Positive Contact: OPUS is a Universe of Emotion in a Tiny Game

opus

“Drift by a star, absorb it, and leave tourists porous.

My galaxy’s gorgeous.

Quantum jump, I’m right at your doorstep…”

 -Deltron Zero

There’s a lot of discussion in the game community about value and content. As gamers we have only a finite amount of time in this meager life to absorb all of the sights, sounds, and sensations that this universe holds for us while trapped in hopeless relative immobility on this cosmically insignificant ball of rock, water, and atmosphere.

opus cast

Happier times.

Video games are one way we have of vicariously experiencing things digitally that we will just never get to do in real life. But with so much to choose from, how do we decide what to play? That brings us back to the question of value. With only so much time and money, do we measure a game’s worth by it’s depth, width, and length or by its quality? And when we say “quality”, what are we even talking about? Fun factor? Artistry? Emotional impact? The answer varies from person to person.

While playing through the extremely brief and largely bereft of gameplay indie game OPUS: The Day We Found Earth, I found myself seriously considering this once again. You can clear this game in the time it takes you to watch an episode of Game of Thrones, and it’s not one of those games you play through again and again to get different endings. But it’s not quite a precedent setter in that regard either.

In the past, amazing works of fiction like The Killing Joke and Voices of a Distant Star (do yourself a massive favor and watch that on Crunchyroll) have proven themselves to be brief experiences well worth their cost in spite of their premium price tags, and OPUS carries that obscure tradition into gaming like Journey and many indie titles before it. As with all works of art, the experience of the journey far outweighs the destination and I’ve seldom seen so much packed into so little.

opus galaxy

Prettyyyyy…..

In OPUS, you play as Emeth, a lone chibi robot awakened after an indeterminate amount of time offline on the titular space station with one mission: find planet Earth. After traveling across the galaxy, mankind has lost track of their homeworld as their gene pool has degraded, putting their future in doubt. A single scientist, Lisa, and her gruff partner, Makoto, were the only people who volunteered for this insane dream of locating the planetary needle in a cosmic haystack and perhaps recovering a sample of our original DNA.

As Emeth, you can explore the station and the cosmos (using a telescope) along with the onboard AI (a digital duplicate of Lisa). Each newly discovered star system is one infinitesimal step closer to Earth, but OPUS is on the verge of shutdown and the scientists are nowhere to be found. Still, the universe awaits…

Gameplaywise, most of your time is spent following directions to locate potential Earth candidates. It’s quite simple and not particularly challenging, but the main purpose it serves is to advance the story, as each valuable discovery is accompanied by a furthering of the plot back on OPUS. Emeth’s child-like single-minded determination to locate “Doctor” and the AI Lisa’s existential crisis make up the bulk of the characterization, but by unlocking rooms and exploring the station in classic point-and-click fashion, a truly tragic narrative builds towards a climax that can make even a machine cry.   

opus distort emeth alone

So say we all, little guy.

The mood is intensified by a truly stellar (pun intended) soundtrack and, of course, the awe-inspiring beauty that is our universe. I also found some fun in naming each heavenly body I discovered, doing my best to further expand mankind’s mythological roots from all religious pantheons across the galaxy. Maybe a little too late in the game as my knowledge of ancient deities waned I figured I should have named them after video game characters to spread geekology throughout the stars, but them’s the breaks.

The well-paced story picks up a surprisingly urgent velocity as you approach the end with the system on shutdown and the monitor (YOUR monitor) distorting as the station loses power. It’s a very nice touch. The implications of what you learn from exploring the various leaving of the scientists leave as many questions as answers and forces you to look stark reality in the eye and question whether your mission has any worth whatsoever. But like Emeth himself, you’ve been given a task as a gamer and you must see it through at all costs, even if only to honor the memory of a loved one or to remind yourself that even out in the infinite, indifferent void of space with nobody else there to see it, there is still beauty to be experienced.   

Under an hour’s worth of gameplay -most of it spent stargazing- and yet I feel as though OPUS: The Day We Found Earth is an experience I will carry with me for a long time, even with the minimalist graphics and lack of voice acting or meaningful gameplay. This game is exactly what I mean when I talk about the power and potential of interactive fiction. No other medium could have provided this experience.

opus emeth lisa

Hark! What light from yonder galaxy breaks? ‘Tis the solar system and Lisa is the Earth.

