Placemaking in the World of Grand Theft Auto

Several weeks ago, I came across a lovely article on Kotaku about the opening act of Grand Theft Auto IV, in which immigrant protagonist Niko Bellic first arrives in a fictionalized United States and explores his newly adopted home of Liberty City.

As the author Kirk Hamilton explains, it’s a rather slow start for a GTA game. Niko undertakes some decidedly ordinary tasks — defending his cousin Roman from loan sharks, driving for his cab company, going out on a date — that ease us into the game’s driving and shooting mechanics. In the process, we are gradually introduced to Niko’s new social circle — a girlfriend, criminals to do business for, and Russian mobsters — and his surroundings, the run-down industrial neighborhood of “Hove Beach.”

While GTA IV was cautious and restrained, other Grand Theft Auto games thrust you immediately into the action. Just after the opening credits of Grand Theft Auto V, you were stealing a pair of supercars from a wealthy residence, racing through the streets of downtown Los Santos, and then escaping from the police. Similarly, 2004’s Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas inserted you right in the middle of a gang war, fleeing a drive-by shooting on a BMX bike and then smashing up a local crack den.

In GTA IV, we get a sense of how the Liberty City criminal world operates before we dive into the over-the-top car chases, assassinations, and SWAT shootouts — we see the loan sharks at Roman’s throat, the neighborhood crack dealers struggling for turf, and the shopkeepers being extorted for protection money. Taking things slow allows us to connect with Niko’s brave new world in a way that the chaotic exposition in San Andreas and GTA V does not, so suggests Hamilton in a brilliant summary of his GTA IV experience:

Each time I return to GTA IV, I want to leave Hove Beach less and less. I know I’ll never feel more immersed and attached than I do in those opening hours. Nowhere else in GTA IV feels as real or familiar to me as Hove Beach. Nowhere in GTA V does, either. For all of the newer game’s candy-coated indulgences and technical wizardry, it never matched its predecessor’s powerful sense of place.

I was struck by the idea that a video game like GTA IV could have a “sense of place” — what I would call a sense of a distinct culture and community within a specific moment, location, and universe. Urbanists, geographers, and sociologists alike speak of the greatest cities as having it. Architects strive for it. As Hamilton has already noted, one way GTA IV achieves a “sense of place” is through its meticulously crafted introduction. But how else does the game outshine GTA V, its universally acclaimed sequel? Continue reading “Placemaking in the World of Grand Theft Auto”

In Defense of Boost Sonic

Sonic the Hedgehog. A video game franchise about a cool blue hedgehog who runs, jumps, and platforms through a variety of vast, intricate worlds. Sonic’s fast, thrilling gameplay was critically acclaimed during the series’ early days as a 2D sidescroller and won millions of gamers over to Sega and the Genesis console. But Sonic’s transition to the 3D world, marked by the arrival of Sonic Adventure on the Dreamcast, was much more divisive. Over the years, Sega experimented with many wildly different play styles, even within a single game. This lack of consistency has resulted in critical reception that ranges from “pretty good” (Sonic Generations) to “downright awful” (Sonic the Hedgehog 2006).

Sega’s first attempts at a 3D Sonic game resembled Super Mario 64 augmented with sprawling, linear levels and speed-oriented controls. Sonic could grind on rails, snap on to enemies with the “homing attack,” and gain an instant burst of speed with a charged “spin dash.” This style was featured in Sonic Adventure, its direct sequel Sonic Adventure 2, and 2006’s Sonic the Hedgehog. Critical reception of the Adventure series was very positive on release, but the re-releases and ports have not fared as well. Critics praised the games’ sense of speed but criticized their uncooperative camera and physics systems. Sonic 06 was universally panned for a multitude of technical and level design issues that stemmed from a rushed release.

