Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Where are they now? - The Bitmap Brothers

The Bitmap Brothers logo

For today's "Where are they now?" post I'd like to talk a little bit about a British development house that was active in the late 80s and 90s known as The Bitmap Brothers. The development house was important as during a time where game development teams were becoming larger and larger, The Bitmap Brothers demonstrated that small development houses could still produce quality games. They are remembered for such hits as Speedball 2, Z and the games I remember best, The Chaos Engine (aka Soldiers of Fortune) and Xenon 2. So what are The Bitmap Brothers up to nowadays and how did they start off?

Mike Montgomery, one of the co-founders of The Bitmap Brothers started off his life as a manager at Woolworths. When the store started bringing in computers, Mike decided to buy some software and learn to code in his spare time. He eventually became good enough to land a programming lead role and eventually formed The Bitmap Brothers in 1987 with Steve Kelly and Eric Matthews.

The Bitmap Brothers would release their first game in 1988 called Xenon which was a sci-fi shoot 'em up and was the first Amiga game to enter the UK's Top 40 charts. Its sequel Xenon 2 (another game by The Bitmap Brothers that I remember fondly) which was released in 1989, was an even bigger success - probably thanks to Bomb the Bass's epic track, Megablast ("none can outrun or equal - the power - of Megablast!").

Other notable games by The Bitmap Brothers include their most critically acclaimed game Speedball 2 (released in 1990), the steampunk co-op run 'n' gun game The Chaos Engine (released in 1993) and the Real-Time Strategy game Z (released in 1996).

In 1998, Steve Kelly and Eric Matthews both stepped down from the board to concentrate on game design and programming respectively (Eric worked at Sucker Punch Studios only a few years ago on the INFAMOUS games, according to MobyGames). Mike Montgomery took on the role of Managing Director until the company for all intents and purposes, closed in 2004. Mike says it was difficult to find any new deals for original IP around this time so he didn't have much choice. However, the company is still trading but it's trading under Mike's name. He now owns all the IP and in the past few years has been licensing it out to development houses for remakes, primarily aimed at the smartphone market.

In 2007, Speedball 2 Tournament developed by Kylotonn and published by Frogster Interactive Pictures was released but the game failed to achieve the success of previous titles in the franchise. From 2010 onwards, there were several remakes or smartphone-based re-releases of The Bitmap Brothers IP including another Speedball 2 remake, Z and The Chaos Engine.

Will The Bitmap Brothers ever rise up from the ashes again as an indie developer of quality games? When Mike was asked the question in February 2014 by Red Bull Games, he remained skeptical. Currently, he seems determined to continue reviving old The Bitmap Brothers classics on current platforms. Wouldn't it be great to see a Xenon 3 or The Chaos Engine 3 though? Or something totally different - perhaps even the original three co-founders reuniting? One can dream.

LINKS:
[ Wikipedia: The Bitmap Brothers ]
[ The Bitmap Brothers Official Website ]
[ Bit-Tech Gaming: The Bitmap Brothers Interview (2011) ]
[ Red Bull Games: Meet the Bitmap Brothers (2014) ]
[ MobyGames: The Bitmap Brothers ]

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

DOTA 2 Review

Ensuring your "creeps" die before the enemy kills them is a core concept called "denial"

  • Developer: Valve
  • Publisher: Valve
  • Release Date: 9 July 2013
  • Time played: 7 hours

So I was hearing mixed reports about DOTA 2 before I finally gave it a shot. My initial reaction to the news of DOTA 2 was excitement: I remember playing the original Warcraft III mod back in the days when LAN parties were all the rage. The concept that you were a hero or special unit amongst an AI army battling another AI army appealed to me because I was terrible at micromanaging the heroes and units in Warcraft III proper. Seemed like a good way of playing a team game and back in those days, I kind of liked the prospect of playing what is now known as a Multiplayer Online Battle Arena game or MOBA. Fast forward almost a decade and MOBAs are all the rage. You've got games like League of Legends and of course, DOTA 2 being the big names but there's a lot of competition too. Even EA wants to get in on the action but will their offering (Dawngate) be a case of too little, too late?