A story well told molds itself to any format and this one was made with care to successfully convey a breadth of emotions from melancholy loneliness to humor to despair and hope. It’s in the music, it’s in the character designs and cutscenes, it’s in the text notes and files left around the station and in the original Lisa’s comments that accompany her past discoveries.

It may be tiny by video game standards, but OPUS: The Day We Found Earth manages to encompass not only the vast wonder of exploring the infinite universe, but the trials, tribulations, and fortitude of the human spirit (even with no humans around) in an hour’s time. That’s an amazing accomplishment no matter how you look at it and it’s one I’m happy to have experienced.    

  

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Five Signs that Overwatch Came Out too Soon

overwatchsoon

Now that we’ve had a little while to live with Overwatch and ponder the latest gaming sensation that has taken over the internet it’s about time to assess it without the hype of Blizzard’s marketing machine, its game of the year-tier metascores, and fifteen-foot tall action figures. And I think a lot of gamers may be thinking the same thing at this point: is that it?

Overwatch, if nothing else, may represent the best pure PvP multiplayer experience of the year so far, but even that fantastic gameplay comes with a lot of flaws; too many to justify the scores, at the very least, when compared to its more complete competitor, Battleborn. In fact, in a lot of ways, it seems like half a game, even when sitting next to a title that even the developers admit was incomplete upon release. Street Fighter V, I’m looking at you. When that one came out, I questioned whether this was going to be the new industry standard, and with Overwatch‘s massive success to prove you don’t need to put a lot in to make a blockbuster, we’re sure to be seeing more of this.

It’s a known fact that Overwatch was cobbled together partially from elements of Blizzard’s scrapped MMO project, Titan -which spent seven years in development before being cancelled just prior to the announcement of Overwatch– in order to recoup the cost of Titan’s failure. And it shows. As much fun as it is, there are a lot of very unusual elements and mistakes in this game that make me feel like it wasn’t given the proper time and attention to be all it can be. Here are five examples.

Lack of Game Modesoverwatch menu

Basically, Overwatch has only two game modes: Escort and King of the Hill. These two objectives are mixed up a bit, but basically, you capture and/or hold a given area or you escort or stall a payload vehicle. That’s it. And no, I don’t count the Weekly Brawl (which seems to serve no purpose other than diminishing the number of selectable heroes) as another mode so much as a bad idea that eliminates the game’s greatest strengths. Compare this to…..oh, every AAA shooter ever. Imagine a Halo or Call of Duty game launching with only two game types. Even Street Fighter V has it handily beat on this front.  

I was actually shocked when I bought the game and it was literally the exact thing I played during the beta test. There may be an extra map or two, but the entire game was pretty much the beta.. And Blizzard is currently working on a ranked mode as well. The fact that they couldn’t manage this before release is probably the most blatant possible evidence that this game was released unfinished. I’ve played massive single player RPGs that launched with ranked multiplayer.

It’s not super hard to come up with fun stuff for gamers to do. The cast of Overwatch is awesome. We’d do anything with these characters and call it fun. But two basic modes of play is weak sauce to justify a full retail price tag. How lazy do you have to be to limit your games to “stand by this vehicle” or “stand in this square”? Capture the Flag could be really fun and strategic with this lot. Just saying. Say what you want about Battleborn, but each of its multiplayer modes are deeper by miles and there are more of them in addition to a serious single-player/co-op campaign.  

overwatch tutorial

Gee, thanks for the info…

Presentation/Features

While adding brilliant features like highlight videos made Overwatch stand out from the crowd with stylish flair, it alternates between treating its players like they’re firing up babby’s first shooter and pro-tier memorization. Right off the bat, the tutorial insults you by teaching you how to walk and move your reticule and shoot and push buttons and stuff. If you need to be told how to do these things in a hardcore online-only PvP shooter, you’re going to have a bad time.

And once you’re in the game, it doesn’t bother telling you about little things like, oh, the game types. I actually didn’t understand how the Payload objective worked for a good long while; I just busied myself shooting folk and eventually found out that the vehicle moves when you stand next to it. Seems like that may have been good information to mention while they were teaching me how to walk. And maybe some brief character tutorials for intimidated beginners?

