Community Spotlight: Shack Tactical, part 1

A group of eight infantry members strategically map out from which direction to infiltrate an occupied town. On a nearby road, about a dozen soldiers share prior war stories. “I wasn’t Rambo-ing it up!” says one random infantryman. “I wasn’t doing anything wrong and I just got killed. That’s what I live with every day.” Still another group plots out their strategy of entering through an airstrip using roads and bushes as cover.

This begins the latest video from Shack Tactical, a dedicated group of ArmA 2: Operation Arrowhead soldiers. The video (featuring an amazing 93 players) has drawn tens of thousands of views on YouTube to date, a far cry from Shack Tactical’s humble origins. The group was pulled together in 2006 under the command of Shacknews Chatty’s Andrew “dslyecxi” Gluck. Formed to play Red Orchestra: Ostfront 41-45, Armed Assault, and Operation Flashpoint sessions, the group later migrated to the ArmA series.

For Gluck, Shack Tactical represented a return to normalcy. Prior to the group’s formation, he took part in a number of Shacknews Operation Flashpoint sessions before going overseas in 2004 to serve as a member of the US Marine Corps in Okinawa. Linking up with a like-minded group in the SomethingAwful forums, Shack Tactical’s numbers started growing. The numbers grew even more with the transition to ArmA.

With the release of the group’s ArmA1 guide, some ArmA 1 sessions peaked at 70 players, Gluck said. ArmA 2 and Shack Tactical’s ArmA 2 guide helped increase the regular player base to more than 80. “It’s only with ArmA 2: OA and the recent influence of DayZ that we have begun to push past the 100-player range on a regular basis,” he said. “The gameplay that has resulted from such high player counts has been phenomenal to experience.”

The group runs the latest Operation Arrowhead beta from Bohemia Interactive, linked together with ArmA 2 itself. Before starting a session, everyone must agree to abide by the group’s common guidelines: No magnified weapon optics, no attack vehicles, and absolutely no respawning. More than anything, Shack Tactical aims for an authentic ground infantry experience.

Gluck said he makes sure that every prospective member of the group is aware from the beginning that Shack Tactical wants to model itself after an infantry platoon, although lately it has been more of an infantry company. Transports are uncommon and missions with jets, helicopters and tanks are even more rare. “Infantry gameplay is where ArmA shines brightest and suits our large player count exceptionally well,” he said. “Instead of it being one tank ‘stealing the glory’ and accomplishing the bulk of the mission’s objectives, we get to employ dozens of infantry, working closely as fireteams, squads, and platoons, to defeat the enemy. Every rifleman plays a role, and each can claim that they were a factor in our eventual success — or horrific defeat. This ‘sharing of the fun’ keeps our player base engaged and coming back for more week after week.”

After the battle is complete, Gluck goes to work on creating a Shack Tactical video. After a recent absence, ShackTac videos are coming back in force, with recent missions Nomads, Strike at Aliabad, and the aforementioned Town Sweep all hitting YouTube in the past couple of weeks. Gluck captures all of the footage using Fraps. The footage is then edited with Adobe Premier before being given a clean intro with After Effects. Gluck uses the game’s built-in camera script along with some of his own additions, but determining what to film comes down to his own judgment.

“The biggest challenge of filming these recent sessions has been to not only watch what’s happening in the scenario and try to place myself in what seem to be the most interesting areas of the mission,” Gluck said, “but also to be able to listen to the radio chatter at the same time and anticipate where the next key action events will take place. This involves a lot of zipping around the terrain at high-speed, bouncing from squad to squad and hoping that everything you’ve recorded will gel into a coherent narrative later on.”

The final product is on part with some of the best shorts that machinima has to offer. Of course, such an elaborate production has brought accusations of AI usage or scripted events, a charge Gluck vehemently denies.

“I am strongly opposed to groups that do promotional videos where they stage events, use AI to make their numbers look bigger, or generally create misleading content,” he said. “What you see in our videos is simply legitimate ShackTac gameplay. I take pride in that fact. It’s been a long road to get where we are, and when we see an accusation of staging our dialog, it makes me smile to know that our natural gameplay is engaging enough to lead some to believe that it must be faked. It is quite the compliment.”

