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"Legends are almost always beautiful. The reality often leaves a lot to be desired."
The witcher's remark is aimed at the Elves, who have strained out the grit of life, love and loss before writing down their history, leaving only romantic, idealistic odes to the past. But it could just as easily be applied to the role-playing game: video game memories that sit warm and pretty in the heart, the reality of their original awkwardness so often lost to time and nostalgia.
So we remember the vainglory of slaying the dragon atop a mountain in Skyrim, not the 20 minutes of tacking zig-zigs on horseback that it took to reach its summit. So we remember Aerith's hands clasped on her still chest in Final Fantasy 7, not the machinegun volley of random battles that prevented us from reaching her in time to save her life. So we remember the silhouette of Fable's sheepdog fighting faithful by our side, not those times he caught upon a sticky polygon, or lost his mind to AI Alzheimer's and tore off to greet the distance. Legends are almost always beautiful. The reality often leaves a lot to be desired.
The witcher's game - his second, a Polish blockbuster exquisitely rebuilt stone by stone for Xbox 360 from the 2011 PC original - has been designed to ensure that, wherever possible, the legend and the reality match.
It's in the interface, which allows you to hack, slash, parry and throw spells with the touch of a button, stylishly slowing time to a crawl as you select a different brand of magic from a radial menu before winding it back to full speed once selected with decidedly un-RPG-like flair. It's in the cut-scenes, which press interactivity into the player's palms at every opportunity while maintaining their Game of Thrones-style directorial drama.
It's in the story itself, which is written at a geographical, architectural level just as much as it is written in the words of its characters. It's in the trade-post town of Flotsam where you spend the first few hours of your adventure, a riverside settlement where racial tension, poverty and hopelessness are scrawled into its dirt and structural layout as much as the dialogue boxes of its inhabitants. It's in the whorehouses, gambling dens and fighting rings where you can fritter away your hard-earned pennies on womanly comfort or manly jeopardy - downtime that might not make it to the history books, but which adds spice and grit to the true tale behind the telling. If The Witcher 2 is the stuff of legend, it's a legend rolled from s**t and blood, semen and mud; a plausible legend.
It's in the voice acting, which brings to vivid life dialogue that has the capacity to move in one moment and arrest the next. It's in the races and dialects, the social pecking order that reveals itself in every conversation with a beggar, a king and everyone in between. It's in the way in which the scriptwriters weave this cultural detail into your missions, over the short term and the long. The witcher's working to clear his name for the assassination of a king, but never too busy to ignore a cry for help from a pauper.
It's in the systemic counterpoint to the talking: combat, a taut, impressive affair which pits Geralt against groups of enemies demanding that you earn your wins through quick wits, nicking at foes with sword swipes before driving them back with ranged spells and dagger throws. Even the most seemingly straightforward skirmish is hard won, while battles against the true monsters lurking beneath the game's shallows require mastery before they relent.
It's in the character development tree, the freedom to extend the witcher's talents into magic or combat or alchemy, crafting a character of your own making rather than merely chiselling away at the predestined potential set out for him by a game designer. It's in the witcher, Geralt of Rivia, himself. Dry, collected, believable, mature, equal parts endearing and vicious, he is a lead character born for legend, the reality of whom rarely fails to live up to the legacy he leaves after the closing credits.
Curiously for a PC game hanging from a branch of Tolkien's family tree, The Witcher 2 is as much Rockstar as it is Bethesda. While this may not be an open-world game, the way that linear story and non-linear play link arms is reminiscent of Red Dead Redemption. Cut-scenes trigger when you approach key characters or areas, while the way missions are received, juggled and delivered is very Grand Theft Auto.
Where CD Projekt's game surpasses this influence is in the branching story: choices that halt you in your tracks as you realise the full weight of their repercussions, not only to those around you in the game, but also to your story, your legend. John Marston was tethered to Rockstar's tale, but you define the both the fine detail and grand sweep of Geralt's, deciding one moment whether to save the women from the burning building or topple the corrupt commander before he flees, before choosing which key character you will chase for the next 10 hours, altering the game experience dramatically.
Inevitably, perhaps, a few elements leave something to be desired. CD Projekt's first console release has textures that pop in and the occasional game-halting crash (although no bugs so persistent or crippling as those seen in the console versions of Skyrim). The interface occasionally requires one finger more than a console player owns (switching spells mid-battle on the Xbox controller forces thumbs and fingers into tortured positions) and there's just a little too much reliance on quick-time-event button-presses, which more feel out of place than ever here. An all-new tutorial smooths over some of the clumsiness of the PC game's opening hours, but the game demands just enough of its player before it begins to pay out its greatest rewards to ensure that some will walk away disappointed.
There are areas where the console players arriving late to The Witcher 2 benefit, however. For one, all downloadable content released for the game thus far is included in the package, these extra missions slotting seamlessly alongside the main quest so you can't see the stitching. The quality of these missions is universally high and creative: one asks you to wean a troll off vodka, another - exclusive to this version of the game - has you quietly escorting a lady-in-waiting from the city as she seeks to evade the eye and ire of her mage hunters.
