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February 17th, 2013

Penguins, devils and aliens

Sorry guys, TAGAP and other things have kept me away from writing blog updates, which means this one will (again) be quite a large one. But bear with me.

What I'm working on right now?

Short answer; A lots of things at once! The most visible and obvious things are the main characters. I may have mentioned this before, but TAGAP 3 has multiple principal characters, not just the players and one boss penguin like in the previous games. I've now been creating the assets for some of these – side, front and back views – and rigging them up for skeletal animation system.

These are actually much more tasking to create than standard enemies, since in order to allow close ups – these are principal characters, after all – I have to create them in very high resolution, revealing all the details. Compared to the earlier games, sprites for these characters are six times larger. Once they are done they make life a lot easier, not having to worry about quality degeneration versus zoom levels, but they do take a lot of time to craft in vectors.

One of these characters, by the way, was actually fully implemented to the game recently, this being the very first actual boss fight. What resulted was one mean and tough SOB, a huge, bulky beast that seems like it would be easy to outmanoeuvre, only it's you who has hard time keeping up – in a fun way, naturally. An easy comparison would be Rufus of Street Fighter IV; No-one would expect that character to be one of the fastest in the game, but that's exactly the case. It's telling that Petja's comment for it was; 'Damn, that's scary, it just doesn't let down!'

Again, the bosses are all made with a similar mould, but they behave very differently. Also, their attack patterns aren't as fixed as in TAGAP 2, but randomized to a degree, resulting in interesting, dynamic fights.

Now, code wise, I've been working on multi-threading the rendering capabilities of the engine. This might seem like a total overkill for a 2D game, but became a necessity thanks to the fact that two-to-six times bigger art assets results two-to-six times longer load times. While it doesn't mean the load times are long per se – TAGAP 2 had pretty much non-existent ones, after all – but this time around there are moments of pause between sections. And honestly, you can't just have the screen go black for seconds at a time, but you have to inform the user that the game actually hasn't crashed, but is processing something. And you can't do a loading screen, animation or anything like that unless you have one thread rendering and the other working behind the scenes.

Getting this to work was a bit tough, the engine not being designed this way from the get-go. It took several tries to get right and cross-Windows compatible, but now it works. Funnily enough, totally opposite to my expectations, this actually sped up the loading times several hundred milliseconds, so it isn't just aesthetic benefit. Then again, if you have an SSD hard-drive none of this matters as the loading screens whiz past you faster than the first TAGAP's loading screens without SSD.

Also, third level segment is almost textured. This means we are on our way to have three full levels (one level being one third of a chapter). Yay! And then there's the TAGAP 2 project I've been working on, more on that later!

DmC: Devil May Cry

2013 seems like one hell-of-a-year for video games, starting immediately with Devil May Cry, a game I recently finished. When it was first shown, DmC started off on a really bad foot with the introduction of the new Dante and even though I still haven't completely warmed to his re-design, everything else in the game is astounding. Seriously folks, this is the most audio-visually impressive title I've played in ages, if not ever – and it has the smooth gameplay to match.

If you have any doubts about this not living up to DmC heritage, do try out the demo on PSN or XBL; It's Devil May Cry all right, only way more aggressive and spiced with a fresh, imaginative groove. In fact, I think this might be a perfect gateway-drug into classic DmCs, as they are not exactly accessible, but hardcore to the point of being nicknamed 'Player May Cry'. Don't be mistaken, though; The new DmC provides a challenge – and a tiered one at that, allowing several different variants of New Game+ concept with mixed enemy waves and twisted damage modifiers. It's been quite a while since the last big-budget game that offered this much replay value.

Also, if 2013 introduces a game soundtrack more astonishing than the electro-industrial maelstrom provided by Noisia and Combichrist, colour me impressed. The way Noisia composed the score is nothing short of remarkable – classic character theme based structure with all the almost-unlimited range their own unique style offers. There are three (or four, if you count the two different editions of the Combichrist album) separate soundtrack releases and I loved the stuff so much I bought them all. Great stuff, this.

In a nutshell; It's been ages since I've grown this fond of a new, big-budget release. So yeah, if you're into action games, I'd recommend picking this one up ASAP. I've been playing on Xbox 360, but from what I've heard the PC port is the best Capcom has ever published (60 FPS!), so you might want to with that if your system is up to spec.

Aliens: Colonial Marines

Another highly-anticipated game I'm going through, in fact, right now, is Aliens: Colonial Marines. It's been quite a controversial release, receiving a lot of flack. There are parts I like, i.e. the rather interesting mix of almost retro (infinite weapon arsenal, armour and health in place of health regen) and modern elements (scripted campaign, ranks, unlockable weapon attachments). I haven't completed the game yet, but so far I can say I like the setting and the concept, while the gameplay has been functional.

Still, while I've had some fun with it, I can't recommend it. It isn't the be-all-end-all game we xeno-fans were hoping for. It's so rough around the edges you can get yourself hurt if you don't what you're getting into. If you can, give it try somewhere before the purchase to see if you can live with its issues. If you have any doubts, they are likely spot-on and I'd say get any Rebellion-developed Aliens versus Predator title instead for your USCMC fix.

