Sunday, 5 July 2015

All Aboard the Bloat Boat

Lightning in Final Fantasy XIII (FFXIII)
Years ago, there was a time when my friends and I would have conversations about hard drives and say stuff like, "It's a whole gigabyte? What would someone do with all that space?!?" Now, a good 20 years later it's all about the terabytes. Huge, hulking drives with what seems like enough space to keep any sensible person happy for years. However, when one looks at the steadily bulging sizes of a lot of major game releases that come out each year, it's hard not to wonder if even these new technical marvels' days are already numbered.

It's only been over the last year that I've really begun to take notice of this trend, starting with the PC release of Final Fantasy XIII. When I perused the specs for the game on its Steam page, I noticed that it requires a 60GB download. Even with all of the fancy cut scenes and dual Japanese / English voice acting, that's a pretty bitter pill to swallow, and required some creative uninstalling to make space for it. Sure, we get slightly less annoying dialogue from Vanille, Hope, and Snow, but it comes at a very high cost.

Final Fantasy is by no means alone, though. There are plenty of other games that are sporting some rather hefty downloads. Titles like Wolfenstein: The New Order (50GB), Elder Scrolls Online (85GB), Grand Theft Auto V (65GB), and Batman: Arkham Knight (55GB) are but a few examples of the bloat we're beginning to see in terms of how much hard drive space games are beginning to gobble up.

Granted, all of the games that I've mentioned are of the AAA variety. Those that have little to no interest in that sort of thing aren't really affected. Nonetheless, there's still a substantial number of people who do like them, and are being impacted by this.

Fire fight in Wolfenstein: The New Order
Wolfenstein: The New Order is a 50GB goliath.

To an extent, growing game sizes makes sense. As mentioned at the beginning of this article, it's something that has been happening for years. With each leap forward in technology, we've seen games' graphics get better, but it comes at the cost of bigger files. Now, as this process has continued for 30 years or so we're at this point where the files in question are gargantuan.

That being said, when I look at some of the other recent titles to come out that have had some very high fidelity visuals, they haven't suffered from quite the same bloat as the traditional AAA games have. One just needs to look at something like The Witcher III or Elite: Dangerous. Both have been released only in the last year, have stunning visuals, and yet they've managed to avoid the 50GB+ club. This in mind, it does begin to bring into question what some of these other studios are doing when making their games. Is there a certain level of sloppiness in the coding that is contributing to this bloat?

Docking procedure
Elite: Dangerous looks gorgeous, yet manages to clock in
at only 7GB.
At least on the PC gaming side of things we can readily address the issue simply by installing a bigger hard drive. This will at least make sure there is enough space to accommodate these games. However, unless you go with one that is solid state, there will still be hurdles, that being the thing's writing speed. HDDs are quite slow when it comes to this, and installing one of these mammoth-sized games on such hardware takes some time. When I was installing Final Fantasy XIII, I pretty much couldn't do anything else with that computer once the process got into full swing. Adding insult to injury was having to wait over two hours for everything to complete. It's a bit of a drag having to deal with something like that. Obviously, over time SSD will come down in price, the process has already started, but as it stands, the technology is still more of a luxury than anything else for a number of people. Even when it does become affordable to the masses and we don't have to deal with sluggish write times anymore, it won't change the fact that these games are massive storage hogs that only seem to be getting bigger.

This doesn't even take into account the console side of things. Those have some pretty small hard drives that can fill up fast. It is possible to replace them, though much easier on the PS4 than the Xbox One by most accounts. The question is how many people out there will actually do this. I'm sure the majority of those reading this article have the technical wherewithall to do such a swap in their sleep. However, when it comes to the general public, I'm not so sure. How many people in that group will upgrade their console HDDs? I can't imagine them doing so en masse.