You pretty much have to memorize which game type goes with which map if you want to choose your hero accordingly. Some characters excel on certain maps/objectives more than others, but Overwatch only tells you where you’re going, not what your objective will be once you get there so to choose accordingly, you either have to memorize the objective of each map or hurry up and rechoose your hero while you’re still in the spawn point. Either way is an unnecessary pain in the ass. Also, the inability to mute your audio-griefer teammates on the fly is crazy in this day and age.

And then there’s the lack of anything beyond hero loot. There’s a meh intro cinematic (Youtube has already done better) and almost no in-game lore or reason to keep playing aside from maybe someday earning a really cool skin or highlight intro by luck of the draw. But instead uses the scarcity of in-game currency to fleece players with microtransactions, as if we didn’t already pay full price for half a game. Come on, man; give us something. Even some unlockable fan art a la Blazblue would have been nice, but once again, Overwatch leaves gamers are left with nothing but the barest of bare bones.

overwatch lag kill ping

Overwatch: official sponsors of in-game lag.

Lag

I noticed this in the beta and didn’t solve it until a few days after I bought it, but this game gave me the nastiest lag I’ve seen since Call of Duty 2. As in the second Call of Duty. Ever. Over ten years ago. Blizzard was quite unhelpful, suggesting that maybe people need better internet service or to check their RAM, but I have overpriced broadband that can typically have Netflix and/or Hulu running while I game online with no issues and am playing on a console. This was an Overwatch thing.

After scanning several message boards and articles filled with an equal measure of complaints and non-help, I found one gracious soul who suggested that the game was too demanding for wi-fi and to try a wired connection. I don’t know why this didn’t occur to me so I’ll just blame it on the fact that EVERY OTHER GAME I OWN PLAYS FINE OVER WI-FI.

But yes, the correct answer to fix the insane lag occasionally rendering my game borderline unplayable was to stretch an ethernet cable across the room and plug it into the router like we’re back in the nineties. Remember the nineties? Cool times, man. Crappy internet, but cool times. To any aspiring game developers out there, do us a solid: please optimize your games properly before you release them so we don’t have to use ancient technology to play modern day multiplayer.   

overwatch widowmaker tracer

Who needs a narrative when you’ve got ship-bait?

Story

What story? Something, something super team of super heroes doing super things, world needs us, blah blah. Why are they all killing each other over cars and small colored squares and how is it saving the world? And since when are video game stories told in cutscenes on Youtube instead of, you know, in the game?  

No, Overwatch does not have a story, and that’s okay because it only needs to kick ass and chew bubblegum. Then run out of bubblegum. Maybe that’s three things.  Still, it would be fine if it didn’t pretend to have a story that is clearly being made up as it goes along and relates not at all to anything that happens in the actual game. Ideally, you make a story first and then design a game around the story, not try to come up with a story after the game is finished.

Battleborn barely has a story either, but the characters -which are even more numerous and diverse- are all so much more well developed with a lot of their backstories becoming apparent from their in-game chatter, including opponent-specific trash talk. I max leveled characters and was still hearing new lines of dialogue after ten hours or more of playtime with them. They also have unlockable audio and text lore to flesh them out.

These are inexpensive and simple things to put in a game if you’re willing to put in the effort. How many times have you heard “it’s high noon” or “our world is worth fighting for” by the end of your first week playing Overwatch? I don’t even want to know. Come on, man, flesh these characters out a little! The little pre-round mini conversations are a nice start, but that’s all they are: a start.

Bugs?overwatch onscreen text

It’s not like bugs are a new thing in video games, but I’ve seldom run across so many in such a small first person shooter. And some are so glaring that I wonder if they weren’t deliberate choices. Overwatch may look like a million bucks, but it’s just plain janky at times. And I won’t even mention the massive hitboxes that allow you to be head-shotted from around a corner without even being visible to your enemies. Whoops, I just did.

The biggest thing that sticks in my craw is having to select my character twice. Often when you select your hero, the game will drop you onto the map with the message “waiting for players” for a few seconds or so and then bring you back to reselect your character. Or sometimes the screen just blinks before forcing you to reselect. It’s not like it’s game breaking, but it does make the game feel cheap and glitchy.  

