Monday, December 21, 2009

The Saboteur Review

While I wasn't particularly impressed with The Saboteur, I had a lot of fun both playing and reviewing it. Here's what I thought -- originally published on Hooked Gamers.

Friendly Fire

Prancing along the rooftops of Nazi-occupied Paris, I spotted a German general flanked by two bodyguards loitering on the street below. Given that killing Nazi generals grants me extra contraband, I set my Scoped Steiner in line with the general's head and fired a shot. Before the general hit the ground, I ran to another set of rooftops and hid among the jagged peaks. As the two bodyguards came to attention, a Sturmwagen drove by and deposited three more vigilant and glowing Nazis directly in the middle of traffic.

The Nazis stood perfectly still in an "alert" state with their weapons pointed in all directions, ready for any sign of the assassin. They were completely immersed in their hunt, so much so that when a German transport truck came barreling down the street towards them, they didn't flinch. Not wanting to harm any soldiers, the truck driver swerved to avoid two of the Nazis… and ran over the third, instantly killing him.

In their constant vigilance, the remaining two soldiers continued to stay perfectly still, not noticing or caring that their comrade had just been murdered. The truck driver maintained a similar attitude - his delivery was just too important to stop and check on the Nazi he had just crushed.

Pandemic Studios' swansong, The Saboteur, is a massive open-world game full of such conflicting moments. It attempts to maintain an immersive experience by integrating elements of plot, gameplay and artistic design, which it accomplishes most of the time, but a few poor design decisions and bad implementations often break any sense of immersion.

French-Irish

In The Saboteur, you play Sean Devlin, an Irish mechanic turned professional racecar driver turned French resistance fighter in 1940s Paris. He's a heavy-drinking, chain-smoking, womanizing asshole with vengeance in mind.

Before Germany invaded France, Sean's impending victory in his first official race was sabotaged by Doppelsieg's top driver, Kurt Dierker, who went on to claim victory. That sabotage, along with Sean's recklessness, sparked a series of tragic events that resulted in Sean hiding out in Paris while biding his time before killing Dierker.

The plot can be somewhat hokey. Ridiculous plot devices - the main antagonist is a champion racecar driver who moonlights as a professional torturer for the Nazis - derail all attempts at poignancy, like Sean's mentor, Vittore, imploring him to stop seeking vengeance. Even so, the one-dimensional yet diverse cast of characters and the resulting secrets, reluctant partnerships and betrayals, manage to keep the narrative slightly interesting. The banter between Sean's two love-interests is very amusing, and even ancillary characters existing only to provide extra missions are unique, if not well developed. While other French resistance fighters are focused on general sabotage, Margot calls upon Devlin to stop the Nazi war on culture and Dr. Kwong brings a new age of psychological warfare tactics.

While The Saboteur provides a small number of repeating mission types, the game's plot also ensures that missions similar in structure don't feel overly repetitive.

How to Take Down a Nazi

The open-world action adventure contains five self-explanatory and recurring mission structures: Tailing an enemy, rescuing allies, chauffeuring allies, sniping targets, and the most general of mission types, blow stuff up.

Pandemic Studios keeps each mission interesting by varying the underlying motivations and corresponding characters. The first chauffeur mission requires Sean to drive his best friend's sister, Veronique, around the city, while unbeknownst to him, she picks up and deposits a bomb to assassinate a high-value German target. Another chauffeur mission, assigned by Dr. Kwong, requires Sean to drive a brainwashed Nazi around the city, as the soldier willingly delivers a bomb to his commander. The first mission carries an air of tension, given the relationship between Sean and Veronique, whereas the second is quite humorous: when Sean attempts a conversation with the brainwashed German, he receives a prerecorded and repeating script.

The Saboteur also occasionally breaks from its defining mission structures to provide more story-driven experiences. Sean's chase of Kurt Dierker through an exploding zeppelin and a rescue mission conducted on a moving train are two particularly memorable moments in the game. Unfortunately, there are few comparable moments throughout the game.

Walk Softly but Carry a Big Gun

To accomplish all of these missions, Sean has the option of running in with heavy weapons, creating massive amounts of death and destruction, or stealthy infiltration, going unnoticed by any Nazis. In the first case, Sean has a large arsenal of pistols, machine guns, shotguns, rifles and explosives at his disposal, though very few of the weapons are actually worth carrying. After finding a decent machinegun and sniper rifle early on, there's no real reason for Sean to use anything else, at least until he meets the Nazi Terror Squad.

In choosing to be stealthy, Sean has the ability to sneak behind enemies and perform quick stealth kills, and disguise himself in Nazi uniforms that grant him free and unhindered access to Nazi bases. Once inside a Nazi uniform and base, Sean can complete the necessary mission without disruption as long as he stays outside of dynamic areas of suspicion.

The stealth method is almost always much easier than the guns-blazing method thanks to the absurdly stupid enemy AI. As long as Sean remains outside the areas of suspicion, he can continuously plant explosives on objects of interest unhindered. An entire base may be engulfed in flames with explosions continuously going off, but Nazi soldiers will completely ignore it all as long as Sean doesn't jump out of his disguise.

Uber-Nazis

While this stealth formula is maintained throughout most of the game, it is broken by the aforementioned Nazi Terror Squad. These superhuman behemoths carry futuristic weapons - their shotguns fire as quickly as machine guns and their machine guns fire as quickly gatling guns - and they're immune to stealth kills. In some cases, half a dozen headshots are necessary to taking one down.

What results is the removal of any semblance of believability that the game tries to build through its characters and well-designed world. The Saboteur, like any good open-world game, is heavily built on providing players with choice. But the Terror Squad completely removes choice, contradicting everything else that Pandemic Studios created in the game.

Sound the Alarm

If a Nazi does notice Sean performing illicit activities, the Nazi can sound a general alarm and, as is typical at the end of most missions, Sean must flee the area before further German forces arrive and the alarm level increases. To escape alarms, Sean has a number of options including leaving the alarm area, which is particularly difficult at higher alarm levels, and running into a designated hiding spot, such as brothels and hatches on roofs.

In a nice addition to open-world games, Sean also has the option to fight back during high-level alarms. At designated "fight back" areas, Nazis will retreat and unsound the alarm once Sean and his allies have killed a certain number of pursuers in what amounts to all out warfare on the streets.

Economic Woes

Outside of the provided missions, Sean has the option of destroying Nazi targets - guard towers, search lights, AA guns and propaganda speakers - that litter Paris and the outlying countryside. While very repetitive, doing so is necessary in order to gain contraband, currency of Nazi-occupied Paris.

Sean can spend contraband to purchase explosives, weapons and ammunition from dealers. He can also use contraband at garages to purchase vehicle upgrades and body repairs.

However, The Saboteur's economic system is fairly light, considering it boils down to a formula of complete task then receive rewards. As opposed to a fully fleshed out trading system, Sean can't sell back or return items he doesn't have a use for.

The Saboteur also includes an interesting perk system that mimics the achievements all videogames incorporate. Performing specific actions a certain number of times unlocks weapons, vehicles and new abilities for Sean that are very useful. The game's best sniper rifle, racecar and stealth kills are all obtainable exclusively through the perk system.

Black and White

As alluded to, the majority of the game is set in Paris, which Pandemic Studios rendered beautifully - adding landmarks such as The Louvre, the Arc de Triomphe, the Tour Eiffel and Notre Dame - and managed to capture a lived-in old world feel. But Sean must also travel to the French countryside and shore, which can take a good deal of time. Like any road trip, however, the drives also act as a respite from tense circumstances.

Tying all the environments together is The Saboteur's highly touted color-scheme. At the beginning of the game, Sean meets a French freedom fighter named Luc. In an attempt to recruit Sean, Luc enters into an inspirational diatribe, "We will push back the darkness, free the city from fear, house by house and street by street."

While Luc is speaking figuratively, Pandemic Studios considered that statement more literally. Areas under heavy Nazi occupation appear in black and white, with small accents of color, reminiscent of Schindler's List. After Sean completes certain high-profile missions, Nazi influence decreases and the game reveals a full color palette for the area in an inspirational moment.