Scenic view of the city
Grand Theft Auto 5 gobbles up 65GB
on PC.
Whether one has the means and knowledge to upgrade their hard drive, be it on a PC or console, there's one area where they will likely have far less control: their ISP. With games shifting so heavily to digital distribution they're going to have to get downloaded from somewhere, and that means bandwidth consumption. In my neck of the woods, this is a serious concern. Plans top off around 400-500GB transfer per month, and it comes at a fairly hefty price tag. More common plans average about half of that. So, if someone wants to download even a couple of these massive games, they could well have eaten up half or more of their allotted bandwidth for the month. If someone streams a lot of movies, downloads various other things, and generally makes thorough use of their internet connection on a regular basis, they could suddenly find themselves hitting their bandwidth cap and being throttled or paying additional fees after.

All of this being said, I have to wonder if the growing install size of modern games will be a problem that is corrected on its own. It's hard to imagine this not impacting purchasing decisions. I know I'm thinking twice before buying a game now, taking the time to look at its specs and make sure of just how much hard drive space the thing is going to take. If it's over 25GB I stop and give the game some very serious thought before proceeding. In many cases, I actually don't buy it, or at least put it off for quite some time. Sure, I'm missing out on an experience, but I also don't have to rearrange a small army of other games in order to make space for that big one. Moreover, it alleviates having to worry about going over my bandwidth limit for the month.

Planning a thing
Elders Scrolls Online takes a whopping 85GB of storage space.

It wouldn't surprise me if others are doing likewise, and this may well help to force developers to examine how they're making their games. Should sales begin to take a hit because games are getting to darn big, they'll have to sit down and take a look at what they're doing and find a way to address the issue. The sad thing is that I don't see this happening any time soon. For now, we're just going to have to suffer through these massive installs, and get creative with managing hard drive space and our monthly bandwidth.

Saturday, 4 July 2015

NotGTAV is a Very Silly Game

notgtav title screen
So, while taking a peak at the Steam front page yesterday, I happened upon a rather unusual game there called NotGTAV. Hmm? A silly parody? This isn't just YouTuber fodder, is it? As it turns out, it's not, and is actually a pretty good piece of satire. You will need to be abreast of current events in the UK in order to get most of the jokes, but if you're in that crowd, there's a good 30 minutes to an hour of silly good times to be had. All of the proceeds go to charity, so you can feel even better about yourself while laughing at David Cameron and horse meat.

Basically, the game is a glorified version of Snake, with players guiding an ever-growing procession of things around a field either trying to gobble up more things, or avoid dangerous ones, all while not bashing into walls or obstacles. It's something most people have probably played at some point in their life, probably on their mobile phone, but with a shiny veneer of tongue-in-cheek humour. What makes the whole thing work is the ridiculous settings players are thrust into, which includes driving around a camp site running over tents with a tractor, or zipping around London on Saturday as Britain's prime minister while avoiding all of the protests marching around town.

While the missions and their objectives are both very silly, the majority of the laughs comes from all of the comments everyone is making while you drive / walk around a level doing your thing. It largely pokes fun at politics and the socio-economic situation in the UK, and really cuts to the heart of a lot of the problems facing the country. About my only complaint is that they focused so much on David Cameron here when there are so many other people in his party that deserve to be mocked as well. I didn't really notice any jabs being taken at George Osborne or Iain Duncan Smith, and, even more shocking, not a one at Michael Gove. Michael Gove. The man is practically a walking punchline.

From an aesthetic standpoint, NotGTAV is about as lo-fi as they come. The visuals are crayon scribbles with just enough detail to figure out your location and what you're driving. All of the sound effects are sampled mouth noises, and the music is people humming / singing in the background. They even went through the trouble of making mock radio stations for the levels set in London.

The game is dirt cheap at about three bucks regular price, and even less when on sale. It's very short, but benefits from that as the jokes would have worn thin if it was drawn out too much. At its current length, with the satire it has, the game is an entertaining little romp. Like I said before, if you're not from the UK or at least up to speed with the news over there, the majority of the humour will go straight over your head. Those who are will have themselves a good time.