Each Shack Tactical video carries a strong feel of authenticity. A large part of that comes from Gluck’s own military background. However, he notes that Shack Tactical’s membership includes a number of active and former military from around the world, including American, Canadian, European, and Australian soldiers. With such devotion to painting a genuine picture of the battlefield, Shack Tactical has received praise from both civilians and active military.

“One of the most flattering pieces of feedback I received from a military member came in the early ArmA2 days,” Gluck said. “A combat veteran from Iraq — a bonafide US Army door-kicker — remarked after one of his first sessions with us that it was ‘as close as you can get without getting dirty.’ I think these sorts of comments are great insight into why VBS2 — the ‘military’ version of ArmA, and something I’ve worked with for over five years now — has become such a dominating and successful training tool. In that same vein, I was surprised to learn recently that some ShackTac videos were used to help illustrate the value of games-for-training to the US Special Forces community by an operator with more than 20 years of service. It showed that if a collection of people playing a game online could learn tactical, decision-making, and other key training tasks, imagine what that same game — now a ‘sim’ in the form of VBS2 — could be used for in an actual military training capacity. It’s a bit of a geek-out moment to hear something like that.”

ShackTac is a growing community with an increasing number of applicants. So how does one go about becoming a part of it? Tomorrow in part 2 of our interview, Gluck shares the application process for Shack Tactical. He also shares what he hopes to see in the upcoming ArmA III.

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Game Critics Awards reveals E3 2012 nominees

Every year, dozens of video game outlets–Shacknews included–vote on their favorite games from E3. BioShock Infinite won last year’s awards, but what will take home the crown this year? Before the judges decide the ultimate winner, the organization has released this year’s “Best of” nominees.

Games with the most nods this year include Dishonored, Halo 4, and The Last of Us–taking home four nominations each. Sony is the most nominated publisher of the year, with 12 nods. Finally, PS3 is home to the most nominated games, with 52 nominations total.

Best of Show

- Assassin’s Creed III (Ubisoft Montreal/Ubisoft for PC, PS3, Xbox 360)

- Dishonored (Arkane Studios/Bethesda Softworks for PC, PS3, Xbox 360)

- Halo 4 (343 Industries/Microsoft Studios for Xbox 360)

- The Last of Us (Naughty Dog/SCEA for PlayStation 3)

- Tomb Raider (Crystal Dynamics/Square Enix for PC, PS3, Xbox 360)

Best Original Game

- Beyond: Two Souls (Quantic Dream/SCEE for PlayStation 3)

- Dishonored (Arkane Studios/Bethesda Softworks for PC, PS3, Xbox 360)

- Quantum Connundrum (Airtight Game/Square Enix for PC, PS3, Xbox 360)

- The Last of Us (Naughty Dog/SCEA for PlayStation 3)

- Unfinished Swan (Giant Sparrow/SCEA for PlayStation 3)

Best Console Game

- Assassin’s Creed III (Ubisoft Montreal/Ubisoft for PS3, Xbox 360)

- Dishonored (Arkane Studios/Bethesda Softworks for PS3, Xbox 360)

- Halo 4 (343 Industries/Microsoft Studios for Xbox 360)

- The Last of Us (Naughty Dog/SCEA for PlayStation 3)

- Tomb Raider (Crystal Dynamics/Square-Enix for PS3, Xbox 360)

Best Handheld/Mobile Game

- Assassin’s Creed III Liberation (Ubisoft Sofia/Ubisoft for PSVita)

- Epic Mickey: Power of Illusion (Dreamrift/Disney Interactive Studios for 3DS)

- Infinity Blade Dungeons (Epic Games/Epic Games for iOS)

- Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon (Next Level Games/Nintendo for 3DS)

- New Super Mario Bros. 2 (Nintendo EAD/Nintendo for 3DS)

- Sound Shapes (Queasy Games/SCEA for PSVita)

Best PC Game

- Company of Heroes 2 (Relic/THQ for PC)

- Hawken (Adhesive Games/Meteor Entertainment for PC)

