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.

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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.”

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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.