Speaking of glitches, the fact that the text from your last match stays on your screen until your next match is pretty awful, particularly for a game that warrants screen shot and vid sharing as much as this one does. When you go to save your highlights after a particularly nice session, every character change and other in-match message displayed at the end of your last game will be immortalized along with them because they never go away until you shut the game down or start another match. Removing text from the screen is so utterly basic it makes me think this was a deliberate choice, but if it is I can’t think of a single function it serves.

And then there’s the interaction wheel. It’s a cool idea; letting players exchange greetings and slogans and emotes, if only to pass the time in the pre-game lobby. Unfortunately, it’s occasionally a crapshoot as to whether it will actually do what you want it to do. You can select your emote and end up thanking somebody or announcing that your ultimate is charging (isn’t is always?) or try to say a line after killing somebody and end up performing a lengthy emote while the enemy team casually wanders over to you and blows you away. And a decent portion of the time the command just fails to register so nothing happens at all.

It’s a bit crazy that the positive reaction to Overwatch has been so over-the-top when so many games that have launched with more content and smoother experiences have been derided for much lesser offenses of the same nature. For an afterthought of a scrapped MMO project it’s an amazing game, but with all of the unnecessary little annoyances, rough edges, and the astounding difficulty of obtaining in-game currency, it’s hard for me to be as positive on the whole as the rest of the gaming community seems to be. Fun game? Absolutely. Addicting as crack? Slightly more so. Game of the Year? Only if it’s a really slow year. Sorry. Maybe the sequel will deliver a more finished product, but for the time being: hype denied.

Why Aren’t We Getting More X-Men Games?

x-men

Did everyone run out and see X-Men: Apocalypse last week like dutiful little geek girls and boys? Yeah, I’m sorry you had to see that. Even if brain bleach was a thing, there wouldn‘t be enough in the world. But it did get me thinking that maybe Hollywood just isn’t the medium we should be using to explore the complex and (let’s just say it) insane universe of Marvel’s outcast mutant heroes. The budget would be too big for a television series, and at this point I’m a bit tired of established actors halfassing these roles, anyways. Only video games are up to this task, and yet the industry remains strangely reluctant to give us what we want.

x men arcade

I don’t remember Samus Aran being in this…

The history of the X-Men in video games is a long and checkered one. Nineties kids swear by the epic SIX PLAYER co-op arcade beat-em-up, and it was a lot of fun for its day, in spite of its ridiculous quarter-devouring boss difficulty spikes. I spent hours struggling against the Battletoads-esque challenge that was Arcade’s Revenge on the SNES -which was actually pretty great in hindsight- and found Mutant Apocalypse to be a solid attempt at bringing the team to the small screen.

The Sega Genesis churned out some winners before the X-Men joined the growing army of Street Fighter clones along with a spattering of forgotten portable titles finally leading up to 2004 and the one game that finally captured them in all their glory. X-Men Legends was the game we’d all wanted and maybe never thought we’d get. A perfect action/RPG combining deep comic lore with a massive roster of playable and upgradable heroes while still capturing the co-op fun of that old arcade game. This thing was so true to the comics in its details that Cyclops and Havok’s powers didn’t even work on each other during that boss fight. That’s commitment to authenticity.

After only one sequel (which featured the first ever playable Deadpool) the X-Men Legends franchised was broadened into the awesome Marvel Ultimate Alliance, which cranked out one disappointing sequel and then vanished, leaving a gaping hole in the lives of Marvel action-RPG fans.

x men destiny emma frost

I’m assuming this is from a nightmare sequence where Emma Frost shows up to work in her underwear.

2006 brought a horrible video game tie-in with the third X-Men movie (you know, the one so bad they needed an entire other movie specifically designed to retcon it out of existence), and 2009 gave us X-Men Origins: Wolverine, a surprisingly great gaming tie-in to a horrible film, but not a true X-Men title. Then there was X-Men: Destiny, which looked to bring back that lovin’ feeling and instead got met with gamer apathy and savage reviews after the budget was cut and the final product came out feeling unfinished. That was nearly five years ago and since then Marvel’s legendary cash cow has been sitting on the shelf while gamers wonder what the hell happened.

My best guess is that Disney has put the kabosh on developing X-Men merchandise until the film franchise is back where it belongs with Marvel. The House of Mouse has a poor history with handling gaming franchises so until they figure out that this new-fangled video game thing that the kids seem to like so much is actually an industry set to rival and potentially surpass Hollywood itself as the entertainment opiate of the masses, we may not want to get our hopes up.

