On The End Of A Quill

On The End Of A Quill

Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Death of the Sports Game

The latest generation of games consoles are upon us, and this Christmas will surely be the last hurrah for people still playing with a PS3, an Xbox, or a Wii. But as we march on towards an era of better graphics, better sound, better downloadable content! It is perhaps the right time to look at what we are leaving behind. You can pack those HD DVDs off to the attic; BluRay came out on top in the format wars. It doesn’t look like the WiiU will bring the potential of your Balance Board out, and it will continue to gather dust. While it also looks like the memory card is going the way of the Dodo. And don’t even get me started on the waste of money those Xbox360 face plates were!

FIFA 14, the intros get better every year!
Video games make more money than ever, they have budgets that would put some Hollywood blockbusters to shame, and between the three main regions there seems to be games that can cater to every taste. Nowadays you have KickStarter and can put some of your money behind any game you like the look of and would want to play. It gives power to the consumer like never before. But a quick search of the KickStarter video game section will show you that there are little or no sports games on the site? So perhaps head over to Steam, one of the internet’s biggest game distribution services, with over 3,000 games available, and see what sports games they offer. A quick search of ‘sports’ will give you a choice of only 75 games, a miniscule amount. Plus, if you take out all the racing games from that list, you are left with only 43 games. If there are over three thousand Steam games, this adds up to a little over 1% Sports games, and a big chunk of those are made-up future sports, Blood Bowl, Beast Boxing, Steel Storm etc.
PES 14, the screenshots get better every year!
I guess we will have to stick to the good old consoles if we want to play some sports games. Football is the biggest sport in the world, there is bound to be loads of football games on…say the Xbox360. The 360 has been around since 2005. Eight years of game releases will surely have thrown up a load of football games to choose from. So let’s have a look. 25 Football games!  Unfortunately 12 of them are FIFA games and 8 are Pro Evo. You have two FIFA Street games (thankfully they stopped making those!), a Champions League game which is FIFA in all but name, an arcade soccer game, and poor man’s FIFA Street, called Pure Football from UbiSoft, and last but not least, a Japan only release from Bandai called Love Football? So in reality, we don’t have much of a choice at all. We basically have a choice of 2, FIFA or PES, and neither of those has changed much in their yearly updates. And if we are being really harsh, neither game is too dissimilar from the other, the mapping of the shoot button is different, and that’s about it!

NBA Live is back on Next Gen
NBA Ballers: Chosen One: Only One
Perhaps football is a bad example? The next biggest sport in the world is probably basketball. So how many of those have we been served up in the last eight years? 21 games seems like a healthy number. But again it gets boiled down to only two franchises. The NBA Live series from EA Sports and the NBA 2K series from 2K Sports, and the Live series has been missing in action since 2010, leaving 2K Sports a clear run of the field. Midway did release NBA Ballers, but it was basically a sequel to arcade game NBA Jam. While NBA Jam itself was released by EA Sports in 2010, but again, it’s more of an arcade game than a true simulation of the sport. EA also released the college basketball NCAA games up until 2010, but these were more or less NBA Lives.

Professional Baseball Spirits
It’s the same story with Ice Hockey games. 2K Sports and EA Sports battle for dominance. But on the flip-side, Its EA Sports who have been the only team to hit the ice since 2010. But at least there are two developers in Ice Hockey and Basketball games (kind of). If you want to play American Football there is only one game in town. EA Sport’s Madden. Yes there are college football games, but they are basically the same game with different rosters! Atari did have Backyard Football and 2K did have one attempt at football in 2010, but Madden conquered all. But while EA Sports rules the roost in NFL, 2K Sports is the place to go for your Baseball action. Their Major League Baseball series is your only option. Your only option that is, unless you have a Sony machine. Sony’s San Diego Studio releases MLB: The Show every season, so at least PS3 owners get some sort of a choice. In Japan, where baseball is a massive sport, Konami release their own take on the sport with Professional Baseball Spirits. Three different games released on the same sport in one year, it’s almost too much to take! That’s not really true though, the Konami game doesn’t make it outside Japan, and if you live in Europe you’d be lucky to see even one game released. American PS3 owners do get a choice of 2. But again, is that really a choice? There was more baseball games released on the SNES in 1994 than have come out on the PS3 in the last five years!