Seeing an area in color, after spending hours in its black and white counterpart, is like seeing it for the first time. The effect is quite stunning. In addition, viewing the seams, particularly those places where a dark chaotic sky meets its fully colored neighbor, acts as a reminder - there's still more work to be done.

Innovative vs. Fun

With perhaps the exception of its artistic design, The Saboteur doesn't do anything new. It takes all of its design elements from innovative games, like those in the Grand Theft Auto and Assassin's Creed series, but implements them in a much less flattering manner. However, that's not to say the game isn't fun.

The game possesses eye-rolling situations, overpowered enemies, terribly dumb AI and other look-at-the-camera moments, but these breaks of immersion add to an enjoyable experience instead of detracting from it. Watching that German transport truck run over the Nazi soldier was so unexpected and so contradictory to the situation, I burst out in laughter. It only made me want to play more.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Rogue Warrior: Making Other Games Shine

Rogue Warrior is easily my worst game of 2009, which is probably why I had so much fun writing this review. Originally published on Bitmob.

Rogue Warrior

Warning: This article is rated R – Restricted for language and explicit badass-ness. Readers under 17 require an accompanying parent or adult guardian.

Upon starting the single-player campaign in Rogue Warrior, three difficulty options greeted me: “If you’re a pussy, select this one,” “Bring it on, motherfuckers,” and “Think you’re fucking special, huh?” I chuckled at each of the statements. My girlfriend, who was sitting next to me, summed up her feelings with one word: lame. But she thinks every game that isn’t Team Fortress 2 is lame, so I decided to roll with the situation.

So what if the difficulty levels are kind of cheesy? The game hasn’t even started yet. Let’s see where this goes.

The opening credits began with a Dick Marcinko monologue voiced by the unmistakable and gravelly Mickey Rourke. “A spec warrior, one who gives a fuck. That’s me.”

My own inner monologue continued: Sounds pretty badass.

“Whether I’m prowling and growling, or going full fucking Faulkner with lots of sound and fury, you count on this: I get the job done.”

A reference to The Sound and the Fury, huh? So, he’s badass and clever.

“I’m running a skeleton crew. Minimum footprint, maximum impact. S.O.P. for assholes like me.”

Well, maybe not so clever. And I get it, you’re badass. You don’t have to call yourself an asshole.

“I trained these men up through the SEAL program. They’ve saved my ugly ass more than once.”

Further self-deprecation isn’t going to increase your badass rating.

“They’re dirtbags and hard motherfuckers.”

Wow, I get it. You’re badass, they’re badass. Well done.

Marcinko paused as one of his men lifted his middle finger to the camera.

Seriously?! So calling your fellow SEALs dirtbags and motherfuckers wasn’t already enough to establish your collective badass-ness. Now one of these hard motherfuckers has to stick his middle finger up at… me?

Fuck you

Lessons from a Violent Stealthy Shooter

I realized the ineptitude of Rogue Warrior’s script early on and at no point during my play-through was I convinced to reconsider my decision.

However, a game’s script typically has no bearing on its gameplay. I pressed on, hoping for more… but the game quickly and fully dashed my hopes for a decent experience.

First of all, there is a large number of weapons in the game. Unfortunately, they all feel exactly the same, with two exceptions: the shotgun – essentially a one hit kill weapon – and the sniper rifle – definitively a one hit kill weapon. The silenced pistol is just as effective at taking down an enemy as an AK-47, whereas the sniper rifle is so effective, it will instantly kill an enemy with only one bullet to the foot.

The absurdly predictable enemies further exaggerate some of the parallels between weapons. In ongoing auditions for a new Whac-A-Mole game, communist soldiers will hide behind cover, count to ten, pop their heads out to look around, return to cover for one second, pop back out and fire for five seconds, and then repeat the process. Over and over again.

I would definitely hand over the Whac-A-Mole roles to these communists if it weren’t for their tendency to always reveal a knee or an elbow while hiding behind cover. Shooting oneself in the head is an equally effective tactic when facing a sniper rifle-wielding Marcinko. The Locust Horde retains its mole-king status.

To be fair, communist soldiers only play the hide and peek game when they’re aware of Marcinko. When they’re not aware, Marcinko can run up behind an enemy, place a necklace of unpinned grenades on his shoulders, and run away with the enemy never realizing – even though Marcinko just performed the same action on five other nearby communists.

Marcinko doesn’t actually like to use grenades though. Instead, he’ll use his knife to stab enemies in the side of the neck, the back of the neck, the forehead, the back of the head, the back of the kneecap, the kidney, etc. There are over twenty kill moves that all accomplish the same thing.

Stab to the kidney

The Rogue Warrior developers even incorporated a cover system. Communists in the game are either hiding or completely unaware of Marcinko. Why is a cover system necessary? It’s not. Unlike well-developed cover systems in other games, Marcinko’s cover system is a downgrade from basic strafing and crouching.

To emphasize the poor gameplay, Rogue Warrior blankets its mechanics – from the weapons to the AI to the cover system – in a very dated aesthetic. With the exception of a Russian palace, every apartment building, factory, dock, and dam looks exactly the same. Each concrete wall and metal pole blends into the bland surroundings, resulting in a stale and rusted industrial environment.

Even when there is a drastic change in the aesthetics – as in the aforementioned Russian palace – it’s hard to appreciate the scenery due to the lack of detail. The sparseness of each environment conveys an extreme sterility, as if each location had been uninhabited for centuries prior to Marcinko’s arrival. Unfortunately, the game is set in the real world, in the 1980s.

Increasing the Badass Factor

Surprisingly, the gameplay and the graphics are both far from being Rogue Warrior’s worst aspect. That honor goes to the expletives Marcinko spews every few seconds. Colorful examples include:

“Drop dead motherfucker, you fucking amateurs.”

“I’ve got bullets for every one of those motherfuckers.”

“Fucking… fucking retard, dead piece of shit.”

“Better dead than red, assholes.” (My personal favorite and probably the only sentence Marcinko utters without adding a superfluous “fuck.”)

If I didn’t know that Rogue Warrior was based on Dick Marcinko’s equally explicit autobiography, I would’ve thought the game originated from a developer bet: How many times can Mickey Rourke say “fuck?”

How to Read

That’s not to say I’m against explicit language in videogames. I believe it has its place in the medium, along with sex, violence, and any other controversial subject matter. Duke Nukem’s creative trash talk still brings a smile to my face. “I’m gonna rip your head off and shit down your neck,” demonstrates a wonderfully poetic rhythm. Marcinko’s expletives demonstrate nothing more than elementary and overcompensating attempts at creating attitude. “Get dead, fuck bag,” is just not on the same level.

The Real Victim

I can’t help but feel like Rogue Warrior has victimized me, as if a thief broke into my house and stole my gaming PC – my only valuable possession, other than the refrigerator.

However, I’m not Rogue Warrior’s only victim. I’m not even its greatest victim – that would have to be the underpaid and overworked programmer or artist or level designer at Rebellion Developments.

This lowly developer entered the videogame industry not for the money, not for the fame, but simply for the love of videogames. This developer has an incredible amount of talent and some amazing ideas. Unfortunately, for whatever reason – be it the poor job market or social pressures – this developer had to work on Rogue Warrior. Superiors who demanded subpar work infected this developer to the point of eroding his or her integrity and self-worth. To you traumatized developer, I’m truly sorry.

Terrible, Terrible, Terrible

Between the shallow gameplay, dated graphics, extensive expletives, and traumatized development team, I believe I can describe this game in one simple statement: Rogue Warrior is terrible.

That’s right Rogue Warrior, you are a terrible game. I don’t think I’ve ever said that about a videogame before. I’ve certainly played many games over the years that I didn’t enjoy. But I’ve always appreciated some aspect of every game, even if it was just the shiny graphics or the poorly executed attempt at innovation.

I never thought I could justifiably use a single word to describe a game. After all, describing a game with only one adjective is no better than assigning a game one of those arbitrary numeric values that Metacritic perpetuates. However, with you, Rogue Warrior, “terrible” fits.

