Need for Speed (2015) – Getting Personal

nfs2015-0

Prologue

The Video Games landscape over the course of just the past five years has changed immensely, and not just due to the introduction of two new core platforms (Sony’s PlayStation 4 and Microsoft’s Xbox One) but also as a result of a move towards altering its basic focus.

That sort of evolution is not strange to this subculture and the people who make up its citizens.  If you are surprised by my use of words like “citizens” and “subculture” perhaps you are not as deeply invested into the social side of gaming as you think.  Because in most respects the VG Community as a whole and the many specialized groups that essentially make up its defined subcultures are every bit a culture-based society of its own within the greater entity that we think of as human society.

That was not always true.

When the first Video Games War happened in the mid 1980s as the value and the quality of the games that were being created and sold was called into question by its own community, the idea that a cultural identity might be formed from something like a Video Game community was certainly not what might be said as a normal evolution.

In Japan they have this expression - the nail that sticks up gets pounded down.  What it means is that choosing to conform is often the best way to survive and even advance.

In Japan they have this expression – the nail that sticks up gets pounded down. What it means is that choosing to conform is often the best way to survive and even advance.

But as other media-based movements began to morph into their own basic cultural and social identities, the cataclysm that resulted from what we now consider to be the first Video Games War of the 20th Century ended up creating the sort of circumstances that naturally opened the door for just that sort of development.

To be blunt, gamers were angry over the process of creating what amounts to Shovel-Ware as cheap and fundamentally broken games were foisted off upon the game consumer community using tactics like misleading advertisements and worse, outright lies that were planted as reviews and/or social commentary at the time that totally misrepresented the substance of what the games were…  All of that had a decidedly hostile consequence with the community eventually turning against the bulk of the studios who were responsible for creating those circumstances.

Taking a look back, what we now know today thanks to the benefits of hindsight is that the publishers rather than the development studios were largely responsible for the decisions to push broken or shoddily made games onto the gaming public – publishers whose interest was solely and narrowly focused upon boosting the black ink contained in the bottom line in order to appease their shareholders.

When you add into that unfortunate reality the very obvious disconnect that existed between the publishers of the games and the studios that crafted them – and then factor in an even larger disconnect between both the development studios and the publishers with their collective relations to the Gamer Community, it gets a lot easier to understand both how it happened and why it resulted in the scorched-earth war.

In the plainest terms, the one side had no clue what the other wanted from their games, and in fact it can be pretty clearly pointed out now that the nearly violent reaction – the First VG War – was absolutely necessary because it was that level of reaction that was required to make the developers fully aware of just how badly they were disappointing their customer base.

Conformity is why there are plenty of supercars and expensive sports cars in the game.  That is expected and, in many cases, spending the time, effort, and the money to obtain this sort of conformity is also expected - if you only wish to appear to be a racer.   The genuine article however tends to choose their rails carefully, picking the best tool for the job - and rarely is that best tool a 911 - more often than not the best tool is a more common one - like setting up a Volvo as a Drift Specialist Car.

Conformity is why there are plenty of supercars and expensive sports cars in the game. That is expected and, in many cases, spending the time, effort, and the money to obtain this sort of conformity is also expected – if you only wish to appear to be a racer. The genuine article however tends to choose their rails carefully, picking the best tool for the job – and rarely is that best tool a 911 – more often than not the best tool is a more common one – like setting up a Volvo as a Drift Specialist Car.

That this conflict resulted in the majority of those development studios being forced out of business alone illustrates how serious the disconnect was, and why it needed to be fixed.

Put another way, the game development studios, taking their leads from the game publishers, were pumping out what amounts to the home-console equivalent to the type of games that were popular in the arcades and bars – the games that were being installed in coin-operated video game arcade machines basically.

The problem with that was, by the mid-1980s the gaming community had matured beyond that sort of focus, and was no longer interested in what was basically a recreation of arcade games for home play.

If a gamer wanted to play an arcade-style game, they would seek those games out in their favorite watering holes or video game arcades – and they DID on a regular basis.

But thanks to some ground-breaking RPG and Action-Adventure games that were created and released through the mid-80s that same gamer community now understood and – what is more – appreciated – what their home gaming consoles could REALLY offer.

So the idea of basically being offered recycled arcade genre drivel on a routine basis not only made them angry, it made the community feel (rightly as it turned out) that they were both being taken for granted and being told what to like.

Taking the job into consideration, if we were choosing the tool we would use for targeting just the Drift Events in the game, that tool would not be a supercar, or sports car, it would be something like this Mustang.  Large, heavy, box-shaped, but fully adaptable.  A car whose basic construction lends itself to solving the problem we wish to solve so that we do not have to completely re-invent the wheel to make that happen.  Just saying...

Taking the job into consideration, if we were choosing the tool we would use for targeting just the Drift Events in the game, that tool would not be a supercar, or sports car, it would be something like this Mustang. Large, heavy, box-shaped, but fully adaptable. A car whose basic construction lends itself to solving the problem we wish to solve so that we do not have to completely re-invent the wheel to make that happen. Just saying…

It got so bad in the end – before the war settled all of that – that a typical video game release had to make ALL of its profits from sales in the first 72 hours following release to the streets, because that was about how long it took for world-of-mouth to basically out a crappy game and kill its sales.

Logically the only possible solution to this situation – and the proper one as it turned out – was to stop making crap games and start to really put in the effort to both seek out what the community wanted, and then deliver that.

So in the end around 80% of the development studios that existed prior to the First VG War were forced out of business not by consumers choosing to boycott them (though they did do that) but rather as the direct result of their inability to change their business models to match the new economic imperative that had developed.

That is to say they did not have the capability to actually innovate – to create new games utilizing a previously established pattern that offered the consumer a larger ratio of entertainment versus cost.  Man that sounds so unlikely, but it was true.  The development studios were so used to picking a handful of elements from a list and then putting together a game whose sole creative elements came down to the colors that were chosen for the palate and whether or not some objects in a game blinked that they found themselves in a rut that offered no exits.

What was true then – and remains true – is that a good idea did not necessarily equate to a good game.  So when a developer managed to create a good game – which meant a commercially viable and successful titles that the consumers of that product actually liked – the decision to begin cranking out sequels really was not a decision at all – it was called a business model!

Now granted, when a sequel was rushed to the market the chances were that it was going to be lower in quality and entertainment than the original, but sometimes that was not true.  The Donkey Kong series is a great example of that – though to be fair Rare and Nintendo did not rush games to market as a general rule – sequel or not.

Still you get the idea – the quality and value of games went up, gamers were happy, and the game culture began to solidify into multiple sub-types based on things like platform and genre.

Practical very rarely equates to the use of words like "sexy" or "intimidating" but then, when you are building a drift car, or a sprinter, what you really want are words like "tight" and "fluid" and "efficient" because in the end the point is not to look good while you race, the point is to transfer energy as rapidly and efficiently as possible between your engine and those big, fat, sticky contact patches that attach your rail to the road.

“Practical” very rarely equates to the use of words like “sexy” or “intimidating” but then, when you are building a drift car, or a sprinter, what you really want are words like “tight” and “fluid” and “efficient” because in the end the point is not to look good while you race, the point is to transfer energy as rapidly and efficiently as possible between your engine and those big, fat, sticky contact patches that attach your rail to the road.

It was all good – some really great gamer series were the result, and from the late 1980s onward there was something of a gaming renaissance in play.

When The Need for Speed arrived on the scene it contained a collection of ideas that really resonated with the gamers of the time, and naturally the wizards behind the game saw great potential for it, as a game series.

For a long time – nearly a decade – the games that were being produced really worked well – they followed the basic pattern that the original had established, and they offered a predictable and quality game play and entertainment experience.

At some point though, as the original wizards were replaced by new and younger ones, the path that they had been following became confused.  Their direction was off, and eventually it got really off.  The format or formula, call it what you will, basically became a muddled idea that anything that involved racing cars was basically okay.  Sort of like what we imagine the situation was when the wizards behind Battlefield came up with Battlefield Hardline.  Just saying…

So when the decision was eventually made that it was time for the Need for Speed series to return to its roots, that involved far more than simply the creation of a great game following the original path.  It involved first seeing if it was even possible to convince the players that the wizards had the ability to do that!

So that is where they were when they sat down to chart out the path to bring Need for Speed (2015) to market.

The wide variety of models in 2015 allows for economical approaches to tings like setting up a bespoke car.  Using models like the 1975 Vovlo 242 and 1965 Ford Mustang for dedicated drifters, the 1986 Toyota Sprinter GT APEX and 1996 Nissan 180sx Type X for medium range sprinting, and the 1971 Nissan Fairlady 240ZG or 2014 Didge Challenger SRT8 for longer range Circuit Racing.  Sure you can buy more expensive models, but these hit the mark on a budget!