In 2008, Sonic Unleashed debuted a new style of 3D platforming, often referred to by fans as “boost Sonic.” Sonic gained a new signature move, the “Sonic boost,” which granted him an instant, visually spectacular burst of speed that could be sustained as long as he collected rings. Critics widely derided Unleashed for its inclusion of a “Sonic the Werehog” mode that turned Sonic into a slow, repetitive beat-em-up character. However, they were generally receptive to the new boost style, even as they chided it for a lack of polish. With minor tweaks, boosting was subsequently featured in Sonic Colors and Sonic Generations, both of which were well-received.

Sonic fans have been divided over the boost gameplay. Some really enjoy the style, but others criticize the boost for abandoning Sonic’s traditional emphasis on momentum and exploration in favor of a singular focus on speed. They usually prefer the Sonic Adventure style, which plays slower and requires some skill and finesse to build up velocity. While these critiques have some merit, I believe that boosting Sonic is the best version of Sonic that’s ever been in 3D. It succeeds in being fast and fun as well as accessible to old and new Sonic fans alike. Examining the history of the Sonic boost, from Unleashed to Colors to Generations, demonstrates how Sega has improved the gameplay style over time to make it the most polished rendition of Sonic yet — and the reason I’m excited for this year’s Sonic Forces. Continue reading “In Defense of Boost Sonic”

Avatar: the Last Airbender: a Case Study in Fan Mis-Speculation

In recent years, many rumors have spread throughout the Avatar: The Last Airbender fandom about what went on behind the scenes during the production of the original show. They’re particularly prevalent on certain Tumblr blogs and they usually concern main character Katara’s relationships with Avatar Aang and Prince Zuko. In between my university finals, I’ve spent the last few days researching these claims. It was tough, since most of the “sources” have been lost to the Internet. Continue reading “Avatar: the Last Airbender: a Case Study in Fan Mis-Speculation”

Cities: Skylines, a New Boring, Lifeless Take on the City Builder

Some time ago, I wrote about 2013’s SimCity, a disappointing entry in a beloved city-building franchise. 2015 saw the release of Paradox Interactive’s Cities: Skylines, a brand new city-builder from a much smaller studio. Much hyped and heavily anticipated, the game has been very well received by the gaming community. Many have praised it as “the SimCity we wanted” and “the game that shows AAA studios how it’s done.”

My opinion is more mixed. Though Skylines is an impressive technical achievement that gives players some nice tools to build creative cities with, its gameplay and depth of simulation are disappointingly shallow. It is passable as a city builder, but it is not a worthy followup to the challenging and interesting gameplay found in the older SimCity games. Continue reading “Cities: Skylines, a New Boring, Lifeless Take on the City Builder”

My Thoughts on Avatar: the Last Airbender

American cartoons will always hold a particular place in my heart. They defined my world when I was a kid, for better or worse, and instilled in me a penchant for good stories.

I didn’t follow any cartoon regularly; I sort of tuned in to whatever was airing and considered each episode as a standalone experience. This tended to define my impression of a given show.

Most of my television consumption occurred in the latter half of the 2000’s, and much of it was of reruns of older shows. The ones I remember most vividly included contemporary shows like Codename: Kids Next Door and Code: Lyoko as well as classics from the 1990’s such as Hey, Arnold and Ed, Edd, ‘n’ Eddy. But one show always set itself above the rest thanks to its continuous story and sheer emotional grip: Avatar: The Last Airbender. And following a chance encounter with some quotes from show, I decided to rewatch it this summer.

It was just as good as I remembered. In fact, I had an even greater appreciation for the show’s writing and production values, and of course, I was a more informed viewer. Continue reading “My Thoughts on Avatar: the Last Airbender”

The Problem with City-Building Games

For me, that something was SimCity 4.

I loved it – and that is probably an understatement. I built villages and towns on rolling hills, coastlines, and plains. I enjoyed laying out cities and watching the grand effects of my policies. I loved watching the skyscrapers spring up and the wealthy sims move in.

My cities always ran deficits and eventually went bankrupt, but then I discovered cheats!

…And then I discovered that by governing conservatively, you could actually make money and play the game as intended.