It’s kind of sad since the X-Men defined comics for years, ruled our childhoods with an all-time classic cartoon in the nineties, and have just generally served up some damn fine entertainment while allegorizing important social issues for decades before the internet made meaningful discourse on such topics impossible. And I honestly can’t think of a better medium to relaunch and explore the franchise than video games.

As insane as the comic continuity is, it’s highly unwelcoming to newcomers as a general rule and the X-Men proper have been a bit of a shambles for a good while now, arguably because Disney/Marvel are trying to edge them out and replace them with the Inhumans (good luck with that).

Rebooting them as an ongoing video game franchise could be the best possible way to experience Marvel’s finest creation anew. X-Men Legends was practically a perfect game, but still had room to grow. Give it a Mass Effect level of cinematic character development and choices and more immersive 3D combat rather than the outdated top-down dungeon crawler perspective and you’d have a potential game of the year on your hands.

x men disney princesses

Courtesy of Diego Gomez.

Everybody loves the X-Men, and everybody loves gaming. Win. Win. It seems crazy to treat video games as a mere advertising tie-in when they could be as much of a moneymaking franchise as the films or comics have been. If Disney really is burying Marvel’s most storied superteam just to deny 20th Century Fox’s films exposure, they’re cutting off their own nose to spite their face. The Disney/X-Men fanart alone [see right] proves that.

Gamers, comic nerds, and sci-fi film fans are pretty much one in the same. We aren’t going to play an X-Men video game and then go “hey, this Wolverine dude seems pretty cool, if they make a movie with him in it, I’d totally watch it. Whhhhhaaaa? You say they already did? Hot damn!” As consumers, we know what we want and we know what’s available to us.

And if we are assuming that nobody knows who the X-Men are without Disney’s say-so, it would still work both ways; fans of the movies would be at least as likely to buy the games as fans of the games would be to watch the movies. Plus, now that the movies are officially crap again, offering up a superior alternative to fans of the property seems downright lucrative.

Film was never the best option to explore the universe of the X-Men anyways. Video games are able to provide more focused and expansive narratives and better-developed fictional worlds to boot. Add in the interactivity and customization allowing gamers to fully immerse themselves and affect the story and characters with their own actions and there you have it.

There they are!

A video game wouldn’t build an advertising campaign around Psylocke and Storm and then just have them stand around like lame background decorations. And as bad a rap as video game writing has, the last time they had lines as corny as “you’ve got a warplane….let’s go to war” delivered without tongue firmly in cheek, Jill Valentine was the master of unlocking. And they don’t write stories designed explicitly to shove flavor of the month celebrities down our throats either. That’s right, I’m calling it: Jennifer Lawrence is the female Keanu Reeves. Now where did I put my “deal with it” sunglasses?

It’s obvious that the X-Men still have a lot to offer gamers, and that the ever-evolving and mutating industry and art form gaming has become has even more to offer them in return. I really hope that things change and Marvel’s merry band of mutants has another chance to be represented at their best in virtual entertainment because in current comics and films, that simply isn’t happening anymore. This generation deserves a fresh look at what has made this property so iconic and gaming may be the only way to bring it back in the near future.   

 

Is the Single-Player First Person Shooter an Endangered Species?

fps

There was a time when all you really needed to make a truly great shooter was a killer campaign. Half Life, Duke Nukem, Wolfenstein, and Doom were gaming royalty. The original Halo: Combat Evolved defined an entire console generation based mostly on a fantastic campaign. But it really seems like the focus has changed to multiplayer in recent years and most developers just can’t be bothered with quality stories, opting to tack on a few shooting gallery levels with dialogue to games clearly geared towards PvP.

Last gen we had BioShock and the sleeper hit Bulletstorm, but we also saw series like Halo and Call of Duty devolve into single player mediocrity with only multiplayer to justify the purchase. And now Overwatch has perhaps become the first true blockbuster to charge a full AAA price tag for a game with literally no in-game story at all; just an ongoing series of Youtube videos for those who actually want to get to know the characters a little. It was tried before with Titanfall and Evolve, but neither of those titles became the hits they were hoped to be and the lack of single player content was usually the reason given for players’ relative apathy. Sixty dollars for half a game just wasn’t what people were looking for.

duke nukem forever poop

Pictured: how Duke Nukem Forever turned out.