The Witcher 2's timing is prescient. As Game of Thrones dominates the television ratings, just as Skyrim has dominated the game charts in recent months, the cultural appetite for fantasy is as high as it's ever been. Despite the competition, however, The Witcher 2 has an air of unique wonder about it. There's a weight and detail to the mythology that is beguiling, but CD Projekt's skill has been in making this relevant and meaningful to the player.
Where endless talk of mythical factions, rivalries and loyalty can drag even the best fantasy fiction down, in The Witcher 2, the backstory is as compelling as the plot that darts through it. And the weave of systems and story ensures that here is a legend as beautiful in the reality as it is in the telling.
Apr 13, 2012
Nintendo of America has snapped up the domain SuperMario4.com.
The web address currently acts as a redirect: try to access SuperMario4.com in a browser and you'll be warp-piped to the official Nintendo US website.
Nintendo has already announced a new side-scrolling Mario game for release on 3DS by the end of the financial year - April 2013.
A return to Mario's numbered roots fits a move back to the series' origins. A fourth numbered Super Mario title would follow NES classic Super Mario 3, launched way back in 1988.
The upcoming 3DS side-scroller will mark a change of pace from the last major Mario title to launch. Mega-selling Super Mario 3D Land, a cross between classic Mario games and the more recent Galaxy sub-series, has sold over five million copies since its launch late last year.
But Super Mario 4 may be a confusing moniker in Japan. In 1990, Super Famicom classic Super Mario World was released with "Super Mario 4" as a subtitle.
Apr 13, 2012
The developer behind Baldur's Gate Extended Edition is interested in tackling much-loved role-playing game Icewind Dale - but only if its current efforts are successful.
Beamdog chief Trent Oster, formerly of BioWare, tweeted about Icewind Dale, released in 2000 and developed by Black Isle Studios under the Dungeons & Dragons ruleset.
"The topic of Icewind Dale has come up a number of times," Oster said. "We are interested, but first we need #bgee to succeed."
Then: "If we were to do Icewind Dale we would likely use our codebase, so all classes and kits in ToB."
ToB stands for Throne of Bhaal, the expansion pack for Baldur's Gate 2: Shadows of Amn released in 2001 and developed by BioWare.
BeamDog, under license from Dungeons & Dragons IP holder Atari, is making Enhanced Editions of the first two Baldur's Gate titles.
BeamDog's Cameron Tofer has said it eventually hopes to get a third game in the classic RPG franchise off the ground - indeed it is its "long term goal".
Adding to this, Oster said on Twitter: "If we were to do a #BG3 we would probably develop a new engine and tool path. Clipping map areas is not an ideal level art workflow."
For now, though, the focus is Baldur's Gate: Enhanced Edition, which launches on PC, iPad and Mac OS X this summer.
The Enhanced Edition of the renowned 1998 PC RPG will be powered by an "upgraded and improved" version of the Infinity Engine. The original BG adventure plus Tales of the Sword Coast expansion pack will be included, as will "never before seen content" - a new party member and adventure.
Apr 13, 2012
A new Valve job advertisement has added weight to the recent rumour that the Half-Life maker is working on a Steam Box product.
Valve is after an electronics engineer to help it develop hardware to "enhance" the gameplay experiences it's known for.
"Join our highly motivated team that's doing hardware design, prototyping, testing, and production across a wide range of platforms," Valve said (via Engadget). "We're not talking about me-too mice and gamepads here - help us invent whole new gaming experiences."
The successful applicant's primary duty will be to "work with the hardware team to conceive, design, evaluate, and produce new types of input, output, and platform hardware".
Some have suggested the role indicates Valve's desire to create peripherals - indeed patents filed by the company show it has already thought up some interesting designs for gamepads with trackball integration. While this may be the case, recommended knowledge of "power supply management" and "ARM / X86 system design" suggest something more akin to a console or PC.
The call for an electronics engineer is but one of a number of job openings that form part of what Valve's Jeri Ellsworth describes as "our R&D dream team". She joined Valve recently to work on "next-gen gaming hardware".
The Steam Box was first mentioned by a report on The Verge, which last month reported that Valve was working on a console to be developed in partnership with manufacturers.
The Verge report said the Steam Box would "likely" launch with a proprietary controller that may allow for swappable components (analogue sticks, etc.). Valve filed a patent for such a device last year.
It also heard that some of these devices - maybe the controller itself - could be (or include) biometric sensors. These could measure heart beat (via a bracelet), skin galvanic response (sweaty hands) and feed that information back into the game. Sources intimated to The Verge that the technology was so good, "You won't ever look back."
Backing up its report, The Verge pointed to a tweet from Valve's Greg Coomer, who posted a picture online of a PC he had built, complete with specifications.
This, Valve marketing chief Doug Lombardi told Kotaku at GDC, was simply a test unit for the company's new user interface, designed to make playing Steam games through a PC connected to a telly easier.
"We're prepping the Steam Big Picture Mode UI and getting ready to ship that, so we're building boxes to test that on," Lombardi said.
