Friday, 26 February 2010

Nintendo's Summer Sensations

Nintendo’s media summit in San Francisco on February 24 provided gamers around the world with a taste of what to expect from the company in 2010, and it’s certainly shaping up to be a good year.

For far too long, Nintendo has failed to provide core gamers with a line-up of any real interest, but summer 2010 is looking like the season to set things right.

First up, is the rather sumptuous looking Super Mario Galaxy 2. Not since October 2007 when the original Super Mario Galaxy hit the Wii has the console seen such an incredible game, so it’s only fair that almost 3 years later, such a game should come in the form of its sequel.

Since it was first announced at E3 in June 2009, details of Mario’s new intergalactic adventure have been pretty thin on the ground, and we were expecting an announcement at this years show, but it turns out that we’ll actually be playing it come E3 2010. Nintendo has announced a European release date of June 11.

Super Mario Galaxy 2 is looking spookily similar to the original, but more of the same is no bad thing for this sequel. This time around, Mario will be joined by Yoshi, who looks set to feature quite heavily throughout, and we’ve no doubt that Mario will have a slew of new caps to aid him on his journey. We’ve already seen the new drill tool in action, but that’s probably just the start of things to come.

The sequel has retained the art style and feel of the original, but judging by the new trailer and screens, enemies are looking more impressive in terms of scale, and bosses look set to take on much larger forms with more devastating effects than before. IQGamer is also pleased to announce that the glorious 60fps platforming action will continue for Mario once again.

Details of the interesting Metroid: Other M have also been revealed. Produced in collaboration with Tecmo’s Team Ninja, Samus’ first console outing since Metroid Prime 3 looks set to feature a mixture of gameplay styles, whilst still retaining a distinctive Metroid feel.

Screen shots show Samus in action in both first and third person mode, with most of the action taking place from a 2D perspective, but all the while in full 3D. Simply pointing the Wii remote at the screen will enable you to enter first person mode, though you can’t move around. This mechanic will likely be used for exploration rather than intense fighting.

Graphically, the game is shaping up well. It almost looks like a 3D version of Super Metroid, and in typical Tecmo style, the fully rendered cinematics look gorgeous. We’ve only seen a space station environment so far, so it will be interesting to see where else Samus winds up in her latest adventure.

Metroid: Other M has been given a European release date of Q3 2010. Nintendo has announced a more specific release date for America on June 27.

Other key Wii titles for 2010 have also been given European release dates. The crazy looking, and nicely titled Sin & Punishment: Star Successor is set for June 7, and Capcom’s massive Monster Hunter Tri will be gracing stores on April 23.

The DS certainly hasn’t been overlooked either, and with a new hardware iteration about to hit stores in Europe and America, Nintendo’s super successful handheld is set to gain yet more momentum throughout 2010. The DSi XL is coming to Europe next week on March 5, with America following closely on March 28.

Big titles arriving on the DS in Europe over the next few months include Pokemon HeartGold and SoulSilver, coming March 14, WarioWare: Do It Yourself on April 30 and Dragon Quest IX coming sometime in the summer. The DSiWare service will be receiving further support from shooters X-Scape and Metal Torrent, Photo Dojo, Art Style: light trax and Art Style: Rotozoa.

Summer is looking bright and very colourful for Nintendo fans right now, and with some solid release dates and tantalising details having been revealed so early in the year, let’s hope Nintendo has a few surprises in store for E3 in June.

SNKP Announces New King Of Fighters!

Yesterday SNK Playmore revealed the existence of The King Of Fighters XIII, the latest instalment of the long running series of 2D fighting games, which started out way back in 1994, and featured yearly updates up until the release of KOF 2003. No other details about the game were given out, although it has been confirmed in the past that the series is to remain in the realm of hand drawn pixel art, along with lush 25fps animations and enhanced visual effects.

The game is being developed for the Taito Type X2 arcade board, the same one which powered predecessor KOFXII. Also SNKP have stated that a proper unveiling will take place at what they’re calling a premier event, due to be held in the Tokyo electronics capital Akihabara on 25 March.

In other related news, SNK Playmore have opened up a website in anniversary of the much-loved Neo Geo platform, which features a brief history of both the home AES system as well as the MVS arcade variant. In addition the site features a list of pretty much every title to be released on the format, and is available to browse in a full Engrish (I’m mean English) language version.

For those who aren’t completely aware, the Neo Geo was the birthplace for pretty much all of SNK’s flagship titles, including The King Of Fighters, Metal Slug, Fatal Fury, Art Of Fighting, Last Blade and Samurai Shodown. It out lasted two full generations of consoles (16 and 32bit), and was laid to rest near the end of a third due to growing piracy issues, and outdated technology, which had been pushed as far as it could go.

- SNK Neo Geo Anniversary Site

Thursday, 25 February 2010

Editorial: Preowned & Project Ten Dollar

The debate over the second-hand (preowned) market has been a thorn in the side of both retailers and publishers. With supermarkets selling games at below cost price, retailers have responded by pushing preowned further into the public eye, and publishers are left feeling short-changed by the lack of any income via sales of used games, determined to claw back some of the money they have lost, which once would be found in selling brand new releases of older titles at cheaper prices. All the while retailers are constantly upping their prices of preowned games whilst reducing or keeping the trade-in price low. Consumers on the other hand are buying more games than ever, playing through more, and exchanging them more regularly as to keep being able to purchase new titles as soon as they are released.

It’s all a bit on the messy side, with different views held up high by all three parties, and a behind the scenes battleground between retailers and publishers, consumers caught right in the middle. As always with such complex matters, it’s neither simple, not elegant finding a solution, and sometimes perhaps, requires all individuals concerned to give up a little in order to do what’s best for everyone in the long run.

At the forefront of this is something EA like to call ‘project ten dollar’. It is a policy which entails the company providing a sizable chunk of downloadable content for a game at launch, for no extra cost to the consumer, redeemable via a download code contained inside the box. The first release to feature this was Mass Effect 2 with a code for the ‘Cerberus Network’ included in the box, and this will be repeated with the forthcoming Battlefield Bad Company 2, which is said to include a large chunk of DLC available from day one, all included for your standard £39.99 when you buy the game. Like with most DLC codes it can only be redeemed once, so anyone buying the game used will have to fork out $10, or what will probably be around £10 in British money, to get the extras.

Sony however, seem to be taking things a step further, by actually making standard features locked out on the actual game discs, until the gamer uses a redeem code inside the box to enable access. The game in question is the latest Socom title for PSP, in which the multiplayer mode is locked out until you activate the code contained in the box online. For users who purchase a preowned copy, they are expected to pay up a fee of around $20 to get the code from Sony. Now seeing as Socom is a primarily online title it isn’t as bad as it sounds, although not allowing people to play what is arguably the point of the game just because they bought it second-hand, is perhaps just a bit too unreasonable for many consumers to accept.

The EA system however doesn’t sound too shabby, and actually provides a good reason for you to pay up a few quid extra over a second-hand copy for the privilege. Certainly for people like me who only buy new (unless it’s sealed) can feel rewarded for supporting developers, and hopefully which will lead to new IP and more niche titles being made - though I’m sceptical on this front. It’s almost a win/win situation, except for the fact that not everyone can afford to buy a new game at launch.

