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Battlefield V – Back to the Front

Battlefield V – Back to the Front

Disposable Heroes is one of those thumping anthems from Metallica’s Master of Puppets album, a song like many from the Heavy Metal giants that deals with death, war and destruction. There are two lines from the chorus of Disposable Heroes that ring in my ears when I dipped back into Battlefield V recently:

Back to the front
You will do what I say, when I say

For all of the improvements to the action since I pondered the open beta last year, this is still a game which tries valiantly to focus its attentions on squad play and teamwork, but which falls flat when playing on a public server with randomers.

Playing as a squad was the key to success in Battlefield 2, (the naming conventions of this series are worthy of an article all by itself). A commander oversaw the big picture of the battle, sent orders down to squad leaders and, as long as you weren’t playing on Strike at Karkand, people tended to follow orders and work together.

It was a game that didn’t need a dedicated 5v5 quasi-competitive mode (which has now been canned) as in private clan matches (-=256=-, represent!) things were simple enough to get into a 16v16 game with vehicles and squads galore, or lock things down into an infantry only mode with smaller numbers.

Modern online gaming is all about instant gratification. Whether that’s through rewards and new gizmos dropping like flies (and Battlefield V is more composed that Battlfield 3 and 4), or more pertinently the matchmaking that gets you into a battle straight away.

It’s great that from a click of a button on the main menu that you can get into a battle which will be somewhat tailored towards the current Tides of War chapter that is providing a through link for the regular live updates that are being deployed to Battlefield V. But by dropping you into a random fight, with everyone chasing their own personal daily, weekly and Tides of War objectives, you just don’t the same teamplay that I made me fall in love with this series in the first place.

Case in point, I joined the start of a conquest (still the classic game mode) battle on the new Greek map, Mercury. Based on the British led invasion of Crete in 1941, this is a stunning, sun-kissed map that arrived as part of Chapter 3 – Trial by Fire. I would love to explore this in a singleplayer mission, and that’s how it ended up feeling when I played it as a squad leader.

Without knowing the map layout, I made an immediate move towards the Marina capture point. With the sea sealing off one potential flanking move, and hill to launch the attack from, I made a sharp move to the flag to start capturing it. Before advancing, I’d ordered my squad to attack the flag and was foolishly expecting them to join my move.

They didn’t. Two of my squad mates sat on the hill overlooking the flag, sniping away, while the third was in another corner of the map entirely. Left to try and capture the flag by myself, I was soon overwhelmed by an enemy squad who were moving together as a cohesive unit.

A frustrating moment for sure, and I experienced similar problems over the rest of my time with the game. I think people need to listen to some Metallica to learn what war is about, and how to follow squad leader orders.

My gripes aren’t anything new. This is how the series, and most online gaming, has been for years when you don’t play with a dedicated group of friends. Buddying up with randomers just doesn’t happen as much anymore.

Despite this, the game seems to have come a long way since I played that open beta last year. Combat feels more balanced, the new maps add a new dynamic to proceedings and the Tides of War seems well set to provide people will regular targets to work towards.

Future updates will see more maps, and probably additional gamemodes that will just add to confusion, along with the welcome inclusion of the Pacific Theatre. Fighting on some of the tropical islands will be quite something in what is a stunning game.

Back to the front? For now, but we’ll see whether Destiny 2‘s rebirth takes me away.

The Joyful, and Head Scratching, Moments of Half-Life

The Joyful, and Head Scratching, Moments of Half-Life

Half-Life stands proud at the top of the all time greatest games for many of the pre-Fortnite generation. Even to this day, it still inspires developers to create videos about it, and for me to rattle on about the AI. Having just sent the finished On a Rail, and sent the top secret rocket into space, I wanted to share some memories of this special game. And no, I won’t be talking about the introductory tram ride.

The Resonance Cascade is, of course, the moment which causes all hell to break loose at Black Mesa. While the overarching question of why gets answered as the series progresses, when you first witness it, you don’t care about why it’s happening, only whether you will survive those first moments where you see your first vortigaunt, and whether the whole building will collapse upon you.

The most wonderful thing about the Resonance Cascade for me, comes in Half-Life: Decay. This was the PS2 exclusive bonus that came with the port of the base game to Sony’s device. It’s also the only co-op game I’ve actually completed. Taking the roles of Colette Green and Gina Cross, I spent a few days playing Decay after school with my best mate. It was an entertaining aside to the main game, giving some further context to how large a place Black Mesa was.

Barney’s are the endearing security guards who inhabit the Black Mesa facility.

They are accidental cannon fodder for the marines.

They are allies who might open a door, or give you some ammo.

They are legion.

Alright, enough about that. The Barney’s in Half-Life are all well and good, perhaps even better with the high-definition pack that was released along with Blue Shift, an expansion, like Decay, handled by Gearbox Software. My Barney isn’t just a random security guard, nor is he just the suave, handsome chap found in Half-Life 2. No, my Barney is all of that, plus a character that you can take on his own journey to Xen.

