Steam and the One-Console Future

One of the most surprising announcements at this E3 came from Valve, with Gabe Newell, who has been somewhat outspoken about the experience of PS3 development, confirming a PS3 version of Portal 2, previously only thought to be coming to the PC, Mac and Xbox 360. That in itself isn’t all that shocking because Valve games have turned up on the system from other developers, but it’s not hyperbole to say that his aside about Steamworks coming to Sony’s console has the potential to really shake up the industry.

Some of this is still speculation because we don’t know exactly which Steamworks features will be on the way. I’d be very surprised if cross-platform multiplayer made it, and Steam Play (buy it on the PC and automatically get the Mac version and vice versa) expanding to the PS3 version would be apocalyptically big, but even if we’re looking at the simpler things like automatic updates, community features and Steam Cloud – we know that last one’s on the way for sure – Valve is going to go a big way towards removing the barriers between gaming across distinct platforms and moving gaming away from independent walled gardens.

Originally Steam Cloud would simply copy your saves and custom settings to the ‘cloud’ so that they’d be synced between your computers, and with the release of the Steam Mac client it was expanded to doing that across operating systems, and we have to assume, given that it has no other purpose, that it’ll do the same with Steamworks PS3 games. We already have retail PC games that integrate Steamworks – big titles like Modern Warfare 2 and Just Cause 2, for example – and it’s entirely possible that future editions will sync your progress across multiple platforms. Saving your game in Call of Duty on your PC at work and picking up on your MacBook on the train home and then finding your progress reflected on your console is insane. It’s like living in the future.

I like Xbox Live a lot, but this just couldn’t happen on the Xbox 360 as it stands. It’s the kind of thing that was promised by Live Anywhere, but what little of that still exists now seems to be coming only to Windows Mobile phones. Besides the fact that I don’t and won’t own one, it’s a great system if you’re willing to lock yourself into Microsoft’s products, but Steam now works on consoles and, if the rumours of an upcoming Linux version are true, computers regardless of operating system. An open network doesn’t always work out for the best on something that should be as plug-and-play as a console – see the disaster that was the Konami ID in Metal Gear Solid 4, as well as how online functionality can still vary wildly between PS3 games – but I think Valve has demonstrated its community credentials on enough occasions to be the one to try this.

The ‘one-console future’ is inevitable if this medium ever wants to grow up, and simply facilitating interaction between platforms is the first and largest step. We’re still going to have PlayStations and Xboxes for the foreseeable future, but Steamworks and independently developed community features like Rockstar Social Club and Battlefield 1943’s Coral Sea Challenge that are showing the barest hints of cross-platform interaction are, I think, seriously showing the way things are going. The way things have to go.

I could be wrong and this could turn out to be nothing, of course. I don’t think it will, though. This has to happen so let’s get it over with.

E3 2010 Conference Review

It’s E3 again! That means broken promises, broken hearts, betrayal, disappointment, and that’s just when there’s a World Cup match on.¬†For reference, check out my report cards for 2007, 2008 and 2009.

So without further ado, in chronological order…

Microsoft

To be honest, I got exactly what I expected from Microsoft. We all knew that there was going to be a huge focus on Natal Kinect and that was borne out. It’s undeniably technically impressive, but the lineup doesn’t interest me in the slightest so far. My antipathy towards the Wii is no real secret, and so it’s going to take something special, likely from an established developer known for great ‘normal’ games, but for the time being I’m happy to be an observer. I can see people who are in the intended audience being really impressed by it.

If we’re talking stuff outside hardcore games, ESPN was the most impressive thing. It’s almost certainly not coming here, but it’s potentially the definitive way to watch sports, and it’s included in an existing Xbox Live subscription. I’m a football fan, and having a library of classic matches as well as HD streaming live stuff with all those community features would be fantastic. Imagine getting a similar thing with the BBC iPlayer, for example.