Almost all videogames at least try to be more than they are. Rogue Warrior, you never even thought about trying. I can find nothing redeeming about you. In fact, I really want to despise you for wasting my time and money, but I can’t. After all, what is good, without bad? How can we appreciate the groundbreaking titles without the fodder to compare them?

Boo

I suppose I did find something redeeming about you. Well done, Rogue Warrior… I guess. Can I still call you terrible? At the very least, I can agree with my girlfriend and call you lame.

Afterword

Two questions regarding Rogue Warrior’s development process continue to nag me. I can’t get them out of my head because I can’t find a rational answer for either of them.

First, why didn’t Marcinko provide his own voice for the videogame?

He was a Navy SEAL during Vietnam, he created the first dedicated counter-terrorism team, and he ultimately served time in federal prison for supposedly defrauding the government. He’s the closest thing to a real-life Rambo!

He even hosts his own talk show – America on Watch – so he should know how to speak into a microphone.

And it’s not like he needed a strong acting pedigree. In-game Marcinko’s range of emotions spanned from angry-and-cursing to slightly-angry-and-cursing. I’m sure real-life Marcinko has had experience with both ends of the spectrum.

“But,” you might interject, “if Mickey Rourke is readily available, why not use him?”

“Well,” I would counter, “maybe some of that Mickey Rourke money could have gone towards creating some decent gameplay.” It’s just something to think about.

Run Away

Second – and the more obvious question – why did Bethesda Softworks publish this game?

This is a game developer known for crafting some of the most visually stunning, atmospheric, story-driven, and generally innovative experiences. Morrowind, Oblivion, and Fallout 3 all number among my favorite role-playing games, and The Shivering Isles is one of the most imaginative places that I’ve ever visited.

Even though Bethesda’s forte is role-playing, the company must have at least an inkling of what goes into a good shooter, considering its parent – ZeniMax Media – recently purchased id Software.

This all makes Rogue Warrior all the more perplexing. Everyone at Bethesda must have known Rogue Warrior was terrible. Why not delay the release? Valve does it all the time and they still come out on top, despite the constant outcry from fans. Was money a factor? I can’t see how it would be considering Fallout 3’s success and ZeniMax’s aforementioned acquisition.

I just can’t fathom how such a principled developer could have played a part in, much less published, such a terrible gaming experience. I suppose I’ll have to limit myself to games that Bethesda Softworks has both published and developed, and ignore those it has only published.

Monday, November 16, 2009

King's Bounty: Armored Princess Review

I never played the original King's Bounty. So when my editor at Hooked Gamers gave me Armored Princess to review, I approached it from a fresh and inexperienced perspective. Unfortunately, veterans of the series did not take too kindly to this. That taught me an important lesson: Explicitly state how experienced you are with a series when reviewing an entry in it.

Armored Princess

Baal opened the door to Endoria and stormed the lands, annihilating all who dwelt there. The dwarves and elves fell quickly. Now, only the stronghold of Kronberg and King Mark stand against the demonic horde. Endoria's only hope is the valiant Bill Gilbert, who unfortunately is in another world called Teana. To get to him, the king and his chief advisor, Archmage Shivarius, have devised a plan to…

Well King's Bounty: Armored Princess doesn't really engage through narrative. Its story is fairly forgettable, which is compounded by its presentation - the game displays plot points almost completely through dense dialogue trees that the player can easily ignore.

Without going any further into the back-story, players experience Armored Princess as Princess Amelie, daughter of King Mark. She leaps at the opportunity to travel to Teana, find Bill Gilbert, and hopefully save Endoria from impending doom.

Island Hopping

Upon starting a new game, players have the opportunity of choosing between three different classes - warrior, paladin, and mage. Each has varying attributes that result in the warrior being a better fighter, the mage being adept at magic and casting spells, and the paladin being a balance between the two extremes.

Traveling through Teana provides an experience similar to any action role-playing game. The land is littered with shops to purchase items, characters to provide quests, and enemies to fight. However, Teana is divided into numerous islands, each with their own distinctive atmosphere. The island that Amelie arrives upon is what one would expect from the story - a medieval fantasy kingdom with lush green expanses.

After completing each quest, defeating all enemies, and procuring all items, Amelie travels to Caribbean-esque pirate-infested beaches, Nordic-inspired arctic tundra's, charred and desolate wastelands, and more. Arriving at each new island proves to be delightful and refreshing - that is, until you meet the locals.

Building an Army

Again, like any typical character in an action role-playing game, Princess Amelie has the ability to level-up and gain points for use in skill trees. The player can use these points, termed Talent Runes in the game, to increase attack and defense ratings, available mana, monetary rewards after battles, etc. Unlike typical action role-playing games, the playable character in King's Bounty: Armored Princess, Princess Amelie, doesn't actually fight during combat. She is more of a general in a grid-based turn-based affair.

Amelie has seven different slots for her army - five active slots and two reserve slots. Each slot can hold a single type of unit, and there is a plethora of units available for purchase across all of Teana's islands. Archers, mages, knights, zombies, robbers, pirates, bears, griffons, and dragons constitute only a small percentage of the available types. Of course, different strengths, weaknesses, and special abilities accompany each unit type. Archers and mages can attack from a distance, but have low individual health. Bears can do a large amount of damage, but can only melee and are slow moving.

While Amelie can only take five distinct unit types into battle, the number of units is more variable. Each slot can hold any number of identical units, and those identical units' attributes stack. For example, while a ten-Archer slot is identical to a five-Archer slot from an organizational standpoint, ten Archers will do more damage and last longer on that battlefield than only five archers.

That doesn't mean Amelie can have any number of units in a single slot. Each unit type has a different Leadership requirement. If the number of units in a slot exceeds Amelie's Leadership attribute, she loses control of that unit on the battlefield. Amelie's attributes also build upon the base attributes of each unit type. An increase in level and subsequent increase in attack rating for Amelie, translates into an increase in attack rating for all of her troops.

The Battlefield

Combat in Armored Princess is more reminiscent of a board game than a role-playing game. The battlefield is composed of a hexagonal grid. Each grid space can hold one unit type at a time, and Amelie's units typically start on the opposite end of the grid from enemies.

Battles are divided into Turns. Each Turn is over once every unit on the battlefield has performed the available action(s). A unit's available actions for the Turn are typically exhausted once it has attacked. But before attacking, a unit can sometimes move throughout the battlefield or perform a special ability. For example, in one Turn, a bear can use its special ability to double its movement speed, move across four hexagons instead of two, and then attack an enemy if it is in an adjacent hexagon. On the contrary, Archers may not want to move at all considering their ranged attack.

Battlefields come in many different shapes and sizes, and include obstacles. The standard rectangular grid, with opposing forces starting on opposite sides, is fairly prevalent throughout Teana. However, the player can also encounter circular grids with enemies surrounding the player's units, or irregularly-shaped grids that are specific to certain situations, such as laying siege to a castle.

With an enormous number of units and battlefield possibilities, the combat in King's Bounty: Armored Princess is very satisfying due to its thought-provoking nature - a very good thing considering combat constitutes 99% of the game. This also means that no battle is quick and simple. Even "very weak" opponents (the game conveniently informs the player of an enemy army's strength before combat is entered - a very welcome touch for avoiding "invincible" opponents) can take a good amount of time and thought to defeat, especially when trying to avoid any casualties.

Pet Dragon

Thankfully, Amelie doesn't have to rely solely on her army. She also has a pet dragon at her disposal - as lethal as it is cute. Like any army unit, Amelie's dragon can perform one action per Turn. The dragon can call upon a ball of lightning to follow a single enemy unit, or dive bomb from the sky and severely damage every enemy unit. But these abilities aren't immediately or freely available. The dragon levels up along with Amelie through battle and gains certain abilities while strengthening others over time. Each ability also costs a certain amount of Rage, which is gained by regular army combat - attacking and being attacked by enemies.

While Amelie's dragon is an integral part of battle, and very useful when taking on larger armies, it remains off the grid and carefree. After performing an ability on the battlefield, the dragon will fly back to its resting place and take a nap under its tree, oblivious to any tension on the field. When not in use, the dragon will also grab a piece of fruit from the tree, and munch away while watching its allies struggle. It is both a very welcome addition to the tense and strategic combat, and a nice artistic touch. It is always amusing to watch the dragon as it observes battle nonchalantly.