There are many gamers who rely on trade-ins to be able to afford new releases, and part of that appeal is a reasonable trade in price, one which brings down the cost of the game to that of a much older title. For example, after playing Bioshock 2 I could trade that game in for around £22 and get the money off something like Heavy Rain, paying only £18 rather than the full £40 if I were just to buy the game outright. For younger games, students, and people who aren’t on a high income, it allows them to purchase a greater number of games per year than if they couldn’t trade their old ones in. The publisher’s still get their share of the profits by the retailer buying stock of the game in the first place, and the gamer goes home happy because they’ve saved some money. It could be argued that more people trading in equals more people buying games. In addition it also means that more people are likely to spend their money on unproven titles rather than just the big AAA releases, which surely benefits new IP to an extent.

However the grey area, and the one that is offensive to so many publishers, is the fact that once a game is traded-in and sold by the retailer, they make absolutely no money from that sale. In addition if a consumer trades-in their old games for a preowned title, the publishers make no money. The worst cases are when gamers are trading in a copy of last week’s new release for a preowned version of this week’s newest hit, traded in only a few days after release and sold for a huge mark up by the retailer. Again the publishers don’t see any of those profits. Also an added problem with this, is that they cannot judge how well a game that didn’t do well at launch has sold later on down the line. Titles like Mirrors Edge and Dead Space have become cult classics (especially Dead Space) through strong sales of cheap preowned versions, brought on by via word of mouth recommendations, and good reviews about the game by the press. Of course, it would help that publishers were at least getting a cut of these late sales, as it would help in funding future new projects based on new ideas, or niche avenues.

The big issue here, is that many publishers and people inside the industry believe that preowned games de-value the price, and perceived worth of new releases, especially when the mere notion of trading-in week on week for new titles incites that your hard-earned work, costing millions of dollars, becomes effectively nothing more than a disposable item, rather than something for people to keep and enjoy over a long period of time. This is something the likes of EA and many other publishers are trying to reverse. You only have to look back as little as seven or eight years ago, when new versions of games were still selling quite well as a brand new item months after release, yet at a reduced price which still gave the publisher back some income, whilst providing a cheaper alternative for consumers. Effectively you could keep selling a new version of the game for much longer than you can now, benefiting all of the industry whilst at the same time allowing games to consistently pick up older titles without the lottery of seeing if they had been traded in.

This is something that I myself would like to see, a greater selection of new stock available in store when compared to the huge selection of used available, not always in good condition. Indeed, when browsing non-specialist stores there seem to be many back catalogue titles available new, whilst at the big specialist chains you mostly only have the option of buying an alternative second-hand copy.

So what if ‘Project Ten Dollar’ does become a success for publishers, what will that mean for the industry?

For retail, initially it would have the effect of reducing the selling price of preowned games; in addition the trade-in price would also be lowed to maintain the sometimes-ridiculous amount of margin retailers make on, to keep profits up so new releases can be sold for less than RRP to compete with supermarkets and other discount happy outlets. It would also mean an even harder push towards the cheaper preowned alternative as well as accessories sales, damaging the once good customer service even further into the hard sales culture it has become.

Consumer wise, they would benefit by getting extra content previously reserved for quick release DLC a few months down the line, an added extra to say thank you for buying new. Although some publishers and developers may try to cut down the game intentionally to promote this ‘benefit’, when in reality you could be ending up with exactly the same product before this whole ‘Ten Dollar’ idea came to market. It might also become harder for certain gamers to be able to afford new releases, instead choosing to wait until the price goes down on the new version, or instead just buying a cheaper preowned copy after a price reduction, sans later buying the DLC. Alternatively people may be turned further towards piracy and illegal downloading, chipping their consoles to get their fix. Of course most will simply, I imagine, be more than happy to pay up the full £40 more often, especially if it means that they will see the money being channelled into new ideas and IP in addition to the usual AAA blockbuster releases (I know that I would).

Publishers will naturally get a greater slice of the retail pie than with what there getting at the moment, so long as sales of new titles don’t slow down as people may decide to hold off buying, or simply may no longer have the money to do so. In effect publishers could go back to having a new copy available in the shelves for longer, gradually over the year reducing its price in small increments allowing more gamers to pick up the title as an alternative to preowned, thus making more income from the same title over and over. This potentially would mean the end of selling large AAA titles such as Call Of Duty for the full £40 some two years after its release, especially if they don’t want customers picking up the cheaper used alternative.

These however, are only some of the changes which might take place in our much loved, but often-contradictory industry. It’s far too early to accurately gauge just what will happen, how retailers, publishers, and consumers will react, as well as to how far reaching the implications will be. One thing’s one certain though, it will make for a long and interesting debate, one which is sure to spurn on a wealth of ideas, along with an obligatory backlash and leaving many confused as to just what is going to happen.

With piracy, price discounting and preowned all presenting the industry each with its own set of problems, each interlinked with one another, it’s only fair that the industry finds new avenues to explore profit and self-preservation, whether it be with DLC, bonus code incentives for new games, or simply by thinking outside traditional consoles altogether.

Either way we at IQGamer will be following these events closely.

For more thoughtful discussion and insights into other issues surrounding the gaming world as a whole, be sure to check out for another informative read.

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Yakuza 3: Demo Impressions

It’s rather ironic that a few days after I posted my Heavy Rain impressions, whilst also making some obviously valid comparisons to Sega’s Shenmue, that Sega should release a demo of the very Shenmue-like Yakuza 3 on PSN. How utterly weird that must feel, especially since there was also some interesting news on the forthcoming Sonic 4 revealed last week, making IQGamer seem for like IQSega.

The demo that was released on Thursday allows you to explore only a very small part of Tokyo City, giving you very limited access to which shops or arcades you can go in, and people whom you can speak to. It’s really just a tiny taster of what’s on offer in Yakuza 3, and for the most part bares only a passing resemblance to Sega’s other epic. You could in fact describe it as a Shenmue Lite of sorts with the limitations present in the demo. It’s also true that the very first game in this series also felt this way compared to how much stuff the second game allowed you to do.

You start off the demo playing as Kazama, a once prominent gang member long since retired, pulled back into action after hearing that your two closest friends have been gunned down, interestingly, by a man who is said to look a lot like your deceased father. You find yourself starting out in the heart of Tokyo, wondering down a bustling, neon-lit street after just arriving back into the city to follow up on some leads and to hunt down the killer. As you casually stroll down the street, you are greeted by a group of screaming girls hastily being thrown out of a club by some ugly looking Yakuza types. It’s a this point you get your first task of the day, to find out what’s going on, and possibly to kick some arse along the way.

It soon transpires that there is a brewing Mafia war between families, with one such family known for unleashing sporadic violence having run into a sizeable amount of money, and are now using it to influence their grip on another families turf. Really, at this point the club owners – two friends of yours - have no choice, it’s either accept the money or get re-educated on how this business actually works. With a fight about to go down, Kazama challenges these guys, and the game sets you up with your first action scene.