The wide variety of models in 2015 allows for economical approaches to tings like setting up a bespoke car. Using models like the 1975 Vovlo 242 and 1965 Ford Mustang for dedicated drifters, the 1986 Toyota Sprinter GT APEX and 1996 Nissan 180sx Type X for medium range sprinting, and the 1971 Nissan Fairlady 240ZG or 2014 Dodge Challenger SRT8 for longer range Circuit Racing. Sure you can buy more expensive models, but these hit the mark on a budget!

Need for Speed (2015)

By the time that the game released in November of 2015 the hype that had been generated around it, and the very dedicated and genuine efforts of the PRs who were behind promoting it, had succeeded in the most important parts of what it was they had been hired to accomplish.

They had, in essence, managed to communicate to the gaming public that this new game was both a reboot of the original game series, and that it would offer players the sort and caliber of game play that they not only missed but had come to expect from the series – and so found each of the last half-dozen games in the series to be disappointments because of those expectations.

That is simply amazing.  And not just because it seems reasonable that the wizards behind the games had to pretty much KNOW that was happening, but rather amazing because even though they KNEW that reaction was likely as they crafted and released game after game that failed to include the basic premise that the gamer community expected – but they CONTINUED to create those diverted games anyway!

Think about that for a moment will you?  They managed to so broadly alter the very basic identity of the game series so badly that by the time they got around to working on a series reboot, they had to PAY their Public Relations reps to explain to the gaming public that this new game was NOT going to disappoint them!  Mind blowing.  Simply mind blowing.

The typical mid-80s hot hatch never really looked boss or anything, but they were wicked fun to drive and hey, they got the job done.  Fast.  From a standing start.  A lot.

The typical mid-80s hot hatch never really looked boss or anything, but they were wicked fun to drive and hey, they got the job done. Fast. From a standing start. A lot.

Here There Be Dragons

When the game arrived – and for us that came in the form of a Digital Key that we needed to enter into our Xbox One to unlock a license for the game and then download it from the LIVE service – we were pretty pumped up because the PRs had managed to successfully communicate to us that this new reboot title would not simply revert the game series back to the style and substance we had come to associate with it, but would in effect give us a game play experience that was if not identical to that of the game that first established the series, was at least similar enough so as to make the difference inconsequential.

So by the time the game fully downloaded and patched, we were good and damn ready to be pleased.  Know what?  The game actually delivers on that promise and, even more important, despite being handicapped by the inclusion of a large amount of more recent game play mechanisms, also delivers a level of play, entertainment, and excitement that almost made the last five years of drivel worth it!

Easing our way into NFS 2015 was a complicated and rather slow process, largely because the expectations of disappointment kept getting in the way.

Once we managed to convince the little voices in our head that this was, in fact, NOT going to be the morphed interpretation of a combination of Hot Pursuit, Unleashed, and Wanted, we were able to start judging the game on its own merits, and folks, it has a lot to say for itself.

Making it Our Own?

One of the points to the evolution of the video game as entertainment that really stands out is how well it integrates its own story and game play mech while meeting certain personal expectations that are near-universal among the gaming community.

What I mean by that is actually pretty simple – this is a street-racing game within which the primary components are the streets, and the cars.

That being the case – and admittedly we had hopes – the ultimate expression of success in this case would be the ability for the player to not only find in the catalog of cars in the game one of their favorite models, but also have the ability to customize it.  And all that?  It is here.

Often times when writing a post like this it helps to present an example – so as to make it clear that those warm and fuzzy feelings of satisfaction are in fact based upon some real experience rather than, you know, a hypothetical one?

She was not sexy - look at that rear why don't you?  That said, and maybe she does have a flat butt, even so the '86 Trueno could fly like a scalded dog!

She was not sexy – look at that rear why don’t you? That said, and maybe she does have a flat butt, even so the ’86 Trueno could fly like a scalded dog!

1986 Toyota Sprinter GT APEX

In the 1980s there were a lot of cars that certainly qualified as performance examples – and just like any era you might care to designate, there were cars that ended up being slightly or greatly more popular than others.

In 1980s Australia (which is where I was and grew up) the go-fast choo-choo cars of the era that you often read about in race magazines about the street racing scene in Cali were mostly restricted to a small list of really expensive rails that nobody actually had in Oz.  Corvettes, Camaros, Porches, and the like, which hey, we would have LOVED to have but reality bites.

No, what you found in Oz – and I suspect that this was also true about America, the UK, and Europe – was a more reserved list of cars – mostly the sort that doubled as your daily transportation when you were not taking them out on the weekend to race them.

What am I talking about?  Well, this list is pretty representative of what you often found at the time on the street, actually racing:

  • Alfa Romeo Alfasud
  • Audi 5000CS Turbo Quattro
  • BMW M3 E30
  • BMW M5 E28
  • Ford Falcon XP
  • Holden VL Calais Director
  • Honda Civic Si
  • Honda CRX HF
  • Honda Prelude
  • Lancia Delta Integrale
  • Lancia Delta S4 Stradale
  • Mazda RX7
  • Mini Cooper
  • Nissan 240SX
  • Nissan Z31 300ZX Fairlady
  • Peugeot 205 GTi
  • Saab 900 Turbo
  • Subaru GL-10 Turbo
  • Subaru GL Brat
  • Toyota AE86 Sprinter Trueno
  • Toyota W10 MR2
  • Volkswagen Golf Mk1 GTI

From that list there was a handful of cars I truly liked.  In fact one car in particular I both liked but could never quite manage to afford – and that was the 1986 Toyota AE86 Sprinter Trueno.  Yeah, compared to some of the cars that came later it was really more of a bare-bones racer than the jewel in the crown, but the heart wants what the heart wants.  And my heart wanted a Trueno!

With a base sticker price of $65,200 the '15 Ford Mustang GT is not exactly what we would call a mid-priced sports car and certainly she is not an entry-level model, but  her stock-standard 5.0L Ti-VCT V8 automatically qualifies her as a certified production-class   Muscle Car.  If you choose to bypass the dealer options and order her from the factory with the optional 5.2L V8 via the Shelby Conversion package you get 526 hp with 429 lb.-ft. of torque straight from the production line.  Sweet right?

With a base sticker price of $65,200 the ’15 Ford Mustang GT is not exactly what we would call a mid-priced sports car and certainly she is not an entry-level model, but her stock-standard 5.0L Ti-VCT V8 automatically qualifies her as a certified production-class
Muscle Car.  If you choose to bypass the dealer options and order her from the factory with the optional 5.2L V8 via the Shelby Conversion package you get 526 hp with 429 lb.-ft. of torque straight from the production line. Sweet right?

So you can imagine how stoked I was to discover that exact car among the catalog of cars available in the game.

From the get go I started out with a 2014 Subaru BRZ Premium – as that was the starter car I liked best from the three that I had to choose from.  Using that car I began doing races to get the bank I would need not only to buy me a Trueno, but then to afford to upgrade it.

I have reached that point in my game play.  I am happy – thrilled!  Tickled!  Very pleased?  To tell you that I now proudly race the following go-fast choo-choo Trueno:

1986 Toyota Sprinter GT APEX

Its performance specs are:

  • 0-60 mph (s) — 4.53s
  • 0-100 mph (s) — 9.67s
  • 1/4 mile (s) / (mph) — 12.70s @ 119
  • Top Speed (mph) — 166
  • Horsepower (hp) — 353
  • Max Torque (ft-lb) — 255

Bearing in mind that I am only Level 13 at this point and so am quite limited as to the kit I can buy, its present very winning load-out in kit and upgrades consists of:

  • Air Filter: Short RAM Air Intake.
  • Cooling System: Intercooler w/h 26 x 6.
  • Intake Manifold: Aftermarket Edition.
  • Fuel System: High Performance Fuel Injectors.
  • Forced Induction: Turbocharger EliteTune-TC2-B-PRO.
  • Electric System: Aftermarket Wiring.
  • Ignition: Stock.
  • ECU: Sport ECU Flash.
  • Engine Block: Elite TUning Ported Block v.2.
  • CAM Shaft: Aftermarket Sport Plus Elite 4 243 int / 283 exh.
  • Cylinder Heads: Sport Plished.
  • Exhaust Manifold: Sport EL Manifold.
  • Exhaust: Sport Catted Race Exhaust.
  • Clutch: Sport Clutch w/0.4s gear change time.
  • Nitrous System: 5lb Capacity Time Refill.
  • Suspension: Semi-Adjustable Sport Suspension.
  • Differential: Semi-Adjustable Sport Differential.
  • Tires: E/T-G2-MID-GRP SpeedHunters.
  • Brakes: Semi-Adjustable Sport Brakes.
  • Handbrake: Semi-Adjustable Sport Handbrakes.
  • Sway Bars: Semi-Adjustable Sport Sway Bars.