Verdict

King's Bounty: Armored Princess has a forgettable story and dated graphics that seem borrowed from much older medieval fantasy titles. However, its gameplay is superb. The turn-based combat is the main component of this game and fortunately its strongest draw. While easy to learn, it is deeply strategic and very satisfying, especially when defeating an army that is much stronger than your own.

The overall formula of island hopping also proves to be very addictive. Clearing an island of all of its monsters and loot provides a great sense of pride in your army. Traveling to the next island, and observing the new landscape and atmosphere, results in a sense of wonder. And finally, those feelings of pride and wonder are dashed when you realize the armies on the new island completely outclass your own. Of course, that's what makes the game so much fun.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Dragon Age: Origins -- The Landsmeet

I had an amazing time with Dragon Age: Origins, and the Landsmeet sequence was a big contributor to that. So I decided to recount my experience over on Bitmob, and it was really well received.

Be Warned: This article is basically one giant spoiler.

DA_Landsmeet_beginning

I thought that I knew my enemy. Every single action I had taken served a single purpose: deposing the traitor, Teyrn Loghain Mac Tir. The supposed hero of Ferelden betrayed King Cailan on the battlefield, leaving him to die at the hands of the Darkspawn, and blamed the Grey Wardens for the king’s death.

The Blight loomed in the background, threatening to annihilate all of Ferelden. But as long as Loghain lived and drew support from any noble family, facing the Blight would have to wait.

So Arl Eamon, a victim of Loghain’s machinations and my newly acquired ally, called the Landsmeet. At this event we could formally reveal Loghain’s many betrayals and atrocities to the ruling class and place Alistair -- fellow Grey Warden, illegitimate son of Cailan's father, King Maric, and my friend -- on the throne.

 

Unfortunately, the Landsmeet did not progress as smoothly as we would've liked. Loghain proved to be a master orator, and he rebuffed all of my attempts at discrediting him. He aimed to keep his daughter, Anora, on the throne while retaining control of Ferelden’s armies.

After a heated verbal battle, the proceedings broke down into violence. Cooler heads eventually prevailed and called for the most traditional means of settling an argument: a duel. Loghain would represent Anora, and I would represent Alistair. The winner would, of course, decide the ruler.

DA_Landsmeet_Duel

In the end, my Elvish dual-weapon fighting style was too much for Loghain. He conceded, placing his life -- and the lives of all of Ferelden's citizens -- in my hands.

Indecision

Suddenly, I found myself conflicted. My sworn enemy knelt at my feet, ready for execution. I'd been anticipating this moment throughout my journeys. I finally had the opportunity to kill Loghain and exact my revenge.

But I couldn’t do the deed. I couldn’t kill Loghain. I probably wouldn’t have had this change of heart if we dueled to the death. In the heat of battle, I surely would have killed him. Or maybe my reluctance resulted from a prior encounter with Ser Cauthrien, Loghain’s commander.

Ser Cauthrien was an honorable and principled woman in addition to being a fierce warrior. I thought if I revealed some of Loghain’s crimes to her, she would realize his evil nature and join my side. Instead, I was surprised to discover that she not only knew about Loghain’s betrayals, endorsements of slavery, and kidnappings, she also reluctantly endorsed them.

Seeing Loghain’s actions through Ser Cauthrien’s eyes made me realize that Loghain wasn’t necessarily the monster that I had originally thought. Like my own actions, Loghain’s scheming had a single purpose: saving Ferelden from the Blight.

I could not agree with his methods, but his motivations were certainly just. In fact, his motivations were more just than my own. While I was bent on seeking revenge, he was considering the bigger picture and the greater threat.

Perhaps that’s why I couldn’t execute Loghain when he submitted himself to me. I let him live.

Alistair furiously took exception to this. He couldn’t forgive Loghain’s crimes, especially those against the Grey Wardens

DA_Landsmeet_Alistair_disapproves

Alistair had always been reluctant to become king – he simply didn’t want the responsibility. But when I decided to spare Loghain’s life, Alistair voiced his desire to take the throne. He would become king, if only to see Loghain executed.

In turn, Anora objected to Alistair’s sentiments and questioned his ability to rule due to his selfishness. She, of course, wanted to remain on the throne and see her father live.

Verdict

Finally, both Alistair and Anora turned to me. It was time for me to declare the undisputed ruler of Ferelden.

Even though I attended the Landsmeet with the intention of declaring Alistair king, I had to rethink my decision.

Alistair was my friend, companion, and fellow Grey Warden. We had been together since the beginning. His irreverent humor lightened some of the most harrowing circumstances, and his weapon-and-shield defensive-fighting style perfectly complemented my dual-weapon offensive style.

Alistair also never wanted to be king. He was content with his role as a Grey Warden, fighting in battle with no responsibility to anyone except the man standing next to him.

But I knew that if I did not declare him king now and allow him to execute Loghain, he would leave. I would lose him as an ally on the battlefield and as a friend in life.

We were also really close to having sex, and I didn’t want to ruin that.

On the other hand, I despised Anora. Like her father, she had betrayed me. She had set me up in a diabolical plot to portray me as an immoral kidnapper.

Also like her father, she was unapologetic for her actions. Even though I deplored her means, Anora did what she thought was right, not for herself, but for the kingdom. I had to admire her conviction. Such a quality seemed essential for a strong ruler.

I weighed the pros and cons of both Alistair and Anora for 10 minutes, staring at the screen as the lightning on my sword crackled and the characters swayed slowly, waiting for a response. Option one: “Fine, Alistair will be king, then.” Option two: “Very well. Anora will remain on the throne.”

DA_Landsmeet_king_making

I chose Anora.

Alistair, needless to say, was devastated. “You’re siding with her? How could you do this to me? You, of all people?”

My response was trite and detached. “I thought you hated the idea of being king.”

“What’s wrong with you? He’s repeatedly tried to kill us both, and you side with him over me?”

Alistair left then, and I never saw him again. “Have fun ending the Blight...or whatever. I guess you made your decision, right? So goodbye.”

Why I Play

Videogames have a wide range of appeals. They can provide goal-oriented satisfaction, connect us with family and friends, create adrenaline-pumping moments, and tell engaging stories.

However, anyone can obtain any of those appeals from a number of other mediums and forms of entertainment, such as books, movies, television, and organized sports.

The Landsmeet sequence in Dragon Age: Origins provides an experience unique to videogames. In no other medium can a person gain the experience of determining a people’s fate. No other medium is capable of forcing a person to weigh their selfish desires against the good of the many.

I know developers at BioWare constructed the entire Landsmeet sequence. I know that my decisions in Dragon Age: Origins have little to no effect on the overall gameplay. Nonetheless, in choosing Anora over Alistair at the Landsmeet, I’ve gained an experience that can be applied to all aspects of life.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Borderlands Review

My review of Borderlands for Hooked Gamers.

Role-Playing Shooter

On the desolate and lawless planet of Pandora, rumors abound about a mythical vault, said to contain vast amounts of alien technologies and secrets. Some inhabitants are completely indifferent to these rumors and are content to conduct their lives in arbitrary fashions. Other inhabitants are obsessed with these rumors, devoting their lives to the search for the vault while slowly losing their sanity.

In Gearbox's newest shooter, Borderlands, players take on the role of a vault-hunter, following in the footsteps of those Pandora inhabitants in the latter category.

Players must complete a myriad of quests, collect a ton of loot, level-up, and ultimately fire a countless number of bullets. While Borderlands includes a role-playing mechanic more reminiscent of a title in the Diablo series or an MMORPG, the game is a first-person shooter at its core. This combination of RPG and FPS elements creates an experience that is equally enjoyable and addicting.

Customizable Characters

At the outset of the game, four playable characters are available. Along with their varying strengths, appearances, and back-stories, each character also possesses a special ability and corresponding skill tree. Roland's special ability for example is a deployable turret that automatically fires on enemies and provides cover. And Brick's special ability is berserk, a temporary state which increases damage resistances and regenerates health.