The combat here is pretty much like every side-scrolling beat’em up ever released, or more specifically Virtua Fighter Lite, with button mashing and well timed counters being the order of the day. The face buttons are used for attacks and throws, the d-pad for changing weapons, and the shoulder buttons for both blocking and locking-on to enemies. As you are kicking the crap out of the various thugs the game presents you with, a meter called the heat gauge fills up. When it’s completely full you will start glowing with blue flames surrounding you, allowing you to unleash a brutal weapons-based finisher on whoever is left standing in your way. In addition, when squaring off against the boss character of these fighting segments, you have the option of performing a stylish QTE finisher to take them down permanently. This is another Shemue-esque trait that Yakuza has inherited.

Disappointingly, the animations when fighting in the real-time sections are rather stiff, lacking the fluidity of the Virtua Fighter games, or even those found in the Tekken Force mode of Tekken 6. Everything looks extremely last-gen, from the basic punching and kicking animations, to how characters get up after being floored, or even how you just run and move around the environments. It seems like nothing has really been improved upon, or reworked to any great extent from the first two games on the PS2.

The same could be said for the visuals overall, with basic texturing lacking detail found in many western AAA titles, and average looking character models, all running at thirty frames-per-second with a noticeable amount of aliasing. Certainly, it looks very much like an enhanced PS2 game, without the polish needed to really immerse you into the world you are thrown into. Heavy Rain this is not.

Anyways, back to the gameplay itself. After beating the seven shades out of those Yakuza guys, you become informed that the life of an ex mafia colleague of yours is in danger (aren’t you mr popular), after which conveniently, he contacts you in order to arrange an urgent meet up.

This now opens up a wider area for you to explore in the demo, most of which there is very little to do other than to fight it out with the local punks and street gangs, or to enjoy a spot of arcade gaming, before stopping off for a quick Karaoke session with a girl who blatantly sees you as her love interest (oh Nozomi I should’ve noticed you).

After leaving the club in which I’d just disposed of those pesky Mafia scum, I’m told that the police are everywhere, and that I should find another route down the back streets to avoid arrest, whilst heading to meet up with my contact at the Millennium Tower. Instead I decided that I would rather meet up for a quick date with Rina, and go sing it away with her in the Karaoke first for a few hours, seeing as I’d just arrived in town almost having my arse handed to me, and am now expected to dive in head-on into who knows what. No, I needed some time out.

This is perhaps the best thing about Yakuza, that you can just go off tangent and do your own thing, completing side missions you find whilst exploring the streets, or simply stopping off to have some fun with the local nightlife. In this case Karaoke, which brings up a bizarre mini-game in which you have to push the correct face buttons as a coloured circle moves over them on screen. Results range from clapping, to Kazama shouting hey whilst Rina belts out her vocals. Of course you have the option of going alone if you really want to humiliate yourself.

Naturally, I failed miserably, and Rina said that she wasn’t ‘feeling it’ as a result, so my chances of getting in there with her were busted right down. With all this negativity it was time to get back on track and head for the Tower.

Now back onto completing my second mission, the game has you walk around the city avoiding the numerous police roadblocks that have been set up – though walking up to one simply results in Kazama saying to himself how he should avoid any contact with the police – at the same time having to fight off potential muggers and more street punks, before finding that elusive back alley you need to avoid any law enforcement.

Once you find this alley, it’s time for another real-time battle, but this time against some FBI Men In Black wannabes. This one plays out exactly the same as the fight in the club, with several henchmen to take on followed by the identikit looking, group leader. Again, it’s simply a case of combining those face buttons to perform combos, whilst alternating between whatever weapons you have left until all these guys are down, before taking down the leader with another QTE finishing move.

The demo ends after this battle, giving you only a glimpse of the type of things you will find yourself doing in the final game. You can’t venture into most of the shops and bars found in the game, and most people on the street will just give you a sly comment rather than open up a basic conversation with you. In some respects Yakuza has never been as in-depth as Shenmue on this level, and with Yakuza 3 it seems Sega have done very little to move the franchise on since the first two games. However, what you have here isn’t representative of all of Yakuza 3, just the opening few minutes of an early chapter of the final game.

One thing that is going to be the same is the voice acting and dialogue. The UK and US releases of Yakuza 3 are both subtitled with no English language option for voice acting. In addition, only the most important of scenes are actually acted out. Most are simply text based, having you move on the conversation by pushing X, and with more text appearing afterwards, rather than fully voiced dialogue present in almost every area of Shenmue. It was the same for the first two PS2 games, though the first one did have full English voice acting with regards to the dialogue, along with using many text heavy segments.

From what I’ve seen so far, Yakuza 3 is looking rather dated and less interesting compared to Quantic Dream’s Heavy Rain. Not surprising, given that it has been available in Japan for over two years, and since then, things have moved on significantly. However despite the stiff animations, unimpressive graphics, and familiar gameplay, Yakuza 3 may still be worth picking up, especially for fans of the last two games, and for people looking to at least try something different.

Sunday, 21 February 2010

Sonic & SEGA All-Stars Racing: Demo Impressions

With the recent announcement of Sonic 4, we thought things were starting to look up for Sega’s flagship mascot. That was up until we played through the recently released demo of Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing, both on the Xbox 360 and PS3.

The stupidly named game (did they really need the “Sonic?”) sees Sega’s biggest franchises come together in a Mario Kart style racing game, complete with various weapons, traps and character specific power moves. The game also features Sega’s famous drift mechanic to make navigating the courses a faster, more enjoyable experience.

The demos available on the Xbox 360 and PS3 are console specific, with the 360 version taking a Sonic Heroes inspired course, and the PS3 opting for a rather drab Billy Hatcher inspired course. The 360 version also features Banjo and Kazooie as an exclusive racing duo. Other courses seen on the selection screen, but unavailable on the demo, take their inspiration from such Sega gems as Samba De Amigo, The House of The Dead, Super Monkey Ball, Jet Set Radio, Billy Hatcher and the Giant Egg and various Sonic titles.

After booting up the demo, you’re presented with a mildly enjoyable, fully rendered opening sequence, after which you can choose your character and course. Waiting on the starting line, I expected to shoot off at 60fps, but that definitely didn’t happen. The opening few seconds of the 360 version suffers from some disappointing slow-down, as does the rest of the demo. The 360 demo never rises above 30fps either, but things are a bit smoother on the PS3. Much like the PS3 version of Sonic Unleashed, the game actually manages a few moments at 60fps, but quickly drops back down to a regular 30fps.

For a racing game, this is disappointing news. The speed of the vehicles and the fast paced nature of the courses and action would have really benefited from a faster frame rate. It’s even more disappointing when you consider that overall, the graphics aren’t really that much more impressive than Sonic Heroes on the original XBox.

Lighting throughout the courses is all pretty standard and the character/vehicle models feel too small to have any kind of visual impact. The various powers up feel very similar and flash by too quickly to leave an impression, as do the character specific power moves.