That is way beyond just respectible mind you – heck in the 1980s if you had told me that I would be able to get 252 Horsepower in that configuration I would have been like ?!  As in what the heck could I possible need that much for?!  What else HAD that much?!

I still think that using the right tool for the right job is the way to go - so if you are setting up a bespoke drifter for tight and twisty mountain roads you could do a lot worse than this one.

I still think that using the right tool for the right job is the way to go – so if you are setting up a bespoke drifter for tight and twisty mountain roads you could do a lot worse than this one.

And the thing is I would totally have better specs for this ride if I was just ten levels higher in XP because why?  Because the really good kit is Level-Locked!

In My Other Life

In addition to being a freelance writer who works the business and tech beats, I also write extensively on the video games beat as both a game guide and walkthrough writer, industry news journalist, and video game reviewer – yeah I know, getting paid to play video games, cool right?

That said, I reviewed Need for Speed (2015) for the Cape Cod Times – if you would like to see what my impressions of the game were in the review arena, head on over and check out the review at the following online link:

The Game On Review of Need for Speed (2015)

 

Forza 3 Guilt

When the next title in the Forza Motorsport series — Forza Motorsport 5 or FM5 for short —  was released a running conversation began among mates about the game, what we were all looking forward to, and the value (or lack thereof) of playing the previous titles in the series before playing FM5 if just to have the experience.

These are racing simulations with absolutely no story or campaign mode beyond the actual racing experience, so it is not like there is a need to play the previous games in order to be able to effectively play the most recent title.

Still there are some reasons to play the previous games – for example if you happen to be a committed and serious fan of auto-racing simulations, or a member of the Forza Faithful (though in the latter case why haven’t you played FM3 before??) that is good reason enough.

As I am known to be a fan of the series, I was asked – and because I am a fan of the series my response to those who asked me was to say “heck yeah you should play the previous games in the series!”

fm3-1

Forza Rewards (rewards.forzamotorsport.net)

That enthusiastic response was actually given BEFORE the remembering of the newest loyalty program offered by studio Turn 10 (the creator of the Forza games) which is called the Forza Rewards Program, and just like it sounds, rewards players for playing the Forza Motorsport games.

Specifically FRP rewards players for whatever progress they made in pretty much ALL of the previous titles with the exception of the first game in the series, which was an Xbox original title and therefore has no Achievements or network save-related data associated to it.

Since the FRP system uses the network save and Achievements data to award points, it is quite obviously in a players best interest to have unlocked as many Achievements and goals in the games as possible.

The following criteria is used for the Forza Rewards Program:

Forza Motorsport 2 (500 Points Total)

  • Achievements (500 Points)

Forza Motorsport 3 (1,000 Points Total)

  • Achievements (300 Points)
  • Days Played (200 Points)
  • Miles Driven (100 Points)
  • Cars Owned (200 Points)
  • Driver Level (100 Points)
  • Paid DLC Owned (100 Points)

Forza Motorsport 4 (2,000 Points Total)

  • Achievements (350 Points)
  • Days Played (300 Points)
  • Miles Driven (250 Points)
  • Perfect Passes (50 Points)
  • Cars Owned (250 Points)
  • Driver Level (250 Points)
  • Paid DLC Owned (250 Points)
  • Tokens Purchased (300 Points)

Forza Horizon (2,000 Points Total)

  • 1000 Club Challenges (200 Points)
  • Cars Owned (150 Points)
  • Miles Driven (250 Points)
  • Perfect Passes (50 Points)
  • Achievements (400 Points)
  • Days Played (400 Points)
  • Paid DLC Owned (250 Points)
  • Tokens Purchased (300 Points)

Forza Motorsport 5 (3,000 Points Total)

  • Achievements (500 Points)
  • Cars Owned (250 Points)
  • Driver Level (250 Points)
  • Paid DLC (350 Points)
  • Tokens Purchased (350 Points)
  • Badges and Titles Unlocked (400 Points)
  • Days Played (500 Points)
  • Miles Driven (350 Points)
  • Perfect Passes (50 Points)

The cumulative points that are gained via the above games add up to the Tier Level for the rewards system, which translates to a reward of credits and, depending upon the game, also a reward of cars.  As far as I can tell the games that have rewards from the Tier Levels are FM4, Horizon, and FM5.

Feelings of Guilt

So having made the recommendation to my mates the notion that the previous games in the series may have reached their official “End of Life” as far as Microsoft and Turn 10 are concerned just never occurred to me.

Seriously – and if it had, while I might have entertained the notion that the original Forza and perhaps FM2 might have reached that point, as I distinctly recall having recently seen brand new copies of Forza Ultimate 3 on the shelf at my local GameStop, the idea that FM3 might be in that nebulous and very unfair status again simply did not occur to me…

So imagine my shock and horror when my mate rang me up telling me that following my advice they had gone and purchased a copy of Forza Ultimate 3 ($29.99 new) and, after getting it home and installing it as per the onscreen instructions, were unable to use the download codes that came with the game because – wait for it – the game it seems has reached its End of Life and as such is no longer supported.

Which means that ALL of the game-related DLC has been removed from the Xbox LIVE Marketplace.  When means that NONE of the codes that are included with the game will actually work.

I did some digging and discovered that the so-called End of Life declaration went into effect in August of 2013.

fm3-2

If You Got It You Still Got It

The really terrible part of this story is that while new players who are just discovering FM3 for the first time are basically locked out of the DLC (save for whatever appears on the companion disc for the Ultimate version that is) gamers who previously owned any of the aforementioned removed DLC can still download it whenever they like.

I know this for a fact because of an odd situation…

You see my original copy of Forza 3 was scratched by an evil cat who somehow got it out of its case and really did a number on it – and boy don’t I wish I knew what I did to the cat to make her do that to my game!

Because the disc was damaged to the point it was not playable, I too went and purchased a new copy of Forza Ultimate 3 – but when I tried to play the game all sorts of things went wrong!  Tracks only half-drew, some tracks would instantly show the bad disc warning, it was as if the disc I was using and the game installed on my hard drive were two different games!

Well, they were actually…   It seems that my game save and saved game were calling for memory locations that were wrong on the new game disc, and that was creating all sorts of problems – so I had to completely delete the installation of the game from my hard drive, at which point having done so I realized much to my horror that that included all of the DLC content!

Without expecting much to happen, I went to the downloaded content list on my 360 and the first one I found in this very ancient list was a car pack – a car pack that no longer exists on the Marketplace.  But you know what?  It downloaded just fine thanks.

For the record I was able to re-download the following DLC, in this order:

  • Hyundai Car Pack (Game Add-on)
  • Motorsport Legends Car and Track Pack (Game Add-on)
  • Community Choice Classics Sample (Game Add-on)
  • Forza Ultimate Sample (Game Add-on)
  • World Class Sample (Game Add-on)
  • VIP Car Pack (Game Add-on)

Needless to say I was shocked.  The content is not available to anybody who has a valid code, it is not available for purchase, but if you have previously downloaded it, it is present and available?

I can see how someone who has just purchased the game for the first time would find that to be more than annoying – they might find it to be insulting…

I know that I felt guilty all over again – having sung the praises of the game only to have it turn out this way.

So, and I know this will not mean much to you all, but I am very sorry for leading you all astray in suggesting that you purchase the game…  I know that you can still play the game (it is not broken) and that that bonus install disc has a lot of DLC content, but it is still not quite the same as what you were expecting – and having codes you cannot use must really rankle bad.

Sorry mates…

The Emotional Impact of Gaming…

While the most obvious advantage younger gamers have over older gamers is finer hand-eye-coordination because, let’s face it, the older you get the slower you get…  But perhaps the most valuable advantage that the young have is that they have yet to form emotional attachments to specific games that can cause depressions and long periods of daydreaming about days past.

I am serious about that last one — the older I get the more frustrating the realization of just how fleeting the memories and the experiences we have in video games really are.  Which is sad because it is not uncommon at all to encounter a game in which the player willingly invests a significant measure of emotional attachment.

I am speaking specifically about the MMORPG Star Wars Galaxies.

Here was a game that we played for years – seven years for me – that we originally were drawn to thanks to childhood memories of the movies and the way that they somehow helped to shape our childhood world.  Seriously.

When the end came it came not from a lack of customer-base — there were still plenty of players who wanted Galaxies to continue despite the mucking about that the developers did that nearly ruined the game and certainly ruined the combat system in the game!

No, it was closed out of concern that allowing it to remain in business would somehow have an impact on the new Star Wars themed MMO – little did the folks at Sony and LucasArts realize that the hard feelings that Galaxies saw at their hands ended up causing a large chunk of the core supporters of the games to simply walk away, never to return to the franchise because they felt personally betrayed.  And they were, really.

