Wednesday, 15 February 2012

REVIEW: Might and Magic: Clash of Heroes

This review is long overdue, but for a time I wasn’t really sure where I came down, but now I am. I’ll be brief.

I guess I should start by expressing my fondness for being able to try things before purchasing them. I don’t think that’s ever going to get old. However, demos can give a faulty perspective: producing a slither of gameplay that perfectly encapsulates the entire experience of a game would be a fantastic thing. But what if a demo could actually do that? Well, said demo would either represent the pinnacle of fine-tuning, or the game itself would turn out to be rather shallow. I hope you can see where I’m going with this. I will give a mild hint: Clash of Heroes is not a long and complex experience.

Now I feel like I’ve lurched into a foregone conclusion. Notice I didn’t say the game was bad, though. Because it isn’t: I would simply like to move the less shiny parts out of the way first. The main issue I have stems from a mild frustration with the formula of the single-player: you go through the campaign one protagonist and realm at a time, shifting through a heavy-handed (but fun!) fantasy story all the while. You begin as a level one (of ten) character, with new units, items and abilities delivered at an enticing rate as you make your way through the stylised scenery to a conclusive, final encounter. Then you do that again, four times. Credits. Okay, that’s not fair: there’s a multiplayer mode, too.

Luckily the major highlights of this game jut forth into some extremely acute points. For one, it is a good price: a kind of ‘I can’t believe this is how much two tickets to the cinema costs’ kind of price. Also, the desire I felt for things to get kicked up a gear was the result of an already-solid system reiterating itself. So what is that system? The demo can show it better than I can explain, as it is practically a microcosm of the entire game. But that is an unsatisfying answer so I will quickly throw-up an explanation. It’s a turn-based strategy game that can easily trick a player into thinking it is a puzzle game. Maybe it is both. Your block of units faces the enemy’s; the player can either move a unit from the back of a given line to another, or use their move in deleting one of their own units. When three units of the same colour (there are three colours) and the same type (three basic types, too) are lined up they either form a permanent wall or an attack column. This is the simple base from which a promising sum of customisation is built, with obligatory RPG-elements thrown in for good measure.

I love that the story doesn’t take itself too seriously. Frankly, it was an enormous relief. Too many titles get sucked into a land where nothing is more important than whatever bland, generic arc has taken the fore. This doesn’t mean that titles can’t or shouldn’t be wholly serious. Fuck no. This title couldn’t (and shouldn’t) be wholly serious. The moments where the game indulges in its gratuitous personality were some of the best for me: the bright and soft art-style fits this path, far more than trying to make me care about some impending demonic invasion. The music, too, felt best at its most mirthful and playful moments. That said there is a consistent vibrancy on this front: I’m pretty easy on music with as much heart as this, though there could be (ahem) more of it. The demo manages—seemingly, anyway—to make most of this manifest.

I would be lying if I said I didn’t find the over-all experience a little simplistic. The items can change the flow of the game substantially, but by the third ‘starting area’ I just craved something sharper. I wanted some new hook to show up and kick my ass to the curb if I didn’t have the decency to comprehend it; I wanted the game itself to expand as far as it could, or else come to an end with deft concision. That was pretty greedy of me. I have no right to more: the sum of content provided for the price was far from inadequate. In this case I would appreciate more liberal use of scissors, by which I mean editing down. I’m sure it is common to feel an obligation to finish what’s been started. In the case of games this can take some time; even as you become painfully aware that the developers have ran out of tricks you push on, hoping there is something new around the next corner. There’s another feeling that accompanies this, though, and it happens as the credits roll. A little-spoken-of sentiment that I like to think finds form in a long, drawn-out sigh: the paradoxical mixture of relief, satisfaction and disappointment.

Friday, 3 February 2012

Silly Starcraft Streaming Standard

More Starcraft 2 things abound, but I can’t help that it’s a sweet community. Also, streaming live content is a thing now. Okay, so that is slightly obvious at this point. I struggle to come to grips with our growing means to be awesome sometimes. Here’s another one: did you know that, on average, it’s faster to download a CD than to simply rip the information from a disc? You probably did, but damn. The point, though! It’s a new avenue, and the diversity established so far is nothing short of impressive. So impressive, in fact, that scrambled-word-thoughts seem necessary. 