Ultimately, the core racing gameplay experience doesn’t live up to much either. The game races along at a fast pace, and staying in the lead proves quite tricky for such a simple game. Power sliding has been simplified and watered down in comparison to the likes of OutRun, and lacks any skill to give you a sense of accomplishment when navigating the courses, though the speed boost gained from a successful slide is a welcome addition. Tricks can be performed in the air with a simple tap of a shoulder button, and if successful, you’ll once again be rewarded with a handy speed boost. Traps are laden throughout the courses and in the demo, these included badniks from Sonic’s world, wooden boxes as well as seawater and snow patches to slow you down. These obstacles are easy to avoid and rarely get in the way of racing.

A certain amount of enjoyment can be gleamed from the appearance of Sega's most popular characters, even if they don't all fit into the roster successfully. As expected, Sonic and his companions take up a lot of the slots, but some less well-exploited characters are also thrown into the mix. Shenmue's Ryo Hazuki joins the cast, complete with his borrowed motorcycle. Successfully triggering Ryo's power move will enable you to take his trusty forklift truck for spin and flip the opposition out of the way. Other Sega favourites making an appearance include Ulala, Alex Kidd, Jacky and Akira from Virtua Fighter, AiAi, and Billy Hatcher. It's an impressive line up and certain to please most Sega fans out there.

For such a simple and proven concept, as well as being able to choose from such a rich selection of franchises, Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing should be a nostalgic trip through the history of Sega, but instead, the demo has left us feeling like we'll be presented with yet another messy, technically flawed and unenjoyable experience. The demo never rises above mediocre, leading us to believe that the final game is destined to join the ranks off all the other Mario Kart pretenders that have come and gone over the years.

Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing is released on February 26, and is available on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Nintendo Wii, Nintendo DS and PC.

Saturday, 20 February 2010

Sega Reveals Virtua Fighter 5: Final Showdown

Yesterday at the AOU 2010 arcade expo in Japan, Sega revealed for the first time the latest instalment in the Virtua Fighter series, in what appears to be the last iteration of VF5 before they move on to creating a fully-fledged sequel. Anyone still waiting for a VF5R port to arrive may want to let go, as now there’s very little chance of that happening. Instead, Sega may well be holding back to release this latest version onto consoles, though it will be at least six months before they announce anything of the sort, as not to impact on potential arcade sales.

In addition to releasing a trailer for the game. Sega also revealed that all items and unlockables from VF5R would transfer over to FS, putting hardcore Japanese arcade VF’ers at ease.

Whilst no more details about VF5FS were given at this time (arcade release date?) we can probably expect some major tweaks to the gameplay, in addition to some subtle changes and balance adjustments.

However from the trailer alone, we can already see some of the obvious changes being implemented as well some things which only die-hard VF fans are likely to notice. Firstly, we have what looks like a complete wardrobe change for all of the characters - all of which are far more outrageous than any of the cast’s original outfits - though we don’t know if these consumes are just additional ones or are actually the default numbers, plus we can see some new items to unlock during play.

Secondly, in terms of gameplay changes we did see a few improvements, such as some new cancels being performed by Pai, along with tweaks to how certain moves hit/react with certain characters - Taka for example didn't get knocked down after being hit by Jacky, which always happened when doing the same move in VF5R.

Currently that's all we know for now, but being excessively huge Virtua Fighters fans here at IQGamer, we will definitely be bringing you all the latest on Virtua Fighter 5: Final Showdown, just as soon as we find out more ourselves.

Until then, head over to and sign up for the petition to bring both VF5R and VF5FS onto PS3 and 360. Together, lets make it happen!

Thursday, 18 February 2010

Editorial: Sega Outsources Sonic 4 Development

When Sega announced Project Needlemouse late last year it was said that the game would be developed via a collaboration between different in-house studios worldwide. It turns out however that this wasn’t actually the case, and that a separate company outside Sega is handling the game. Osaka-based Dimps corporation is essentially doing all the coding and modelling work on Sonic 4, with a so far un-named studio inside Sega handling all the character and art design work.

Now this isn’t the first time that Sega have developed a Sonic game with outside assistance. They did the very same thing way back in the early nineties when creating the Master System and Game Gear series of Sonic games. The first game was developed by Ancient Corp - a company managed by renowned Sega musician and sound designer Yūzō Koshiro - whilst the remaining later instalments were done by Aspect Co, Ltd, another external company with ties to Sega. So it’s not quite so unusual as you might have first thought, to have a lead franchise handled and developed externally.

Going back to Sonic 4, you might like to know that Dimps, were actually the company responsible for making all three Sonic Advance games for Sega on Nintendo’s GameBoy Advance handheld system. These titles were the closest thing in terms of gameplay and polish to the original Megadrive/Genesis Sonic The Hedgehog games, featuring classic loop-de-loops, interesting level designs requiring you to both explore and build up momentum for the faster sections, as well as having new take on the classic bosses found in the original games. However after the first Sonic Advance game, Dimps began the age-old trick of expanding the gameplay for the other characters, whilst making the level layouts more convoluted and confusing.

Sonic Adv2 and most certainly Adv3 were slower games than the first one, having greater emphasis on pure platforming and exploration rather than speed. However the addition of extra characters, and making the stages longer and more complicated affairs in order to fit their different playstyles just didn’t work very well. Sonic Adv3 especially felt overly complicated in this respect, and didn’t feature the same level of ebb and flow seen in the first two arguably polished instalments.

In regards to these criticisms, we hope that Dimps actually look towards the type of design used in not only the first Sonic Advance, but also to those found in the original four Megadrive/Genesis titles that set the benchmark for all future Sonic games to follow. However we also have a lot of hope too, considering that the they single-handily managed to produce a fairly faithful 2D instalment for the first time some seven years ago, there’s no reason to not expect them to do it again for Sonic 4, especially considering Dimps as accompany, is quite similar today as it was back then, unlike Sega who shed most of it’s highly regarded game designers and visionaries back in 2004 a year after they were purchased by Sammy Corp.

It’s with this particular statement, that Sega aren’t really the same Sega we know and love anymore – except for maybe AM2 – that perhaps having an external development team, with experience in producing more traditional Sonic The Hedgehog type games, is a far better bet than having Sonic Team produced the whole thing themselves, considering that their output has been less than stellar since the demise of the Dreamcast.

Overall, the news comes as a welcoming surprise, not only bringing back some of the excitement I felt after Sega announced the game, but also re-establishing some of my faith lost soon after seeing that teaser trailer shown off on the same day. Arguably, having Dimps involved is a good sign that Sega themselves is taking on the responsibility of making sure we have a game that is both as good as it can be, whilst also being faithful to the games it is supposed to succeed.

Dimps might have made some missteps with Sonic Advance 3, but like so many of us growing up, they can also learn from their mistakes and move forward with a greater understanding of what works well, and what doesn’t.

Sonic The Hedgehog 4 will be released sometime this summer for XB Live Arcade, PSN, and Nintendo’s WiiWare online shop. We’ll be following this one closely here at IQGamer with more in-depth coverage to come.