There are mornings when I wake up and I feel eager to log in to Galaxies, check out my home on Naboo and its small museum-like display of the many treasures and souvenirs collected over seven years of game play…  Only to remember that I cannot do that.  That world no longer exists.

Star Wars Galaxies EMU

Call it an act of rebellion.  Call it a gesture of respect.  Consider it something that serious fans did because they CAN — but at some point following the closure of a game and social environment that was well-loved by so large a group of Star Wars fans that some sort of gesture was inevitable.

At some point a group of code-slingers got together and decided that they would resurrect that world – Star Wars Galaxies – by developing core server support that was sufficient to permit the legitimate owners of licensed copies of the game (I own a dozen myself thanks to special releases, expansions, and the like) that permits them to run the program and enter – and PLAY – the game as if nothing had changed.

Well of course something had changed – for one thing that world that you spend so many years on and all of the different objects that you collected is still gone – but at least there is the possibility for you to add at least the flavor of those experiences back into your virtual life.

For most players what this means is that they will dust off the disc, re-install it to their game box, and then log in and play on a server someone else has created and hosts for that purpose.

Call it once bitten, twice shy if you like, but the experience of losing my Galaxies world once at the hands of the creator was enough to make me vow never to invest that sort of emotion into a game again unless I control it.

So instead of playing on someone else’s server, I will delay this gratification of a return to the world of SWG until I can afford to put together a dedicated SWGEMU server of my own.  A robust high-end custom-built system in other words, that will sit on my home network in the network room here at Four Pines Farm and pump out Star Wars Galaxies all day, every day, and no delays!

I will make that server available to my mates but that is as far as it goes.  Well, not quite.  You see the admin who controls the server can also craft and deploy missions on that server, so I can see me spending the time and effort that it will take to grow familiar enough with coding that beast to create custom missions and objects and…  Yeah, I can see that happening.

Some day soon…  In a Galaxy not so far away… On the green and verdant planet of Naboo… The Server RECNEF will arise.  Oh yes…  Of that there can be no doubt!

So how was your week?

Ghosts and the Paranormal in Video Games

An original painting by artist Nicole Wong (http://nicole-wong.com) titled Cemetery Ghost.

An original painting by artist Nicole Wong titled Cemetery Ghost.

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After I wrote this I realized that I needed to preface it with something to explain that it was not an indictment of the paranormal and ghosts — a disclaimer was required or I am certain to end up on the receiving end of a lot of angry email telling me how much of a wanker I am…  This is not my first rodeo, just saying.

Part of my concern has to do with the fact that ghosts — and the paranormal — are not really a simple, cut-and-dry issue.  Not like UFO’s for example, which really, if you think about it, we all have to believe in because anything that you see flying in the sky or in space that you cannot identify is actually technically and in reality a UFO — an Unidentified Flying Object.

The question of ghosts and the paranormal is simply not that easily managed because there are a lot of people out there that firmly believe in them, believe that they have seen some, and believe that they know what it is that they saw.

I am not one of those people — but at the same time I am also not one of the people who say that ghosts do not exist because the bottom line is… I don’t know.

So to head all of that off, I want to say, first thing, that I am NOT saying there is no such thing as ghosts. Quite the contrary, what I am saying, again, is that I don’t know.

It so happens that I do not suffer from the sort of hubris that dictates that, just because I cannot prove something or because I don’t know something, means it cannot be so.

In point of fact — and I feel like I really need to explain this: I have never been a person who was sure of things I was ignorant of.

I had a lot of experience with that sort of personality type while doing my military service, and I can tell you first hand that not only does nobody like that type of person, they don’t trust them, because that sort of mental attitude can get you into dangerous situations where asking “what is the worse that can happen?” is not a good idea.

As a result of early exposure to that mindset, I have always been the sort of person who endeavors to take personal note of my inadequacies — particularly where knowledge is concerned — and act and react accordingly.

After quite a few years of living and experiencing life outside of environments in which people have to do what you tell them to do because you outrank them, I have come to believe that as rare as it is, the type of personality inclined to qualify situations with the acknowledgement that a lack of certainty, familiarity, or knowledge is present is most often a personality trait typical of the writer — and I am a writer.

It is a good thing to know your limitations and not be afraid to admit that you don’t know — especially if you are in a group where there might be someone who actually does know, since you can then consult them.  There is no shame in admitting your ignorance, only shame in concealing it.

With that on the table, I should explain that my general awareness of the paranormal is a sort that comes from being (A) Catholic, (B) part-Irish, and (C) spending my formative years surrounded by other people who are both Catholic and part (or completely) Irish.

That is to say what I knew I knew from childhood stories and the often necessary rituals that one performs to ward-off evil spirits.

So my imperfect knowledge of the paranormal was in line,  I suspect,  with that of most people, or it was until just the last few years anyway.

Even now, what little I do know on the subject was acquired via listening to Tim Weisberg, and his radio show Spooky Southcoast on WBSM FM radio which has a more scientific approach to the subject.

I should point out in the interest of transparency that Tim is a colleague who, in addition to covering sports for our sister publication, The New Bedford Standard Times, also hosts two radio shows at WBSM — a Saturday morning talk show that I have never listened to because I never get up on Saturday morning unless pastry is involved, and his famous Spooky Southcoast radio show on Saturday nights which I do listen to, especially when Pizza is involved and it usually is.

Tim sort of opened my eyes to the whole paranormal sciences thing in the world, though not in video games because my eyes had already been opened to that phenomenon due to events that took place years ago.

Ghosts and the Paranormal in Video Games

The subject of ghosts in the real world is a bit tricky because for the most part, it is my understanding that to see and experience ghosts in the real world, you actually have to go to them — which as I am mobility challenged and use a wheelchair, is rather more difficult — I suspect — than you might think.

I do not imagine ghosts prefer to appear in handicap-accessible locations that would be convenient for me to access…  If they were I suspect that the existence of ghosts would be a lot wider in both recognition and posts on Twitter and Facebook.

Ghosts in video games on the other hand, while clearly created by the developers as a recognized mechanism for moving the story forward (or for some other purpose such as a cameo by a dead person, or a comic element) — are pretty obviously a LOT easier to come by.

This is true particularly when it is a game that is about ghosts or the paranormal, but not so obvious when it is framed as a cameo or ancillary part of the story being told.

Game developers tend to use that sort of thing as a tool, and usually without investing a lot time, energy, or research in terms of plot and background let alone the actual manifestation sciences that are attached to the phenomenon, so I imagine that they get it wrong more often than they get it right…

The use of ghosts — and more widely the paranormal — in video games probably does not make games — or the people who make them — very popular with the folks who actually DO study ghosts…  Just saying.

With all of that taken into consideration, the first “ghost story” that I recall being aware of outside of the video game itself happened as the result of a conversation covering that aspect of a game, which took place among a group of my peers that began — as such conversations often do — as a friendly conversation that very nearly devolved into a fistfight.

To qualify this just in case you want to ask, the introduction of violence (or the impending introduction of violence) is not a usual element in the conversations that I have inside or outside of the games journo environment, and it should be well understood that this was not directly the fault of any ghost, real or video game.

I should explain…

The games journo community is pretty small compared to the that of other, more traditional beats in journalism.

A nice way to describe that community would be “intimate” but honestly “small” is more accurate — in that small is the size and the number of journos who can make a living on that beat.

The natural result of this is, when a sufficient number of what we have taken to calling “traditional games journos” (I will write about that distinction some other time) gather in one geographic location — for example covering one of the many annual video game expos that take place around the world –we make it a point to get together and break bread — and chat — at least a few times during the event.

These gatherings often take the form of dinners or, more frequently, evening drinking sessions, though the truth be told we are most of us reaching the point at which our advanced age makes all-night drinking sessions a thing of the past.

If you are curious these gatherings tend to take place in the same locations, year after year, granting a measure of familiarity that we crave due to having to travel so much.

If you were thinking that I was actually going to tell you where these meet-ups take place, well, no…  I am sorry to say that I can’t do that for several very good reasons, not the lease of which is legitimate fear that one of the less stable gamers who, having taken umbrage to the hatchet-job of a review one of us did to their favorite game, might be so inclined to show up wearing a propane tank… You can’t be too careful these days.

Back from that digression, the conversation took place in a very nice and comfortable  restaurant on the evening before the opening day of E3 2010.   I am reasonably certain it was E3 2010 because the subject that kicked-off the conversation was the video game Alan Wake — which had released just before that E3.

Considering the subject matter of Alan Wake, it both fully qualifies as a ghost-story game, but also seemed to be overkill in that regard since its primary foundation was built around the darkness and its ghosts. Well, sort of.