- PlanetSide 2 (Sony Online Entertainment/Sony Online Entertainment for PC)

- SimCity (Maxis/EA for PC)

- X-Com: Enemy Unknown (Firaxis Games/2K Games for PC)

Best Hardware/Peripheral

- Astro A50 Wireless Gaming Headset (Astro)

- Rift VR Headset (Palmer Lucky/John Carmack/id Software)

- Wii U (Nintendo)

- Wonderbook (Sony Computer Entertainment Europe)

- Skylanders: Giants Figures (Toys for Bob/Activision)

Best Action Game

- Borderlands 2 (Gearbox/2K Games for PC, PS3, Xbox 360)

- Call of Duty: Black Ops II (Treyarch/Activision for PC, PS3, Xbox 360)

- Crysis 3 (Crytek/EA for PC, PS3, Xbox 360)

- Halo 4 (343 Industries/Microsoft Studios for Xbox 360)

- Metal Gear Rising: Revengence (Platinum Games/Kojima Pro/Konami for PS3, Xbox 360)

Best Action/Adventure Game

- Assassin’s Creed III (Ubisoft Montreal/Ubisoft for PC, PS3, Wii U, Xbox 360)

- Beyond: Two Souls (Quantic Dream/SCEE for PlayStation 3)

- Dishonored (Arkane Studios/Bethesda Softworks for PC, PS3, Xbox 360)

- The Last of Us (Naughty Dog/SCEA for PlayStation 3)

- Tomb Raider (Crystal Dynamics/Square Enix for PC, PS3, Xbox 360)

Best Role Playing Game

- Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance (Square Enix/Square Enix for 3DS)

- Ni No Kuni (Level-5/Namco Bandai for PlayStation 3)

- Persona 4 Golden (Atlus/Atlus for PSVita)

- The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim – Dawnguard (BGS/Bethesda for PC, PS3, Xbox 360)

- South Park: The Stick of Truth (Obsidian Entertainment/THQ for PC, PS3, Xbox 360)

Best Fighting Game

- Dead or Alive 5 (Team Ninja/Tecmo Koei for PS3, Xbox 360)

- Injustice: Gods Among Us (NetherRealm Studios/WBIE for PS3, Xbox 360, Wii U)

- Persona 4 Arena (Arc System Works/Atlus for PS3, Xbox 360)

- PlayStation All-Stars: Battle Royale (SuperBot/SCEA for PlayStation 3, PSVita)

- Tekken Tag Tournament 2 (Namco Bandai Games/Namco Bandai Games for PS3, Xbox 360)

Best Racing Game

- F1 2012 (Codemasters/Codemasters for PC, PS3, Xbox 360)

- Forza Horizon (Playground Games/Turn 10 Studios/Microsoft Studios for Xbox 360)

- LittleBigPlanet Karting (United Front Games/Media Molecule/SCEA for PS3)

- Need for Speed Most Wanted (Criterion Games/EA for PC, PS3, Xbox 360)

- Sonic & All Stars Racing Transformed (Sumo/Sega for PC, PS3, Xbox 360, PS Vita, 3DS)

Best Sports Game

- FIFA Soccer 13 (EA Canada/EA Sports for PC, PS3, Xbox 360)

- Madden NFL 13 (EA Tiburon/EA Sports for PS3, Xbox 360)

- NBA 2K13 (Visual Concepts/2K Sports for PS3, Xbox 360)

- NHL 13 (EA Canada/EA Sports for PC, PS3, Xbox 360)

- Pro Evolution Soccer 2013 (PES Productions/Konami for PC, PS3, Wii, Xbox 360, 3DS)

Best Strategy Game

- Company of Heroes 2 (Relic/THQ for PC)

- End of Nations (Petroglyph Games/Trion Worlds for PC)

- SimCity (Maxis/EA for PC)

- Pikmin 3 (Nintendo EAD/Nintendo for Wii U)

- XCOM: Enemy Unknown (Firaxis Games/2K Games for PC, PS3, Xbox 360)

Best Social/Casual Game

- Dance Central 3 (Harmonix/Microsoft Studios for Xbox 360)