So, the breadth of streaming tools is wide:  it’s a standard of the internet now. And Team Liquid, dedicated folks that they are, aggregate a great deal of the talent around the Starcraft community. Their list of active players encompasses Brood War, MOBA (LoL, HoN, DotA) gamers, the occasional FPS and those seeking respite in other areas: the Skyrims and flirtatious beta builds of the day have a home here, too. So it’s not just a list of people playing (or casting) Starcraft 2. It is mostly that.

Over the course of the last year or so, I’ve been surprised by the players’ and commentators’ resourcefulness on these streams. Surprisingly few thrive on skill alone; it’s the most obvious and ubiquitous quality among featured streamers, so raw talent or cultivated skill (more often a mixture) is a strong, but non-differentiating, base.  Former Warcraft 3 professional Kim ‘SaSe’ Hammar garners an impressive amount of viewers with this approach: just a generic music playlist and razor sharp skill. Very simple, but living in Korea is a definite aid to the ‘razor sharp’ part.

Luckily Starcraft 2 gives skill a wide berth: some excel at a passive game, others will strike at any opening they see; players are necessarily reactive, but some prefer to force their enemy’s hand with deviations. There are all kinds.  But I’m going to go ahead and say that differences in style are only small factors when it comes to popularity. Infestors or Mutalisks are fun to see under good control, but these aren’t the things that gave Steve ‘Destiny’ Bonnell or Greg ‘Idra’ Fields their many fans. Tournament results are one simple factor, but I’m of the persuasion that the most popular figures will always ooze personality.

Idra is a good example to go with, though: his successes led to more coverage of his habit of, erm—I’ll say vociferous negativity.  The implications of the community’s indulgence don’t really concern me; to be able to jump on stream and average around ten-thousand viewers within an hour is simply impressive. But Greg is that rare conflux of results and deliciously bitter character. If there was a list of formulae to stream success, Idra’s paradigm would be somewhere near the top: years of practice, a high standing in tournaments, and the maintenance of a blunt, border-line-offensive attitude. He also streams a lot of dub-step playlists, which I guess doesn’t hurt against his overwhelmingly pop-centric peers.

In fact, music is a neat factor when it comes to simple un-narrated play. One caveat first: the reconciliation of musical artists with the services that are running ads (the ‘’s and the ‘’s of the world) is a monstrous endeavour. I do not envy the people one day tasked with disentangling this realm. That said, as long as the music can’t be depended on (i.e. you aren’t able to rely on an individual artist or song being aired) there seems to be little liability for the moment. Or at least that’s how things work in my na├»ve head.

So for now, music is simply a nice thing that we are able to have. It isn’t a huge deal to some, but it can definitely make the difference.  Ilyes ‘Stephano’ Satouri makes for a good example; he’s a superb French player, maybe one of the best in the world. But when he streams his chat isn’t flooded with rapturous awe or dumb balance arguments. I mean, there’s some of that, of course. But the majority are expressing their surprise: a classic rock playlist. I’m biased, of course: others could think of Stephano in the same vein as SaSe and I wouldn’t be in any position to criticise them. Music is a golden thing for those who don’t want to put energy into a persona or any kind of narration.

Sean 'Day9' Plott is the opposite of this. Former Brood War player, commentator for Starcraft 2, and a damn fine analytical take. His highly structured (and animated) approach to putting on a stream show attracts an admirable amount of viewers, and the condensed format allows for episodic delivery. So it’s a style that fits both conventional pre-recorded video and a live audience: genius. The abundance of content is staggering. Somewhere in the early four-hundreds (each episode roughly an hour long) I feel like the word ‘practiced’ becomes grossly insufficient. But I could write swathes about just Day9’s achievements; suffice to say his energy and charisma is a huge asset to the community. And no one else really does it like Day9. That’s not to say that there aren’t any other structured, pre-planned streams; just none that focus on replay-analysis and simple story-telling.

I guess it occurs to me far too late that I can’t possibly do justice to this community without going into much more detail, but the depth really is part of the allure. Figures like Incntrol, TLO and Catz deliver such a widely differing set of experiences that it’s tough to zone in on what attracts a large viewership.  One thing seems certain: a player or a commentator needs a platform before they can gather momentum in this place. For every player generating decent ad revenue, a hundred skilled players toil in obscurity.