A Conversation Starter

Bearing in mind that the conversation I am about to relate to you was, if any term can be used to properly define it, an alcohol-fueled discussion of the role that ghosts have played in the world of video games — by a group of writers who would know — and you should get the idea that it was slightly more than simply shop-talk.

While Alan Wake served as the spark that started the conversation, it quickly moved on to other games with less obvious spookiness — but still ghost-story worthy — naturally starting with some of the earliest examples of this unofficial games genre like the ghost games of the early computer-based gaming scene.

Please bear in mind that if you did not cut your teeth on Commodore Computing’s C=64 or Apple’s II GS model line, chances are you never heard of most of the games we were discussing…

Among these ghost-game titles the Blackwell game series quickly popped up — actually there was no way that the Blackwell series was not going to come up in the conversation because one of the games journos present — before he crossed over to a very successful career in games journalism — worked for Wadjet Eye Games, which is the tiny development studio started by Dave Gilbert to produce his games, among which was the Blackwell series.

That part of the conversation began with an argument – we could not decide if the Blackwell series (which was created in the mid-00s) was related to another ghost-story video game we all thought was called “Blackwell” that was released in the mid-80s for Commodore’s C=64, Apple’s II GS, as well as the Amstrad — the former pair being pretty common to the gaming community in the 80s while the latter would place you in the UK at the time.

That was about the same time that the sequel to The Staff of Karnath — a game called Blackwyche — appeared on C=64 as a continuing adventure for protagonist Sir Arthur Pendragon — that being a pretty infamous game series in its own right.

The insertion of The Staff of Karnath and Blackwyche into the conversation served to muddy the waters, but it also clarified them as it was at this point that we all realized — pretty much simultaneously — that the game we were thinking of as “Blackwell” was in fact Blackwyche, and the mystery was solved with our recognizing that the game we were thinking of pretty much had nothing at all to do with the Blackwell series that came later!

The actual Blackwell series was an important game series in that it certainly had a heavy influence upon the ghost-story genre of games and, in terms of the games industry, upon many of the games that followed throughout the late 00s and beyond.

There were four titles in the main series: The Blackwell Legacy (2006), Blackwell Unbound (2007), Blackwell Convergence (2009), and Blackwell Deception (2011), all of which pretty much dealt with the subject of ghosts and what they need.

The intense story-arc begins honestly enough with Rosangela Blackwell (Rosa), a young freelance writer based out of New York City — so right there the developers already had us cold.

You see games journos — like journos from the other beats — tend to quickly and willingly accept and embrace anything in the entertainment realm that purports to tell the story of a freelance journalist clawing their way up the ladder.

Do you remember Dick Wolf’s television show Deadline? We do.

Interestingly enough the paper from that show — The New York Ledger — featured prominently in some of Wolf’s other shows, particularly Law & Order and its offshoots, but for some reason Deadline only got one season.

Anyway the Blackwell games started out honestly enough, as a ghost named Joey Mallone appears in Rosa’s flat as she is working on a piece on suicide following the recent death of her aunt, Lauren Blackwell, who it quickly develops was a medium who was in regular contact with “the other side.”

As the story began to unfold it worked out that Rosa had inherited that talent — or ability — that bit was never really all that clear.

So Rosa learns about her new (or maybe it was deeply suppressed) ability as Joey explains how she is needed to perform a critical service to the newly deceased — that being to help them “cross over” into the afterlife by helping them to resolve outstanding issues that are keeping them chained to the mortal world.

In the process of this she discovers a link between the death of a girl and other deaths that happen to relate to the assignment she is working on, and it sort of snowballs from there.

Not going to go too deeply into the plot here in case you end up deciding you want to give the games a go, in addition to fleshing out the world of the super-ghost-talking-to-hero that Rosa is, you also get a chance to see how fragile the world of the freelancer is, and why they try to keep their editors happy if at all possible…

The thing is that, as cheesy as that plot might sound, The Blackwell Legacy was actually a very good (and more important, entertaining) video game.

So good in fact that in 2011 they re-cut the game to feature the voice actors who did the other three, for continuity, and released the first three games (with the re-cut first game) as a bundle at the same time that the fourth game in the series was released.

The game series just gets better from there, but you know we never did hammer out whether or not it was the fact that the games featured a journalist protagonist that was the primary attraction for us, or that they were ghost-story games…

Either way though, we all agreed that we liked them and that they were very good games for the retro-style point-and-click graphic adventure genre that they were part of.

Killing Time

At that point having exhausted the subject of the Blackwell series we were all willing to allow that, while Alan Wake game was entertaining and very well written, it was not really in the same league as the other ghost-story genre of games.

None of us were willing to admit that we had played any of the Casper series, let alone offer an opinion regarding like/not-like, but all of us were willing to offer opinions on Clive Barker’s Undying (2001) and Jericho (2007) — though considering the source material it was kind of difficult not to.

The Nightmare entities from F.E.A.R. were next but they were quickly supplanted by the “Water-Clock of Thoth” that served as the MacGuffin for Killing Time (we all agreed that the original release by 3DO Studios for the 3DO – 1995 – was far superior to Intrepid’s port of the game for Windows 95 and the Mac – 1996).

Killing Time was actually rather innovative for the ghost-story genre in that it was not only an Action-Adventure and Mystery game, it also happened to be one of the first fully legitimate zombie-shooters for the genre.

If you are not familiar with Killing Time,well that is a shame.  While none of the structure in the game was really original, the manner in which the development team took core elements that were either new to gaming or that were just getting popular, and mixed them together to create this Ghost-and-Zombie-Shooter-Mystery-Action-Adventure game really stands out.  More importantly though, it had a significant impact on games and gaming.

In Killing Time you play an ex-Egyptology student who has set out to solve the mystery revolving around the ancient artifact called the “Water-Clock of Thoth” that had been discovered — and brought back to New York — by your professor of Egyptology, the mysterious Dr. Hargrove.

This sort of situation where often priceless historical artifacts were found on foreign digs by a team of teachers and students, who pretty much took whatever they wanted from the dig in terms of artifacts, without bothering to seek the approval of the local government, which in the case of Egypt was, after all, largely made up of corrupt wogs who simply wanted to be bribed, right?

Well that was the 1930s for you; besides the fact that the artifact was probably historical, and certainly has a paranormal and powerful magic power in it, the important bits you should be taking away from this is that it has gone missing following a visit by Hargrove’s patron, the very wealthy and equally mysterious Tess Conway.

It does not help that Tess Conway shortly thereafter turns up missing (just how one “turns up missing” was never really all that clear) and her disappearance took place while she may or may not have been holding an occult gathering at her estate on the semi-private Matinicus Isle, in Maine (say, with proper nods to Stephen King who is a God among games journos, why is Maine such a ghostly place???).

As the story unfolds we discover that Tess is far from slightly-interested in the subject of archeology and serving as an angel investor to help fund historical research — in fact it works out that she is, in fact, something of a diabolical monster in her own right.  Well that and she not only knows what the secret power is for that particular artifact but means to make use of it to further her nefarious plans for immortality.

At this point you should pretty much get the basic idea. We already knew it because hey, we are all games journos and we not only played (and liked) the game, most of us actually wrote reviews of it.

What set Killing Time apart from other games in the ghost-story genre at the time was the fact that the back-story was largely revealed to the player in the form of live-action cut scenes acted out by real actors, which was sort of a fresh idea at the time (think Red Alert).

The live-action CS’s helped the game to stand out in its genre, but it was really its status as a shooter that pushed the attention its way.

Among the arsenal of weapons for this game (the game was set in the 1930s but thanks to the isolated location in Maine the developers were able to interpret the era loosely), which included a collection of weapons that would seem more familiar to bootleggers than a wealthy heiress, it offered serious opportunities for ass-kicking that few games of the era provided.

The weapons in the game include the to-be-expected magical Ankh that delivered devastating AOE — which the player used to quite literally wipe out a large number of enemies in one go (assuming that they were conveniently grouped inside the AOE range of the Ankh, which invariably they were).

Seriously.

The weapons also included the required Crowbar for melee (1930s era archeologists routinely opened well-made wooden crates all the time so naturally they had a variety of hefty crowbars handy at all times – just ask Indiana Jones!).

The gangster-collection of traditional shooter weapons included dual-pistols, a shotgun, and a Thompson sub-machine gun (what they called a Tommy-Gun in the vernacular of the era).

If that failed to get the job done you could always use your Molotov Cocktails and trusty flamethrower, both of which were very useful for dispatching the undead.

We were tempted to say “killing” the undead — but really if you think about it, being undead is what they do, so unless you can completely destroy them, you cannot “kill” the undead you are merely slowing them down, right?

While Tess Conway is legitimately a nutter, among the other characters in the game were some interesting personalities, and among them, two really stand out in memory.