The great thing about the SimCity series is that it’s organic. The problem with city-building games these days is that you build everything that you want. Literally. You want a house? Click the “house” button and plop it down on wherever your heart desires. A business? Gas station? Factory? Same idea! These games might seem fun at first, but they quickly get stale. Because you control everything, they’re predictable and boring.

Contrast this to SimCity, where the game is built around zoning. You zone areas for residential, commercial, and industrial establishments, and they build themselves automatically. Not only that, but they also upgrade themselves when they are redeveloped by wealthier sims or when you zone the area for higher-density buildings.

That’s what makes SimCity so great – you build the infrastructure, you set the policies, and then you kick back and watch as your awesome city starts growing. Compared to those dumb “move the cursor around and collect all the products made by the factories,” there’s very little micromanagement.

Another area where SimCity stands out is transportation. In most city-building games, transportation is limited to roads (and sometimes railways). But SimCity gives you busses, subways, freeways, airports and seaports, and proper train stations. Best of all, transportation in SimCity is organic too. The cars that move around on the map aren’t random – they represent the actual commutes of sims going to work. And since they can interchange between multiple modes of transportation and commute across city limits, you could spend literally hours designing an incredibly complex network dedicated to moving sims between their homes and their jobs.

SimCity 4 went one step further, introducing graphs and overlay views that could show you exactly how sims moved along roads and networks. That let you get really in depth and build bus stops and subway stations exactly where they were needed. Then you hit the fast forward button and watched as the sims adapted to your new infrastructure. It was magical.

Maxis eventually released a single expansion pack for SimCity 4, dubbed Rush Hour. It was a must-have, adding even more transportation possibilities, like elevated metros (compatible with existing subways), more freeway options, toll booths, and ferry terminals. But Rush Hour also opened the floodgate for modding. Soon, SimCity 4 players found they could make nearly limitless changes to the gameplay – from custom buildings to game-changing mods that added even more transportation options.

Compared to this level of customization and simulation depth, everything else was a joke.

Thus, EA caused quite a stir when it announced the development of a SimCity reboot, called not “SimCity 5” but simply SimCity, set for release in 2013. There was a closed beta and the pre-release press gave it excellent reviews. The Maxis developers released a number of “making of” videos detailing SimCity’s new “Glassbox engine” and the depth of simulation now possible using newer hardware and cloud computing technologies. It looked like it was going to be a slam dunk.

Then release day hit.

Players were extremely disappointed to find that EA had once again screwed up their servers – nobody could log on for hours at a time, and loss of progress was frequent. SimCity was no longer a refined, solitary experience. It had devolved into a cookie-cutter MMORPG that happened to be a city builder.

“Cloud computing” in SimCity also turned out to be a guise for always-online DRM. Hackers proved that the game would run just fine without an Internet connection, at least until it tried to check in with EA.

Now most of the server issues are ironed out, Maxis has committed itself to content updates, and recently an offline mode was even announced. But the new SimCity is still fundamentally broken:

  • Sims go to work at a random business and return to a random home. They no longer have an identity! If sims do not have predictable commutes, then it is almost pointless to design proper transportation infrastructure.
  • Traffic pathfinding is still simplistic. Sims take the shortest route, rather than the fastest and least congested route. This was forgiveable in older SimCities because computers were not fast enough back then, but SimCity promised to fix this with “the cloud.” Obviously, that did not happen.
  • City sizes are ridiculously small compared to previous SimCity installments. Maxis’s reason? “Technical limitations.”
  • Transportation options have been axed severely. There are still railways and highways, but they only connect cities; you cannot build them for intracity transportation. Trams have been added, but only within the medians of 6-lane avenues. Meanwhile, subways have been cut entirely!

Thus, many hardcore city builders are sticking with SimCity 4. But the game isn’t aging well. It was designed for single-core processors while today’s computers have two or four cores (not to mention hyperthreading). It runs quite slow and chugs on metropolises, even on modern machines. Crashes are common, the game forces a 2D isometric perspective, and there are no updates in sight. Mods can only go so far.