"We're also doing a bunch of different experiments with biometric feedback and stuff like that, which we've talked about a fair amount.
"All of that is stuff that we're working on, but it's a long way from Valve shipping any sort of hardware."
However, Lombardi refused to rule out such a device for the future.
"Whether we're talking about Valve making hardware or partnering with others, nothing like that is happening any time soon," Lombardi confirmed.
Last November, a film archivist in Hertfordshire found an old tin sitting on a shelf. The tin was labelled "Hungry Hobos", and a quick check on Google revealed that it contained a genuine piece of movie history. It was an Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoon - he was the precursor to Mickey Mouse - made by Walt Disney's animation company in 1928, and long thought lost forever.
A copy of the film travelled with Junction Point boss Warren Spector when he visited London last week to show of Epic Mickey 2: The Power of Two, the unexpected sequel to the odd, and rather troubled, Wii exclusive from 2010. Spector screened it for us before launching into his game presentation - I wish all press events worked like this - and it was astonishing stuff to watch.
When you think of Disney cartoons - I'm talking about the shorts, here, rather than the full-blown features - you may be picturing something that's lavish and beautiful, but rather tame, and rather bloodless. Disney shorts tend not to be funny and violent the way that Warner Bros. cartoons are. They don't feel as subversive.
Back in the days of Oswald, though, they were. Hungry Hobos - one of now just 14 of the original 26 Oswald cartoons to have survived - is refreshingly cruel, in fact. Oswald and Peg-leg Pete are hitching a ride on a train. They want something to eat, so they pull the head off a chicken and shake out a few eggs. To cook them, Pete holds Oswald against the train track until his pants catch fire. That's just the first scene.
Oswald used to be mischievous and anarchic, and so did Mickey Mouse. Disney cartoons were once brash, inventive, and even mean. You don't see much of that any more, but you did get a little glimpse of it in Epic Mickey. In the first game, in fact, Oswald spent a lot of time as the villain of the piece, a spurned and bitter cinematic icon left to wallow in the Wasteland, his toxic version of Disneyland, while some newcomer got all the attention. This was a Mickey Mouse game that kicked off with an attempted surgical disembowelling, remember, and things only got weirder and scarier from that point on.
In the sequel, however - which is coming to the PS3 and Xbox 360 as well as the Wii - Oswald and Mickey are partners, and they're off on a new adventure that sees the Wasteland suffering strange seismic events that threaten to pull it apart. So that's the first thing that's changed, then: you've got local split-screen co-op that sees you teaming up, drop-in, drop-out style, throughout the entirety of the campaign.
Playing on PS3, this makes for scrappy, rather chaotic fun. Mickey's still armed with his paint and paint-thinner, allowing him to rub out parts of the environment or build it back up again - on a pad, this is done with L2 and R2, with the right stick controlling the reticule - and Oswald has a remote control that he can either use to zap electrical equipment to life, or to throw and then catch, like a kind of boomerang.
Co-operation's the order of the day, and plenty of the game's very early puzzles rely on Mickey clearing a path with his thinner while Oswald powers an electrical platform that will move them along some tracks. If you're playing with a friend, it can all feel pleasantly clumsy in a pantomime sort of way. If you're playing alone, meanwhile, the AI isn't bad, and it looks like you can switch characters with the press of a button.
The adventure still seems to be split between 2D and 3D sections, and Spector's said that his goal is for players to make their way through the entirety of the main campaign without ever having to touch the camera controls, which are located down on the d-pad. The camera was a real issue back in the first game, but 20 minutes or so spent in the new version of OsTown, a large 3D space with a fountain right in the centre, suggests that the team is making noticeable improvements, even if there's still some way to go.
The split-screen leaves both players with plenty of space to see the environment, and it feels a little easier to target NPCs for a chat. When platforming is called for, the camera seems to anticipate where you're trying to go, and it can even cope with a new special move in which Oswald's ears turn into helicopter blades and Mickey hitches a ride on his feet.
In terms of objectives, the section we're allowed to play is not particularly inspired, however. After working through a quick tutorial in Yen Sid's workshop and navigating a floating path made of rocks, a 2D travelling level features a series of very simple door puzzles, while OsTown sees us locating three fuses to power a thinner pump that will drain the nearby fountain. It's early on in proceedings, of course, so it's probably wrong to expect too much in the way of excitement, but it's also worth remembering that, while Epic Mickey was always very good at taking you to amazing locations, it often didn't have anything particularly brilliant for you to do once you were there.
It all looks beautiful, however, with the PS3 and Xbox 360 versions layering on the particle effects and moving pieces, while even the Wii iteration benefits from a wonderful rich colour scheme, whether you're looking at the honeyed walls of Yen Sid's lair or the toxic green gunk splashing around in OsTown. (While the Wii game is structurally identical to the other versions, incidentally, it doesn't share actual art assets, meaning PS3 and Xbox 360 players shouldn't feel like they're getting an HD port.)