There is “Mike” — who is Duncan DeVries personal bodyguard and who doubles as the director of security for the estate — and “Lydia Tweksbury” — who gets extra points just for having that name, but turns out to fill the Judas role in the game in a way that only she can.

Sadly if you are going to play the game we cannot go any deeper into our reasons for selecting these two characters as the truly standout characters, but suffice it to say that despite their very minor roles in the small picture, in the big picture these two are rockstars.

Can’t say anymore than that and I have probably said too much already, sigh.

We all agreed that the creative use of real-world locations as part of the backdrop for the game was a significant element in quickly dispelling doubt and permitting immersion to take place naturally.

It was certainly an important element, particularly the use of the very real Boldt Castle, found on Heart Island (one of the islands in the Thousand Islands region of New York State) along the shore of the Saint Lawrence River — which stands in to represent the Conway Estate.

The appearance in the castle of a ghost — who as it turns out is more or less the castle ghost — cannot be dismissed however, despite the fact that your character handles that pretty well considering that it doesn’t you know, freak out or anything…

But then again your character has a six-shot revolver that fires an unlimited number of shots without ever having to be reloaded (watch the video) so it makes sense that something like a ghost who appears offering advice is not going to phase them, right?

The back-story of the castle ghost eventually gets explained — don’t worry, watching the video we embedded above will not really ruin the game for you — but we all agreed that her second ghostly form (the white one) pretty much reminded all of us of the appearance of Princess Leia in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, where R2D2 shows the partial message to Luke before Luke inadvertently brings the droid to the intended recipient of the message.

If the amount of detail about Killing Time I have shared here gives you the idea that it represented a significant amount of the conversation we were having, that’s good because it did.

Despite its very Doom-like appearance, the game did have a significant impact not just on the games journos but to some extent the games community in that it provided what amounted to the first taste that most gamers had with the notion of treating the undead the same as the living with respect to the shooter genre of game…

So if you are looking for who to blame for the massive number of zombie-based video games that now plague the world, look no further.

Bubble, Bubble Ghost, Toil and Trouble

It was at this point that someone made an unfortunate comparison to Bubble Ghost, another ghost-story game with roots in the mid 80s, and nearly caused a fistfight.

The game Bubble GHost was widely known in its era, having appeared on pretty much every gaming platform from C=64, II GS, and the Amstrad, to PC DOS, the Amiga, Atari’s ST line of computer/game consoles (the ST included a cartridge slot), and later, on Nintendo’s Game Boy handheld games console!

The basic mechanics for the game involve the players guiding a ghost around the castle, positioning it to use its ghostly breath(?!) to guide a bubble past a series of obstacles while avoiding having it come into contact with surfaces or other obstacles.

The ultimate goal being to activate different objects and, eventually, to enable your escape.

Part of the reason why this was an unfortunate comparison is that the developer of Bubble Ghost (Infograme) put a lot of pressure on its North America publisher (Accolade) to push the many ports it had created as a hard sell — which it seems was what the company was doing in Europe and the UK, where it WAS the publisher — using a variety of ad campaigns that were, well, creative.

It will help if you are aware of the back-story here: Infograme was a massive French holding company based in Paris that had the well-deserved reputation of being something of a whore in the games industry.

A lot of games journos at the time considered the company to be shameless producers of shovelware — low quality games that tended to make their entire profit during the first three to six weeks following launch; that being the time period before word-of-mouth could succeed in revealing the true quality of a game.

I don’t know how much of that was truth and how much was rumor or unfounded opinion — I was not a games journo during that period I was still a kid and gamer — but I do know that the feelings among the veteran journos at the table were such that the comparison was interpreted as a slap in the face to one of the journos present who had worked on the game that was being compared to the shovelware…

Anyway due to its rather trite underlying mechanism for game play, you may be amused to learn that among the old school games journos, the game Bubble Ghost is often called that Ghostly Blowjob game…

Speaking of Chuck Norris

We were not speaking of Chuck Norris, but being the sort of person that chooses to use humor in order to defuse stressful situations, and concerned that a punch was about to be thrown that, once thrown, could not be taken back (and the certain knowledge that the person who caused these bad feelings and would be on the receiving end of that punch was just the sort of person who would, in fact, call the cops) I popped off the following:

“You know Agent 47 may actually be more formidable than Chuck Norris.”

The reaction I got from this was way better than what I was hoping for…

A chorus of “What?!” and a few “Waitress, I will have the crack that one has been smoking” quickly followed, and then the insistence that I explain myself…

“Remember the ninth mission in Codename 47? It was the seventh mission in Hitman: Contracts too — but you remember it, right?” They nodded for the most part.

“OK so after Agent 47 enters the hotel, and makes his way through the halls to the room where the crime scene was, where the murder had been committed?”

This was the mission in which you were supposed to derail the plans of terrorist Frantz Fuchs, who was like the less-clever cousin to the terrorists in the first two Die Hard movies?

Basically you were supposed to eliminate Frantz, secure his bomb — it was a very nasty chemical bomb — and then you needed to escape to the rendezvous spot, all without being detected by the army of cops and private security patrolling the halls and rooms in the hotel.

Typical Hitman mission structure in other words, but of course getting through the mission with a Hitman rating was like, well, like being Chuck Norris?

Actually it was better than being Check Norris, they agreed, but then insisted that I explain the ghost-game connection and my assertion that Agent 47 could out-Chuck-Norris Chuck Norris.

“Well, Agent 47 kills the ghost in that one; I think there actually might have been an Achievement for doing that — so do you think Chuck Norris could do that?!” I demanded.

I distinctly recall the reaction of the journo who was, moments before, about to throw a punch: “What ghost, what the hell are you talking about?!”

Great, I silently said to myself. Now instead of wanting to hit that wanker, he wants to hit YOU!

“The ghost that you see outside of the hotel room where the murder took place.

“The ghost that you can, if you are really fast, sort of kill with the shotgun on the floor of the bathroom but not really because to kill the ghost you have to sort of catch it unawares, and use your garrote!” I explained.

It took me nearly twenty minutes to convince them that I was not having the piss on them, and even then to fully satisfy that lot I ended up whipping out my trusty HP notebook and loading YouTube.

After quickly hunting down the video “Hitman Ghost” (http://youtu.be/V_z7AZR2euo) that not only features that ghostly encounter, but was created by a gamer who made it a point show just about every sort of interaction you can possibly have with that ghost, and well, then they were convinced!

The conversation at that point turned to how the developers had managed to slip in a ghostly encounter AND a ghost that for the most part they were completely unaware of, though several of the journos allowed as how, now that they had seen the mission on YouTube, they did actually remember the ghost, but they did not realize that it could be killed…

We played and then replayed the video over and over, and noted the different potential interaction options that were available to the player — here is the list:

 

  • 0:00 – 0:45 — Getting to the hallway.
  • 0:46 – 0:47 — The first sighting of the ghost, in the hallway.
  • 1:11 – 1:25 — Seeing the ghost in the bathroom mirror and taking a shot at it (note the blood splash).
  • 1:46 – 2:16 — Properly garrotting the ghost and then dragging its ghostly body into the hall.

Note that the first almost full minute if the video consists of the player just getting Agent 47 into a position so that he would actually be in the right area…

I suspect that the reason most players both never knew that the ghost was there and did not interact with it has more to do with the desire to score as highly as possible in the game (meaning to get the best hitman rating).

Ghosts in Video Games

When all was said and done we had, between the twelve of us, worked it out that video game ghosts come in three basic types – the first type, in games that are about ghosts, haunting, and basically are ghost-games as a genre, because it is more or less about ghosts, elevates them to a character in the games and so rarely ever observes the different rules that people serious about ghosts tend to state that ghosts follow.

What I mean by that is simply that in that type of game environment, you can end up having long and meaningful conversations with ghosts, which sort of flies in the face of the whole ghost science thing considering that while real ghosts (it seems to me) may in fact have a message that they want to share with you, don’t use punctuation.

The second type of ghost in video games usually takes the form of the ghost-as-guide, in that they generally are there for a very specific reasons and, once they fulfill their purpose, pretty much disappear, never to be seen again.

Finally there is the third type, which I like to call the Accidental Ghost. These can take the form of ghostly cameos, or a ghost who appears because ghosts are known to appear in that place/time, and of course the not so rare but nevertheless heartbreaking use of ghostly appearances when a loved one dies.