Thursday, 2 July 2015

Revisiting Anachronox

Boots and Gromps

During the late 90s and early 00s, it was a great time to be a fan of RPGs. It didn't matter if you were playing them on consoles or PC, there was a steady stream of quality titles coming to the platforms. Over the course of a half decade we got the likes of Final Fantasy VII, Dragon Quest VII, Baldur's Gate, Fallout, Wizardry 8, and Diablo to name a few. Among these games we had Anachronox, which was interesting as it took JRPG combat sensibilities and incorporated them into a Western game that was released on PC

However, to simply call it a JRPG developed by a Western studio doesn't really do the game justice. Yes, that was part of the game, but if that's all it was Anachronox would have fallen flat after a time and been a one trick pony. What makes the game so memorable is how it managed to successfully combine so many different things into one title and still work. It's like the game is an ensemble of ensembles: an ensemble cast, an ensemble of locations, and an ensemble of game modes. Going this route is extremely risky as a title runs the risk of being written off as a Jack of all trades and master of none, failing to have quite enough meat on its bones to hold players. Thankfully, Ion Storm did manage to pack on the protein with Anachronox, avoiding this pitfall.

One of the challenges that comes along when revisiting polygonal games of this era is that from a visual standpoint the games have not aged very well. The industry was still transitioning out of the 2D visuals that had been the standard for over a decade, and while at the time these clunky, chunky 3D renderings were pretty darn cutting edge, they can be pretty hard to look at now. I could give you a list as long as my arm of PS1 games that I have a really tough time getting into nowadays because they suffer from this. However, Anachronox is a game where I'm willing to overlook its incredibly dated visuals, and it's for one simple reason: atmosphere.

Rho and PAL
Rho and PAL look on as Gromps and Boots bicker.
Right from the start, the game hits players with a Blade Runner-esque noir world of aliens, flying cars, and dark cityscapes illuminated by an ocean of neon, all the while analogue synths gently hum a tune in the background. Wandering the metal-plated corridors, talking to its denizens, the gritty feel of a world where thuggery is the norm, and the rule of law a fantasy quickly takes form.

Then as one progresses further and further into the game, visiting new planets and meeting new people, we constantly see their surroundings change.  Each planet has its own personality, whether its the hyper capitalist denizens of Sender Station, Votowne and the satirical approach to democracy found there, Hephaestus' ability to whittle religion down to a business (I get "Personal Jesus" by Depeche Mode stuck in my head whenever I visit that place), or something as simple as a Star Wars parody while on the surface of Democratus. Each destination is a bit of a caricature, but an enjoyable one, and gets the player wondering what sort of wacky adventure they'll be up to next as their ship disembarks.

And silliness is a very important part of Anachronox. It came at the tail end of a time when humour was still far more front and center in gaming. Throughout the 90s and into the very early 2000s, there were a lot more games that went straight for the funny bone, or at least hung out there a fair bit. We had the Leisure Suit Larry series in full swing, two NOLF games, Tim Schafer was doing his thing at LucasArts, and several other games. Anachronox doesn't necessarily get mentioned in the same breath as these games when discussing more comedic outings of this period, but certainly deserves a nod.

A lot of the humour comes from the interplay of the characters themselves. The main protagonist, Boots, may be a fairly typical noir private eye, but he gets a lot of the punchlines going as he chats with everyone else, and overall the whole cast has a lot of chemistry. Watching the cut scenes often feels like something out of a 90s sitcom with its witty dialogue and excellent timing.

Satire also plays a large role. As mentioned earlier, Votowne and Hephaestus do this very well, poking fun at the state of religion and the democratic process. I've always been rather fond of the former, with the world's leadership constantly making their claims of doing things, "For the people!" Looking at the time when Anachronox came out, it was a period when the US was transitioning from the Clinton era to the Bush era, the UK had its first Labour government in a very long time, Germany was in the post-Kohl period, and countless other political goings ons were in motion, so it seemed rather apropos to poke a little fun at the relationship between government and its people given all that was going on in the world at the time. Satire is something that we just don't see enough of in games, and while it was adventure games leading the charge in this area at the time, it was still nice to see Anachronox pulling off such humour so well.