Thanks, gaming industry. You killed another genre. Was it because it wasn’t a first-person shooter?

Windows: Combat Evolved: a Halo Satire

What would Microsoft’s Halo video game series be like if it involved Microsoft itself?

The Introduction

Halo tells the story of 26th century humanity, which has organized itself under the auspices of the United Nations Space Command (Microsoft). Humans are fighting a losing war against the Covenant (Apple), a theocratic collection of alien races that worship a long-dead alien species called the Forerunners (pre-2000 Macs). Already, many colony worlds, including the military stronghold Reach (IBM), have fallen.

In the Beginning

In the first game, Halo: Combat Evolved, a lone starship (Windows XP) crash lands on a mysterious Forerunner ringworld (Best Buy) that is thought to be some kind of superweapon. Its human survivors, including the superhuman cyborg Master Chief (Bill Gates), fight the Covenant for control of the ring (store). However, the Covenant accidentally release a zombie-like parasite known as the Flood (Android). It is discovered that the purpose of the halo is actually to cleanse the galaxy of all sentient life, thereby depriving the Flood of all possible infection vectors. The Chief then destroys the ring and its Flood infestation before returning to Earth (Redmond, Washington) to warn of an impending invasion by a new Covenant fleet (the Intel Macintosh).

The Story Continues

In the sequel, Halo 2, the Covenant locate and invade Earth. Despite a valiant defense by the UNSC Home Fleet and Earth’s orbital defense platforms (Windows Vista), a single Covenant carrier punches through and lands at New Mombasa, an African metropolis. With the Master Chief’s help, the UNSC destroys most of the initial assault. However, the carrier makes a hasty slipspace jump to Delta Halo, another halo installation (New Egg). The Covenant and the UNSC once again battle for control of it. Meanwhile, the Chief assassinates a key Covenant leader (Steve Jobs) and the Flood are once again released. This sets off a complicated chain of events that leads to the primary warrior race of the Covenant, the Elites (Mac OS X), seceding from the theocracy. They are opposed by the new warrior race, the Brutes (iOS).

The Elites make a temporary truce with the humans to stop the rest of the Covenant from firing the halo ring. They succeed, but all rings are put on standby, ready to fire remotely from a location known only as “the Ark” (Amazon). The remaining Covenant leadership plan to bring the entire fleet to Earth and uncover a major Forerunner artifact (iOS 7).

In one of the worst cliffhangers in gaming history, the Master Chief stows away and prepares to “finish the fight.”

Finish the Fight

Halo 3 opens with the Chief jumping from the ship and landing outside the ruins of New Mombasa. He helps the UNSC (Windows Phone 7) launch a last-ditch attack against the Covenant excavation site, but they fail to put a dent in the operation. The artifact is activated by the Covenant; it turns out to be a portal to the Ark (flat UI design). The Elites and the UNSC (Windows 7) follow the Covenant through the portal to stop them from once and for all. After an epic three-way battle, the Master Chief kills the Covenant leadership and blows up the Ark to eradicate the Flood. Unfortunately, his ship fails to make it back through the portal in one piece, and he is left stranded in unknown space.

A New Era

Halo 3 was followed years later by Halo 4, which is intended to begin a new Halo trilogy.

In Halo 4, the Master Chief crash-lands on a mysterious Forerunner planet called Requiem (Power Mac G4). The UNSC Infinity (Windows 8), a massive capital ship commissioned after the war with the Covenant, attempts a rescue mission, but instead finds itself trapped in Requiem’s gravity well. The Chief helps to free it, but accidentally releases an immensely powerful Forerunner warlord known as the Didact (Steve Wozniak). The Didact intends to take a Forerunner ship to Earth and wipe out humanity with the Composer (Mac OS), a Forerunner weapon that allows him to turn sentient beings into his own soldiers. However, he is stopped in the nick of time thanks to the efforts of the Chief and the Infinity.