As for the real games, there weren’t really any surprises for the most part, but what I saw impressed me. Gears 3 looked like Gears 3, and Halo: Reach really looked like a proper next-gen Halo game. Crytek is apparently making a God of War game as well, and MGS: Rising looked decent, albeit like it’s reviving something that should now be finished with. That interests me still, as even if it’s part of a genre that I don’t often get on with, those cutting mechanics look incredibly cool. Could be some real potential there.

Echoes of Sega’s E3 1995 Saturn announcement with the unveiling of the new machine, which perhaps isn’t the kind of memories to be dredging up, but you can’t deny the effectiveness of showing off the reduced size of your redesign by having it on stage inside the old one the whole time. It’s been much-needed on the technical side for a while, and I’ll certainly be tempted to upgrade at the next price drop. I’m liking the look of it, actually.

But the overall impression was underwhelming. Halo: Reach was the only game that really got me excited, and that’s… well, Halo. A Halo game that was announced over a year ago and that most of us have already played, in fact. I’m writing this section on Monday night before either of the other two conferences so I could be proven completely wrong here, but I expect Nintendo and Sony to blow away the paltry number of new announcements to appeal to gamers, and they’ll almost certainly be exclusives, which Call of Duty and Metal Gear Solid aren’t. There was a lot of flash there for really not that many new games for 2010 and 2011.

So a fairly unimpressive line-up of new games with some intriguing but unproven technology means that this conference scores a…

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Rockstar Redeemed

I finished Red Dead Redemption yesterday, and wow, Rockstar’s outdone itself on that one. I loved GTA IV and its expansions, but Red Dead was more mature, more beautiful, more poignant, and something that I want to see more of. Free-roaming games of this type are wasted on yet another modern crime spree, and I hope that this is enough of a success to see more interesting historical periods mined for their gaming goodness.

It’s stunningly beautiful at times, as striking as any of the great vistas thrown up in the open-world games this generation. Towards the end I saw a sunrise over the water at the town of Blackwater and had to stop and admire the view, and there are countless little places to sit on your horse and do so – the hints of the landmarks of Mexico that are visible from Rio Bravo, the view across all of Cholla Springs from the cliffs of Hennigan’s Stead, taking in the entirety of the plains from the summit of Nekoti Rock. I’ve loved the imagery of the Old West since the days when I’d visit Frontierland at the Magic Kingdom and Blackgang Chine right up until I discovered Sergio Leone, and Red Dead evokes it all as knowingly as GTA does the same with modern pop culture.

Up until the end – there won’t be any overt plot spoilers here, but I may allude to certain things – I’d been enjoying the story, but as it reached its finale it really turned into something special. The end of a certain stranger’s quest that runs through the game was the point where Rockstar upped its game, in my opinion, and from then on it turned from what was essentially a GTA story into the tale of redemption that the name was hinting at, while touching on themes of destiny and civilisation. Marston was a brilliant protagonist who you grow to care about, and the change of pace for the final act, although I’m sure some will dislike it, formed an important bookend and provided an emotional anchor for the finale proper.

And when I say ‘mature’, I don’t just mean blood, sex and bad language. The lawless Old West arguably fits the GTA template better than the heavily policed modern day; there’s none of Niko complaining about his inescapable life of crime and poverty as he sits there with $1 million in his pocket because, unless you go out of your way, you’re probably not ending the game with more than a couple grand in cash. Similarly, there’s less dissonance between Marston’s character and his actions when you decide to ‘play’ the character because he’s a former gang member being forced to do these things in a lawless world rather than someone who claims to want out but has an unfortunate habit of accepting hits from mob leaders for money anyway.

In short, Red Dead is a magnificent game. I think it’s a better game than GTA in every respect, raising the bar on the game that owns this sub-genre and plucking a game series from obscurity – really, does this have any relation to the distinctly average Red Dead Revolver at all? – and deserving praise just as much. I just hope it’s successful enough to spawn some follow-ups because I’m excited to see what’s next.