningful thought – it’s empty, it’s soulless. There is nothing beyond the game – it’s pure filler. Through most of my playthrough I was wondering why it didn’t get better reviews, but by the time I was finished, I knew. However cliché and probably repeated ad infinitum this is – Forgotten Sands is forgettable. To me, that’s one of the worst things you can say about a popcultural creation.

You can’t have your cake and eat it too. Platformers are like survival horror and stealth games – not for the famed ‘everyone.’ Mindlessly coping everything that can make the game popular doesn’t work in such cases. Honestly, if I paid $60 for Forgotten Sands I’d be sad and pissed off. It’s a bargain bin title in length and in ambition. It’s just that, no matter what the idea behind it was, and what marketing possibilities the title had.

PoP FS Run

[Amusingly, there are four versions of this game, each with different story and gameplay. I’ve played the X360/PS3/PC version. The different ones are on PSP, 3DS and Wii. The PC version I played was chained to UPlay, but that didn’t taint my experience in any way.]

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Dakka Dakka and Tactical Arcade – Dawn of War II

Dawn of War 2 logo

I’ve been watching Star Trek: DS9 lately.  It’s such an interesting piece of Science Fiction, because it centers around an idea of peaceful coexistence – it’s all about inclusion and discussion – looking into the future with hope and understanding. In this way, Warhammer 40k universe seems like an absolute anti-thesis of everything the Trek used to stand for.

Here, the interracial talks are an incomprehensible yell of slain xenos – it’s Us against the universe, and the only peace we’re gonna get is the one where we wiped Them out completely. Accept that, praise the Emperor and look into the sky with fear of what the darkest corners of space hide. It’s death and war out there, and the human-based Space Marines are one of the main forces eager to bring it upon anyone foolish enough to stand in their way.

Of course, the basis of both universes vary immensely, Star Trek was created to last long and prosper in its small TV budget. The medium defined it. The same can be said of Warhammer 40k but it’s originally a tabletop miniature wargame. So the setting must involve war for the game to thrive, and the creators aim to deliver just that. When the main objective in many large gaming titles is to annihilate the enemy and see their bodies exploded before you, a W40k title feels absolutely appropriate. The virtual metal and bones shall viciously grind together forever.

Dawn of War 2 Jungle

But that’s the ugly outside built around bloody interactions. Dawn of War II the game is not a slave to its story. It’s the other way around. At the verge of the human-known space lie three, important to your chapter of Space Marines, planets. One of them have been having trouble with Orcs, so you go there to purge them. Then the Eldar show up, so you fly to another planet to burn them, after mission four or five the last piece of intergalactic puzzle enters the picture – Tyranids. They’re alien too, so by now you surely know what to do with them. The story leads the enemies straight into your power-armored hands in the name of the gameplay.

Despite the fact that the conflict escalates throughout the game and the war takes place across three planets, the gameplay actually centers on small-scale encounters. You are the Force Commander and there are always three small squads under your command. Every of these little warmongering units count, there are no buildings to build, just you and your squad blasting through an isometric map, ravaging everything until the boss fight. And then on to the next one.

There could be a certain amount of repetitiveness spawned from this. The game also often repeats maps, just repurposing them with different objectives. But Dawn of War II is an explosive mixture of RTS with RPG elements. It borrows equally from Company of Heroes  and Warcraft 3. It’s a re-skin of the former (same company, same engine) and heavily-inspired by some of the modes and mods of the latter. Anyway, yhis all comes down to one thing – DoW2 has strategic depth.

Dawn of War 2 Desert

It’s a tactical team hack and slash, with high scores and equipment waiting after the missions. The game requires a lot of micromanaging of your four squads – tell them where to go and what skills to use, which sounds challenging but it’s extremely rewarding too. One team pins the enemy down with heavy weaponry, the other squad throws them a couple grenades, the sniper takes out the general, and the assault team rains down from the sky to clean out the rest.

All this thanks to The Player frantically mashing the keyboard and swinging the mouse. Q for a granade, W for a defense aura, click for the Emperor! Order that squad to hide in the building, the other to fly to a higher position, and the third one to destroy the barricade. The environment play a large role in the goings-on of the battle. Surprisingly, most of the levels are completable in five minutes if you push forward to the boss. The adrenaline certainly keeps pumping the whole way through, but I don’t think such haste is advisable.

On one hand, being so quick doesn’t suit everyone’s playstyle and may lead to mistakes, on the other hand, there are points and medals for speed. The game doesn’t mind being played like an arcade – it’s all part of the meta-game in the campaign. After each mission the program sums up how many enemies you’ve destroyed, how long did it take and if any of your troops lost consciousness in battle, and you’re given an appropriate title, like Justicar of Doom or Angel of Death. But these score points are mostly for bragging, and affect the game only marginally.  The real heart of the meta-game lies in equipment management.

Dawn of War 2 City

Between each battle, you have a chance to set up each squad, change their weapons, armors, accessories and divide skill points. With each mission they become stronger and better, and one can feel it, when they tear trough the basic enemy units with growing ease. The other thing, one feels in the process is an attachment to the characters, they may not be the merriest of groups but they have plenty personality to level things out. Cyrus is the voice of reason, Avitus a projector of wrath, and I still remember them quite well

Dawn of War II has graphics and sound and music too. I don’t think any of these elements drive the game by itself, or is especially memorable, but all are crucial in creating the specific, a bit dirty and bloodied, atmosphere of Warhammer 40k universe. There’s pathos in the music, emotion in dialogs and the warring units are fun to watch because of good animations.

