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| Stranger in a Strange Land (8 comments )|
by: suibhne (65) | Posted in cluster Editors Challenge Sponsored by Intel Round 2
Posted 75 months ago ( edited 75 months ago ) in category DEFAULT
Stranger in a Strange Land
|» MEDIA (10)|
Convenient next-gen vines
Maybe you could throw your keyboard at them?
Pay no attention to the guy in the shadows
Storm Atronach eyes don't have whites...
An interface only a console could love
Snake and mice don't mix
These guys seem cooler when you're using a mouse
GRAW, first-person view courtesy of your PC
Mouse/keyboard combat control in Jade Empire
A PC gamer explores console crossovers
Looking over the entire electronic games market, it's easy to perceive distinct territories: personal computer, console, handheld. The actual videogame landscape appears quite different when viewed more closely, at ground level; borders between these markets often shift and sometimes seem to vanish entirely. This is particularly fortunate for PC gamers, who enjoy a steady influx of high-quality console crossovers - often with superior graphics, taking advantage of higher resolutions available on PCs.
On the other hand, the boundary between console and PC can still be surprisingly troublesome. There are important differences between the two markets, particularly in their traditional approach to game controls, and these differences shape the games created for each - and the games created for both. We'll look at the history of this divide, discuss what it means for us as PC gamers, and review a handful of groundbreaking games with lessons about navigating this tricky border between two gaming cultures.
2. Back to the future
On both personal computers and consoles, early games employed such simple control schemes that significant differences between controls were erased by the simplicity of the in-game interface. Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar, for example, is often cited as an early milestone in PC gaming, but arguably the best version was released for the Sega Master System console (see Figure 1). It's notable that Ultima IV was first released in 1985, the same year that Windows 1.0 launched as a front-end for DOS; the mouse/keyboard control interface now iconic of personal computers was still years away from universal acceptance. Dual-analog gamepads were so far in the future that single-analog controllers didn't yet exist outside of arcades and Atari joysticks.
Game controls diverged as game interfaces and technology also diverged. While mouse-driven interfaces were refined by early PC strategy games and shooters like 1993's Doom, analog control among consoles developed along a different path. By 1997 Sony had followed Nintendo's lead into the analog frontier, promoting the first incarnation of its dual-analog controller with arcade-inspired promises of more sophisticated control in fighting games.
Throughout this parallel history, there were always games and controllers crossing the border between the two markets. Flight simulators have long inspired a steady demand for analog joysticks on the PC, for example. Every installment of Tomb Raider has been a simultaneous or near-simultaneous release for PCs and consoles, and Microsoft scored early successes with its Sidewinder gamepads for PC. Sega's Dreamcast distinguished itself by emphasizing analog control on its innovative controller as well as offering official mouse and keyboard accessories; the Dreamcast version of Quake 3 even requires mouse and keyboard to play. Despite these itinerants moving between console and PC, however, games since the mid-1990s have been increasingly shaped by the primary controllers for each market. The boundary between the markets is now largely mapped to the division between mouse/keyboard and dual-analog gamepad.
3. Through the looking-glass
The typical mouse offers much greater potential accuracy for first-person aiming than an analog controller's thumb-stick, and PC keyboards position a greater range of keys - and therefore potential actions - at a gamer's fingertips. At the same time, keyboards are essentially digital controllers able to express only 8 distinct directions for on-screen characters, affording far less sensitivity than a true analog gamepad. Each control interface has significant advantages and disadvantages. Where does this leave PC gamers interested in high-profile titles such as Resident Evil 4, originally developed for dual-analog control but just released for PC in Europe and Australia?
To explore this question, we'll look at a handful of games from two different categories: original console titles later ported to PC, and games simultaneously developed for both console and PC. Different games may exhibit very different strategies for dealing with the translation to PC. Assisting us will be a battle-tested Logitech RumblePad 2 (http://www.logitech.com/index.cfm/products/details/US/EN,CRID=2225,CONTENTID=8674), a USB gamepad sporting force-feedback rumble capability and a full complement of two analog sticks, a (digital) D-pad, and twelve buttons. For those wondering what all of that means, it's enough to recognize that this offers the same feature list as Sony's industry-standard Dual Shock 2 controller. The RumblePad 2 is only one of many gamepad options available to PC gamers - in fact, even PS2 controllers can be used with an adapter for PC, and XBox 360 controllers will happily communicate through a PC-standard USB port - but it's reliable and affordable, with street prices well below $30.