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Heavy Rain: Demo Impressions

Late last week Sony released a demo of Quantic Dream’s upcoming Heavy Rain (HR), a game that promises to evoke some sort of deep emotional response from all who sample its delights, branching out and away from being just another interactive movie into something else completely, a new experience in which you should be able to ‘feel’ with the characters and become entangled in their own troubled minds, or so that’s the idea they are hoping for.

My interest with Heavy Rain peaked after playing through two sections of the game at the Eurogamer Expo back in October last year. It felt very much like an more in depth version of Sega’s hugely loved, but massively unsuccessful Shenmue, featuring greater levels of interactivity during the Quick Timer Event style (QTE’s) cut scenes, along with better dialogue and tighter direction, whilst also having less of the rather cool, but mundane stuff; like being able to pick up and look at various items in the shops you ventured into, or simply having fun by harassing random people in the street.

However unlike Shenmue, Heavy Rain’s slice of cinematic gaming is a far more tightly directed and concise affair, spending an increased amount of time setting up a connection between the player and the characters on screen, whilst also making you feel what they are going through both mentally and physically. In this aspect director David Cage and the developers at Quantic, have taken the time to present a much greater link between the actions displayed on screen with what happens on your controller. In this new PSN demo - in which there are two separate scenarios to play - the second one best demonstrates the combination of visual cues and control used for that effect perfectly.

In the second part of the demo, the game sees you playing as Norman Jaden, an FBI investigator closely analysing a crime scene found just over by a railway line, gathering evidence and making small connections to the serial killer. At one point the evidence you find leads you up a wet, muddy embankment, and it’s here that the game showcases one of the much talked about links to evoking emotion.

The way the QTE system is used in this section is incredibly immersive, and really does add to the sense of feeling the developers are trying to create. As you are climbing up the bank, the game makes you push and hold down a series of buttons, slowly making the combinations more difficult for your fingers to reach - making it uncomfortable for you - while at the same time moving across the pad with the face buttons and then bringing in both L1 and R1 into the mix, moving back and forth between them. If you let go of either of the two buttons still in play, you will find yourself sliding back down to the bottom and having to repeat the process all over again. When you’ve finished gathering any evidence you might need and begin heading back down. The game gives you a much easier, but by no means less successful, set of combinations to push as you run down the bank attempting to not slide on your arse as you do so. Essentially this involves quickly alternating between pushing the L and R buttons as you take each step before reaching the bottom.

The controls in this scene cleverly combine your own emotions with the character’s on screen, and it does this by either pairing up the buttons you push with what your character is doing, or by simply making you feel their difficultly using harder to reach button combinations at different speeds. It’s a nice concept that could have fallen completely flat on its face. However Quantic Dream seem to have thought things through very carefully and have not been at all brash with their implementation.

The same style can be found in the more regular QTE fight sequence from the first part of the demo, though perhaps less convincing, in which various rolling motions with the right analogue stick are used, along with frantic button presses and various timed releases to produce an exhilarating effect, making you completely involved without so much as quick second or so break in between actions. A more hectic and expanded version of the system used in Shenmue is what this most feels like, and if Yu Suzuki’s game were released today then I would probably expect something similar.

Along with these mandatory QTE events, the game also has some more sedate sections, which has you briefly talking to people and examining evidence scattered around a crime scene. In this scene the controls are also context sensitive and used to produce the same effect in a similar way. You might find yourself rolling the right analogue stick a quarter-circle in a forwards-upward motion to pull out your ID badge for example, or pushing down on the stick to pick any evidence you might find. Again, all these motions attempt to make it feel like you are actually doing these things instead of arbitrarily pushing a button baring no resemblance to the movement you are performing.

It’s pure genius; it really is, and it never feels forced or contrived either, which is exactly how any well thought out gameplay system should be.

The voice acting however, and the dialogue isn’t quite so inspired, quite often failing within the small self contained contexts found in the demo, with flat delivery and a decidedly clichéd script. The most noticeable thing is that the conversations never flow smoothly when you are in control of choosing a response, giving out answers or asking questions. Instead the often-stilted dialogue comes out much better during the pre-scripted parts of the scene in which you have no control, flowing far more like a real conversation. However as with any game giving you multiple choices for dialogue, it’s not always possible to blend the different responses in a way that seem natural without taking away some of the users freedom in how the they will want to express themselves. It’s just a common side effect of this open system which is always going to be present. Although with Heavy Rain setting the bar so high for trying to evoke an emotional response, it can seem quite jarring to the experience, especially when you have either plainly flat delivery of vocals, or enthusiastic over-acting which comes across as cliché.

Despite this, the choices you make and how the characters respond in conjunction with the controls, all make Heavy Rain a very interesting prospect. Sure, we don’t know how the outcomes in any of these two scenes will impact on the rest of the game, or really know enough about the characters to care about them, or even to make a connection. But we do know, that all these little nuances add up to form something quite different and a potentially very involving experience. Perhaps Heavy Rain might not end up making you cry- which according to David Cage is one of his ambitions to achieve in a game - but instead be sucking you in deeper than you have ever been before, giving you a greater feeling of connection through the controls, dialogue, and story.

We will find out in a couple of weeks time how successful Mr Cage and Quantic Dream have been in delivering their promises. However, even if they haven’t, they’ll still have made what looks like could be one of the most intriguing, inventive games around; something that hardly any developers these days can put a claim to. Either way, I will be giving this one a thorough play through before delivering any definitive conclusions in the eventual IQGamer review.

Until then you should check out Beames on Games for another interesting take on Heavy Rain, along with more talk of that illustrious multi-million dollar flop that was Shenmue, which by the way, if you haven’t actually played already, should really pick it up along with a Dreamcast and do so.

Monday, 15 February 2010

Street Fighter IV Coming To... iPhone!

In a rather ambitious move, and one that I thought never would happen, or really expected, Capcom have announced that they are in the process of porting Street Fighter IV to the iPhone. Bizarrely over the last few weeks I had been thinking and talking about how a version of Street Fighter II might work if they ported it to Apple’s portable platform, without ever realising that they were doing almost just that.

Having a simplistic fighting game control well on the iPhone would be no small task, and here we have Capcom attempting to replicate SFIV’s intricate gameplay system without the use of any real buttons or even a directional slider. What’s more impressive though, is that they reckon that they’ll be able to pull it off whilst keeping a reasonable amount of graphical fidelity from the console versions, and get the game out by March. Certainly going by the screenshots below, it may just about be possible.

On the base of it SFIV for the iPhone will use both a virtual touch screen d-pad and buttons for its controls, with players performing all the routine quarter-circle motions and 360-degree rotations by rubbing their fingers over the touch screen, much like in GTA Chinatown Wars. However it appears that the game only uses four buttons for attacks instead of the usual six, with two being used for a punch and kick respectively, and the other two, we have no idea, though it looks likely for pulling off special moves or focus attacks. A range of options allowing players to configure the virtual control’s position, button transparency, and set-up will also be available for maximum comfort and ease of use, which is absolutely essential if they are serious about providing a solid experience for the SF faithful to play and enjoy.