Paco saves a girl
Paco, the strong, silent type.
What must have been really complicated in creating the game was implementing the sheer number of gameplay elements that it contained. Yes, a large part of it was the JRPG battle sequences. They had a bit of a Chrono Trigger feel to them, which was still a fairly hot commodity at the time, as folks had a high opinion of that game's combat. However, there was a lot more that players had to do. If anything, battles aren't really all that frequent while playing through Anachronox. Players can see enemies before engaging them, and they only inhabit areas that make sense for them to be. For example, gang members may be in an underground area, aggressive creatures stick to their natural habitat, and so forth. Much of one's time is actually spent sleuthing, uncovering clues to figure out what's happening with the galaxy's Mys Tech, and solving local problems. This actually feels like a light adventure game, going around, talking to people, gathering information, all while getting to the bottom of things.

On top of this, each player has their own special skill while wandering the cities and doing this, which results in a number of mini games. There's one for Boots when he picks locks, another has you shouting down Democratus' politicians during a council session so you can fire a tractor beam, Grumpos needs help filling his lungs with enough air so that he can weave such a long, boring "old person story" that NPCs will give up and give him what he wants, et cetera. They're fun little things to do, and often attached to such ridiculous actions that one starts looking forward to their next chance to use it. There's even the occasional "driving a thing" moment tossed in for good measure while playing. It can be tough adding so many mini games, or even a few, in a title because often they feel tacked on and poorly thought out, but on the whole the ones in Anachronox are pretty entertaining and add to the experience.

Democratus is travelling the galaxy
The people on the ring of Democratus are hilarious.

Really, Anachronox was a breath of fresh air when so many other RPGs coming out on PC were being so serious, and singularly focused in what kind of gameplay they wanted. Granted a lot of those games were great, but with Ion Storm's project it got people thinking, "Hey, this works too!" Unfortunately, we didn't see others trying to follow suit here. As such, Anachronox will go down as an unique and largely successful attempt at combining a large cast of characters and a vast array of gameplay elements that one might think would never work together, then actually succeeds in bringing them all together. It was a great game when it came out, still is now, and should be applauded for how ambitious it is.

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Mostly Harmless

Well, here we are. It's July now, and The Armchair Empire's old site has sailed on into the mists embarking on its voyage to Fólkvangr. With that, all that remains is AE Infinite. With Aaron and the gang on to new adventures, you guys are stuck here with me now. Don't bother trying to escape.  I've already locked the doors.

While I've grown to hate doing game reviews over the years, writing about the medium is still enjoyable, and I can see myself doing stuff with AE for years to come. Who knows, maybe in 1000 years I'll still be here sort of like that old guy defending the Grail in that Indiana Jones movie, saying to those who happen upon the site, "He did not choose wisely!" and they're all like, "What are you talking about?!? That doesn't even make sense!" Ah, the future.

So, where will things go from here? For starters, the look of the site has obviously changed. I figure it might as well get redone with such big, bold changes in the works. Something simple and to the point. Something surprisingly not blue and yellow, considering it's been AE's colors for years and years.

Also, the days of the news, previews, and reviews cycle here are done. I suppose there's a time and a place for that sort of thing, but over the years it's all become very boring to me. Long-form articles that are more of a diary or journal of one's experience while playing through a game, more analytical pieces, and generally more slow-paced thoughtful pieces will be the norm. I'm sure there will be the occasional time I gush about some game that I recently played, but traditional reviews don't really appeal to me anymore.

Content will also shift exclusively to PC games. It's the medium that I spend the most time with now by a country mile. The majority of my time is spent on stuff like tactical RPGs, grand strategy, 4X, and even the occasional point-and-click adventure, all of which are genres that we don't see a whole lot of on consoles. So, I'm going to stick the platform that gets the lion's share of my attention.