- Game & Wario (working title) (Intelligent Systems/Nintendo for Wii U)

- Lego Batman 2: DC Super Heroes (TT/WBIE for PC, PS3, PSVita, X360, Wii, 3DS)

- Nintendoland (Nintendo/Nintendo for Wii U)

- Rock Band Blitz (Harmonix for PlayStation 3, Xbox 360)

Best Motion Simulation Game

- Dance Central 3 (Harmonix/Microsoft Studios for Xbox 360)

- Fable: The Journey (Lionhead/Microsoft Studios for Xbox 360)

- Game & Wario (working title) (Intelligent Systems/Nintendo for Wii U)

- Just Dance 4 (Ubisoft/Ubisoft for PS3, Xbox 360, Wii, and Wii U)

- Wii Fit U (Nintendo/Nintendo for Wii U)

- Wonderbook: Books of Spells (London Studio/SCEE for PlayStation 3)

Best Online Multiplayer Game

- Borderlands 2 (Gearbox/2K Games for PC, PS3, Xbox 360)

- Call of Duty: Black Ops II (Treyarch/Activision for PC, PS3, Xbox 360)

- Halo 4 (343 Industries/Microsoft Studios for Xbox 360)

- Need for Speed Most Wanted (Criterion/EA for PC, PS3, PSVita, Xbox 360)

- PlanetSide 2 (Sony Online Entertainment/Sony Online Entertainment for PC)

Best Downloadable Game

- Hell Yeah! Wrath of the Dead Rabbit (Arkedo Studio/Sega for PC, PS3, Xbox 360)

- Quantum Conundrum (Airtight Games/Square Enix for PC, PS3, Xbox 360)

- Retro City Rampage (VBlank Entertainment for PC, PS3, PSVita, Xbox 360, Wii)

- The Cave (Double Fine/Sega for PC, PS3, Xbox 360)

- Unfinished Swan (Giant Sparrow/SCEA for PlayStation 3)

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Game Critics Awards reveals E3 2012 nominees

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Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor review

An AP shell hits our right-side leg, and I hear steel bend and warp at the force. I start to prepare a shell to fire back, but I have bigger problems now. My VT is filling up with smoke. Visibility is poor, and we’re all starting to cough. My eyes and lungs burn. I reach for the ventilation lever, only moments to spare before we all suffocate in a hot metal box. I pull back, hard, venting the cabin and saving us all — but enemy VTs are still bearing down on us. Allowing only a brief sigh of relief, I try to withdraw my hand, only to find it won’t obey my commands. Instead of holding the yoke, my hand flips open the Self-Destruct compartment. I remain perfectly motionless, terrified that the slightest touch will reduce us to smoldering rubble. I can’t trust my own hands, so I’m left unsure of how to keep myself from hitting the button that will immediately kill my entire crew. I slowly, deliberately try to pull my hand away, but it disobeys me again.

My hand presses the button.

We explode.

Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor is the perfect encapsulation of squandered potential. The moments of tension that rely on mechanical realism — like needing to vent a smoldering tank that’s quickly filling with smoke, for example — could be truly gripping in the game’s best moments. But I could hardly ever enjoy that feeling, since it was repeatedly marred by the fact that (and there’s simply no way to sugar-coat this) the Kinect controls do not work. In my dozen or so hours with the game, I never experienced a single stage that was error-free.

The accidental self-destruct problem is a rare (albeit true) example, but control issues were commonplace. Most often, the Kinect would misread my motions to zoom in or out of the viewing window when I didn’t want it to, making aiming nearly impossible if the device chose that moment to misbehave. Other frequent control errors include, but are not limited to: rotating to face crew mates, selecting ammo types, and opening or closing the shutter. In each of these cases, problems came both in the “doing it when I don’t want to” and “not doing it when I do want to” flavors. It became abundantly clear that From Software is simply demanding too much from the Kinect.

Those issues are hard to ignore. But even putting them aside, the game has a tendency to stumble on its own best ideas. The game is genuinely thoughtful in its world-building, but it’s overshadowed by a silly, meandering plot. Context-sensitive actions like tossing out a grenade can be thrilling, but not when they’re repeated five or six times. The notion of a large company with distinct personalities and actual KIAs due to my own action or inaction could be incredibly meaningful, but most of the characters are nondescript, unlikable stereotypes. Everything positive about the game comes with a caveat.

