“That level looks old!”

I was just reminiscing using the “way back machine” perusing the news I wrote while I was the Head Monkey at the AQMD (Action Quake Map Depot) back in 1999-2000. I can still remember receiving the e-mail from Death Magnet telling me he was stepping down and was handing the “reins of power” over to me. LOL.

While I cannot find the exact day, I still vividly remember the day I stepped down from the AQMD because I felt I was not fulfilling my position as the Head Monkey and my interests were moving to Quake III, in search of the “next action.” That turned out to be Urban Terror and my time and work at the AQMD became history.

A part of me wanted to leave the AQMD because the Quake 2 engine was getting dated and levels were looking old. Even new levels were retreads of old ideas and very few level designers were bringing something new to the table in terms of development. I guess I can’t fault them, but why anyone would spend months working on a level that will be tossed in an ever growing pile of already “official” AQ2 levels was beyond me. I guess each individual had their reasons.

Just the other day I had an ill feeling when I looked at some new images of a level in development for Urban Terror. Just like the day I left the AQMD, that feel returned, when the first thought was “that level looks old.” Now, I know the Quake III engine is dated, just as Urban Terror is. But even with this engine it is possible to up the level of quality before releasing a level.

Some level designers have stated they won’t spend the time taking their level to the proverbial, “next level” for numerous reasons. First, it’s too much work. Okay, I’ll give you that reason, to a point. Level design and development is nothing but work. Why half ass your work? Part of level development is improving and learning, working with techniques that will improve your skills and level. I don’t understand releasing a level that looks like it’s from 2000, when it’s 2008.

Second, there is always a chance your level will not be played. The reasons vary; FPS, poor layout or game play, or those asshats who just say, “it sucks” without reason, just to name a few. While many level designers understand this before diving head first into their levels, some don’t. After spending months and months, possibly even years on a level that last thing you want it no one playing your level. But to admit defeat before you even start is setting yourself up for failure.

I know the “basics” of level design, but I am no expert when it comes to what some in the Urban Terror Community create. I will cite INVIS, who is a consummate professional, maybe too much so when it comes to his levels. He understands level design from the inside out, knows the elements and how to construct them to create a successful and good looking level. WetWired was another Urban Terror level designer who was able to accomplish the same thing.

These are just two examples, but they worked at a different level than most other level designers. Their time, effort and persistence usually paid off. While I don’t mean to characterize other level designers as failures, I would like them to take a look at what levels have all the elements that make up a successful level. Above all other is game play, but this isn’t something that “just happens” this is something that is planned from day one. You can’t happen upon game play, you must create it.

While game play does reign supreme and is the foundation on which to build, you cannot ignore the other factors when level designing. I am hoping that some level designers understand what makes the good levels good and try to learn why another level not so good. Don’t only push the Quake III engine, but push yourself to rise above the mediocrity we see creeping into the levels that are played in Urban Terror.

Point Blank Review: FIFA 2006

It’s somewhat hard to believe I have already played three different FIFA games on the XBox 360 and we still have two months remaining in the year! Prior to the start of Germany 2006 (that’s the World Cup), EA release FIFA 06: Road to FIFA World Cup, where the goal was to qualify for the cup, but did not include the actually World Cup tourney. In April, EA was back at it and released, 2006 FIFA World Cup. In this version, you had the option to play through the qualifiers or you could start in the group stage of the World Cup.

Last week, EA released a demo of FIFA Soccer 07 that is scheduled for release on November 20 (although EB Games said the date is November 1). I was able to rent and copy FIFA 07 for my XBox a few days ago, in order to get a feel for how the game played compared to previous years and compared to the 360 demo version. As I have previously commented, anticipation was not running very high for another EA Sports game that chugs along due to the extreme graphic content, while the game play suffers (hint: Madden 07).

The XBox 360 FIFA Soccer 07 demo allows you to play a half of footie using one of six world class, club teams including AC Milan, Manchester U, Lyon, Barcelona and others. Hopefully there are more game options available when the full version goes retail. I was rather unhappy with the views you could play from, especially when I am comfortable with the ‘Tele’ view and not any of the dynamic views or end views other may be used to. Thankfully the XBox version had a ‘Tele’ view, so there is hope this too will be included in it’s big brother’s version.

Obviously I would be lying if I said the graphics were horrible. Again, as with other games I have rented or purchased for the 360, the graphics are rather impressive, but then again that is what this next-generation console is supposed to have, right? Unfortunately, up until now it has been the game play that has suffered due to the constant “chugging” of the graphics interfering with the game play. Madden is by far, the worst yet! FIFA did not really suffer much, but there were times you could sense it.