Here’s to Barney!

Why am I showing off a picture of a broken bridge from Blast Pit? The answer is simple, a broken bridge nearly broke me during my PS2 playthrough.

While I initially played Half-Life on the PC, I didn’t complete it there. After a certain point, I lent the disc to a friend, and it wasn’t until the PS2 release came along that I was able to complete it.

But, while exploring the Blast Pit chapter, I remember blowing up one of the bridges linking the main structure with the ancillary areas where you activated the various mechanisms that would allow you to destroy the three-headed tentacle creature.

For whatever reason, I wasn’t able to traverse the gap in the broken bridge. Was this because of a bug in the PS2 release, or was I missing a narrow bit of piping that I could have climbed over?

I’m none too sure, but with the benefit of hindsight, I’ll point the finger of blame at the god-awful jumping mechanics that plagued everyone.

I’ve most recently finished off the On a Rail chapter, one that always received bad press from the old community, but when playing through now, makes much more sense.

Admittedly, there are some janky moments. As FPS games have progressed, the way you naturally approach a shooter these days is to explore, see what paths there are to take, and generally have a poke around the edges of the main route.

Half-Life wasn’t designed for such poking, and once or twice I have had to reload a save from quite a bit earlier in the chapter to get myself out of sticky situation. Those electric rails are a killer, while some of the water ways are not easy to get out of (remember, the jumping sucks in this game).

But, playing On a Rail with a more critical eye, you can see that the Marines have designed a very nice maze for you. Shuttling between different rail carts, raising barriers, dodging missile strikes…they’re all signs that the Marines fear you.

I love the various ways that the Marines communicate their fear, and hate, of you. They daub graffiti around the rail network, and if you take your time and don’t just rush headlong into combat at every opportunity, you can listen in on their conversations.

The best comes at the end of On a Rail. You see sky for the first time in hours, and hear two Marines talking about how you’ve taken out all of their buddies. It’s all in self-defence, after all, they have been sent in to clear up the mess you created with the Resonance Cascade.

What the above image also brings to light though, is some of the design choices Valve made. There are numerous examples of corridors that lead nowhere, or vent systems that are just dead ends, without even any grates or fans to indicate a working system exists.

The heavy machinegun positions are perhaps the best example of a head scratching moment. Every one you come across is fully enclosed, there is no way for the grunt to escape…which also means that logically, he had no way of getting into position in the first place, unless the emplacement was built around him.

It’s nitpicking, I know, but these are the kinds of things that Valve learnt from when it came to Half-Life 2 and Portal.

The image I’ll leave you all with is this one. Boot Camp, the training level from Opposing Force, another Gearbox special.

At times, it feels like the work Gearbox did is treated like the red-headed step-child of the series, never to be talked about.

For me, Blue Shift, Opposing Force and Decay are key parts of the Half-Life experience. No start-to-end playthrough, from the tram ride into Black Mesa to the final moments of Episode 2 is complete without acknowledging the legacy left by Gearbox, and some of the jankyness of the original titles.

The PC Store Wars – What Next?

The PC Store Wars – What Next?

Earlier this week, I took at look at the current state of play with regards to The PC Store Wars. We’ve gone from a situation where, despite repeatedly shooting themselves in the foot, Valve have had little, to no, real competition in the online PC store space. Then, all of a sudden, Epic turned up with their own store. What happens now?

The Fortnite Effect

Epic made no bones about it when they launched their new store front. Their ability to launch it with such a developer friendly revenue split was thanks to the runaway success of Fortnite: Battle Royale. In 2018, the free-to-play title that was spun away from the premium (for now) Save the World variant, made upwards of $2.4 billion for Epic.

That’s right, analysts have calculated that one simple free-to-play game has made Epic more in one year than the GDP of several countries. Fortnite has had a drastic effect on the landscape of popular culture, let alone the game industry. It has been so successful, that Epic don’t even advertise it on their store. They just know people will have it, if they want it.

The phenomenal success means that Epic have a war chest, which means they can readily afford to take a hit on their revenue splits compared to the industry standard, thus enabling them to score exclusives like The Division 2 and Metro: Exodus.

What if the bubble pops? 

While the success of Fortnite so far can’t be denied, it isn’t the only free-to-play game making mega-bucks, let alone the only battle-royale title that is pulling in the money. DOTA2 is Valve’s own baby, while PUBG might be considered a has-been compared to Epic’s hit, but still pulls in over 800,000 users on an average weekday.

Looking at the Steam stats, there is one venerable oldie still standing tall. That, of course, is Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. Still going strong, this won’t trouble Fortnite in the revenue stakes, but shows that there is a healthy appetite among gamers for non-Fortnite games.

But might the bubble pop? EA and Respawn only released Apex Legends back on the 5th February, but has already knocked up over 25 million users. How many will stick around for the long haul, and turn into money makers for EA, we can only wait and see.