The corresponding skill trees provide optional enhancements for the characters' traits or special abilities. Upon leveling-up, Roland can increase his bullet damage for all weapon types or transform his turret into an ammunition dispenser. By spending points on Brick's skill tree, players can increase his maximum health or increase the duration of his berserk ability.

Each playable character provides a vastly different experience. In turn, the skill trees ensure that even two players using the same class have equally varying experiences.

Guns, Guns, and More Guns

Outside of the character customization, Borderlands revolves around two gameplay mechanics: shooting enemies and collecting loot.

Some human enemies essentially stand still, while others run from cover to cover. Insect-like creatures have a simple tendency to run at the player, while other flying creatures attack via dive-bombing.

Regardless of the enemy - type or behavior - the game always provides a multitude of opponents at any point in time for the player to combat. As a result, firefights are always intense, which comes as no surprise given Gearbox's experience in the FPS genre. Players have to constantly take cover, use special abilities, and hit those immensely satisfying headshots to remain alive on Pandora.

The millions of available weapons further enhance the gunplay. The procedural system to generate variations of pistols, shotguns, assault rifles, sniper rifles, rocket launchers, and more ensures that no two weapons are the same. Two weapons of the same type can vary in damage, accuracy, firing rate, magazine size, reload speed, and even additional elemental effects.

Each new and improved weapon has the potential to provide a brand new shooting experience from the gun's mechanics and subsequent unique death animations.

Talk More

While the "search for the vault" premise is certainly intriguing, the story's execution is lackluster at best. Pandora is home to some very interesting and well-developed characters with varying motivations. Unfortunately, a lack of voice acting hides such motivations and the resulting plot points.

The majority of dialogue is displayed as text during mission briefings, which makes it extremely easy to skip over and ignore. Thus, it is easy to construe the cohesive main plotline as a series of random and unrelated quests.

The conclusion of Borderlands compounds upon the game's poorly presented story by completely disregarding the main premise. Gearbox leaves many questions unanswered, as if the company simply ran out of time and/or money during the development process.

Not Cell-Shaded

Given the arid and desolate nature of Pandora, there is certainly no shortage of grays and browns throughout the landscape. However, Borderlands includes some vibrant accent colors and an artistic style comparable to cel-shading, but with greater depth and a more realistic feel.

While standard bandits wear clothes mostly in brown, other antagonistic creatures can have skins of bright orange, green, yellow, or blue. Weapons also come in a similar variety of colors depending on the presence of elemental effects from fire, corrosive, explosive, or shock damage.

Beyond the color palette, subtle touches add a great amount of flair to Borderlands' visuals. Gearbox framed absolutely everything in the game - from the environments to the weapons to the characters - in black outlines. As the character moves closer to any object, the object's outline becomes thinner and less noticeable. A hill's outline completely disappears as it lowers beneath the horizon and blends into the surrounding terrain. The effect is subtle yet mesmerizing.

Overall, Borderlands is a stunning artistic achievement. The varied color palette and unique design ensure the visuals never feel repetitive.

Drop-In, Drop-Out

Unfortunately, after prolonged exploration, Pandora can feel like a very lonely place. Vast open environments and aggressive enemies are constants, while friendly faces are non-existent. As a result, Borderlands' drop-in, drop-out multiplayer can increase the game's enjoyment exponentially.

Fighting alongside a friend greatly increases the game's difficulty. Enemies scale to the number of players, which causes firefights to be much more intense, and require an increase in tactical prowess. Multiplayer sessions even improve available loot. As the difficulty of enemies increases, so does the value of the items and weapons they drop.

Despite being one of the game's strongest assets, the multiplayer implementation is also one of its most problematic aspects. There exists no internal mechanic for evenly distributing loot amongst fellow vault-hunters - whoever gets to an item first, keeps it. If Player A wishes to give Player B an item, again there is no convenient method. Player A must simply drop the item for Player B to pick up.

Borderlands' multiplayer implementation is even problematic outside of the game itself. Hosting or joining private games on the PC version is impossible without forwarding specific ports - a bizarre technicality for any software to possess.

Play the Game

Borderlands is a mix of great ideas and inadequate implementation. Fortunately, Gearbox's great ideas far outweigh any of the game's faults. The story and multiplayer implementations could definitely use some improvement, but these are minor concerns compared to the immensely satisfying combat, the addictive looting and leveling systems, and the gorgeous art design.

Oh, and the reference to the Jaynestown episode of Firefly is brilliant.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Dragon Age: Journeys -- Games Marketing Games

The effect that a small marketing tool had on my perception of Dragon Age -- originally published on Bitmob.

dao_title

Given my love for the Baldur’s Gate series, I've been eagerly anticipating Dragon Age: Origins since its initial announcement. Unfortunately, the game’s marketing campaign has done nothing to heighten that anticipation.

I'd never have thought of combining Marilyn Manson with medieval fantasy. After watching numerous Dragon Age trailers, I still wouldn’t combine the two.

As the theme song states, “this is the new shit.” Really? The new shit? I thought that Dragon Age: Origins is supposed to be a return to BioWare’s roots, a spiritual successor to the Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights series. Wouldn’t that make the game the old shit?

I suppose EA isn’t really aiming its marketing campaign at me. As EA CEO John Riccitiello said in regard to Dragon Age: Origins, “It’s got a built-in audience given the strong reputation of BioWare.” I’m definitely a member of that built-in audience; there’s really no purpose in marketing the game toward individuals like me. However, is Marilyn Manson really the best choice for enticing a new audience?

Games Marketing Games

The marketing campaign's in fact so distasteful that I began to wonder about the game's quality. Then EA released Dragon Age Journeys, a free-to-play, party-based RPG.

 

daj_title

Releasing a free game to promote a full-priced game is a familiar strategy for EA. To market The Sims 3, EA created a number of free applications, such as SimFriend and SimSocial, which whetted the appetites of series’ fans and drew in a new audience. The Sims 3 was, of course, an instant success, selling 1.4 million copies in its first week.

However, EA’s strategy concerning Dragon Age: Journeys is unprecedented given the Flash game’s craftsmanship. What could have easily been a rudimentary hack-n-slash adventure is surprisingly a fully developed and engaging role-playing experience.

The game’s plot is concerned with events preceding Dragon Age: Origins and is set in and around the underground Dwarven city of Orzammar. While the storyline and dialogue are not particularly memorable, Dragon Age: Journeys' gameplay shines.

daj_orzammar

Quintessential Roleplaying

When starting a new game, players can create their own character through an interface mirroring the Dragon Age: Origins Character Creator. Customization options include gender, race, class, and background, allowing for a male warrior dwarf noble, a female rogue city elf, a male mage human noble, or some other combination of 24 possibilities. Players can also select from a library of hairstyles and hair, skin, and armor colors.

Dragon Age: Journeys also offers full economic and character progression systems. Players can obtain loot from exploring the Deep Roads or vanquishing enemies. Weapons, armor, and items are even available from numerous merchants and smiths in town.

dao_character

Like any role-playing game, players gain experience from completing quests and defeating enemies. Upon leveling up, the player can boost statistics and gain class talents. Each class has its own set of talent trees. The warrior can customize their abilities in two-handed, weapon and shield, dual weapon, and archery combat. The mage has an even greater number of categories.

Everything one would expect from a BioWare role-playing game is present in Dragon Age: Journeys, with the exception of combat. The combat relies on a turn-based mechanic that's more reminiscent of Final Fantasy installments on the SNES than anything by the physician-led Canadian developer.

Strategic Combat

Player characters and enemies take turns moving across the hexagonal combat grid and performing actions. Melee attacks require the character to be on a hexagon adjacent to the enemy, whereas ranged and magical attacks have farther distance constraints. Obstacles such as boulders and stalagmites may also be present along the combat grid, preventing ranged attacks from certain vantage points and forcing melee characters to utilize more turns to reach the enemy.

dao_combat

Players gain strategic advantages from intelligent positioning. Certain attacks can hit multiple opponents if they're clustered together, and backstabs dealing greater damage can be performed when behind enemies.

The Dragon Age: Journeys combat system presents a deeply strategic element that hasn't been seen in a BioWare title since Baldur’s Gate 2.