That last one can, arguably, be explained away as the overpowering grief and the desire to see that person just one more time, so it may actually not be a ghost so much as a sign that your player is going nuts, like in Heavy Rain…

Ghost Games You Might Enjoy

Since this is a muse about my experience with ghosts in games, I thought it would be a good idea to close this with a list of games you might like to play — if you are looking for a game with ghosts that is…

  • Alan Wake (Xbox 360)
  • Blackwell Series (PC)
  • Calling (Wii)
  • Clive Barker’s Jericho (Xbox 360 / PS3 / PC)
  • Cursed Mountain (Wii)
  • F.E.A.R. (Xbox 360 / PS3 / PC)
  • Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective (Nintendo DS)
  • Haunt (Xbox 360)

I did not include the obvious or funny – Ghostbusters for example — since these are supposed to be games that sort of treat the whole ghost subject with a bit more respect…

If you have trouble sleeping after playing these, don’t blame me mates.

Cheers!

C

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Note 1: While this post was created as one of the “muse” posts which are about things that amuse me or stories that are somewhat to very amusing, since it was about the subject of ghosts in video games and since ghosts appearing in video games (even games that are NOT strictly speaking about ghosts) I decided to include a selection of videos from YouTube about ghosts appearing in video games.

The idea here is to provide you with a selection of the different ways that ghosts have been used in video games, but also to break up what would otherwise have been experienced as a solid wall of text, and I think we did OK at both goals…

Note 2: I was not aware of this until quite recently but it seems that WordPress has recently changed its policy on free hosting for blogs in that the hosting is not, entirely, and strictly speaking, free anymore.

A case in point is that for blogs (like this one) that chose NOT to pay the ad-free fee that is now required, WordPress may insert ads into the posts on those blogs as a means of making a little pocket change off of those freeloading blogs.

So IF you see ads on this blog, it was NOT us that did it – it was WordPress.  We apologize to you for exposing you to advertising and want you to know you are under no obligation to actually purchase any products in those ads – we do not in any way profit from those ads.

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Judging Gears of War: Judgement

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The Gears of War series has long been a favorite  – and really why wouldn’t it be?

It is a great game that has some great characters who you can easily grow to care about.  It is packed with plot twists and turns, it has something for pretty much everyone at least in terms of likes and expectations, and presents just the sort of light story content and heavy online multi-player.

When Gears of War arrived in in November 2006 it was already deep into the new game season.  It was an instant hit.  Really though that was not a surprise – like most AAA titles it got its fair share of promotion but even so there was an aura surrounding the game, and it is easy to understand why.

Of course shooters and Action-Adventure games today have very strong multi-player sides to them because, well, you cannot really make a shooter today that doesn’t.

The reason for that is because games like Gears set the standard for that side of things – and besides gamers LIKE being able to get together with their buds and kick the crap out of each other.  It is part of our DNA.

The fact that the team you played in Gears was likeable and, as odd as this sounds, came to be almost like friends as you helped them try to understand the Bug-Eyed-Monsters (BEMS) they were facing and why.  Aliens, yup, no question!

By the time Gears of War 2 hit consoles all over the world (it was November again, but this time it was November 2008) two years had passed – long enough for most fans to have played the hell out of Gears and be very ready for the next chapter in the series.

I am not sure that they were ready for Gears 2 really – things took a sort of dark twist – but the Gears stuck together and the boss mobs was exactly as tough as it needed to be to keep us angry at those damn bugs!

Gears of War 3 arrived in September 2011 (two months before we thought it would) and the very loud pre-release publicity claimed that it would wrap things up.

Unfortunately while it lived up to the pre-release hype and really did answer a lot of the questions that we had, it also gut-punched the serious fans, with events that left them reeling.

Okay…  There is room for that.  And besides that, all dogs go to heaven, right?   So do all Gears, right?

As noted a major element in the build-up to the release of Gears 3 was that this third story would answer a LOT of the questions that the previous games had left hanging in the air…

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Gears 3 Surprises
Shortly after the release of Gears 3 a lot of things happened in quick succession: it was announced that the story arc that was supposed to have just concluded was not really over – despite having answered a LOT of questions, there were still some more that needed to be addressed.

Now most gamers took this to mean that the next game in the series – Gears of War 4 – would be a continuation of GoW3, though just how that would be managed no one could say (or figure out.

Then Epic announced a spin-off for the series was coming called Gears of War: Exile. It was going to be for the Kinect, it was going to be a tight play experience, and even if you disposed Kinect, you were supposed to love it.

Hints and innuendo continued to leak as the fans and gamer world grew even more convinced that GoW 4 was going to take the current story farther – but as the hype train began to build for E3 a massive revelation leaked.

It turned out that when they said that “the next GoW would answer even more questions” they were NOT talking about GoW 4 – they were talking about something called Gears of War: Judgement.

As the details began to take real shape though, it became clear that while Judgement was legitimately part of the cannon for the first story Arc, it was NOT GoW4! Not only that but it was set to share experiences and info that covered a very broad range of times and places.

So OK that took some getting used to – but we were all set for E3 2012 and we were convinced that a lot of the questions we had about how GoW: Judgement would fit into the picture would be addressed there – all that we had to do was be patient, and attend the event.

So we were patient and waited for E3, where more things seemed to happen all at once: GoW: Judgement was part of the first arc, fully included in cannon, but was NOT a main-story chapter.

It was to be a prequel, it was to address specific issues that lead to the reasons behind how Delta became such a tight-nit unit, and provide the dirty details regarding the rumor and whispers in the first three games about the Gears being war criminals.

Oh, and we learned that Gears of War: Exile had been canceled.

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Winds of Change?

If we could briefly travel into the future —  say to the year 2050 — and then look back at the present day through the eyes of a gamer yet unborn, what we would see is a gaming world clearly divided by themes.

The first decade of the 21st Century — basically the years 2000 through 2009 — which in addition to being the first decade in the new millennium also happened to be the decade of dissent.

New game series were introduced and old game series were rebooted – but far more important than that is the changes that took place in the games community in terms of expectations and the industry with respect to focus, as the traditional  player-vs-player elements usually found in shooters became part of the DNA of pretty much EVERY game that qualified (even loosely mind you) as an Acton-Adventure title!

It reached the point that game studios and developers would not even think about releasing a game that lacked a robust online multi-player mode – and that turned out to be a very good thing indeed!

Dramatic changes occurred — not just in new titles but in the reboots of well-established game series from the 90’s like the Grand Theft Auto series — meant that studios had unlimited opportunities to recycle previous games by taking on a new multi-player mode.

Even marginal titles suddenly had new life breathed into them because gamers were ready for more.

While there was no way to accurately predict how good a new game was, one thing you could predict was that it would have an online cooperative multi-player mode!   This applied not just to Shooters but remains true even respecting Action-Adventure and Stealth titles.

If you fast-forward to the present day you find that games like Gears of War: Judgement have legitimately inherited the mantel of hardcore online Cooperative and PvP to the extent that the game has more online MP and CMP modes and content than it does Story-Mode Campaign!

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Which Brings us Properly to Judgement

Right, so if you were present at E3 2012 you got to sit in the catbird seat and really understand and appreciate the lengths that the development and planning team at Epic had gone to in order to address a lot of the nagging open questions in the story and plot that somehow yet remained in spite of the efforts that they made to address it all in GoW 3…

Bearing in mind that the Developers went out of their way to communicate the fact that Judgement was not to be a full-length game, was definitely NOT to be considered Gears of War 4, and was meant to be a fusion of 3/4 prequel and 1/4 wrap-up from GoW 3 and there is no room whatsoever for confusion, right?  Well… Not so much really.

Somehow and in spite of the pains that Epic went through to make sure that gamers knew that Judgement was not the first game in the next story arc for the Gears sage — somehow even though they made it clear on multiple and very visible occasions that Judgement was being created to fulfill the promises that were made years ago to provide players with closure of the first story arc…  Somehow a significant number of gamers and fans STILL got it wrong.

We actually sat through the briefing and demo at E3 TWICE just to be sure that we fully understood the message that was being delivered – and I am pretty sure we have it right.  We wanted to fully grok what it was, what it was to be, and how it all fit together.

During the Q&A one of the developers let slip to an Intern — who asked a specific question that I think the dev was not expecting — that the timeline in Judgement was split up into events that took place BEFORE Gears of War, and activity that took place just before the end of Gears of War 3.  That was confirmation of info that had not, up to that point, been public.

So when GoW: Judgement arrived and was precisely what the Epic Wizards said it was, you could have knocked me over with a feather when a significantly large percentage of the fan base began to shit all over the game, complaining that it was not long enough, that it was a disappointment, that the play style was “too different” and that it “Was Not Gears 4!”

Well sure it was not Gears 4 – I mean hell, they TOLD US that it was not Gears 4!

The venom that was being vented did not make sense.

This was happening before anyone could possibly have played through and completely understood what was being communicated in the game.

The negativity was flowing freely on day one of the launch cycle – but of course I would only discover how wrong these people were a week later, after I had the chance to play through the game in order to form my own impression.

Ultimately I found nothing to dislike at all –  in fact when I used the word “ambitious” to describe the game approach I had no idea at the time just how accurate that would turn out to be!