Those players though must be coming from somewhere. Yes, Fortnite has gang-buster player numbers, but something like Apex Legends would fit right in the wheelhouse of some of those users. It might not be a mass exodus, but if the Fortnite userbase crashes, or more importantly, those who are spending money on the game move on to something else, where will that leave Epic?

If there is a drastic drop in revenue from Fortnite, it won’t happen overnight. I fully expect Epic to have contingency plans already in hand, and will be playing the long-game, knowing they can build a loyal audience on their store moving forward.

Valve’s Resilience

 Valve might have made some self-inflicted wounds when it comes to Steam, but they’ve been at this game for a long time. They survived EA departing their store, and have stood firm in the face of Fortnite. Epic launching their own store is unlikely to scare Valve too much, indeed, it might force them to sit up and pay attention to events taking place beyond the end of their nose.

They will likely make more blunders, but with a strong user base (just look at the numbers playing DOTA2, CS:GO and PUBG), why should anyone expect a rival store to suddenly destroy the rolling monster.

Indie game developers might be unhappy with their revenue splits, but are they more likely to make strong sales figures on a platform not solely dominated by one hit? On a platform where they won’t run the potential risks of seeing their game given away, with an unknown reward at the end?

I can see Valve improving their revenue splits, and Ts and Cs for those selling on the platform, but I don’t envisage an immediate emptying of the store from regular big hitters like Sports Interactive, SCS Software or Paradox Interactive.

Indeed, Valve haven’t even turned their back on game development like many people cry out. No, we are unlikely to ever see Half-Life rise from the grave, but DOTA2 and CS:GO are still very much supported, while something like Artefact is sure to undergo changes to push it to rival the Hearthstone’s of the world. That isn’t to forget In the Valley of the Gods.

Closing Thoughts

Competition is ultimately good for business, and good for consumers. Maybe not in every instance, as the splits between Netflix, Amazon Prime and Disney’s upcoming venture are sure to show. But rival stores like Steam, Epic, Origin and Uplay should only drive companies to offer better user experiences, with better deals for the developers who sell through them.

Steam won’t be going anywhere soon, and Epic have the might of Fortnite to keep them going. The nature of some games becoming exclusives to Epic is frustrating for some, but what harm is there in buying Metro from another store (or even somewhere like Game or Amazon), while The Division will route its online component through Uplay.

People aren’t losing out at the moment with this shakeup to the PC landscape, and I think in the long-run, we will see benefits to these changes.

The PC Store Wars – The Story so Far

The PC Store Wars – The Story so Far

The PC Store Wars have been in a Cold War, pretty much ever since Valve launched Half-Life 2 with the requirement that users ran it through Steam. The Humble Bundle, GoG and more recently, Discord offer their own alternatives with distinct twists. Meanwhile EA, Ubisoft and Blizzard have stores primarily to promote their first party games.

They have all been efforts to break the monopoly of Steam, though without any obvious impact on Valve’s money-making machine. Most of Valve’s problems around their storefront have been self-inflicted PR gaffes.

The present…

I talked about their regular problems around Steam back in June, though my prophecy for what the future would hold was, with the benefit of hindsight, not quite how things have played out:

I don’t know what the best way forward is for Valve, but I feel that the European Commission investigation will go a long way to determining how they manage Steam in Europe in the future. 

I also pondered about whether Valve would be wise to consider splitting the storefront away from their product development business. While this hasn’t happened yet, in December they made some changes to how they split revenues with developers selling on their platform.

Rather than making an across the board change to their splits, they introduced a tiered system. While allowing developers with over $10million of revenue on the platform the opportunity moving forward to retain a greater share of their sales, is undeniably good for the big boys, it left indie developers less than enthused.

It was another example of Valve shooting themselves in the foot. Their efforts to try and ensure large developers, especially a company like Ubisoft who already have their own store, selling through Steam were perhaps a bit desperate. But to not offer indies the same benefits was yet another of those PR blunders.

…the future?

What happened just a few days after Valve made their announcement shows it in a darker light. Epic, you know, those guys behind that little Fortnite game, came along and announced their own store, taking aim square at Valve.

A flat, across the board revenue split of 88/12 shows how meagre Valve’s offerings are. The make no bones that the great financial success of Fortnite has allowed them to be so bold with their decision. It’s already one that is having far reaching implications with Ubisoft planning to release The Division 2 on Uplay and the new Epic store, while Metro Exodus will be available exclusively from Epic.

What had been a cold war that was starting to slowly warm up has suddenly exploded into life. What comes next? We’ll take a look soon.

The Wonders of AI in Half-Life

The Wonders of AI in Half-Life

I’ve played many shooters over the years, some where the AI is great, others where it isn’t that smart, but does a great job for the game you are playing. Of course, there are others where the AI is dull, and brings the game down. The twenty year-old Half-Life though, still stands out as one of the best implementations of AI in a shooter.

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