Visually the iPhone version of SFIV features art assets taken directly from the current-gen PS3 and 360 versions, aptly scaled down with minimal detail loss and with the spectacular Super and Ultra moves remaining intact. As you can see the results are very impressive, and it would be nice to see something like this being made for the PSP – a platform in which the hardcore can more seriously take to potable play. However to see this up and running so solidly on the iPhone shows that Capcom are both serious and committed to making this work.

In addition to having touch screen controls and similar graphics, the game will include a wealth of familiar faces, including the likes of Ryu, Ken, Zangief, and Chun Li, plus some characters new to the SFIV universe. Various modes such as Arcade, Tournament, Dojo (training essentially), and Versus are all being included, so not only can you practice getting to grips with the new controls, you can then try out your new found skills against your best mate who just downloaded the game out of curiosity.

So far the iPhone edition of Street Fighter IV is looking good, and I personally cannot wait to see this running in the flesh at a hopeful 60fps. Really, I just wanna see if they can get a sensible degree of accuracy with the motion controls and show that the iPhone can successfully be used as a base for serious hardcore games.

Saturday, 13 February 2010

Tech Analysis: Bioshock 2 (PS3 - 360)

Earlier this week we brought you our in-depth analysis on the technically proficient Dante’s Inferno, a game that impressed us with its startlingly solid approach to achieving almost 100% parity across both PS3 and 360, and if it weren’t for a slight horizontal blur on the 360 version, it would have been absolutely identical. Now at IQGamer we roll out the same treatment for Bioshock 2, going over every detail with a fine toothcomb seeing just how close both PS3 and 360 versions are, and of course take a look at the reasons behind any technical differences we find.

First impressions of Bioshock 2 are rather good, there initially seemed to be very little in the way of differences between both versions of the game, with texture detail being very similar and sharpness being pretty much equal. Lighting looked also to be on par for both PS3 and 360, with the only difference I noticed were with regards to the gamma levels being lower on 360, making for some loss of shadow detail in dark areas. However just a few minutes into the game things began to change, and it was extremely clear than something was going on with regards to how the effects were rendered in both versions, and the impact it was having on overall image quality.

Before I go into detail about those changes I’ll start by saying that Bioshock 2 renders in 720p (1280x720) for both platforms, with the 360 gaining an image quality advantage from having 2xMSAA (multi-sample anti-aliasing) and the PS3 version once again having no AA solution whatsoever, though a slight edge blur is present without affecting edge sharpness to any detriment. The level of sharpness with regards to the actual geometry is identical across both platforms, and this only changes when certain visual effects are present, in which case the PS3 game seems to blur noticeably over the 360 one.

In terms of texture detail and filtering, there are advantages and disadvantages on both versions to consider. These are the same ones we find on most cross platform PS3/360 ports or conversions. The 360 game seems to have a very slight edge in texture quality and detail, though not always in all circumstances. In most areas textures are actually identical across both platforms, and in other areas in which some textures seem blurrier on PS3, they are in fact the same as on 360, with the blurring caused by the lower resolution alpha and transparency effects being rendered.

In terms of texture filtering, anisotropic is present on the PS3 with 360 instead using the older trilinear method, meaning that texture detail is clearer from further away on PS3, which can lead to some of that version’s less detailed textures actually looking more detailed from a distance.

The PS3 also sees a small advantage in the area of texture streaming and with the LOD system present in the game. When playing through both versions one thing that did strike out at me was that texture pop-in was a semi-regular occurrence on 360, with on some occasions in which the higher quality mipmap would load in only a few feet away from the object you were approaching. This issue was quite infrequent and by and large didn’t affect the most prominent areas of scenery. By contrast when playing the PS3 game I noticed hardly any texture pop-in whatsoever, despite the fact that the extra level of filtering made it easier to spot any potential issues with this problem.

The reason behind this seems to stem from the fact that the PS3 game is streaming textures directly from the Hard Drive, in which there is a 5GB mandatory install, whereas the 360 is having to load them in directly from DVD. Essentially the PS3 has greater available bandwidth to do this via the HDD compared to 360’s DVD drive, which allows it to push through more higher quality textures at faster speeds, though not necessarily displaying more texture detail, as this is still limited by the system’s internal RAM.

Earlier we mentioned that there was a noticeable difference on how each version renders its transparency and alpha effects. Basically on PS3 all effects are rendered in as little as a quarter of HD resolution, whilst they are of full resolution on the 360. As we have pointed out before in our Dante’s Inferno comparison, this is done on the PS3 to save bandwidth as there is much less available than on Microsoft’s console. The PS3 only has around 21.6GBs per-second worth of bandwidth available for framebuffer effects compared to a huge 250GBs that the 360 can draw upon. This means that in order to render all the same visual details they have to be displayed at a lower resolution in order to fit into the bandwidth requirements of the PS3.

The effects of this can be seen above. Notice how the water running down the stairs is much blurrier than the surrounding stairwell and the stairs themselves. The same thing can be seen with almost all water, fire and particle effects in the game. It does mean that although textures are almost the same in both versions, the lower resolution effects tend to blur out those very same textures on the PS3. Basically the high res bump mapping and texture detail is effectively being displayed at a lower resolution and upscaled every time a transparency or alpha-based effect is rendered on top of them. With this happening frequently - as Rapture is an underwater city, leaking and slowing decaying with age - you find that the entire scene has a tendency to blur when all these visual effects are present, thus negating any advantage the PS3 version might have had with its use of better filtering and superior LOD system.

These lower res effects also feature less animation than those of the 360 game, with most of the water effects being affected, along with some rather strange errors when it came to rendering certain flame effects, and seemingly random objects in Rapture’s various rooms. Some pixallation occurs when viewing these at various angles and at long distances, and although this isn’t as apparent up close, you can still see that something doesn’t look quite right. In addition it seems that there is less, or more subtle use of bump mapping on the PS3 when compared to the 360. Sometimes it appears that the levels used are the same, at other times it seems like the PS3 is lacking in that department. Perhaps the reduced resolution alpha effects are to blame, as in areas in which there is very few of them, the bump mapping appears to be much better and can reach parity with the 360.

However there are many times when the use of lower res buffers hardly impacts upon image quality at all, looking nigh on indistinguishable from the 360 version. From what I’ve observed, this mainly applies to pools of water located on the floor in small dark corridors, or areas with low light levels. In these cases texture detail, bump mapping and IQ of the effects looked only slightly worse, and sometimes pretty much identical, showing that you don’t always need the technical advantage to produce similar results. Unfortunately this is the exception rather than the rule when talking about Bioshock 2.

You see, another issue is that these reduced resolution effects, and strangely rendered texture anomalies on the PS3 also give the game a slightly more washed out look than the 360 one. Differences in gamma between both versions we also believe attributes to this as well. The 360 game has lower gamma levels than the PS3 which means any details in really dark areas suffer from a slight black crush. Even after calibrating both consoles and the TV, the two versions couldn’t be matched up in a way that didn’t reduce the black levels of the 360 version, whilst still failing to reveal shadow detail. It’s not a massive difference, and doesn’t impact in the enjoyment of the game in any serious way, although people playing the PS3 version first will certainly notice.