Okay, so I really enjoyed DOTA 2's predecessor and the game (including its genre) is really popular - so why was I apprehensive about playing this? It basically boils down to the same reason I never really got into Starcraft II's multiplayer - I heard that the game is ultra-competitive. While this isn't necessarily a bad thing to me this translates to players with fast reflexes, established builds/strategies and players with super-inflated egos/e-peen.

So is DOTA 2 any good then? Does the game happen to have a good community that is supportive of newcomers or is it just your typical dog-eat-dog competitive arena?

Gameplay (3/5)
DOTA 2 is very similar to the original DOTA and stays true to the core concept (as mentioned before) of two AI armies being pitted against each other where humans control a hero for one of the warring sides. Like any good RPG, your hero gains experience points and gold when enemies die and you'll level up and acquire new items as a result, making your hero more powerful as the game progresses. The aim of the game is to assist your army of AI "creeps" (the term given to the soldiers controlled by the AI) and your allied heroes to destroy the "Ancient" (a large structure) located in the enemy base. Your base also has an "Ancient" that you have to prevent the enemy from destroying. You have over 100 heroes to choose from when you play DOTA 2 all with varying abilities: some are good later in the game and are called "Carries" while others are good at killing other heroes ("Nukers"), just to name a couple of roles. On the surface, this sounds like a pretty interesting game and when you couple that with multiplayer, it should be the best game ever, right? Right? Well, yes and no.

You've probably seen the Metacritic rating for this game: a whopping 90%. There doesn't seem to be any publications that are critical of the game. Well, I don't know why, but I just don't like this game. I find myself in the unfashionable minority when it comes to this view but I gather no enjoyment playing it. Let's try and dissect the game and see why I dislike it.

Firstly, as with many RPGs (especially MMORPGs) there feels like a lot of grind in this game. Obviously not as bad as some of the worst MMORPGs out there (e.g. Please go kill 100 rats for your xp) but there's no doubt that DOTA 2 encourages a game of cat-and-mouse while you level up your character before you're powerful enough to take the fight to the enemy proper. This means you'll be spending most of your time avoiding the enemy instead of attacking them (at least the enemy heroes) since if you die you'll be aiding the other side greatly. Consequently it can be a good hour before you're in any real position to start finishing the game and most of that time, while suspenseful, doesn't feel very constructive, especially if you turn out losing. It's similar to turtling in RTSs. If you're one of those that appreciates a good rush tactic, you're not going to be able to in DOTA 2 - not unless both sides are grossly mismatched in terms of actual experience.

This brings me on to another point: the game's steep learning curve. The game does some things that are counter-intuitive but they're actually considered features of the game. For example, killing your own units denies the enemy experience - who in their right mind would kill their own soldiers? It seems even more ridiculous when you're playing on the Radiant side (or the self-proclaimed good guys). However, this is considered rudimentary behaviour that if not done will put your team at a disadvantage. Also, the game is analogous to chess to some degree. The good thing about chess is that both sides are pretty evenly balanced and provided the players are of equal skill level, the game can be heaps of fun. However, if one of the players has researched starting moves, tactics, strategies and has spent hours upon hours practising, then obviously the game is not going to be as evenly matched and predictably boring. That's fine for people prepared to put that effort in and have the time available to do so - usually because they're intending to only focus on playing one game, i.e. DOTA 2. Those that don't have a lot of time to spare for the game will never get better at it. Matchmaking is meant to help to a degree in having players of comparable skill level play each other, but that's obviously dependent on what times you're playing and where you're from. Also, it might seem like I'm stating the obvious here (i.e. you'll only get better at a game if you invest the time into it) but unlike FPSs like Battlefield 4 for example, it's almost impossible for a newbie in DOTA 2 to ever defeat a veteran hero, whereas in Battlefield 4, it's within the realms of possibility. Is that a good or bad thing? It depends on your point of view but I like games that have a balance between accessibility and complexity. A moderate learning curve if you will.