After completing the download, I played a few halves of soccer, checking out the different teams and views (since that was really the only setting you could change). The controls were similar to the previous FIFA games, but after flipping through the instruction booklet that came with the game rental for the XBox, there are more options when it comes to individual moves. None of these I have really ever mastered, nor do I use them much during a game. They are nice to have, but its like FIFA: Street Fighter version, you are double tapping buttons, while hold down the left trigger and then pressing ‘A’ in order to get some move or fancy shot off. Not my idea of fun. But, again, the option is there if you want to use it.

The actual game play seemed a bit “stiff” in terms of movement on the pitch. Players looked good, but it did not feel like the previous two FIFA games I had played on the 360. There was an all new feel I sensed and it did not give me a good vibe. In contrast, the XBox version kicks grass! More on that version in a minute. Player movement was fluid, but there was something about either the controls or the animation of the models that left you with an empty feeling. I do take into consideration this is only a demo and there may be more to offer in the retail version.

I was lucky to rent the XBox version and play it the past few days. And damned if I am not impressed by how it feels and plays. The same game mind you! Like FIFA 05 and FIFA 06, controls are laid out the same, but you do have a a few other options when it comes to how you want the controller set up. The menus are similar in nature as well, you can jump right into a game or take the role of a manager and play your way through a season in many of the popular world leagues such as Serie A, Premiership, La Liga, MLS Bundesliga and others. You can also go the pitch to practice.

As a game developer I have stated many times, until I am blue in the face, “it’s not about the graphics, but the game play.” This statement is true for FIFA, so what, you are not playing on a next-generation console using your 61″ plasma television, but I was quite impressed with the overall look and feel of FIFA 07 for the XBox. the players do have a new look to them, new moves and a uniqueness that is impressive to the final whistle. Of course as with any game, PC or console it does take a bit of practice to master it.

I spent the better part of 3 hours yesterday starting a season using AS Roma from the Italian, Serie A, play in the Manager Mode. Unlike previous versions, not only do you play (or sim) all the games in the league you have different tasks you must complete prior to the end of the season. You also must decide on a sponsor, who will pay your squad accordingly. You then have the “board” who will give you kudos or an ultimatium if you happen to run a streak of bad luck and start loosing. You need to learn to develop young talent and search out potential transfers from other leagues and sign them. On top of all these manager duties you must win, win, win!

Obviously the XBox crew did something right, if I was hooked from the first kickoff and spent nearly 3 hours playing and would have much much longer if I did not have take a nap prior to work. The game was challenging, I think I only had one ‘easy” victory. I even took it on the chin in a close 3-2 lose, a game in which I gave up two goals within 5 minutes of each other and was not able to come back and escape with a draw. So through 8 matches, I am 8-1-1 and second in the league. So, while the graphics are not up to 360 standard, the game play excels again and I am excited I will have a new game for the next 12 months or so.

As for the 360 version, I think I will spend the $5 spot and rent it prior to making the decision to purchase it. I have already been burned 3 or 4 times picking up a highly anticipated title only to be pissed because the game does not live up to its expectations (sorry Madden). So, if you are into footie and want a real kick in the grass, rent or buy FIFA Soccer 07. It truly is on a level all its own. As for the 360 version, I will give it a shot when it comes out in November.

Point Blank Review: Madden’07 (First Thoughts)

In days on by I have written on the subject of the XBox 360 I own. The articles, XBusted 360 and Xbusted 360: Part Deux talk about the trials and tribulations I have had since purchasing my console back in April. I am still not as satisfied as I was with the original Xbox console. I continue to knock off the feeling because of the lack of QUALITY games that have been created for it. I was excited when I purchased Rockstar’s Table Tennis. Since that time I have spent most of the time playing FIFA World Cup 2006.

Since I first purchased Madden, years ago, I believe on my Sega Genesis, I have been excited to play the best football game around. In more recent years Madden, actually EA Sports have cornered the football market, since they are the only one who holds a license with the NFLPA and the NFL. I played 2006 for hours on end, season after season, kicking the living hell out of the computer, since I was on a modified XBox and not able to play using Live! online.

I pre-ordered EA Sports Madden ’07 last month from EB Games. I have never been a big fan of using these “boutique stores” because you could usually wait and find the game $10 cheaper in a few weeks. But Madden is different. It’s more than a game, it’s damn near a way of life when it comes to football on a console. I mean they even made up the word, Maddenoliday!

After putting my $10 preorder down, I waited patiently today for about 25 minutes in line to get my grubby, little hands on the Hall of Fame Edition of Madden ’07 for the 360. This is just another way of EA “sticking it to the man” and putting some extras on a second DVD, along with a few other features that are not included in the other version. I went in without any preconceived notions. I did not read any reviews or check out any demos of the game prior to release. I figured past experience with Madden spoke volumes, so I was anticipating this game to exceed any I had played to date on the 360.

*sigh* Well, my first impressions are not as stellar as I thought they would be. Graphically it’s amazing looking! The players, the stadiums, the animations, moves, you name it the XBox 360 cannot be beat. But the playability seemed to lack just a bit. I have heard this before with other Madden ’06 for the 360, which was one reason I did not upgrade and buy for the 360 when I owned it for the Xbox. The game seemed to play better on the “now-gen” console as opposed to the “next-gen” system. Maybe Sony was right to hold off bringing out the PS3 a year.