Along with the multi-platform shift, Epic Mickey 2 promises to deliver on the sense of consequence that the first game often skirted. Here, according to Spector, the decisions you make will stick: they'll affect the Wasteland and the people within it, and will hopefully cause you to stop and think before making a choice. On top of that, the whole thing's now fully-voiced, while cut-scenes even see characters breaking into song as the story unfolds.
Spector's pretty excited about the song angle, as it happens, but he's also bringing it in with uncharacteristic timidity. While he suggests he's got plenty of ideas for how to make songs work within the actual moment-to-moment action of an Epic Mickey game, for this outing, they won't be escaping from the cinematics, where they can be easily skipped with the press of a button.
It's a shame, really, even if it's easy to appreciate why Spector's being so restrained. While the first Epic Mickey wasn't a gigantic critical hit, it was a courageous game that took huge risks with its subject matter, plucking good ol' Mickey Mouse out of his inane comfort zone and exploring the fascinating outer-reaches of his mythology, along with the mythology of the studio that created him.
Epic Mickey 2 will hopefully continue in that tradition to some extent - I can't wait to see how the Wasteland has changed in this latest outing, for example - but by introducing its big new elements so cautiously, it may be passing up the chance to be just as bold and intriguing as its predecessor.
After all, if you ever get to see Hungry Hobos for yourself, it will remind you just how inventive and forward-thinking Walt Disney could be sometimes.
Apr 12, 2012
Dungeonbowl, a PC exclusive spin-off of Games Workshop tabletop game Blood Bowl, launches at some point before July, developer Cyanide has announced.
The online only game uses characters from the American Football fantasy-themed game, and is set in the same world. The difference is, Dungeonbowl is played in a dungeon. Apparently the wizards created it because they wanted to know which Magic College was the most powerful. Ha! Those crazy wizards!
A match is played between two teams, each made up of three races. For example, the Rainbow Wizards team includes Wood Elves, Halflings and Humans. The first team to score a touchdown wins the match.
Sound easy? It isn't. The ball itself is hidden in one of six treasure chests, five of which are booby-trapped with an explosive spell. If that wasn't bad enough, teleporter pads complicate movement. You can use them to your advantage, but you can also end up inadvertently teleporting your players out of the match.
Similar to Blood Bowl, each player plays in turn, and the gameplay is driven by dice. First screenshots are below.
Apr 12, 2012
You don't need to go hunting for meaning in Fez. Chat to the villagers at the very start of the game and one wise old coot says, "Reality is perception. Perception is subjective." If there's a theme to the perspective-shift puzzles of Polytron's "2D platformer in a 3D world," then there it is. Philosophy so dispensed with, we can all just get on with soaking up the mystery and wonder of this fabulous adventure game.
In Fez, you play Gomez, a blob-headed sprite living in a peaceful, two-dimensional pixel village. One morning, he witnesses a strange event in which a monolithic golden cube disintegrates into hundreds of fragments, threatening the fabric of his reality so much that it glitches, crashes and resets (with a nice impression of an old DOS boot screen). At the same time, a magical red hat - the fez of the title - grants Gomez knowledge of his world's greatest and oldest secret: there are actually three dimensions.
Now - as well as running, jumping and climbing as he seeks the cube fragments that made up the golden "hexahedron" - Gomez can rotate his world through 90 degrees before it snaps back into a flat plane. The perspective shift reveals hidden areas and realigns platforms; a yawning gap becomes an easy jump, a thin sliver becomes a wide gangway, and impassable distances are squashed into nothingness. It's a combination of the wraparound platforming of cult '80s game Nebulus with the Escher-like spatial non-sequiturs of Echochrome, and it's a wonderful conjuring trick.
It could have been the basis for a tough brain-teaser like Braid - but the first and most enduring of Fez's many wonderful surprises is how natural, intuitive and fun the perspective-shift is to play with. The game's exploration of the idea is unforced and playful throughout, and it never stops you at a mental roadblock.
Fez's creator, artist and designer Phil Fish, doesn't have the obsessive intellectual rigour of Braid's Jon Blow, or the same interest in messing with our minds. Nor is he particularly into other typical indie concerns such as allegory, reinvention, subversion or old-school reaction-test gaming. Fish clearly worships the Nintendo of his boyhood, and has dedicated himself to unearthing the sense of surprise and secret wonder you felt playing a Metroid, Zelda or Super Mario for the first time. And he's got closer than you ever thought possible.
The simple joy of exploration is at the very heart of the appeal of video games. In Fez, it's absolutely unfettered.
It's as if Shigeru Miyamoto had made his 2001: A Space Odyssey: a peaceable game of exploration, collection and riddling shot through with a trippy, 1970s flavour of surrealism. You'll unlock doors to forgotten cities. You'll discover warp routes and hidden worlds, and reach for a pad and pen to unscramble one of several secret languages scrawled on the walls (one is composed entirely of Tetris shapes).