I remember when the Golden Bear had his own game
What if you’re not into these team games, and prefer a more solitary pursuit, like golf, or tennis even? Heading out onto the virtual links your best option are the Tiger Woods games from EA Sports. Nintendo has its Mario Golf and Sony releases Everybody’s Golf every now and then, but these are obviously more cartoony representations of the sport. Serious golf games seemed to have petered out after Microsoft finished with the Links series of games in 2004 on the original Xbox. Since then Tiger Woods has pretty much had his way with things.
The two main names in Tennis are TopSpin by 2K Sports and the Virtua Tennis games by SEGA. Although EA Sports have been trying to muscle in with their Grand Slam Tennis games of late. So if you are a tennis nut, there are some great choices there, as well as some of the usual wacky tennis games, like Mario Tennis, SEGA SuperStar Tennis, and the like. It seems to me that tennis games offer the best choice if you are a fan of the sport. But in saying that, have tennis games changed a hell of a lot in the last twenty years? You still play up and down the court, so that seems to be the default camera angle. But that is pretty much how you watch it on TV. It would take something radical to make a predominantly side-on or top-down viewed tennis game now wouldn’t it?
Ice Hockey at that angle! Are you insane Brett Hull?
Other sports have settled into default views also. Basketball and Football are side-on. Ice Hockey you play up and down. Cricket games tend to switch between behind the batter and behind the bowler views, which is exciting no? Though there are not a lot of cricket games nowadays. Ashes 2013 has just been cancelled, but Don Bradman Cricket 14 should be coming out soon, it’s a whole new game, how intriguing is that! It also does away with the need for licences and real names and stuff, as you have a player editor that sorts that out. But it seems you need the real names, real jerseys, real stadiums in a game or it won’t be taken seriously. Gone are the days when you could just list a load of countries or cities and have people make do with them. 
Is FIFA 95 the best FIFA?
But also gone are the innovations, the new approaches, the risk taking. It is almost too much to ask for a differing button layout these days. Let’s return to football. You have two choices, the FIFA game, or the, let’s be honest, very similar PES game (I’m talking camera, commentary, options, etc. the gameplay is slightly different….). Plus they have been releasing pretty much the same games year after year for over a decade now. Yes it looks better, but it doesn’t play a better game of football. It is as realistic/unrealistic as it has ever been. EA Sports and Konami are just too afraid to make that much of a change to a formula that works. Remember when FIFA tinkered with the corners? Uproar!! And this race for sales over gameplay is stifling sports videogames. The consumer is left with a shallow choice of games, in what turns out to be really no choice at all. 
For me the Dreamcast was the last system that offered a choice of Football games. And this was a system that didn’t have the two big hitters from Konami or EA being released on it. SEGA had two games from their WorldWide Soccer series by Silicon Dreams, who also did 2 UEFA games for Infogrames in Europe. SEGA brought out the arcade conversion of Virtua Striker on the system. Smilebit and UEP Systems released football games in Japan. 90 Minutes was a Smilebit game released in Europe by SEGA. It even had a football management game, Giant Killers! It also had those Let’s Make a Football Team games, which was only converted to English when released on PS2 (much later in 2006), and it tied in with the Virtua Pro Football game from SEGA. Smilebit who made those games, and are now known as SEGA Sports Japan, only seem to make Mario and Sonic at the Olympics games these days.

There can only be one!
Go back a little futher, to the generation of the MegaDrive. That system had more football games than you could shake a stick at! It had the best of the console and computer football games. It was perhaps the last generation where huge differences could be seen in the games. Compare Italia’90 with FIFA’98? Or Sensible Soccer with International SuperStar Soccer? If you put a screen shot of FIFA up beside PES these days, you can barely tell the difference.

Italia'90, and the crowd goes wild!
It is harder to get excited by a new iteration of the same game year after year. I honestly prefer a game of Tecmo Bowl or Joe Montana than the latest Madden game. Companies trot out developers to make videos every year explaining how this year is such an improvement, the ball physics have been altered, blah blah blah. It’s the same game to me! Show me some real improvements. Fix the game. Make it a better representation of the sport (are you listening FIFA? PES?), and not just a better representation, of the representation of the sport.
Konami Hyper Soccer on the NES
Soon there will be only one big name game for each sport. Is that what we really want? For sports games to go the way of the text adventure? Surely there is a market for a developer to make a go at some sports? If I was a racing fan, or a first person shooter fan, I would be surrounded by choice.  But this upcoming generation of systems doesn’t hold much hope for the sports fan. Just the same games getting a little bit prettier. I think I’ll have to return to the 8 and 16-bit systems to get my sport playing fix.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

5 Twentieth Century Wars that are Underused in Videogames

Wolfenstein rewrites history
There was a time when you couldn’t buy a first person shooter that wasn’t set in World War Two, Medal of Honor, Battlefield, Call of Duty, all started out by throwing wave after wave of Nazis at you as you tried to save the world. Nowadays most shooters pack you off to the Middle East where terrorists are lining up to be shot. Often your soldier for hire will be sent to exotic far flung places around the globe, because those nasty terrorists could be anywhere, doing nasty terroristic things. While there is a multitude of situations you could place our hero in imaginary future struggles, think of pretty much all the plots to all the Tom Clancy games, surely there has been enough battles in the past hundred years that could have lent their setting to a videogame? Outside of World War Two and the War on Terror there has been very little that looks at other conflicts.