I played a total of three games today, all of which I won playing as my hometown team, the San Diego Chargers. I whacked the hated Raiders, as LT when off from the first quarter. I then started a new season, as the Chargers, playing two pre-seasons game. After rolling the Packers behind Antonio Gates, who does not seem to drop a ball, we took on the Bears. Well, after the first quarter it was 35-7 and I committed 3 turnovers, two of which were intercepted by the same lineman and two passes of more than 70 yards for touchdowns on two drives. I did end up winning the game, 52-42 in the end.

So I am not as impressed with ’07 based on three games. One of the new features allows you to control a blocker, be it a fullback or lineman. That feature is damn cool. You can lead your running back through the hole and then switch and take control of him. It takes some work to do it well in order to be effective. The dreaded passing cone is gone, which is good. But there are many small things I noticed that had that pet peeve sort of feeling to it.

I will continue to put time in playing Madden ’07 and probably enjoy it more than any previous game I own. But I can’t say this new Madden is better than Madden ’06. I did not have time to test the other features of the game, which I plan on doing as soon as I have time to play more.

What I do wish we would see would be the NFL and NFLPA selling another license to another company in order to push EA Sports to make a BETTER football game. Right now, as the most successful football franchise ever, the developers might have gone a bit stale, outside of eye popping graphics for the XBox 360. Stay tuned for part two of Maddenoliday.

Point Blank Review: Battlefield 2

First off, I am not a homer for the game I helped design over the past 4 years called Urban Terror. What our development team achieved as amateurs, we consider a great accomplishment. Now for design studios out there who do this for a living…no wait, I know I am wasting my breath when it comes to the rights and wrongs or do’s and don’ts of game design. Hell, I don’t profess to know everything, if I did I would be a gaming guru like a Carmack, Meier or Molyneux (if I need to explain any of those, stop reading!).

The bottom line of ANY game development is money! How successful of a game can be created for as little as possible, while reaping a huge return on the initial investment? While I don’t follow the gaming industry as closely as I once did, I am appalled at what studios are churning out. Worse yet, gamers are buying this crap up!

Case in point, Battlefield 2 from Digital Illusions CE. *shakes head* First off, I am not much for sequel titles any longer because they rarely stack up to the original. Yes, even the Quake series! DICE, I thought would have been smart, I am sure their bottom line says they were smart and the bags of cash are rolling in.

After spending the better part of the five evenings playing this abortion called BF2, I can truly say it is not worth a second look. In order to give it a fair shake, I felt I had to give it a chance, so with the help Greg and Dan, brothers in Los Angeles I know, we played. We were fortunate to communicate, no not with the in-game communication system, but with Teamspeak 2. After getting their assistance initially, I was ready to rock and roll. Well, it was more like get rolled. Over and over and over again.

The game is short of balance when it comes to the assets you can use. I am not sure what is the worst offender, the artillery strikes or the jets. Guess it really makes no difference, but KILL (which they were intended to do) the game play! A well fought battle suddenly turns on a dime because of repeated strikes or jets dropping its loaded. “That is what they were created to do in the game, Oz!” Yeah, I know I have experienced it, over and over!

Now maybe I am spoiled by “other” games that actually allow players to move quickly across a level. If you have played “BS2” then you know just how large the fields of play are. They are extremely huge and complex levels with multitude of conquest points each team tries to control come hell or high water. So attempting to move between points without the use of vehicles is slow, challenging and often results in death.

Like other FPS games their movement system employees a stamina bar that moves rather quickly, based on sprinting or jumping. Regardless of your movement technique, stamina reduces. As for building it back up, walking or resting allow you to replenish your strength. This is why vehicles are the primary mode of transportation. Unfortunately on a server with 32, 48 or 60 gamers, your chances are rather slim to score some “heavy metal.” It goes without saying that most of the successful players I saw were flying jets (what a surprise!) and scoring near the tops of their respective teams.

These days in an ever changing industry where competition is stiff companies continue to ride their new titles based on their original concepts. Battlefield 1942 and its forerunner, Codename: Eagle were both great and enjoyable games. I do believe CE ended up as a bargin bin game rather quickly.

My point…pfft, I probably don’t have one. I think BF2 is garbage and thankfully I did not buy the game, nor after playing on my wife’s computer would I consider buying this game. I don’t see why all of a sudden it is “nuevo” to play on a server with 64 other gamers. But, if you enjoy this sort of gaming, great. You have just helped some big conglomerate, like an EA stuff their pockets full of more money.

Oh, and if you wanted to know WHY I actually played the game. It was not because of the game itself, it was because of the guys I am friends with, they were the ones who made the game bearable, or borderline enjoyable.