Through our experiences with these crossover games, we'll investigate the shifting border between consoles and PCs. What significance does it hold for PC gamers seeking to play landmark titles like Metal Gear Solid 2 or Halo? Can the PC's typical mouse and keyboard serve as a universal interface for crossovers from the console world, or will we find some game experiences beyond translation?
Let's start with the games most likely to be well-adjusted to cross-cultural existence - those developed simultaneously for both console and PC audiences. Increasing numbers of major titles fall under this heading, but simultaneous development has a long history stretching back to the original Tomb Raider and earlier.
*** Speaking of which...Ubisoft delivered Tomb Raider: Legend to both PCs and consoles in 2006, rebooting the classic series with high production values and top-shelf graphics and sound. Legend also brings new flexibility to Lara's acrobatics by doing away with the grid-based movement system of its predecessors. This imposes new interface challenges, however, as the old-fashioned grid offered a less obvious benefit: by rigidly constraining Lara's possible movements within the gameworld, older Tomb Raider games were able to more easily offer solid mouse/keyboard control for PC gamers. Freed from the structure of that system, how does the new Lara Croft of Legend respond to a PC keyboard and mouse?
Pretty well, as it turns out. Any experienced raider of tombs will recall that much of the game is experienced from a behind-the-back 3rd-person camera, similar to that perfected by Heretic II, and the mouse is a perfect tool for controlling such a consistent camera perspective. Legend switches to static environmental cameras (see Fig. 2) on occasion, to offer broader perspective on a platforming challenge or to heighten the drama of a particular scene, but these are used more sparingly than in past Tomb Raider titles. PC gamers, accustomed to squeezing off shots in combat with their left mouse button, may even find a mouse and keyboard preferable for managing Lara's pistols.
Verdict: An analog gamepad makes Lara's life a little easier on PC, but Tomb Raider: Legend is responsive and well-suited for mouse and keyboard.
*** Ubisoft seems to have a knack for highly-polished revivals of older game series, and its recent Prince of Persia titles join Tomb Raider: Legend among important crossover games. The classic Prince of Persia was created by Jordan Mechner, whose earlier Karateka, an Apple ][ side-scroller, took inspiration from console and arcade fighters; this cross-platform influence continued with the 1989 Prince and its sequel. Reviving the franchise for current technology and a new generation of gamers (see Fig. 3), Ubisoft's 3D Prince dashes and leaps through The Sands of Time, Warrior Within, and The Two Thrones, confronting puzzles and swordplay with verve easily matching Lara Croft's.
Unfortunately, that verve is all but lost in the translation to mouse and keyboard. PC gamers are forthrightly warned by the installer for Prince of Persia: Warrior Within: "For the best gaming experience it is recommended to use an analog controller". Yes, it's possible to control the Prince using various combinations of the keyboard's 4 movement keys, but it's a punishing task; despite your best intentions, you'll cause your alter ego to be sliced to tatters, impale himself on spikes, and plummet through thin air to a distant demise. The chief culprit in this mess is Prince of Persia's use of more extreme camera angles, common to all three recent games in the series. Because the game rarely adopts a standard behind-the-back perspective and frequently switches camera positions, dual analog sticks are almost essential - one for the Prince and one for the camera. The Prince must often negotiate perilous levels by moving at oblique angles to the camera, requiring a range of motion not easily handled by a keyboard.
Verdict: A dual-analog gamepad is necessary - unless you're actively seeking to raise your blood pressure.
*** Another recent Ubisoft title arising from simultaneous cross-platform development is Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, the third installment in that series. Despite sharing the 3rd-person action format with both titles above, Chaos Theory exemplifies that a different design focus can fundamentally change the relationship of the player to the game controls. In this case, stealth is the name of the game, and Sam Fisher's interaction with his environment is less acrobatic and much more realistic than that of the Prince (see Fig. 4). The game's pace is downright leisurely compared to the Prince's quest through the Isle of Time, and a much more flexible camera offers the greater situational awareness necessary for stealth gameplay. Chaos Theory is almost ideally suited to the mouse/keyboard combination.