Turning Point: and a poor attempt at alt history
The Vietnam War has had a number of games based around it. The Battlefield series went there, and the Shell Shock games are set during that war. World War One and trench warfare was the setting for Iron Storm, but that was placed in an alternate reality where the war never ended and it was 1964. The Wolfenstein series is taking a similar route with its next game, where the main character B.J. Blazkowicz is still fighting the Nazis in 1960. Some alternate history games are excellent, see the Wolfenstein games, some are less so, see Turning Point: Fall of Liberty. If you prefer things to be a bit more true to life, then head to the war in Afghanistan with the Russian made game 9th Company; or fight against the Russians in that war with Rambo III, which may be a less accurate representation.

Warrior of Rome II on the MegaDrive
It seems post WW1 only gets a look in shooting game wise, as before this time guns didn’t hold much ammo, which took an age to load, and there wasn’t much in the way of tanks or long range weapons either. This type of warfare seems to fit better with large map based strategy games. Ancient Rome, to the Crusades, to the Napoleonic Wars, World War Two and beyond has been fodder for strategy enthusiasts, but First Person Shooters not so much. For an example of how these wars just don’t work as FPS’s, pick up Gods and Generals, which was set during the American Civil War and based on the movie of the same name. Once your slow firing pistol and musket were out of ammo you were left in an open field brandishing your sword like an idiot, though not as idiotic as some of the AI in the game.
View the Hell that was the American Civil War
So now let’s take a look at some wars from the recent past that are crying out to be made into first person shooters. I make this list in full acknowledgement that a number of these conflicts are sore spots on the memories of some nations. Often there is no ‘victor’ in the conflict as such and no real ‘evil bad guys’, a role that the Nazis conveniently fill so well in WW2 games. Plus, even when you are portraying the ‘good’ guys you can run into problems. Problems such as those that beset the still to be released Iraqi War game Six Days in Fallujah. This list is in the spirit of books and films that also look at these conflicts, and asks why videogames can’t do the same.

5) Korean War
Sam Fisher was banned in South Korea
M.A.S.H. on the Atari 2600
It is surprising that this war hasn’t been drawn on more by all types of media. It involved all the major players of the time, the U.S. and the British along with the U.N. and South Koreans on one side, with the Chinese and the Soviets allied with the North Koreans on the other. Starting in 1950 the battlefront swung wildly up and down the peninsula until it settled down somewhere along the 38th Parallel in the middle of ’51. It combined fast moving armoured warfare with combat stuck down in trenches. Casualties were over 2.5m before the signing of an armistice in 1953. Britain handed out two Victoria Crosses when a force of 600 faced off against 30,000 Chinese on the Imjin River. Over the duration of the conflict the U.S. awarded 136 Medals of Honor, this volume of awards per year is only topped by WW2 and the American Civil War in U.S. history. In comparison, since 2001, in Iraq and Afghanistan only 11 Medals have been awarded. Perhaps games haven’t looked at the Korean War yet because technically it still isn’t over, with both sides still in a state of cease fire. Or perhaps it’s because the only thing people think of when the Korean War is mentioned are random episodes of M.A.S.H.
4) Chaco War
This was the bloodiest war fought on South America soil in the twentieth century. Two Paraguayans and three Bolivians died for every square mile of the disputed territory.  It was between two of the regions poorest countries, who were both desperate to control the Chaco area because it was thought to be rich in oil deposits. The large oil companies of the time had interest in the region also and behind the scenes would have supported one side or the other. This war was the first time aerial warfare had come to South America, though in some very old obsolete planes. The population of Paraguay was a third of Bolivia’s, but it managed its war effort better and came out on top by the time a Peace Treaty was signed in 1938. The war was fought in a very arid region, often soldiers died more from lack of water and from disease than from the enemy. The importance of gaining accurate supplies from the air was crucial to the outcome of some battles. The region is still a bit of a powder keg today, as the U.S. want to build a base there to oversee ‘humanitarian’ efforts in nearby Argentina.