Even the normal difficulty level is well developed. Combat is simultaneously challenging and satisfying. It’s never so easy that it becomes monotonous, nor is it ever so difficult that it becomes frustrating.

Realizations

As I progressed through Dragon Age: Journeys, I found myself comparing it to other RPGs in search of any flaws. I thought that the game might be too linear; you receive little opportunity to branch off of the main quest. I thought that the dialogue could use some depth; the character development just isn’t on par with other BioWare games.

Then I remembered that I was experiencing a free-to-play, browser-based game. Of course the game's linear -- it’s Flash-based. The fact that Dragon Age: Journeys drew comparisons to other RPGs is a testament to its superb quality.

dao_deeproad

Costly Marketing

In addition to the game’s remarkable production value, Dragon Age: Journeys is worth playing for another reason. Players can gain special items for Dragon Age: Origins by accomplishing achievements or completing surveys. In one survey, a series of questions made me realize that I'd be very willing to pay money for future installments of Dragon Age: Journeys. I can’t help but be slightly ashamed at this, considering the game's essentially a marketing tool for another game.

Regardless, Dragon Age: Journeys brings to mind everything I love about BioWare’s early work. Despite EA’s bombardment of misrepresentative teasers and trailers, this Flash game has reminded me why I initially couldn't wait to experience Dragon Age: Origins.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Twenty Years of Chip and Chuck

I loved Chip's Challenge as a kid, so I decided to learn more about it. This was the result -- originally published on Bitmob.

ChipsCover

Chip’s Challenge is a tile-based puzzle game written by videogame industry veteran Chuck Sommerville. Originally released in 1989 for the Atari Lynx and ported to many other platforms, the game’s story revolves around high school student Chip McCallahan. In order to prove himself worthy of entry into the Bit Buster Club and get closer to the gorgeous Melinda the Mental Marvel, Chip must steer himself through Melinda’s clubhouse, which consists of 144 levels.

The basic gameplay of Chip’s Challenge involves navigating Chip from the start point to the end point of each level while collecting all of the microchips and overcoming numerous obstacles. The early levels are fairly straightforward, presenting obstacles like locked doors requiring specific keys, blocks that need to be moved around to create pathways, and generally unintelligent monsters.

As Chip progresses through levels, the game evolves and becomes increasingly more difficult. The number and complexity of obstacles continue to intensify, and levels increasingly test critical thinking, timing, reflexes, and keyboard durability. Whereas early levels may only take a few minutes to complete, later levels require hours of work to solve.

 

First Impression
I first encountered Chip’s Challenge as a part of the Microsoft Entertainment Pack for Windows. During a summer between my early high school years, I was fortunate enough to get a position working in a medical research laboratory. Unfortunately, the job proved to be less than stimulating. During boring stints of waiting for experiments to run their course, I would hop onto a nearby computer and tackle my way through Chip’s Challenge puzzles.

Chips005

The game proved to be extremely addictive, making me feel terribly dense on some occasions and extremely intelligent during others. I was astounded by the level of thought behind each puzzle.

Unfortunately, as the summer came to an end, so did my job, and my experience with Chip was left unfinished. The new school year began and I eventually forgot all about the game.


Still Strong
Ten years later, I realized that Chip’s Challenge was the best puzzle game I ever experienced.

In an effort to recapture those maddeningly frustrating and immensely satisfying moments, I discovered an active community surrounding the game. Aficionados at The Chip’s Challenge Corridor are still perfecting puzzle solutions, sharing high scores, and creating new levels, 20 years after the game was originally released.

Even more fascinating, I discovered that Sommerville created a sequel to Chip’s Challenge many years ago and it remains unreleased today.


Interrogation

I recently had the privilege of “sitting down” with Sommerville. He very kindly endured my barrage of questions, revealing details on the development of Chip’s Challenge, his struggles with Chip’s Challenge 2, and some thoughts on modern gaming.

Davneet Minhas: To begin, what originally drew you to the videogame industry? How did you get your start?

ChuckChuck Sommerville: I had written some stuff for fun in high school and got a little cash from a small time garage based publisher. In college, I met another freshman that was making thousands for an Asteroids clone. I knew I could do something at least that good, so I wrote Snake Byte and got it published by Sirius Software. My second game, Gruds in Space, brought me to the West Coast, and then I was in the industry. This was all around 1983-1984.

DM: How did the idea for Chip’s Challenge originate? What inspired the game design?

CS: We needed another game for the release of the handheld game system that Epyx was developing called Lynx. Since the game I was working on was canceled, I asked for some time to do a game of my own design and was granted the freedom to do it. I was always interested in grid map-based games, so I borrowed ideas from many of my favorites and built a mix of elements.

Some inspirations were Soko-Ban, Boulder Dash, and Lode Runner.

DM: Videogames today require millions of dollars, hundreds of people, and years of development time. How did the development process for Chip’s Challenge proceed?

CS: Chip's Challenge was done in the impossibly short time of 10 weeks. I was lucky that I had about 10 people in the company that agreed to do level designs, plus I hired one very talented puzzle designer, Bill Darrah. By the time Chip's Challenge was ready for testing, I had the entire test department available, because the other Lynx games were finished.

DM: How was the game initially received?

CS: I think originally, most of the company didn't get it. It wasn't designed to fit any demographic, and it didn't have a license; it was just a game that Chuck wanted to play. It really became popular after people in the real world started playing it. I guess it was spread by word of mouth.

I was very lucky that Microsoft noticed and had a Windows version written for the Microsoft Entertainment Pack.

DM: It’s been 20 years since Chip’s Challenge was originally released. Why do you think the game continues to maintain such a staunch community?

CS: Aside from the fact that the game is fun, some very clever programmers decoded the level-set file format and wrote level editors. The game moved beyond a "playthrough once game" and became a game-construction set.

DM: As I understand it, you began development on Chip’s Challenge 2 after leaving the videogame industry. Why did you decide to start a career elsewhere?

CS: I left for a couple reasons. First, the industry had changed so much since I started. I only had the creative freedom to do what someone else designed.

Second, a friend of mine, Kevin Furry, and I were making headway building a business selling lighting products made out of LEDs. Years before, I had told him that if he ever started his own company, I wanted to be part of it. Fourteen years later, we are a respected name in the LED business. We even got to build the Times Square ball -- twice.

DM: In terms of gameplay, how does Chip’s Challenge 2 differ from its predecessor? What elements have been added?

CS: I can't remember every difference, but here are some that come to mind. You can drop inventory items if you want to. There are four types of teleporters. There are logic gates, switches, wires, and generally really hard stuff. There is a remote-control tank, fire jets, and ghosts. Oh, yeah, it also includes a level editor and replay system.

DM: Even though Chip’s Challenge 2 has been complete for a number of years, the game has yet to see the light of day. Can you discuss some of the struggles that you’ve encountered in finding a publisher?

CS: The real problem is that I want Chip’s Challenge 2 to be a sequel and leverage off of the original game. I want it to include the original level set along with the new ones, use the same character names, and have the same feel. I really can't do that, because I don't own the rights to Chips Challenge. I only own the level designs to Chips Challenge 2, all the new element designs, and 99 percent of the code base.

Every few years, I’m approached by a team of programmers that says it’s going to get a publisher, port it to a new platform, and polish it up for the modern market. It never pans out.

DM: Beyond bigger budgets and larger development teams, how has the videogame industry changed in the past 25 years?

CS: I can only comment as an outside observer, but it seems the focus has shifted from "What can we do to visually amaze and dazzle the player?" to "What can we do to build a larger market share?".

DM: Do you ever have a desire to return to the videogame industry?

CS: I still like designing and playing games, even card games and board games. I might return if I retire from the lighting industry. If I did come back to videogames, I think I would want to be in a game design position, rather than work as a code monkey.

DM: Lastly, what games have you enjoyed recently?

CS: I really like the Deadly Rooms of Death (DROD) series from Caravel Games. I have also recently been playing a lot of Mafia Wars on Facebook and Wizard 101 with my son. In terms of card games, I like Zombie Fluxx, and in terms of board games, I like Carcassonne. As you can see, I have moved away from twitch games.