Verdict: A gamepad works well, but keyboard and mouse are to be preferred. Precision aiming, stealth kills, headshots...end of story.
*** The final game we'll explore in this group is Bethesda's Oblivion, a first-person RPG presenting control challenges such as melee combat and archery, ranged magic, and a labyrinthine game interface for accessing player statistics, skills, and inventory. Keyboard and mouse are typically well-matched to any first-person format, and exploring Cyrodiil requires very little learning curve for gamers familiar with PC first-person shooters (see Fig. 5).
Oblivion deserves special consideration, however, because Bethesda's simultaneous development of the game for PC and XBox 360 clearly stumbled over the control differences between the two markets. Oblivion's PC version inherits significant interface limitations from the console controller (see Fig. 6), eschewing spatial organization in favor of strict hierarchy and even forgetting that the Escape key traditionally moves one level up in PC game interfaces (for example, in the PC versions of both Tomb Raider: Legend and Prince of Persia: Warrior Within). The mod scene has greatly mitigated these flaws, refining the PC interface for higher-resolution displays and much more intuitive organization of information - thereby making a mouse even more useful.
Verdict: Mouse and keyboard are preferable for playing the game as released, but they're essential if you improve the PC game's interface with player-created mods.
We discovered little consistency of mouse/keyboard implementation among the first four titles we reviewed, but one clear lesson emerged: the effectiveness of mouse and keyboard is frequently tied to the relationship between a 3rd-person game's movement and its camera. Entering rougher terrain, we regard two groundbreaking games developed originally for consoles and only later ported to PC. Will our experience with simultaneously-developed games be a reliable guide to engaging these console ports?
*** For many gamers, Hideo Kojima's Metal Gear Solid series provided the defining experience of Sony's Playstation and Playstation 2. Laments of the game's tortuous plot aside, a PC version of Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty was inevitable, and PC gamers had every reason to eagerly anticipate the game on their own platform (see Fig. 7). When the game finally arrived for PC in 2003, however, it typified the approach often taken with PC ports, delivering an experience tightly constrained by the control and interface conventions of its original console environment. The only significant change from PS2 versions is the ability to play at higher resolutions - little consolation for how clumsily the mouse and keyboard handle throughout the tanker and Big Shell. Between the fixed camera angles, the top-down aiming system, and the limited gestural controls introduced late in the game, a gamepad is the best choice.
Verdict: A gamepad will save you considerable frustration.
*** 2005's Resident Evil 4 on GameCube achieved every bit the success of Metal Gear Solid 2. Widely hailed as the rebirth of the survival horror genre, the game accomplished this in part through a simple yet profound revision of traditional Resident Evil gameplay: Capcom replaced the fixed camera angles with a supremely consistent over-the-shoulder perspective, transforming the game into a visceral 3rd-person shooter replete with sophisticated location-based damage against enemies. A PC port was logical not only because of the game's market success, but also because this 3rd-person interface seemed tailor-made for mouse and keyboard control.
Given this potential, the PC port is sorely disappointing. Newly released in Australia and the European Union (and scheduled for the U.S. this coming May), Resident Evil 4 for PC has already provoked critical reviews for its failure to adapt the game's interface even marginally for home computers. Either from sheer laziness, or from a misguided attempt to preserve the console version's difficulty level, the PC port offers no mouse support at all.
Verdict: This is a genuine masterpiece of recent console games - but an analog gamepad is the non-negotiable price of entry.
All good things
The native PC control interface of mouse and keyboard may be "hit-and-miss" for simultaneously-developed PC/console games, but it seems to be mostly "miss" for console ports. There are still a few specific games we'll consider, however. Our last three titles range from after-the-fact ports to titles under long simultaneous development, but they merit separate consideration because of their commonality: each respects the PC mouse-and-keyboard interface as a distinct control scheme and translates gameplay to take advantage of it.