Most of all, you'll marvel at the twists and branches of an unravelling world map as you go deeper, higher, further still - losing yourself down one of Fez's dozens of rabbit holes that always last a few steps longer than you expected, or take you somewhere you didn't think you'd be. A floating bell tower, perhaps, or a treetop observatory, or a seedy, abandoned tenement outlined against a sky that flickers like a neon sign.
The simple joy of exploration is at the very heart of the appeal of video games. In Fez - which features no combat or enemies, and only the mildest kind of platforming peril - it's absolutely unfettered.
A great deal of this is down to Fish's art, which is as evocative as it is painstakingly crafted. Every chunk of stone is weathered slightly differently to the next, every pixel (actually rendered as a full cube in 3D) placed by hand. But credit's also due to programmer Renaud Bédard, who has tackled what must be one of the most unusual technical challenges of this gaming generation, and composer Rich Vreeland (AKA Disasterpeace) whose otherworldly synth score is lush, spooky and electrifying.
Structurally, Fez is simple and traditional. You need to collect cubes and cube fragments to unlock new areas. 32 cubes get you to the exit and the game's boggling psychedelic wig-out of a climax; this will take you maybe half a dozen hours.
After that, you get the option to start a New Game + with all your cubes and collectables, and it will take at least as long again to gather 32 more cubes and fully complete the game. Many of these will be "anti-cubes", which are the reward for solving the tougher challenges, puzzles and frequently fourth-wall-breaking riddles. (New Game + also grants a hilarious and astonishing extra that lets you peek behind the curtain and see Fez in a whole new light.)
Like last year's Super Mario 3D Land, Fez arguably gets even better after it ends. Because the structure is very loose - the stages unlocked in the first half are curious offshoots rather than branches of the main tree - your route through the game will be organic and impulse-driven, and you'll be left with plenty still to explore in the second half.
It's during this stage that you'll seriously tackle the game's many secrets - all handily marked, but not at all spoiled, on the head-spinning 3D map screen. Think Miyamoto, Kojima or Schafer at their most impish: treasure maps, invisible platforms, secret messages delivered in unexpected ways, puns and tricks of the light.
There's a deeper mystery behind them all, too. In the hieroglyphic scrawls on the walls and the strange locations you find, you can piece together a little of the fragmented - but surprisingly coherent - story of an ancient civilization, and how the inhabitants of this weird half-flat world struggled to come to terms with its impossible depth.
Apr 12, 2012
Thousands have signed an anti-Games for Windows Live Dark Souls PC petition.
The PC version, due out on 24th August, was announced to support GFWL last night at a Namco Bandai press event in Las Vegas, and it didn't take long for gamers to express their concern about the controversial digital platform.
"GFWL is unpopular, difficult to use, inconvenient, has terrible online support (a key feature in Dark Souls), and is downright unpleasant," reads the petition's manifesto.
"After anxiously awaiting a PC release for this fantastic game it feels like a real slap in the face hearing Dark Souls will use Games for Windows Live."
The petition, started by a "Mr Big Mclargehuge", from "Winsington, MT", calls on Namco Bandai to use Valve's Steamworks either as well as GFWL or instead of it.
"We recommend Valve's Steamworks in place, as this DRM is much easier to use, less intrusive, more reliable, and more accepted among PC gamers," the manifesto continues.
"Please reconsider the use of GFWL, or offer the game on both services. Thank you for taking the effort to port this game, but for a lot of customers it's Steam or no sale."
At the time of publication the petition had 11,753 signatures.
Gargantuan role-playing game The Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim will get Kinect support, Bethesda has announced.
Support for Microsoft's motion-sensing device will come via a free title update due out this month. A video showcasing how it works is below.
Over 200 voice commands are added, including for Dragon Shouts, Hotkey Equipping, Follower Commands, and all Menus (Items, Magic, Map, Barter, Container, Favorites, and Skills).
You can also use voice commands to order your companions about, to create and load saves during gameplay and access menus and inventories.
The video shows how you're able to quickly switch weapon load-outs, from dual spells, for example, to axe and shield.
New functionality has been added, including special map functions, additional hotkey options and the ability to sort inventory items by name, weight, and value. Bethesda will release a full list of voice commands in the coming weeks.
Meanwhile, Bethesda revealed tentative details on the first Skyrim DLC add-on, due out as a timed Xbox 360 exclusive.
"Bethesda Game Studios has been hard at work on creating the first set of game add-ons that will be exclusive to the Xbox 360 video game and entertainment system from Microsoft," it said. "This additional content will add new quests, locations, features, and much more to the world of Skyrim.
"Stay tuned, we hope to officially announce what it is soon."
Apr 12, 2012
Located on a rather nondescript industrial estate in a suburb of Leicester you'll find an equally nondescript warehouse unit. Nestled amongst the usual glut of logistics companies and scrap metal merchants, the building in question once housed a firm that was poised to dramatically alter the world of interactive entertainment as we know it, and worked with such illustrious partners as Sega, Atari, Ford and IBM.
That company was Virtuality. Founded by a dashing and charismatic Phd graduate by the name of Jonathan D. Waldern, it placed the UK at the vanguard of a Virtual Reality revolution that captured the imagination of millions before collapsing spectacularly amid unfulfilled promises and public apathy.