DoW2 is tactics, adrenaline and agility put into a real time strategy package with some role playing elements. It take place in a rather unpleasant dystopia where war with other species will never end. Honestly, the game may have some short comings but I’ve played it right to completion and didn’t even blink, or angrily curse the developers. If the type of game is your thing, there’s no saying no, to the Space Marines. Deploy them and get your mouse clicking in the name of the chapter.

Dawn of War 2
[Technicalities: the game is PC only, it uses Steam for security and GFWL for multiplayer, which is far from optimal for the player, but luckily neither gave me any trouble. Also, the multiplayer modes are extremely enjoyable, and there’s even some population still on the servers, playing the game despite it’s age and the existence of newer versions of Dawn of War. I might write something more about it in the future, because I’m still playing multi a bit.]

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Of Anti-Puzzles and Campy-Acting – Zork: Grand Inquisitor

Zork_GI_menu
>_look at the game


You see Zork: Grand Inquisitor. The last in the long and varied line of Zork games. They started out as text adventures in the olden times of ancient technology, then grown, spun-off and transformed into a first-person movielike puzzle games. Unfortunately, the good times lasted only until 1999 – the year of the series’ demise. I can’t comment on any of the previous games because I haven’t played them yet, but I can say that this Zork quite clearly indicates that the series didn’t end because of lack of quality.

>_play a bit

I got eaten by a Grue around the fourth minute of my stroll around the gameworld. No one knows what a Grue looks like, everyone knows that it eats people in the darkness. I didn’t know. I was too infatuated with my adventuring and problem-solving skills. I’ve found a rope, I used a rope on a well, I was glorious and wise, I climbed down a well and in the darkness of the underground I got munched by a Grue.

Zork_GI_swords

>_don’t kill me, you old game

Death isn’t an inescapable fate in Zork GI, though, at least to me, it seems to be a feature. It’s a prize for doing dumb things, like attacking invisible monsters expertly wielding six swords in their six arms. It’s also a slap on the hands for doing things that you’re warned against. That woman will call guards if you don’t stop touching her fish, and guards will have their way with you, you know? The rules are well-communicated, they are for you to see and comprehend the possibility of your character’s death.

>_follow the rules

But Zork: GI doesn’t like the rules. It’s a rebel of a game. The main villain is a half-witted dictator who wants to ban magic because he’s bad at it. He does that by taking over the world, setting up a totalitarian government and caring for propaganda. Zork isn’t above breaking the fourth wall either, the new Boss likes to shout that we should shun magic, floss vigorously and save often. Good advice.

>_i like advice

Zork: GI is a medium-difficulty game, therefore it’s not above helping the player and leading him onto the right path. It’s full of hints – most of the puzzles are mentioned in various books, signs and other written notes around the world. You just put the two and two together which requires a certain level of patience, but is also rather satisfying. Besides, there is murder, and there is brutality in Zork, too, you will meet a number of helpful but dead adventurers, and thoroughly unhelpful monsters. Still, this is an adventure game and paced like one.

Zork_GI_inventory

>_solve the puzzle

Then again, this is not a straightforward game, it’s a comedy, sometimes dark, sometimes campy but always quite intelligent. So it treats all the puzzles in a different way. On occasion you are required to think outside the box, to use brute force instead of your wits. A Zork player is a wise player. He/She/It (or as game prefers to call us AFGENCAAP) knows that sometimes the puzzle is just a spoon. Don’t use it! Instead bend it and throw it at a wall. Be a Kirk. After all, this kind of puzzle-solving can be extremely satisfying too.

>_talk to the actor man

Grand Inquisitor is an archaic game. Today, we hear the actor’s voices, maybe see their computerized faces, but in the good old 90’s from which this Zork hails, we’ve seen them. We’ve seen them in silly costumes, pouncing around a green screen and overacting to their heart’s content. Here, it doesn’t really hinder the game, it actually elevates it to even more enjoyable levels. The voice acting of the creatures/monsters/talking lamps is top-notch, and the actors are delightful. There’s Dirk ‘Faceman’ Benedict being all old-school and charming, and Erick Avari villainously monologuing like there’s no tomorrow! It’s fun and often funny too.

>_gaze into the face of the pixel

However the graphics are slightly outdated. To me they are acceptable, because they don’t make my eyes bleed out in disgust, and clearly represent what they represent despite being old, but the same cannot be said of the movies and animations. The quality of the recordings is beyond lacking. It’s like a 240p video on Youtube. So compressed, the large pixels want to jump out and cover the screens whole.

Zork_GI_Guard

>_i’m here for the story anyway

I haven’t written much about the story, because there’s just not much to it. As mentioned earlier, the world has been taken over by a despot who hates magic, so you travel to find three artifacts which will revive it. You don’t have any personality or character arc, because you’re Ageless Faceless Gender-Neutral Culturally-Ambiguous Adventure Person. The real strength of the game lies in the humor. Surprisingly, it isn’t even all campy or dumb for the sake of dumbness, but there is a lot of clever stuff. The writers knew what they were doing – the totalitarian reality and it’s propaganda is never overplayed, because the setting changes often and quickly. The delicious dark humor is often mixed with the proper amount of camp and crazy which make the results fun to watch and listen to.

>_win

I expected the game will be interesting, after all, I wouldn’t get it otherwise, but I didn’t expect it to be this cool. Zork: Grand Inquisitor isn’t stale in its gameplay, it’s not fresh but there’s still life in it’s creaky bones. I framed this review around pseudo text-adventuring, but the only moment you see a text parser in GI is in death. Being eaten, totemized, suffocated or slain. In this way it is making a tribute to the old Zork games. It’s a tribute in blood. You know, the one that tastes like ketchup and jam.
But with a longer expiration date.

[I got the game off GOG, because they care to make them oldies playable on modern PCs, and indeed it worked like a charm.]

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