Back to the chess analogy, another problem is that eventually only certain moves or strategies will be considered credible and/or effective and as such the best players in chess are nothing more than human supercomputers or mentats (to borrow a term from Frank Herbert's Dune) - not that there's anything wrong with that, they're obviously super intelligent - but it also means there's no room for creativity or in the case of DOTA 2: builds out of leftfield. I kind of like the concept of playing around with a build that you're comfortable with or enjoy using - however good luck trying to use one when you're playing a competitive game. People will either dictate their build requirements up front before a game starts or make disparaging comments about your mother if they ever figure out what you're up to. DOTA 2 wouldn't be the first game to have this sort of behaviour or the last but it's something I loathe.

Finally, it's near impossible to find people who want to just play the game for "fun" or for a "compstomp". Most people are here to play competitively and frankly, I don't blame them, since competitive play is where the game's at. The problem, is I'm not a fan of competitive play, and I think that's pretty much what it all boils down to. If you're a competitive gamer and you want to compete in one of the largest virtual arenas out there, DOTA 2 is a good start. Otherwise, this game doesn't really have much to offer.

If players are stuck for ideas on builds, there are plenty of popular ones to choose from

Sound (5/5)
Voice acting for the DOTA 2 characters and the announcer is spot on so no complaints there. You can even get announcer packs with the best by far being GLaDOS from the Portal series.

Music (4/5)
The music is great although it isn't particularly memorable for me. Having said that though, the music must be memorable to Tommy Tallarico as his Video Games Live Round 3 album happens to have an orchestral cover of its theme!

Graphics (3/5)
Graphics are bright and colourful with low polygon counts. Similar to what Blizzard did with Starcraft II, Valve has done the same with DOTA 2 in that they haven't really done much with the graphics. There are probably many reasons for doing this but two that come to mind is to (a) not alienate the veterans and (b) allow the game to run on low-spec systems, increasing your potential market - after all, why wouldn't you if you've already made the game Free-to-Play?

Replay (1/5)
I've only played the game about 5 times and most of these times I only did so at the request of friends. I didn't really enjoy the games (even though we usually won) since I could tell I was the weakest link in the team, and I didn't have the copious number of hours free in order to research builds. If I managed to find a group that just wanted to play compstomps ad infinitum without the pressure of prescribing to a particular build, maybe I'd be keen to get back into it, but until that time, I'll pass.

Polish (5/5)
I haven't encountered any bugs while playing DOTA 2 and the controls seem good enough - after all, this is a PC game through and through.

Score – 7/10

For the competitive player that is looking for a game to focus all their time and energy into, DOTA 2 is one of the best there is. Unfortunately for players like me who aren't that keen on the competitive gaming scene, there isn't much incentive to play. Unless you want to hear the GLaDOS announcer pack, that's comedy gold right there.

DOTA 2 is available from these retailers:

If you like this game, you might like...

[ LINK: Official DOTA 2 website ]

Monday, September 29, 2014

Choicest VGM - VGM #150 - The Ur-Quan Masters - Zoq-Fot-Pik - Frungy Party



Composed by: Dan Nicholson
Remixed by: András Barják

This is a remix of the music which plays when you meet the interesting race (which actually consists of 3 races) known as the Zoq-Fot-Pik. Apparently the three races evolved on the same world and united to eliminate the carnivorous "Zebranky". The track's name is a reference to the Zoq-Fot-Pik's favourite sport or past-time known as "Frungy".

The original track by Dan Nicholson is more or less left intact in this remix but there are several layers built upon it by András Barják that makes the music sound more melodic and less discordant. I like it.

Special thanks to The Precursors for remixing the classic Star Control II tracks and making them available for download.