3) Algerian War of Independence
Indy visited Algeria, but mostly to chat up women
This is the war that brought down the French Fourth Republic in 1958, helping Charles de Gaulle to come to power and start the Fifth Republic. What is interesting about this conflict is that everyone seemed to be fighting everyone else. It was never solely the French versus the Algerians. A large number of Algerians would have considered themselves French and would have wanted to stay part of France. Those who wanted to break free from French rule generally divided themselves between the Algerian National Movement, the Algerian National Liberation Front, and even the Algerian Communists. But they often clashed with each other, while the communists would have been influenced by the communists in France and would have initially been against liberation. The French fought the Algerian insurgents, for a great depiction of urban warfare of this time watch Gillo Pontocorvo’s The Battle of Algiers, but as the war dragged on it was seen that Algeria must be given its independence. So the French had then to contend with those who did not want them to pull out of Algeria; the French Algerian Front was formed in 1960, while the Secret Armed Organisation upped their bombing campaign and assassination attempts in an effort to bring about a political collapse. Torture was used by the French during the campaign, conveniently forgetting that France was kept under the thumb of an oppressive regime less than two decades earlier. France did not even recognised the period as a war until 1999 and it has deeply scarred relations between the two nations. So perhaps it is not surprising that a videogame has not used it as its subject matter.
2) Second Congo War, or Africa’s First World War
Star of Africa on the C64
Ever since King Leopold took an interest in extracting as much resources as he could from the Congo (1885), it has remained one of the bloodiest areas on the planet. The Second Congo War started in 1998 and ended nearly five years later in 2003. In that time it brought in 9 African nations, over 20 armed groups and left over five million dead, it is the deadliest conflict since WW2. Don’t fancy playing as a soldier from any of those nations as they try and bring stability (read: exploit the Congo’s resources), then how about as one of the 20,000 U.N. peacekeeping troops as they launch military operations against the various rebel groups? Of course whoever attempted to make a game that sprawled this massive area of dense rainforest might have to gloss over the fact that everywhere you look there are brutal genocides happening and child soldiers running around.
1) Indochina War
Conflict in Vietnam on the Apple II
The French again! After WW2 ended they were determined to hold onto their colonial possessions and this war went on from 1945/6 until 1954. Unfortunately the French seemed to forget what being exploited as a colony was like under Nazi occupation and went straight to fighting the Viet Minh. Also failing to notice that the Viet Minh had fought bitterly against Japanese occupation and weren’t going to roll over when the French strolled back into town. The conflict brought in other neighbouring nations at times too, as well as some of the big hitters. China and the Soviets supplied the communist Viet Minh, while the U.S. gave assistance to the French. Campaign after campaign was launched as the years went on, with big victories and big losses being dealt on both sides; but as public opinion in France turned against the war it seemed that everything they tried to keep Vietnam in the French Empire was failing. Soon the French had lost control of most of Indochina except for enclaves in the main towns and cities. When the end came it was in a spectacular military defeat for the French at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu. High up in north-western Vietnam, surrounded by hostile jungle was the town of Dien Bien Phu which had been heavily fortified by the French and could only be supplied by the air. After a number of successful attacks in early 1954 the French thought they were making inroads into the operations of the Viet Minh in the area. But come March their airstrip was destroyed and they were reliant on parachuted supply drops, at the end of the month they were surrounded by 50,000 Viet Minh. It became a war of attrition as the circle around the French became ever tighter. By May the situation was so bad that the French were asking the Americans to drop a nuclear bomb to help turn the situation around (Operation Vulture). On the 7th of May the town fell and over 11,000 prisoners were taken by the Viet Minh. The garrison at Dien Bien Phu accounted for a tenth of total French forces in the region, its prestige and global standing took a massive blow. This war did make it into Sid Meier and Ed Bever’s Microprose game Conflict in Vietnam as a prelude scenario to the main battles in the game covering the Americans in the sixties and seventies; and a Vietnamese game company did release an FPS about the war in 2010 called 7554, but by all accounts it isn’t a very good game.
There isn’t a year in the twentieth century were two opposing forces didn’t come to blows. It seems strange that only a fraction of these events are used as source material for videogames. What do people think? Are there other conflicts which could lend themselves to a videogame interpretation above the five just mentioned? Should developers steer clear of real world conflicts and instead put their energies into imagined scenarios featuring made up armies? Is portraying a conflict in a First Person Shooter somehow worse than moving a battalion from one hex to another on a map? Shooting games are massive sellers. Books and movies based around war are hugely popular. So is it possible to marry the two without being labelled as exploitative? Right now, I’m not so sure.