Legacy

For those interested in giving Chip’s Challenge a try, it can be difficult to find a legal copy of the game. Fortunately, Brian Raiter wrote Tile World, a free platform-neutral emulation of Chip’s Challenge, which includes rulesets from both the Microsoft Windows and Atari Lynx implementations.

TileWorld

I’m currently stuck on level 88 of the original game and have yet to try any of the thousands of user-created levels.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Playing as a Team: Section 8 vs Team Fortress 2

As a follow-up to my Section 8 Review, I wrote a comparison of Section 8 and Team Fortress 2 in the hopes of illuminating design decisions that can shape player behavior. Originally published on Bitmob.

sectionfortress

In an attempt to capture the exhilarating feeling that comes from team-based multiplayer shooters, I recently picked up Section 8. Promising a number of innovative features, such as the ability to “burn in” anywhere on the map and engage in aerial combat via jetpacks, the advertising gave me high hopes. And those high hopes were not disappointed...at least not initially.

Playing through the single-player campaign and quick matches against bots was entertaining, if not groundbreaking. However, the experience completely changed upon connecting to a random server. Section 8 is a team-based game, but I quickly discovered that no human player on the server was attempting to play as a team -- they weren't coordinating attacks, going after major objectives, or fighting over control points.

I left. Unfortunately, the situation was similar on every server I joined. What should have been coordinated team efforts repeatedly deteriorated into basic deathmatches.

Why was no one playing as a team? The case could certainly be made that the majority of players were still learning the game, given that it had only recently been released.

Or perhaps the lack of team play was a result of more fundamental design issues. In my two year experience with Team Fortress 2, from beta to today, I have stumbled across exploiters, hackers, and overall bad seeds, but there has never been such a glaring lack of teamwork as I experienced in Section 8.

When a game isn't played properly, who's at fault? Should the blame go to the gamer or the developer? In an effort to explore the disconnect in team play across two online multiplayer games, I compared three design features that each game shares, but has implemented in a different manner....

 

oldguy

Class Distinctions

Section 8’s available character classes represent different choices in weapons, equipment, and passive modules. The last loadout option adds a role-playing element through minor manipulation of various attributes, like shield strength and movement speed. Section 8's class system also includes a good deal of overlap. Classes share weapons and equipment; both the Assault class and Engineer class use the assault rifle. Players can even create custom classes and choose each specific item in the loadout.

However, unlike Section 8, Team Fortress 2 classes are completely unique in almost every aspect, from weapon loadout to hit points to movement speed, so each class has very specific strengths and weaknesses. These weaknesses require aid from other friendly classes in order to compensate. For example, Medics have the ability to heal teammates, but are almost completely useless in combat. As a result, they gravitate towards the stronger combat classes, such as the Heavy and Soldier, for protection. In turn, those combat classes are able to constantly maintain a high number of hit points and survive longer. Symbiotic relationships naturally develop.

snipermedic

Section 8's design philosophy results in classes with similar strengths and weaknesses, which encourages players to act independently but doesn't incentivize class-based teamwork, as friendly players have no need to compensate for others' limitations.

Map Design

Section 8 provides players with the ability to burn in (spawn) anywhere on the map; drop from the sky and land close to teammates, in an isolated area, or directly into enemy territory. Of course, this flexibility works best with vast, open maps. Once on the ground, players can travel in any direction to find enemy combatants, control points, and Dynamic Combat Missions.

Team Fortress 2 maps are much more constricted. Players spawn from the same area, and though they can take multiple routes to the main objective, there's essentially only one direction in which to travel.

Like herded sheep, Team Fortress 2 players naturally travel together because of the narrow map design. And when they find the enemy, they fight together, or complete objectives together. Consciously or not, allies use teamwork.

followheavy

In Section 8, players have to consciously decide to burn into the same area if they want to travel together, which is impossible with a lack of communication. Players then have to agree on one objective, which is again impossible without adequate communication. The game offers a much greater sense of freedom, but with that freedom comes independence, and in a team game, independence is bad.

Objectives

Section 8 features Dynamic Combat Missions -- these objectives range from capturing a flag to escort missions to bomb placement derivatives. All dynamic missions can be activated on any map, with multiple missions sometimes active at any given time, in addition to the usual battle over control points. In short, there's a lot going on.

Team Fortress 2 has similar objective types based upon control point, capture the flag, and escort dynamics. However, due to the game’s constrained nature, each map revolves around only one objective. A player can choose to play a map that requires capturing points or stealing the intelligence, but not multiple objectives.

Again, Team Fortress 2 offers little freedom of choice, but the end result is a team that works together to complete a known and understood objective. Section 8's wide range of options can lead to opposing decisions by teammates. Someone who enjoys capture the flag missions may naturally gravitate to those when available, whereas a teammate may be more interested in capturing a point, and another player choose to ignore the objectives altogether and engage in basic combat.

dropship

Herding Sheep

The opposing design philosophies of Section 8 and Team Fortress 2 are fairly evident. The former title provides a great deal of freedom and choice to the player, whereas the latter is much more restrictive.

However, from the character classes to the map design to the in-game objectives, Team Fortress 2’s restrictive nature is geared completely towards forcing players to work as a team.

Does that mean Team Fortress 2 is a better game than Section 8? Despite both being team-based multiplayer shooters, they are very different experiences, and choosing one over the other is a matter of personal opinion.

In fact, the entire issue of team play is moot when experiencing either game with other knowledgeable and motivated individuals. In both Section 8 and Team Fortress 2, working as a team will always be more advantageous than not, and there are no inherent obstacles in either game to doing so.

Nonetheless, it's interesting to see how certain design decisions can affect how people play a game. Even anti-social and independent gamers can be coerced into playing with a team mentality, whether they realize it or not.

Of course, regardless of any amount of coercion, there will always be those individuals who go against the grain....

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Section 8 Review

My review for Section 8, originally published at Hooked Gamers.

The New Old School

TimeGate Studios' newest outing into the realm of first-person shooters provides for a polarizing experience. On the surface, the mix of old school shooter feel and innovative multiplayer features seemingly creates a very deep and highly enjoyable experience. After prolonged play however, a number of glaring issues manifest themselves. This ultimately leads to Section 8 being an occasionally exciting experience, with a lot of unfulfilled potential.

The Sky is Falling

Section 8 includes a single-player campaign titled "Corde's Story", which follows Alex Corde, the newest recruit of the 8th Armored Infantry, as he battles the Arm of Orion. While providing a coherent plot and semi-linear gameplay, the very short single-player campaign proves itself to be no more than a tutorial for the multiplayer experience. And Section 8 is above all a team-based multiplayer shooter.

Forgoing static spawn points, and the grieving that can go along with them, Section 8 allows players to "burn in" to the battlefield. Players are able to view an overhead dynamic map of the action and choose any point at which to deploy their avatar, adding a tactical element to respawning. One can choose to deploy directly into an enemy base, along-side teammates, or in a remote area. Every respawn provides for a differing tactical advantage and experience.

Before burning in however, players have the option of choosing their loadout, which includes two weapons, two types of equipment, and passive modules. The standard fare of weapons is included, such as assault rifles, machine guns, pistols, sniper rifles and rocket launchers. The different types of equipment are more varied with options like grenades, mortars, and repair tools. Passive modules however, add an interesting role-playing aspect to the game, allowing players to slightly customize various attributes such as shield strength, weapon recoil, and run speed.

A number of default classes exist with preset loadouts, such as the Assault class and the Engineer class, but Section 8 also allows for complete customization. In conjunction with the ability to spawn anywhere on the map, the class customization feature allows for complex tactical considerations before a match has even started. For example, when utilizing an assault-type class, the player might want to burn in directly into a large firefight, whereas a sniper-type character might be most effective by dropping in far from an ongoing battle.

Dodge This

Once on the battlefield, a number of other features provide for an exciting and adrenaline-pumping one-on-one shooter experience. Avatars in Section 8 have a large number of hit points. Combining this with regenerative shields results in long periods of intense shooting to take down an enemy.