The story takes place in a dystopian future, after a “Datacide” has rendered computing technology unusable and the United Nations has attempted to take over the world. Only the plucky resistance (led by the United States) remains, fighting the good fight with armored Vertical Tanks, or “VTs” for short. The game is clearly aping the bombastic machismo of our own military shooters, but something about American hoorah-jingoism through this lens comes off as insincere. It feels more like satire, but I’m not even sure it’s intentional.

The game itself relies mostly on mechanical realism in an appropriately claustrophobic mech, firing a few different weapons to take down armored cars, VTs, and other various threats. Objectives can occasionally be unclear, but for the most part, it’s a stock shooting gallery. Every mission boils down to firing on enemies, or moving to a location from which you can fire on enemies. Nailing the arc of a fired shell takes some practice for long-distance shots, so a well-placed one can actually feel very rewarding. But considering that only comes when the Kinect behaves, it’s damning with faint praise.

Once in each of the game’s seven “campaign” chapters, the game presents a co-op mission with a timer. These come up organically in the campaign, or can be replayed by selecting them in the “single mission” category. They unlock special VT parts, which can be a valuable resource to help mitigate some of the game’s frustrations.

If these missions are played as a single-player stage, though, a new problem presents itself. The AI partners that fill the empty slots are universally terrible and often get themselves killed quickly. Plus, the mission goes until the clock runs out, even if the objectives have been completed. This means that alone, I often found myself desperately trying to survive for the last few minutes, a mocking “Clear” sign on screen, until the clock wound down. These missions aren’t voluntary, mind you — they’re built into the campaign and must be finished to proceed, whether you can find a partner or not. It’s just one more example of an otherwise fine game idea that fails terribly in the execution.

When the Datacide hit, it was humanity’s own reliance on technology that led to its downfall. By placing so much faith in the Kinect, relying on a level of precision in a device that cannot offer it, From Software has fallen into the same trap. The Kinect can do some amazing things, but by pushing the device too hard, Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor serves better as an illustration of its limits.

[The Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor review is based on a retail box copy of the game, provided by the publisher, Capcom.]

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Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor review

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Facebook nixing credits for in-app purchases

Facebook has decided to ween itself off of funny money, in exchange for real value pricing using local currency for each territory. The company promises that over the next few months, it will be transitioning from “Credits” to local currency payments. All apps and games that sell virtual items will be required to use real currency pricing by the end of the year.

The note on the developer blog says this is to “simplify the purchase experience” and “give developers more flexibility.” It also points out that this will allow developers to set more granular prices and set prices differently in different territories.

Facebook is also offering a new subscription model, with plans to launch across and mobile apps in July. As you could probably guess, this will let developers use recurring monthly payments for “updated content or premium experiences.” Currently Zynga and KIXEYE are testing the subscription model now.

A statement by analyst firm Robert W. Baird & Co. Incorporated calls the move “neutral to positive” for the company. “We believe upcoming changes to Facebook’s payment platform reflect the company’s adaptability, and recognition that Facebook Credits did not meet its goal of becoming the de facto virtual currency for in-app transactions,” the statement read.

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Facebook nixing credits for in-app purchases

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Okami HD announced for PS3 with Move support

Clover’s delightful 2006 paint ‘em Okami is coming to PlayStation 3 via PlayStation Network, reborn in HD resolution with optional PlayStation Move support as Okami HD.

Okami, if you missed the original PS2 game, its Wii port, and the semi-sequel Okamiden for DS, is an action-adventure-y affair about the sun god Amaterasu coming down in wolf form to restore a ruined world. Armed with the mighty Celestial Brush, you draw characters and glyphs to influence the environment and attack foes. You can control this with the regular controller in Okami HD, like in the original, or whip out your PlayStation Move wand to slap down some ink.

Okami HD is coming to PSN this fall at $19.99.

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Okami HD announced for PS3 with Move support

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