Performance wise there are similar trade-offs but between smoothness and screen tearing. The PS3 version suffers from next to no screen tearing whatsoever when compared to the 360, though it does slow down more frequently in heavy battle scenes with lots going on.

Bioshock 2 runs at a near constant 30fps for most of the time, with only occasional screen tear and slow down only really occuring when lots of stuff is happening on screen at once. Occasionally I’ve noticed that the game will tear for a split second just randomly as you are venturing along Rapture’s many corridors and communal areas. Not sure why this happens, and it doesn’t seem to be performance related. The most likely candidate is triple buffering, in which the game renders several frames as a back up in case one or more of the frames are torn. It appears that occasionally the game loses one or two of its frames to tearing, and the triple buffering system accidentally displays one of those instead of a clean frame.

This however comes as a cost to the framerate, and when the PS3 game slows down it does so more frequently than the 360 one and for longer. The controls tend to suffer slightly as a result, loosing responsiveness for a brief second or two on top of the slight lag caused by the use of triple-buffering.

With the 360 game the framerate is a much steadier affair, although in response you get a greater amount of tearing. What looks to be happening isn’t always a case of a greater volume of tearing, though this does happen, and much more than you might think, but rather when the tearing occurs, it simply stays on screen a little longer than when the same thing happens on PS3. On the 360 the game also tears frequently in the overscan area of the picture, something that never occurs on PS3. Now this is an area that you simply cannot see unless you turn off the overscan option on your TV. So for 99% of people it won’t be seen at all, and naturally because of this, won’t impact in any way on your experience of the game.

In terms of performance there is no clear winner here. The PS3 drops framerate more often but has virtually no screen tear, and the 360 one doing the opposite; suffering from a greater amount of tearing but having much less in the way of slow down, making the game a smoother more responsive experience. Either way both versions present the gamer with a smooth enough engrossing experience, and the slow down on PS3 doesn’t prevent you from really enjoying the game, as it doesn’t happen very often.

In the end whilst both versions of Bioshock 2 are excellent in their own right, it is the 360 version which takes the lead, with it’s higher resolutions effects, better bump-mapping and smoother framerate, making for an all round more immersive experience. The PS3 game with its low resolution effects, although still a great game and one which looks pretty damn good at times, ventures into a slightly blurry mess on occasions when lots of water, transparencies and particles are on screen. Sadly that can be pretty often, which is a real shame as these effects are integral to helping create Bioshock’s wondrous and foreboding atmosphere.

Either way if you only have a PS3 don’t be discouraged, as many of the issues seen here are not always apparent, plus you get next to no screen tearing and a still very good looking game (in many places at least), just not as technically accomplished one.

Overall if you have both systems and given the choice, I’d say that the 360 game is the one to get.

If of course you've had enough of reading about all this tech stuff, or simply looked at those pictures instead, head on over to Beames on Games for the full review of Bioshock 2.

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Why 60fps Is Important: Visceral Games

On Monday we covered Dante’s Inferno in one of our regular Tech Analysis features, and one of the main points I made was how well the game managed to hold a steady 60 frames per-second. In fact the demo never drops any frames at all, and in the final game I’ve been told that it does so only on a three or four occasions. This is certainly a feat most games in the current gen simply do not achieve, and perhaps should look toward, especially when it has such a strong impact with regards to gameplay.

Now I’ve always been a firm advocate of having 60fps as the benchmark that all software developers should aspire to. The fluidity and motion clarity for graphics, and the extra degree of accuracy with regards to control, are all vastly important for creating a solid, perfectly fine-tuned gameplay experience, especially where timing is involved. 60fps isn’t just about how good things look, or how smooth they can go. It also plays a large part in how responsive the controls are and how quick you are able to respond to them. For example a game running at 30fps will give you only half the degree of control and range that you get when running at 60fps. You will loose much of the precision and accuracy gained by using a higher framerate.

However, visuals are also still an important backbone for the next-gen experience, and with 60fps comes not only smoother motion, but also a cleaner judder free image, one which retains more detail when moving at high speed compared to the same image running at 30fps. In effect you get detail visible on screen for longer periods whilst having a smoother more impressive look.

Visceral Games seem to agree, and in an in-depth interview with Gamasutra confirm how important having 60fps really is.

Jonathan Knight in the interview stated how he pushed forward the notion of the game (Dante’s Inferno) needing to run at 60fps to the dev team, making sure everyone was committed to making it happen, whilst still finding ways of displaying the same impressive special effects found in 30fps titles but at 60.

"I think any artist would be lying if they said that they didn't prefer to have more bandwidth," he said. "Any milliseconds you give them, they're going to use it on just one more effect, or what-have-you. But what we found is, it's more of a question of willpower than a technology question. And you just have to commit to it, and say, 'Here are your budgets. Here's the box we're gonna play in.'

He followed up with:

"30 frames is a very challenging box to play in as well, and so once you just get everybody bought into that, then what I've found is that the visual effects artists, and the environment artists, and so forth, they just found ways to make stuff look good at 60, and you just have to hold them to it."

In addition Knight also feels that 60fps can help improve the overall quality of the visual experience:

"If you were to take a screenshot, you might be able to point out, like, 'OK, here's the compromise you made because of your frame-rate,' but when you sit and play the game, the overall visual experience is enhanced by the fast frame-rate. So, I can't really decouple graphics from frame-rate; I don't feel like it's an either/or situation."

His statements seem to reflect those found in other studios that champion the use of higher framerates, such as Infinity Ward, Polyphony Digital, Turn 10 and Sony’s Studio Liverpool. All of which stand by the use of higher framerates not only as a means to push the envelope graphically, but also to enhance the overall gameplay experience.

With Visceral Games on board, it’s good to see at least another developer committing to pushing higher framerates this generation, and with the 3D revolution potentially only a few months away, it will become increasingly more important to do so.

IQGamer will be publishing an in-depth feature on 60fps and why it matters in the near future.

Monday, 8 February 2010

Tech Analysis: Dante's Inferno

Dante’s Inferno may be a blatant God Of War rip off, but it is also one of the best examples of platform parity across PS3 and Xbox 360. It does so not by playing to the strengths of each machine, but by simply having an engine which barely taxes either system, making some concessions to alleviate the issue of PS3 having a lack of available bandwidth, and 360’s need to fit the framebuffer into it’s 10mb worth of EDRAM.

You could almost say that Visceral Games effort is an almost exemplary example on how to get a game running and looking identical on both platforms, or rather almost 100% identical. The only exception we noticed to that being a slight blurring of the image on 360, but more on that later.

Dante’s Inferno runs at a flawless 60fps on both PS3 and 360, with no noticeable sign of screen tearing or framerate drops, which in it self is quite impressive for a multi-platform title. However it does this through using only a limited number of memory and shader intensive effects. So what we have here is mostly flat looking textures, with bump mapping reserved for the characters and only certain parts of the environment.