PC gamers so fully welcomed Halo into their canon that it's worth remembering the game is, after all, a port - and one delivered in 2003, nearly two years after its XBox premiere. Halo is intriguing in this discussion because it was originally announced as a PC title (for both Windows and MacOS), before Microsoft purchased Bungie and the game was redirected as an XBox exclusive. It might be said, then, that Halo merely returned to its roots when Gearbox ported it as a PC first-person shooter (see Fig. 8) - or, alternatively, an argument could be made that Halo for XBox simply adapted traditional FPS controls from its PC antecedents. Regardless, the console version proved that big-ticket FPS games weren't entirely out of place on consoles, while the PC version fluently embraced standard FPS controls as if it had never left home.
Another example of this interface retooling is last year's Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter, which debuted for XBox 360 in March. Development on the PC version was essentially simultaneous, and it was released only a few months later - with some striking changes. Where the console version enables tactical 3rd-person action, Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter on PC successfully retains the game's core tactical elements while presenting the familiar perspective of an FPS (see Fig. 9).
The most recent title to approach the porting process in this thoughtful manner is not an FPS at all, but the long-awaited port of Jade Empire, Bioware's independent follow-up to their success with Knights of the Old Republic. On XBox, Jade Empire merged typical Bioware RPG features - character development, branching dialog, multiple traveling companions, and side-quests forking from the main narrative - with a real-time martial-arts fighting system clearly influenced by console titles and designed for analog control. The translation to PC added new control possibilities while losing none of the analog controller's flexibility: the mouse/keyboard combination allows more effective mid-combat management of multiple targets and fighting styles than was possible in the console version (see Video).
4. There and back again
After this broad look at crossover titles from console to PC, it's apparent that generalizations are problematic. It may seem logical that simultaneous development of cross-platform games would exhibit more respect for the traditional controls of each market - but we've encountered titles like Prince of Persia: Warrior Within, whose PC version is all but unplayable without a dual-analog gamepad, and Oblivion, whose clunky in-game interface on PC inherits all the limitations of a console controller. We've likewise observed third-party ports of successful console games like Halo and Jade Empire, released two years after their original console debuts, nevertheless emerge on the PC market with gameplay intelligently retuned for mouse and keyboard.
It's also worth considering that analog gamepads and the familiar PC mouse and keyboard offer entirely distinct experiences. Perhaps it's simply unrealistic to expect a Prince of Persia title, with its characteristic acrobatic puzzles and extreme camera angles, to conform to the limited 8-way digital movement provided by a keyboard. Conversely, it's frustrating to see genuine cross-platform potential squandered, as with Resident Evil 4's misguided exclusion of any mouse support whatsoever.
A few guiding lessons can be drawn from the conflicting and complementary examples we've collected.
First, with mindful respect for the controls and constraints of both console and PC, cross-platform games can be done right - but they frequently aren't.
Second, even titles with poorly-implemented PC controls may be worth your time. Indeed, every game critiqued on this page has received high marks in reviews, and many are considered classics of their genre.
Finally, for better or worse, there is no lingua franca of gaming interfaces; your PC's mouse and keyboard will not effectively handle every cross-platform game worth playing. One of the unique advantages of PC gaming is the diverse hardware environment: personal computers are remarkably extensible, from racing-game foot pedals to head-tracking hardware for flight simulators. PC and console game markets are divided in part by control schemes which developed over the past two decades, but that boundary is not impassable; a dual-analog gamepad can extend your PC's capabilities and help you to discover the best of the crossover titles. It may be those games at or beyond the border which provide the most rewarding experiences.
Postscript: The hard stuff
As I mentioned above, the Logitech RumblePad 2 is only one of many options available to PC gamers, both wired and wireless. No matter your other criteria, I highly recommend a controller with two analog thumb-sticks and two index-finger buttons on each shoulder of the gamepad. In short, you should look for the same basic functionality as Sony's industry-standard Dual Shock 2.
My experience with dual-analog gamepads from both Logitech and Saitek suggests that these controllers are not quite "plug 'n' play" under Windows XP. Specific device drivers from the manufacturer (shipped with your gamepad or downloaded from the manufacturer's site) might be necessary for many games to adequately recognize and utilize the controller. To make matters more complicated, you may encounter games so finicky that drivers must be loaded before the game is installed. If you're exploring this territory for the first time, be patient and recognize that there's a learning curve when adapting to a new controller. Your reward, as you become comfortable with the gamepad, is the opportunity to play some of the very best electronic games created for any platform.
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