Indie vs. Mainstream

The last few weeks have been somewhat interesting in the gaming world, to put it mildly. On the one hand we have the release of Halo: Reach by Bungie Studios, a prequel to the popular Halo series that sold $200 million worth of copies on the very first day, Sept. 16 and close to $400 million in the first week. And I haven't even bought my copy yet.

This is, quite simply, as big as game releases get. It will most likely be the biggest game of 2010 and maybe top 10 of all time.

On the other hand, we have Minecraft, the little game that is not even in Beta yet but is somehow racking up $250,000 in average sales a day, and topped out at $350,000 on one day last week. The developer is one man, a Swedish indie game designer named Markus Persson.

I haven't played Reach yet, but I'm going to. Halo 3 was one of the best games I've ever played until Halo: ODST came out, and Reach is supposed to be even better than that. Critics are rating it somewhere between an 8.5 and 9.5, and a few have gone even further to suggest that it's the best First Person Shooter (FPS) of all time - a category that includes Call of Duty: Modern Warfare I and II, the Half-Life series, the original Golden Eye, the Left4Dead series, Bioshock and a dozen other titles that could probably vie for the title of "best game of all time," FPS or not.

It's the usual story - a rough and tough group of space marines are the only ones who can save the human race from an alien invasion - but it never seems to get boring in Bungie's hands. They aren't re-inventing the wheel, just making the best wheel they can. And every single time they succeed - Halo vehicles are fun to drive and fly, there's a huge selection of weapons to use, and the bad guys are surprisingly tough to kill. The games are typically arranged as a series of set pieces, taking place in different environments. In one mission you might be asked to blast your way to a checkpoint, while in another you have to take down a massive Scarab vehicle that's crawling with enemies. Sometimes it takes strategy or stealth to get to your objective, other times you have to use brute force. Getting to the end of a game always feels like an achievement, which is the best thing you can say about any video game.

Once you get through the mission the possibilities are unlimited. There are multiplayer games, co-ed games and an endless supply of user-created games and maps to enjoy for possibly years. There are zombie infection modes. There is a type of arena football game called Griffball.

I pretty much know exactly what to expect with Halo Reach, right down to the cheesy dialogue in the cutscenes, but I don't care. I likes me some Halo, end of story.

On the other end of the spectrum, I have played Minecraft, and I have to admit that at this point I'm more confused than anything. In this game - described as a mix of the incomprehensible Dwarf Fortress, RollerCoaster Tycoon and Dungeon Keeper - you attack hills of blocks, turn those blocks into other things on your work bench or in your furnace, then craft the materials you collect into tools, armour, weapons, building supplies, food supplies, etc., during the daylight hours. That's also when you need to build your fortifications because at night you'll be attacked by skeletons, spiders and other beasties that can kill you.

Mining is kind of fun, although you can hit lava or water that you might not be able to outrun. Finding rare minerals is also kind of interesting, although it takes a while to figure out how to use them. It was neat re-routing a river with blocks, or building bridges to nowhere - but only for a little while.

There really doesn't seem to be a point. The bad guys don't get harder, from what I've seen, and at no point do you ever win this game. It's not like if you survive 100 nights against enemies that get tougher all the time you win the level. And there are a dozen levels, all of which appear to be slightly different configurations of blocks to move around.

There's a multiplayer game where you can build stuff together, which doesn't sound nearly as fun as Halo.

I suspect that this game is hugely popular for the same reason that Lego is popular, because you can shape the land into anything you want, and even build mine cart roller coasters to get around - but after playing for about two hours I admit that I've lost interest. Hopefully the Beta and finished game have some sort of objective I can strive for (there's been talk of different game modes) but for $14 I'd much rather download an Xbox Live Arcade game or pick a title out of the bargain bin at Rogers.



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