The genesis of VR begins a few years prior to Virtuality's birth in its grey and uninspiring industrial surroundings. The technology was born outside of the entertainment industry, with NASA and the US Air Force cooking up what would prove to be the first VR systems, intended primarily for training and research. The late '80s and very early '90s saw much academic interest in the potential of VR, but typically, it took a slice of Hollywood hokum to really jettison the concept into the global consciousness and create a new buzzword for the masses.
"The fundamental driver was public interest," says Kevin Williams, who worked at another UK-based VR company during this period, and has since become something of an expert on the topic. "The 1992 motion picture The Lawnmower Man boasted ground-breaking CG special effects that encapsulated what had been written and reported about VR, and drove imagination in a similar way to how Steven Spielberg's Minority Report recently fuelled perception of what Augmented Reality can offer."
It wasn't long before savvy developers saw potential applications in the sphere of interactive entertainment, and given the groundswell of interest in the tech, it was fairly easy for an energetic start-up like Virtuality to capitalise. "The company was the UK superstar of the VR concept," adds Williams. "They were willing to self-promote to publicise their vision of how VR worked, and took a route to adoption through the amusement sector - an industry that was at the time trapped in a downward spiral, in need of unique technology to distance itself from the erosion started by the home console revolution." VR was about to become huge news, and Virtuality had jumped on the bandwagon at precisely the right moment.
Anything is Possible
"I started my career at Rare, writing games on the early Nintendo and Sega consoles," recounts former Virtuality staffer Matt Wilkinson. "I'd been making 2D games for about a decade at that point, and then Doom came out on the PC. All of a sudden you were wandering around in what felt, to all intents and purposes, like a real 3D environment. Shortly after that, I heard of a company called Virtuality, which wasn't too far away from Rare's Warwickshire HQ.
"One Saturday I knocked on the door and gave some guy my CV. Completely out of the blue, he showed me round the place, and I was immediately fascinated. There were large pods to stand and sit in, hardware boards lying around all over the place, cables and bits of PCs in various states of disarray. Despite the fact I was in a windowless building on a Leicester industrial estate, the whole place felt hi-tech, and seemed to be a glimpse of where the future might lie. The guy let me have a go on Dactyl Nightmare, one of the company's early games. The game itself was terrible, but the experience of putting on a headset and being immersed in a world was incredible. I knew I wanted to be a part of this. The guy who opened the door turned out to be Jon Waldern. He offered me a job, and I accepted."
Virtuality's Midlands setup also impressed Scotsman Don McIntyre, who was fresh out of university clutching a MSc in Computer Science. "It was the scale of ambition that really struck me," he remembers. "From end to end, the operation was slick. The machines looked good and on the whole functioned very well, and the software was literally years ahead of its time." To budding development stars like Wilkinson and McIntyre, VR represented the next big thing in video gaming.
"Kids like us - who had grown up coding on machines like the ZX Spectrum, VIC-20 and BBC Micro - found their way into the games industry and brought with them a lot of ambition and energy," enthuses McIntyre. "The concept of 'immersion' within a fully 3D environment had been around since Philip K Dick and extended a little further with Disney's Tron, and we grew up reading those books and watching those films. It felt like anything was possible."
Virtuality's hardware was initially quite crude, with games like Legend Quest and the aforementioned Dactyl Nightmare sporting painfully simplistic polygon visuals and terrible frame rates, but the underlying tech improved as time went on. "There were two generations of both stand up and sit down machines," elaborates McIntyre.
"The 1000 series, which featured the iconic bulky headset, and the 2000 series, which was far more advanced in terms of hardware and software capability. The 1000 series was essentially an Amiga 3000 with our own proprietary cards based on a Texas Instruments chipset. The 2000s were tricked-out 486 DX4 PCs." Virtuality's unique pods offered gamers their first real-world experience of VR, but due to the myriad problems the concept faced, it didn't always leave a positive impression.
"At the time, a top-of-the-range coin-op game would cost you 50p to play, or perhaps a quid for Sega's fancy G-LOC R360 cabinet," reveals Wilkinson. "But those games were ones that everybody knew how to play. VR machines, in contrast, were totally alien. Therefore, you needed an attendant to help you into it, persuade you to put on the sweaty headset, and talk to you via a microphone to stop you standing in a virtual corner, staring at a virtual wall for your entire three-minute experience.
"To cover the prohibitive cost of the hardware and the added expense of having an attendant on every single machine, the player would be charged on average four pounds to play for three minutes of not really knowing what they were doing. The VR experience is not something that can be quickly learned or mastered, so three minutes was never going to work. But these were amusement arcades, and the average arcade owner wants as many people in and out of the machines as they can in a day."
With VR struggling to find acceptance in the coin-op sector, inevitable attempts were made to introduce the concept into the lucrative domestic arena. Nintendo's VR-inspired Virtual Boy was a commercial disaster, while Atari created a VR headset for its ill-fated Atari Jaguar console, with Virtuality providing the expertise.