A number of movement options add to both the difficulty and excitement of firefights. First, and perhaps most thrilling, is the ability to use jetpacks. Soaring high above your enemies while firing a copious amount of bullets is always satisfying, especially when they are unable to aim precisely in return.

Players also have the ability to run with a speed boost. After holding down the run key for a short period of time, the in-game character will enter an accelerated run as the camera pans back providing a third-person view. It is very useful for traversing the extremely large maps and escaping from potentially fatal situations.

Balancing the hit points, jetpacks, and speed boost is the timed auto-aim ability. While zoomed-in, every player has the option to turn on auto-aiming, locking onto an opponent and connecting with every single bullet for a short period of time. When first using this ability, I was slightly ashamed. Auto-aim is the stuff of hackers. After repeated use however, I have to admit that TimeGate's implementation is very smart and useful.

During one instance of my playtime, I found myself in a prolonged one-on-one battle. My opponent and I circled around cover as we slowly weakened each other. Unfortunately, a couple of his teammates burned in close to our location. Faced with a three-on-one situation, I knew I would not last long. Thinking quickly, I activated my jetpack and flew through the air, turned on auto-aim to finish off my original opponent, landed behind some cover further away from the remaining enemies, and made a hasty retreat all the way back to my base with speed boost. It was very satisfying.

Play With Me

With such satisfying and intense tactical gunplay, why is Section 8 so disappointing? As stated, TimeGate's game is a team-based multiplayer shooter. This is emphasized by the fact that a number of the dynamic combat objectives, those missions that need to be accomplished during a match, depend on multiple teammates working in tandem. The convoy mission requires one player to drive a vehicle to a certain point within a limited amount of time. Of course while one team is attempting to complete the mission, the opposing team is attempting to prevent its completion, requiring friendly teammates to protect the vehicle. The VIP mission provides a similar dynamic, as teammates must defend the VIP as he travels to a secure location.

Unfortunately, during my admittedly limited time playing Section 8, I did not witness any of the necessary teamwork among other players. During multiple convoy missions, none of my teammates made an attempt to even drive the vehicle, much less defend it. During multiple VIP missions, the VIP was able to simply walk unopposed to the necessary destination, as everyone on the opposing team was content to engage in some other activity. What should be a tactical team- and objective-based game almost always deteriorated into a simple and stale deathmatch experience, with various one-on-one battles occurring across the map.

Is this the developers' fault, or the players' fault? Did I simply stumble onto servers populated by unusually apathetic and independent players, or have the developers not provided enough incentive to properly play the game? These questions reveal a dichotomy that can be applied to any videogame, but is particularly relevant to my experience of Section 8. In joining a server, I was ready and willing to play a certain game, but was never able to actually do so. Fortunately bots are provided.

End Game

There are a few other issues that prove to be frustrating in Section 8. Certain deployable vehicles and weapons seem too overpowered. The heavy armor is absolutely devastating, and once in use, always translates to instant death for surrounding opponents. Further, the default movement speed is agonizingly slow.

However, all of the highs and lows provided in Section 8 pale in comparison to the fact that this team-based multiplayer game simply is not played in a team-based fashion. This is particularly unfortunate considering all of the highs that this game possesses.

It is fairly clear that a lot of time and thought went into the development of Section 8; there is a lot of potential in the game. Unfortunately, that potential is never fulfilled, for whatever reason. Perhaps in the future more dedicated players will emerge throughout the servers, or more incentives will be provided for a team-based atmosphere. As it stands however, Section 8 is a game that really wants to be enjoyed, but it is hard to do so.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Tales of Monkey Island: Episodic Gaming at its Best

When I first started blogging on Bitmob, Toby Davis messaged me over gchat, asking if I owned a copy of the new Monkey Island series. When I said no, he gave me a code to redeem a free PC version of Tales of Monkey Island. Needless to say, I was stunned. A complete stranger was giving me a free game, for absolutely no reason. I accepted, half thinking it was some kind of joke thanks to my cynicism. Here's my review of the first two episodes.

Article original published on Bitmob.

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Launch of the Screaming Narwhal

How is root beer made? While hundreds of root beer brands exist in the United States, with no standardized recipe, the primary flavor associated with the beverage is the bark from the roots of the sassafras tree.

Complement the sassafras flavor with other roots and spices, such as cherry tree bark, licorice root, nutmeg, cinnamon, or clove; then add the concentrated flavors to some water from a seltzer bottle, and root beer is born.

Unfortunately, when your wife is being held captive by a megalomaniacal voodoo-wielding zombie pirate, and your only hope of saving her is by creating some fizzy root beer, you might end up taking some shortcuts. At least that is what Guybrush Threepwood would do, considering the beverage’s name perhaps too literally in assembling his ultimate weapon.

guybrush

Needless to say, such shortcuts end up backfiring for the simple-minded yet endlessly creative Threepwood in Launch of the Screaming Narwhal, the first episode in Tales of Monkey Island.

Telltale Game’s first entry into the Monkey Island series is ripe with character and humor as Guybrush attempts to escape an island he has been marooned on. Entangling himself in local affairs, Threepwood is forced to commit heroic acts of piracy as he meets characters, as ludicrous as they are enjoyable.

D’Oro the Explorer, as Guybrush calls him, sits in a jungle, content to play with his Porcelain Power Pirate dolls as he dreams of finding the extremely rare Dark Ninja Dave figurine, with Killer Karate Katana. The Marquis de Singe, on the other hand, is slightly more maniacal and ambitious, despite his copious amounts of makeup and flamboyant French accent.

marquis

The puzzles are just as ridiculous as the characters, with solutions that can evoke the complexity of a Rube Goldberg machine. While not maddeningly difficult, some puzzles can make the player feel exceedingly naive and remarkably clever, simultaneously. This is especially true when you have to place a lit cannon ball in laundry. Who thinks of this stuff?

Breaking all the rules of immersive gaming, Launch of the Screaming Narwhal does not present an everyman protagonist.

Guybrush Threepwood is far from the strong silent type, possessing a well-developed and idiosyncratic nature.

He threatens his enemy with a soft drink – “prepare to meet your frosty carbonated maker LeChuck,” and regards potentially life-threatening situations with a humorous nonchalance – “Would you mind releasing my wife? She gets a little cranky when she’s tied up for more than an hour or so.”

The Siege of Spinner Cay

Given the overarching story and strong characters, Tales of Monkey Island resembles a television serial more than a videogame at times. In keeping with the soap opera construct, Launch of the Screaming Narwhal ends on a cliffhanger, with a sword at Guybrush’s throat, being handled by an unknown assailant.

knife

Episode two in the series, The Siege of Spinner Cay, picks up immediately where the first episode ended. Making full use of the episodic release system, Telltale Games presents a new and welcome environment filled with androgynous mer-people, who are not shy about their attraction towards Guybrush.

Despite the new environment, old characters return to develop ongoing storylines and introduce new themes. Guybrush is forced to confront and cooperate with his arch-nemesis, who has inexplicably charmed his wife.

Basic gameplay devices also return, as items Guybrush obtained in the first episode are put to use in the second. A locket with no purpose in Launch of the Screaming Narwhal serves its triumphant purpose in The Siege of Spinner Cay.

However, possibly the most enjoyable aspect, and best use of the episodic model, is the reference of jokes from the previous episode. Having fooled D’Oro with a reference to Dark Ninja Dave in the first episode, Guybrush attempts the same tactic again in the second episode, albeit against pirates who should not understand the reference.

Popular culture references also run rampant throughout both episodes, with the aforementioned “D’Oro the Explorer” contributing only a small part. Guybrush must make use of a glass “U-tube,” contact an informant code-named “Deep Gut,” and peruse a library with books titled “The Old Man and the Sea Gull” and “A City of Two Tales.”

merpeople

Lair of the Leviathan

While games in the Tales of Monkey Island series can certainly be frustrating, that frustration is dwarfed by the brilliant character design and dialogue.

Luckily, chapter two in the series ends with a cliffhanger as satisfying as the first. The as-of-yet unreleased third episode promises to occur in another new and interesting environment, and continue the storylines and themes prevalent in the second chapter.

Never has story in a videogame been more anticipated.