I consider myself a smart shopper. While I tend to purchase any game if it genuinely interests regardless of the critical reception, I won't place a pre-order on a title unless it is from a developers I trust. This has worked perfectly, until now; This is the first game purchase in almost a decade I've been disappointed in, especially at this price point. While I don't think A:CM is nearly as horrible as most reviews claim, it's not what we were promised and showcased all these years, now is it?

NOTE: Even if you happen to be among the folks who were badly burned by the game and plan to do the usual boycott thing, please don't let the effects roll onto Gearbox contributors of old. Like Triptych and Fuzzy Slaughter. Speaking off...

Fuzzy Slaughter

If you're into our Weekly Penguin feature, you've already witnessed my love for the hopefully-upcoming game from Triptych Games, Fuzzy Slaughter, currently gathering funds on Kickstarter. Unfortunately it seems this is one of those titles that is getting buried into the depths of the system and with other big projects in there right now, it isn't getting much attention from the press either.

This project is not affiliated with TAGAP in any way and I'm not one to do advertising, but honestly it sounds so great I just have to raise awareness for the project. I mean we're talking about an insanely cool-looking co-op beat 'em up with carnage, cute critters and penguins, all from the folks behind the latest shenanigans of Duke Nukem and Claptrap! The project needs to rise 50 000 USD by March 6th, so if you're interested in pledging, head to Kickstarter.

PenguinDT's Games of the Year 2012

I know everyone of you are sick and tired of 'our best picks' lists by this point, so we'll make this brief. So, here are Penguin DT's GOTY awards.

Best re-release:

Metal Gear Solid HD Collection

(runner up: DOOM 3 BFG)

Triumphant example of how game- and art design wins over hardware-features and modern GPU wizardy every single time. This was the first time I got my hands of Metal Gear Solid 3 and despite being an old game from console generations long gone, it instantly became one of my all time favourite games. Also, the HD ports are the best I've seen, with buttery smooth 60 FPS frame rates and all content intact.

Biggest positive surprise:

Spec Ops: The Line

(runner ups: Lollipop Chainsaw, Binary Domain)

Most interesting approach to modern military shooters to date, with aim of battering in the horrors and pointlessness of war instead of super-bro macho-bravado of, say Battlefield 3 or Call of Duties. I can't recommend it enough. It may start off as a standard-issue military action game, but further you go, more interesting it gets – which also means the available demo can give a wrong impression.

Best of the backlog:

Mass Effect 2

(runner up: Shadows of the Damned)

Only thing keeping this from being my 'game of 2012' is the game's release date. I've simply never seen a game of this scope with production details this impressive. Throw in the brilliant story and world that seems genuinely alive, you have a winner.

Best soundtrack:

Darksiders II

(runner up: Lollipop Chainsaw)

What composer Jesper Kyd excels at is adding a whole new layer of character through music. Not just atmosphere, mind you, but actual character, be it the cold-blooded tension for Agent 47 or international colour for varying environments of Assassin's Creed. And Mr. Kyd really goes to town with this idea in Darksiders II.

Petja's GOTY 2012:

The Walking Dead

(runner up: Mass Effect 3)

Never before has there been an interactive storytelling experience as sublime as this. The decisions you make matter and ripple in a way more meaningful than anything the medium has so far seen. And it has dramatic moments built to exploit just that. Also worth noting for us anti-spoiler crusaders is the fact that this Telltale game is based on the original comic books and is actually a side-story of sorts, so playing the game won't spoil anything from the TV show. The game is also episodic, so giving it a shot won't hurt your wallet much either.

Jouni's GOTY 2012:

Darksiders II

(runner ups: Syndicate, Spec Ops: The Line)

The original Darksiders was often described as 'dark Zelda' with cool gameplay mechanics borrowed from almost all good games out there (from God of War to Portal). Darksiders II follows the same footsteps, only adding open world, questing and looting to the mix, while the combat has been made more fierce and fast-paced. The only way I can really describe the package is 'true gamer's game' and something you can sink endless hours into. And love it all the way. Just remember to play the original Darksiders first if you want to understand even half of the story, though.

Sadly, the way the game wraps up makes you curse gods of every single religion for the fact we will never see a sequel. The publisher THQ, you see, went belly-up and no-one purchased the Darksiders IP in the aftermath, effectively killing the franchise. And right at the doorstep of what could've been one darn epic action-adventure and the culmination of the story. Sigh. At least the two games we got were brilliant.

The Backlog

Thanks to TAGAP eating all my free time I really I can't play all the games when they come out, I simply don't have the time! So, there are several games I haven't had the change to play but I suspect would rate high on this list if I had. These include; FarCry 3, X-Com: Enemy Unknown, Dishonored, Hitman Absolution, Silent Hill: Downpour and Sleeping Dogs – as well as the re-releases Zone of Enders and Devil May Cry games. I intend to play every single one of them, either this year or the next. Or the year after that, you never know.

So, that's that for this update, now it's back to teasing Pablo. I'll be adding more stuff to our SoundCloud next week, too.

Until next time,

Jouni Lahtinen, the head penguin