"We designed a very low-cost unit with head tracking," remembers Wilkinson. "The method we pioneered is actually what the Nintendo Wii uses to track the pointer, but in reverse; on our headset, the IR receivers were on your head and the transmitter sat on your desk in front of you. Bearing in mind the relatively low cost, it worked remarkably well, but of course it suffered from all the obvious problems - occlusion of the IR broke the tracking, turning your head too much would typically put one of the receivers out of sight of the transmitter and moving your head around could easily put you out of the ideal range, which impacted the smoothness of the tracking."
In addition to the Jaguar headset deal - which ultimately ended in tears as Atari began to back-peddle in the face of crippling losses and increased competition from its next-gen rivals - Virtuality also assisted Japanese veteran Sega with its own pet project. Along with Atari, Sega was seemingly gripped with temporary VR fever in the mid '90s, and was tantalisingly close to releasing a headset for its aging Mega Drive console.
"The company wasted a lot of time playing with a coin-op prototype that used technology licensed from Virtuality, while at the same time it also developed its own headset using licensed components," explains Williams. "The arcade prototype would fall by the wayside, though the hardware would be developed into the first VR theme park attraction - dubbed VR-1 - which was deployed in a number of Sega's Joypolis venues in Japan."
Thinking Outside of the Box
These projects were little more than flights of fancy for the established gaming giants; throwaway projects based more on curious speculation than serious business. But back in the UK, Virtuality's ailing coin-op business - its bread and butter - was in serious trouble. The company simply couldn't deliver on the sky-high desires of the public, which were fuelled by laughably unrealistic depictions of VR in movies - ironic when you consider that Hollywood played a massive part in creating awareness and initial demand for the tech in the first place. "When the movie Disclosure came out in 1994, it boasted a VR segment which really put a huge dent in what Virtuality was doing," recalls Wilkinson. "Up until that point, we'd been happily telling the people that were paying us huge sums of money for their VR experiences that this was as good as they were going to get with the technology available at the time. Disclosure then puts a fresh Hollywood spin on VR, and suddenly all you need is a pair of lightweight glasses and you're wandering around a photo-realistic version of the world; this was what people now wanted, not a simplified, polygonal environment."
To shore up its crumbling business, Virtuality had no choice but to diversify and take on commercial projects unrelated to the entertainment sector. "Jon asked me to join what was known as the Advanced Applications Group," Wilkinson explains. "We did everything from putting the user on an oil rig that was blowing up to creating a VR experience that - intentionally, I might add - simulated a migraine. It was at that moment that I finally saw VR for something beyond just gaming; I realised that it had huge potential in all manner of other areas.
"Another AAG group worked on a project that was a simulation for anesthesiologists; the user would be by the operating table of a patient, with an accurate representation of the controls and array of things available to a real anesthesiologist, and their job was to make sure the patient was calm, stable, and basically didn't die. The instructor could suddenly cause all sorts of things to go wrong that the user would have to deal with and keep the patient alive. This wasn't a game; this was going to save somebody's life one day. Similarly, the oilrig simulation was designed to test layouts and signage within a rig to see whether people would be able to follow the emergency instructions and get to the lifeboats in a very intense situation. Once again, that may have saved somebody's life, and that was serious potential."
Born from a desire to expand the horizons of science but appropriated by the games industry for entertainment purposes, VR had ironically now come full circle. Another delicious irony is that Virtuality finally found its gaming mojo around this period - although sadly, it was too late to reverse its fortunes, or the damaged perception of VR in the public eye. The game in question was Buggy Ball.
"Four players played simultaneously, and each was in a vehicle of their choosing, ranging from a heavy monster truck to a light and nippy buggy," explains Wilkinson, who is still visibly excited by the premise. "You were all placed in a huge bowl with a gigantic beach-ball, and the aim was to score goals by being the person to knock the ball out of the bowl. We used a sit-down machine and a joystick to drive the vehicles, and all the while you need to be looking around you to find the ball and see who was about to ram you.
"Finally, we had a game that could only be played in a VR environment, and it was tremendous fun. It's such a shame that this wasn't the game that Virtuality began life with, because it might still be around today if it had." McIntyre was involved with another promising project which lamentably came too late - a VR interpretation of Namco's seminal Pac-Man. "We tested an unfinished version of the game at the nearby DeMontfort University" he remembers. "There was almost a riot. Students were queuing around the building at one point, which proves to me that it worked."
Sadly, by the time the 32-bit PlayStation and Sega Saturn arrived on the market, the writing was on the wall not only for Virtuality, but the concept of game-focused VR in general. "The firm's success was based on the shock and awe factor," explains McIntyre. "Up until that point users had only really experienced games which featured bitmap graphics, and to be immersed in a 3D
world was fabulous. But the emergence of new console hardware was the death knell for Virtuality. The experience lost its novelty, its appeal and ultimately its USP."