The game is rendered on both PS3 and 360 in 720p (1280x720) with no anti-aliasing of any kind. This allows the framebuffer to fit into the 10mb EDRAN found on 360’s GPU, whilst making the conversion to PS3 much easier as it doesn’t put a stain on the bandwidth. The resolution of transparencies and particle effects usually lowered on PS3 due to the lack of available bandwidth has been compromised on both versions. So instead of 360 having the usual advantage when it comes to displaying loads of multi-layered effects, it’s merely equal across the board. Again this basically allows the smooth running of the game on both platforms whilst keeping the actual look identical; certainly, it’s how Visceral have achieved the constant 60fps on display.

Anisotropic filtering and texture detail is like for like across both versions, demonstrating clean and clear characters and vistas, though the overall sense of scale is rather small, and the detail itself is somewhat simple when compared to the likes of Bayonetta or Devil May Cry. Serviceable is how I think you could best describe the overall look and technical application.

Now earlier we mentioned that both PS3 and 360 games were almost identical, except for a slight blurring on the 360 version. This blur whilst being hardly visible during fast moving scenes can be clearly seen in the still screenshots above, and during more sedate moments of gameplay. It seems that there is a horizontal 1-pixel wide blur on all edges, with no apparent reason as to why. It could be that the developers still wanted some sort of AA solution, but seeing as 720p 2xAA may not have fit into the EDRAM, they thought a simple blur approach would suffice. It’s perhaps the only blemish on what can be considered one of the best multi-platform conversion examples available on both consoles.

Overall, Visceral Games have shown just how to successfully accomplish a good multi-platform conversion without sacrificing too much from each version along the way. Sure they could have played up to the 360’s strengths and added higher-resolution effects and more particles, or had extra HDR lighting on the PS3 game, but it would have taken longer to develop and required more optimising for both versions. This is a problem most would rather avoid, so it’s easier to go down the safe route, and keep your development budget under control and get good results, rather than having it spiral out with two different versions, each having their own tweaks, and neither achieving parity.

Date’s Inferno shows you don’t need to achieve a massive technical accomplishment when creating a game, but rather just a well thought out approach and a solid underlying engine, which can perform on both systems without needing to radically tailor features to each one.

In this respect Visceral have been successful, and I imagine that more developers will go down the same path seeing as it can work so well.

Friday, 5 February 2010

Editorial: Can Sega Make Sonic 4 Succeed?

Yesterday Sega unveiled Sonic The Hedgehog 4 to the world, and in flurry of excitement and burning anticipation we brought that news to you at IQGamer. Today the dust has settled and a dead calmness has set in, bringing with it feelings of anxiety and doubt as to whether what we saw yesterday could really live up to its promise. The legacy sewn by those faithful four original Megadrive games is not something easily replicated, even for Sega who produced the graphically impressive but rather flawed Sonic CD some 17 years ago.

Given Sega’s track record these last few years, filled with failed 3D attempts to capture that 16bit essence, a disastrous reboot in the form of a next-gen Sonic Adventure sequel, along with a handful of outsourced 2D handheld instalments which seem to completely forget just what Sonic games were all about, my cause for concern is far from being misplaced.

Having this all-new 2D Sonic game as a sequel to Sonic and Sonic & Knuckles is a tall order to fill. Creating a canonical successor in a similar style and with respect for the source material is no easy task, especially some 16 years on. Only a few developers such as Capcom with Street Fighter IV, Mega Man 9 and Bionic Commando Rearmed have truly succeeded in doing this.

Sega looks like it’s trying its best with what they have, and in an interview with GameSpot, Ken Balough seemed to be addressing most of my concerns, along with other die-hard fans. Essentially he told GS that the team was going back to the MD games, and using them as the template for Sonic 4, however the style and tone of the game would be as if the series was created today rather than 16 years ago.

In the trailer released the visual look of Sonic 4 was clearly a natural follow on from the likes of Sonic 2, with a hint of Sonic 3 and demonstrating a modern twist on the proceedings. However there are certain things which don’t look quite right. Sonic’s character model for starters looks a bit iffy, almost like a throwback to the design used in Sonic and the Secret Rings, and currently suffers from some uncomfortable running animations. The stage shown in the trailer also looked a little too much like it was from a well made mugen game, and lacked the style you'd expect from a true sequel to Sonic and Knuckles, whist also feeling slightly unfinished from a graphical perspective. However the inclusion of parallax scrolling in the background brought a twinkle to my eye, and it was rather impressive seeing the effect updated using todays hardware. From a stylistic point of view though, Surely Sega should be looking at replicating a new take on the style featured in Knuckles Chaotix, or at the very least Sonic 3, especially as Sonic 4 is supposed to be a proper game in the series?

Maybe this will change as development progresses, though seeing as the release is only a few months away I have a sneaking suspicion that it probably won’t. Still, at least we have a style that fits in with the original Sonic games, with an updated look for the current generation. It could be much worse.

Gameplay wise it was most certainly impossible to gauge just how Sonic 4 will pan out. With only a couple of seconds of footage showing very little other than Sonic briefly jumping on a few enemies, and speeding through a corkscrew platform before reaching the end of the stage. Although comments from Sega’s Ken Balough can allow us to at least assume that they have forgotten about Sonic being about speed, and will instead be focusing on having cleaverer level design based around building up momentum; finding that ‘perfect path’ through the level, and effectively achieving max speed via skill instead of by simply holding down the d-pad in the forwards direction.

This is what needs to happen, as this insistence on speed is what killed the GBA games, and made Sonic Rush nigh on unplayable for anyone used to the MD games of old.

Sega should also create new enemies in the style of the old ones, rather than simply rehashing and updating existing badniks for the 21st century. Old bosses should be given new tweaks, and mixed up with some innovative new ideas all in keeping with what the classic franchise is known for. Maybe they should look towards both Sonic CD and Knuckles Chaoix for inspiration, as both these games had more elaborate set pieces and boss designs than their MD counterparts. In essence creating a really authentic follow up in the form of Sonic 4.

Musically rather than just also reworking old themes as with the graphics, Sega should ideally be looking to create original new music for both the title theme and the tunes to be used in the various stages themselves. A new theme tune, if they come up with one, should be in keeping with the style and direction the series was heading in with Sonic & Knuckles, whilst taking care not to parody the series iconic sounds, and simply build on the foundations laid down all those years ago.

Ultimately this latest instalment cannot be just a cheap fan service attempt, certainly not if Sega expect it to be taken seriously as a proper Sonic 4, although that would still make for a potentially lovely game, it wouldn’t do the franchise any real justice. And that is what they need to show, if they are to redeem the brand and successfully move it forward looking to the future.

Anything that fans do complain about, or which they feel maybe isn’t quite right, I do expect Sega to listen to and correct in further episodes. I also expect they’ll expand upon the things that worked in the first episode, the style and ideas explored, whilst evolving them forward in preparation for potentially Sonic 5. That is, of course if they manage to hit the ground running with part 1 of Sonic 4.

Either way, Sonic 4 represents a trial and proving ground to see if a revival can be done, and if Sega still has what it takes to make this happen.

For the sake of the character and the franchise I really do hope so.