And that's the way things will be heading from here on in. A lot of AE may be fading from this realm, but I'll be kicking around doing some writing about games still. It still appeals to me just so long as I don't have to write a review. If you like that sort of stuff, stick around. =)

Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Review: Car Mechanic Simulator 2015 (PC)

When a game title includes the word “Simulator” there's a justified expectation that there will be an exhaustive tutorial or at least an extensive manual to consult. Imagine dropping into a Jane's flight simulator or even something older like Falcon 3.0. Put in control of a jet at the end of a runway or on the deck of an aircraft carrier, and 99% of us would like explode or eject before getting the wheels off the ground. That's what Car Mechanic Simulator 2015 is for the narrow field of car mechanic simulators.

Review: Convoy (PC)

convoy pc review
Convoy's biggest problem is that every time I think about it I get a glimpse of The Simpsons episode “Maximum Homerdrive.” Through a cartoonish series of events, Homer winds up hauling cargo in an 18-wheeler. At one point a version of the diddy, “Convoy!” (or at least a version of it) is repeated.

“We're gonna drive this convoy...!”

And that little excerpt of song spins through my brain every time Convoy – the game – starts. It's really annoying.

Monday, 29 June 2015

Playing Through The Longest Journey Pt. 1 - Talking Dragons and Burned Out Hippies

The boarding house where April lives
Warning: This post will have spoilers. If that's a problem, do not proceed.

Point-and-click adventure games are a genre that I never really sunk my teeth into. Growing up, the only game of that I ever went out and got was King's Quest VI. I think it was partly that the family computer wasn't all that great, thus limiting the selection of games that could actually run on it, and also in part due to how wholeheartedly I embraced RPGs at the time. As such, adventure games fell by the wayside.

In recent years, I've found myself wanting to actually spend some time with the genre, so I've decided to fire up The Longest Journey (TLJ). It certainly has a good reputation and seemed like as reasonable of a starting point as any for venturing into this area of gaming that I've neglected until now. At this point, I've just finished up the first chapter, so will be focusing on the events up to there. Hopefully I'll be able to make it to the end of the game. It's had the occasional time where it has completely frozen my computer, forcing me to alt-tab and restart. It hasn't happened often, but it is a thing, so fingers crossed it doesn't get too obnoxious and prevent me from finishing TLJ.

One thing that struck me while wander the streets of Venice (I'm guessing it's supposed to be in California) was how the game juxtaposes vastly different world. We start out with the main character, April, having a dream where she's on a cliff in some strange realm with unusual mountains off in the distance. Before long she's having a conversation with a tree, then meets a talking dragon. It's all very surreal, and more than a little prophetic. Suddenly, she wakes up to find herself in the boarding house where she lives, and we learn that April is a college art student with an important assignment due soon. She's a bit bothered by the dream and the fact she's been having a lot of odd ones lately, but shakes it off as she needs to get cracking on that project. It's all very typical fair. The sort of thing any college student will have to do. She went from talking with dragons to plain ol' reality. However, when walking to the art academy players are shown a cut scene of impossibly huge buildings jutting into the sky and flying cars. Now, April's simple college life doesn't seem so mundane anymore. She lives in the future.

the park in venice
A trip to the park.

With that, we can see that the game is actually balancing two very different worlds that tend to inhabit opposite ends of the fiction spectrum. This in and of itself has peaked my interest, as I am quite curious how this will play out. All the while, we have April and her friends keeping things grounded with their day-to-day goings ons. While talking dragons and flying cars aren't exactly relateable on a personal level, college life certainly is. Walking around, learning more about April and her friends, on more than a few occasions I found myself thinking, "Yeah, I remember someone like that back when I was in school." Even Cortez. I dunno, maybe that was just something from the 90s, invariably meeting an old, burned out hippy in college.

Actually getting to know all of the characters and learn a bit about April's background has felt somewhat awkward, though. Just walking around and striking up conversations with people, they'll go into a bit of a back and forth with the usual niceties, maybe giving a hint of some of what's going on in the world while they're at it. Once this is done, players get a number of conversation options, many of them questions. I understand that from a gameplay perspective this is meant as a sort of data dump. It's there to help us understand the world we're in and the people in April's circle of friends. Nonetheless, the sheer volume of questions comes off as a bit unnatural. If one of my friends came up to me asking all sorts of questions about myself, our friends, and themselves, I'd be a little weirded out. When did they become Hercule Poirot? In the end, it's something that I can let slide, but as I went from Fiona, to Charlie, and finally to Emma, it did feel a little strange grilling them so much. They didn't mind, though, and humoured April with her questions.