After treading water for months, the company was finally declared insolvent in 1997, by which point the average gamer's interest in the tech had dwindled away to nothing. Players were being wowed by shiny new home consoles that supplied immersion without the need for a cumbersome, sweat-drenched headset. "I think Virtuality's biggest mistake was thinking that games were what was going to make the company successful," laments Wilkinson. "At that time, it was just never going to happen. VR was a gimmick that the company desperately tried to shoehorn a gaming experience on to."
Don't Believe the Hype
"It is well documented that if you over-hype a product and fail to deliver on the promise then the public will abandon you in droves," says Williams. "VR provided novelty value for the majority of arcades that deployed it, but an amusement venue cannot depend wholly on novelty; it demands a level of repeat visitation and no one wanted to play the original VR systems more than once. A level of unreliability, poor performance, substandard presentation, complicated operation - not to mention the discomfort of wearing an overly heavy head-mounted display - are just some of the litany of issues that plagued the early concept, and spelt its extinction as a viable platform. All this was not helped by manufacturers over-publicizing their system's capabilities and ignoring their limitations."
The significant transition from 2D to 3D gaming in the mid '90s also stymied VR's chances. "The term 'Virtual Reality' became confused as a result," admits McIntyre, who now works as a Creative Technologist and gives lectures at Glasgow School of Art and Strathclyde University - the latter venue being where he obtained his MSc. "Many of the early 3D games - such as Doom, Duke Nukem, Heretic and Descent - all met the needs and imagination of users. 3D graphics and the entertainment software associated with it improved at a tremendous rate, and I think manufacturers felt that users could have an immersive 3D experience without actually being 'immersed' in the VR sense."
Despite fading from the public eye in the past decade, VR's influence can still be felt in gaming today. "The whole motion tracking and motion capture explosion in consumer gaming, from the Wii to Kinect, can be traced back to the VR," says Williams. "If it were not for the need for sophisticated motion tracking technology back in the '90s, then we would not have seen the cost-reduced applications that have been integrated into these consoles today." VR-inspired devices are still being produced, too - the most recent being Sony's HMZ-T1 Personal 3D Viewer. "The HMZ-T1 is the latest recreation of the head-mounted display, though it is marketed as a personal viewer, rather than being a window on a virtual environment," continues Williams. "It looks remarkably similar to previous VR head-mounted display designs from the late '90s."
Virtual Reality Rebirth?
During Virtuality's short time in the spotlight, some industry analysts commented that VR gaming was ahead of its time. Given that display technology has improved to the point where ultra-lightweight glasses are available, and motion tracking - such as that offered by Microsoft's Kinect - neatly removes the need for awkward controllers, could VR possibly be due for a comeback? "For the majority of games in the market today, it would actually make things worse," Wilkinson grimly replies.
"Driving games might see some benefit, but in terms of First or Third person games, a VR headset would be of no use whatsoever. I can imagine that some people will be utterly convinced that Call of Duty would be better if you had a headset on and were looking around you, but it wouldn't. It would be very frustrating and far more difficult to play. For one thing, you'd lose the 'Aim Down Sights' feature; instead, you'd have to actually aim the gun yourself - not an easy thing to do with a headset on - which takes far longer than pressing a shoulder button and having the game snap the sights onto an enemy. Players would suddenly discover that they're not as good of a shot as they thought they were.
"There's another issue with set pieces, which most modern games rely on these days. I can pretty much guarantee that well over 50 per cent of the players in a game using VR would be looking the wrong way when a spectacular set piece happened. You can't force the player to look in a certain direction, because that breaks the immersion. For our oil rig simulation, we went to the expense of going to a Special Effects studio and have them blow stuff up for us, which we recorded and streamed onto textures in the game. It was pretty impressive, but the problem we faced was that a typical user would be busy examining a section of pipe by their foot instead of looking where we wanted them to."
It would appear that any potential VR revival faces the same kind of issues that Microsoft's Kinect has experienced over the past year or so; it would require software that is built around its own unique strengths, rather than traditional games that have been shoehorned into a new and largely incompatible interface. "Bolting VR onto existing games isn't likely to be much of a success," states Wilkinson, who clearly knows his stuff as he is now employed at Activision as Senior Director Of Technology. "VR games need to be their own genre, with their own gameplay mechanics that the head tracking either makes possible or, at the very least, enhances. If the headset can't do either of those two things, it simply becomes a gimmick that will die out very quickly."
Williams has similar misgivings, but also feels that emerging ideas in the realm of interactive entertainment may mean that VR as we traditionally know it - bulky headsets and all - may not be resurrected at all. "Many things that could not have been achieved with the technology of the '90s are now possible," explains Williams, who runs The Stinger Report, an E-newsletter catering for the Digital Out-of-Home interactive entertainment sector.
"While head-mounted displays were once seen as the only way to represent a virtual environment, the latest projection systems boast surrounding visual capabilities that render a headset superfluous. These systems are the new generation of 'immersive capsule', and combine body tracking, non-glasses 3D and a level of fidelity through 4D - otherwise known as physical entrainment effects - that surpass what a home console can ever dream of offering. Systems such as these could herald the rebirth of immersive entertainment far more than the return of VR."