With video games emerging as a fantastic and ever-growing medium for telling all sorts of stories, it’s kind of disappointing to see a genre that lends itself so well to immersion apparently running in the opposite direction. Reboots of classics Doom and Wolfenstein seem to have failed to capture that early ‘90s magic (although the latter was a major hit in Europe and with many gaming publications), and we all know how Duke Nukem Forever turned out.

What’s going on here? Are developers out of ideas or are players just so focused competitive online play now that the single player experience has become an afterthought at most? Also: HALF LIFE 3, WHERE ARE YOU?!

While blasting my way through the various facets of Gearbox’s recent multiplayer-centric team-based shooter Battleborn, I noticed something different about myself: I didn’t want to play it alone. Historically, I’ve always been a solitary gamer who enjoys the occasional bouts of PvP and co-op, but single player experiences have always been my bread and butter. I never really got the hype for the lauded co-op in Gearbox’s flagship series, Borderlands, finding it kind of rushy and grabby whereas I prefer to take my time and explore at my own pace.

battleborn multiplayer

…or I could just do it all alone. I guess.

Aside from the relatively small amount of missions, Battleborn is a perfectly fine single player shooter with funny writing, tons of characters to choose from, and dialogue that is a little different each time you play it. But after playing through the chaotic battles that result from the difficulty spike that comes with adding extra players and more/tougher enemies to the mix, these full-blown epic throwdowns made the single player experience seem tame and joyless in comparison. I don’t know if it’s just decades of geeky isolation catching up to me and making me yearn for the comradery of my fellow gamers or just the game’s multiplayer-centric design, but I don’t really enjoy playing Battleborn by myself all that much.

And maybe this is becoming true of the gaming community at large. We’re so used to everything being connected to the internet -and the rest of the world- that some kinds of games just feel empty without sharing the experience with other players and now we’re ready to shell out the big bucks for games exclusively built for that.

This might be the way the mainstream industry is going, but I doubt we’re going to be terribly short on great single player FPS experiences for long. We may just have to look a little harder. The Shadow Warrior reboot is getting a promising-looking sequel, Dishonored and Alien: Isolation (while stretching the definition of what constitutes a shooter) have turned heads with their stealth approach, and Deus Ex is present and accounted for as well. And there’s still Far Cry.

deus ex mankind divided adam jensen stealth

Deus Ex: Gamerdom Divided

So to answer my own question: no. First person shooter campaigns may no longer be the industry-leading belles of the gaming ball that they once were, but if you take a good hard look, there are are still a lot of options out there for gamers looking to shoot up the joint without dealing with the added intensity of contesting with other players who run the gamut from gaming gods with inhuman skills to incompetent children to griefers who only show up to ruin your fun.

And maybe separating the two experiences somewhat is a good thing. What makes a great single player shooter doesn’t always make for a great multiplayer game and vice versa. Although I personally want a game that delivers both, I can see why the industry might start focusing more on titles like Bioshock Infinite and Overwatch that do one or the other exceptionally well. It leaves developers free to do what they do best and lowers budgets while catering to specific markets.

Hyper-competitive bros and art nerds are two very different gamer crowds that have mixed in this genre for a long time. The bros historically dive straight into the PvP while the nerds take their time soaking up the campaign and often find the multiplayer excessively hostile and unwelcoming. Maybe instead of promising epic Halo campaigns and disappointing the fans in that aspect when the multiplayer turns out to the obvious focus, splitting the series into two different campaign and multiplayer-focused titles would be better, with different studios each focusing on what they do best?      

I’m a sucker for value. I need bang for my buck. Naturally, we’d assume this means that a great FPS needs both single and multiplayer components.  But I sometimes wonder if I’m getting the best value when I buy a game with a weak campaign but good multiplayer or mediocre multiplayer and a solid campaign. Like maybe they could have taken the resources they used to tack on some half-ass single or multiplayer mode to make the best parts even better instead.

Sure the best of the best shooters have delivered both in the past, but the gaming community and the industry it supports are both evolving. Single player FPS’s may not be going away, but we may still be looking at the beginnings of a shift that may change the genre as we know it. And if devs can crystallize what it is that gamers really want from the experience, it may even be for the better.