The cafe where April works
Heading to the cafe to meet Emma.
Back to wandering Venice, I had to find Cortez. He's an older, eccentric sort that usually hangs out near the boarding house where April and her friends live. Most people don't really have a problem. He seems a bit off, but not crazy, and he's extremely well-read with a pension for classic movies. The guy also knows about April's nightmares, and how the things she's seen in her dreams are starting to manifest in the waking world. Call me crazy, but Cortez may be important.

Between going to school to get April's assignment done, popping by the cafe where she works so she can pick up her pay, and playing cat and mouse trying to track down Cortez in hopes that he can explain what's going on, I got to see a fair amount of the city. It was during this time that it really became noticeable just how much effort goes into each location in an adventure game. Plodding through action games or an RPG there are, of course, moments when the player comes upon an area that really stands out. Maybe it's a castle, or an idyllic garden, maybe some hidden star system with gas clouds and colourful moons everywhere, whatever the case it's something that is impressive to have come upon. That being said, one usually has to travel through some relatively uninteresting areas before they get there for the big payoff. By comparison, adventure games feel like one area after the next of big payoffs, or, in the very least, less filler. A lot of thought goes into each location, making good use of every square inch of the screen. There tends to be a lot more little details tucked away everywhere, some of it functional, and some of it purely aesthetic.

While admiring these places, it got me thinking that for being in the future, Venice feels surprisingly contemporary in a lot of ways from what I've seen of the place so far. There are a lot of brick buildings, a park not unlike something I'd expect to see around where I live, a cozy cafe like something that might be tucked away on a Parisienne side street, and even the art school looks as though it could have been constructed in the mid 20th century. The major difference is the sheer amount of metal everywhere: girders, pipes, valves, and the like. It's obviously not our era, but at the same time it doesn't feel terribly removed from it. Inside the buildings as well, furnishings and interior design is more akin to something of our own time, doing away with futuristic tropes of what homes a few hundred years from now might look like. Again, it feels as though the environments are acting like an anchor to a reality that the player is far more familiar with, while the fantastic and the futurist hover at the peripheries. There are hints of these worlds, be it April's occasional hallucinations, or subtle pepperings of advanced technology throughout the neighborhood, but it has all been very subtle up until now.

At the cafe with Charlie
Talking with Charlie at the cafe.

Granted, Venice does seem like a bit of a rundown part of town and from what I've been told, it may be a home to the downtrodden with the homeless and starving artists comprising a large proportion of the town's population. All of that being said, one thing that caught my attention is the hints of the socio-economic situation in the game world. It goes for a more corporatist view of the future where huge conglomerates are highly influential and a permanent fixture in people's minds. This isn't anything new. Plenty of films and books have made similarly cynical predictions as to the direction our society might go in. What stood out to me about this is that Venice wasn't the dark, neon-lit, crime-ridden stereotype that often gets presented in these sorts of stories. The city is still a little dingy as rusted metal structures mingling with the brick buildings, and the polluted canals are pretty disgusting, but on the whole, Venice feels far more bright and hopeful. Maybe it's the youthful vigor of all the young artists there bringing life to their surroundings, but whatever it is there's much more of an easygoing, almost optimistic ambience to the town. I really appreciate this as things can often veer hard and fast toward the realm of cyberpunk when we're talking about a future where corporations are running the show. That's not to say I have anything against cyberpunk, but it's an intriguing choice to try and sidestep some of its tropes while maintaining such a socio-economic setup.

At this point, despite exploring the city, I feel like I've barely dipped my toe in TLJ. April still has a lot of questions that need answering, and I have a feeling that it's only a matter of time before we see more of this fantasy realm that has been haunting her. For now, though, it's off to talk with Cortez again. He seems to know something. Now, if only he'd be a little bit less cryptic about what he's getting at.