While GoW: Judgement did turn out to be considerably shorter than I wanted it to be, it certainly was not lacking in quality – and oh boy did it explain a lot.

The first three-quarters of the Judgement addressed the series of events that fully qualified as Prequel Content, being the back-story behind the two protagonist supporting character: Cole and Baird – heck that alone made it worth the price of admission!

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This Bloke Named Baird

Lieutenant Damon S. Baird was a commissioned officer in the Coalition of Ordered Governments (COG) — and the fact that he was a Lieutenant came as a shock to a lot of players and fans, myself included, as in the first three games he was nothing more than a grunt!

A major element in the story in Judgement consists of the revelations explaining HOW it was that he became Private Baird and as I say, that alone was worth the $39.99 we paid for this game!

You see it works out that Baird may look like a blonde California Surfer Dude and may act like one too, but his looks and ‘tude are very deceiving.

Not only is he a brilliant genius who could legitimately be addressed as Doctor Baird, he also happens to be the son of a wealthy family who chose to serve; he was not drafted!

This Bloke Named Cole

The Cole that we get to play and play with in Judgement is a very different man than the one we meet and play as and with later in the main series.  For one thing he is funnier now than he eventually became.  The good humor and positive attitude had not yet been beaten out of him at this point.

He still held distrust for officers, sure, but in the early days he must have been a lot of fun to hang and party with – based on his attitude and personality he was surely the life of the party.  It was good to get to know that version of him!

All Bafflement Aside

All of this considered, if you are a Gears fan and you are on the fence about Judgement, do not let the negativity of the vocal minority in the fan base keep you from playing this game.  It is priced as a short game because it is a short game – nobody at Epic tried to mislead any player – the people that are crapping all over this game either did not listen when the game was revealed at E3 or they are crapping just for the sake of taking a big huge dump!

Gears of War: Judgement is, in our opinion, totally worth the admission price.  I am glad I played it!

Installing New Games

Truth in Advertising Laws have been taken too far…

Any games journo who tells you that the free games that they get are no big deal is being an asshat.  While I am one of those writers who firmly believe that it should never be about the free games, I also know that the daily experience of logging into your email in the morning and seeing the mail cart approach your desk in the afternoon is a pretty heady one; you never know what games are going to arrive today, and when you get titles you did not request and so were not expecting, it is a little bit like the feeling you used to get on Christmas morning back when you were still young enough to believe in Santa Clause.

Thursday last was a particularly fruitful game arrival day, as in addition to the four flat packages that arrived in the mail cart, there were half-a-dozen codes in the email box — and even those were something of a surprise by themselves as three of the codes actually resulted in multiple games, but I am getting ahead of myself…

Like a lot of PC users I don’t like to use my computer when something is being installed — the problem with that is that it is hard to tell if Steam is actually installing some part of the game you are adding from that service or it is just downloading, since the entire process is carried out under the guise of “installing” since that is what the window’s title is.  That being the case I find that whenever a Steam game is being added my PC ends up being declared temporarily unusable by the very violent Irish Military Policeman who patrols my noggin.

Yesterday I plugged in the three Steam Codes I received in email, naively thinking that the act of activating three codes would logically lead to three games being installed, right?  No, wrong!  After blithely entering the codes I was thunderstruck by the resulting download and installation monitoring status screen thingy as it revealed the download and installation progress for ELEVEN (11) games!  And a couple of those games were larger than 4GB!

I don’t like being forced into the role of data traffic cop, and because the bandwidth in our office is not a humungous or wide-pipe uber-broadband- onnection,  a user who wants all of the other uses to not hate their very guts takes care to arrange large downloads so that they take place overnight, when nobody needs that bandwidth.  As a result it was not long before a voice could be heard loudly asking: “Who is doing bandwidth intensive tasks?!”

I quickly hit the pause-all button and then assessed the situation on my desktop — and then resumed the download for the smallest item in the list.  As each of the small items completed, I then resumed the download for the next smallest, and etc. until all that was left to be downloaded was a trio of very large games.  Those I left hanging until the close of business, and the last thing that I did before departing for the weekend was to resume all three of those, fully expecting that when I arrive at work on Monday they will all be finished.  I hope.

There is a price to be paid, you see, for all those free games, and I just want you to know that we willingly pay that price for you, so we can review and write about the games for you, the reader.  Oh, and I also want you to be aware that if someone was using the office network over the weekend and my massive download messed with their work, I will be blaming you.

A Little Bit at a Time

It tends to surprise my mates when they look at the Achievements List on my official Xbox Gamer Tag and see that all of the Achievements for certain games have not already been unlocked…  Games that have existed on my account for — in several cases — time periods measured in years.

This is not a case of one of my mates noticing a game like LA Noire and saying “how could you have stopped playing at X number of Achievements unlocked?!” or anything like that, but more a case of — well, let me quote the actual PM:

D00d WTH?!  I get it that you only have half the Chieves for Wolfenstein 3D but you have owned Doom for like three years and you still have not finished Episode 2??!?!?!  And don’t hit me with that lame assed excuse you always use and say you just do not have the time to game for pleasure anymore because we both know that is utter pants!

OK, for the record I have 59 of 60 Achievements unlocked for LA Noire — it would be 60/60 but I loaned the game to a friend six months ago and never had the opportunity to drop by their house, which is at mid-Cape so is not really convenient for me to visit but eventually I will, and then I will loan them another stack of games and get mine back…  Still…

So here is the deal: there are certain games on my Xbox that I play in small, bite-sized and very sincerely savored chunks.  Doom is one of them, so is Wolfenstein — in fact here is the complete list of games that I play (and their Achievements Count since my mates seem to be unnaturally focused upon that odd statistic plus the day I first played them) strictly for pleasure and for which I indulge myself in taking my time:

  • Call of Duty Classic (5/12) 12 February 2010
  • Crackdown 2 (12/70) 1 July 2010
  • Doom (5/12) 27 October 2008
  • Forza Motorsport 2/3/4  (38/44 – 48/50 – 53/58)  10/13/08 – 11/23/09 – 10/11/11
  • Hasbro Family Game Night  (38/91) 30 May 2009
  • Mercury HG (7/18) 27 September 2011
  • Minecraft (16/20) 13 May 2012
  • Naughty Bear (13/66) 8 July 2010
  • Oblivion (19/60) 9 December 2009
  • Snoopy Flying Ace (2/12) 28 July 2010
  • Ticket to Ride  (15/15)  22 September 2008
  • Tony Hawk’s PS HD  (5/16) 21 July 2012
  • Toy Soldiers & TS Cold War   (6/18 & 8/20)  3/9/10 – 2/9/12
  • Wolfenstein 3D  (6/12)  10 August 2012
  • Zuma  (2/12)  14 February 2010

Now to be fair you may look at my games played list and think that for certain titles I just game up on them, but that is not the case…  For instance it was not an unwillingness to play but the actual inability to play the following games that caused me to stop playing them:

  • FIFA 12 (2/45) I am not a big fan of sports games…
  • Fruit Ninja Kinect (0/21) I prefer to watch Autumn play, she is a wizard!
  • Gears of War (11/57) Co-Op Game Peter and I play when we have the time.
  • G.R.A.W. (5/43) Seriously bugged, crashes and cannot be played.
  • Puzzle Quest (1/12) I just do not like this game…
  • Scrap Metal (1/12) Cannot get past the level I am stuck on…
  • The Sims 3 (15/50) Cannot find the disc, it went missing!

So there you have it — the full statistical analysis of my games, game play preferences, and the games that I consider to be treasures that are to be enjoyed in small play sessions so as to squeeze the maximum enjoyment and entertainment out of them!

Now beyond the above lists I shall share with you my Top Ten All Time Favorite Games from my Games Played List on the Xbox 360 (note that this does not represent my All Time Favorite Games of All Time Every since it only includes the games on the Xbox 360 Console, just saying).  These are the Top 10 as I say, with Numero Uno being the most favored, and etc.

  1. Fallout 3 (72/72) First Played on 3 December 2008
  2. Forza Motorsports 4 (53/58) 11 October 2011
  3. Dragon Age: Origins (49/76) 16 December 2009
  4. Hitman: Blood Money (24/24) 13 June 2008
  5. The Godfather (56/58) 24 September 2008
  6. Assassin’s Creed II (48/50) 4 December 2009
  7. Forza Motorsport 2 (38/44) 13 October 2008
  8. Alan Wake (48/67) 29 April 2010
  9. Final Fantasy XIII (31/35) 6 April 2010
  10. Bully: Scholarship Edition (36/38) 6 June 2008

Now that I have shared mine with you, you should share yours with me, so please comment back to me your Top Ten All Time Favorite Games from YOUR Games Played List on YOUR Xbox 360!