Archive for the ‘Game Play Notebook’ Category

Entry 26: UniWar

Sunday, July 17th, 2011

UniWar is a hex-based, turn-based strategy war game for mobile devices (iOS and Android). Having heard good things about it, I decided to finally download it and give it a shot.

As mentioned the gameplay occurs on a hex grid; each hex represents a single kind of terrain and overall I was somewhat reminded of the look of Catan. Certain hexes are designated as bases; capturing these hexes will increase the amount of resources the player gets per round to build units and also serve as building points. Capturing a hex is done by placing a ground-based infantry unit (such as a marine) on it and beginning the capture procedure. If the unit survives to the beginning of the players’ next round, the base is captured and that unit is lost. The units themselves are have different stats and abilities and from my limited experience seem well balanced; the fact that some perform better in some terrain types (such as marines in mountains and forests where they would presumably have cover) is a nice touch that lends itself to many tactical considerations. There are three asymmetrical factions, though I only played as the basic humans during the earlier missions of the campaign mode. Some of the units’ interactions, such as the human engineers’ ability to disable any of the android Titans faction make me wonder about balance in the multiplayer mode, but I’ve yet to try it.

UniWar sees so far like a solid stripped-down turn-based strategy game. As with any game of its kind I’ve felt that every move must be considered and that every unit has a use, from marines to tanks and artillery. The graphics are minimalist but get the job done, and so far the campaign has done a solid job of introducing units and mechanics mission after mission without feeling too much like an extended tutorial. Considering how many “twitch-based” apps I have on my phone, I am glad to have a more cerebral challenge among my portable games.

 

Entry 25: Humble Bundle pt. 2: Shadowgrounds: Survivor

Monday, July 11th, 2011

The second game I played from the Humble Bundle was Shadowgrounds: Survivor, a top-down sci-fi shooter. The narrative concept lies somewhere between Aliens and Starship Troopers and is for the most part generic sci-fi; a human colony has been overrun by hostile, insect-like aliens and a few survivors are attempting to somehow make it out of the situation alive.

Visually, I found Shadowgrounds more generic than Trine; so far almost all I’ve seen is rocky terrain and a devastated gray generic futuristic human colony. All the assets look good, and there are a lot of “things” around that can be broken or moved around using the physics engine. The mood is fantastic; the players’ flashlights send shadows dancing all around the map. Many areas feel claustrophobic, which ties in neatly to the theme and some of the combat mechanics.

I played Shadowgrounds with another player along for the ride and had a great experience. Ammo is scarce and the enemies take many hits to kill; controls are “Geometry Wars” style where one analog stick moves the character and the other determines shooting direction; the claustrophobic levels and damage resistant enemies frequently saw us trying to fall back to a more defensible position while shooting at the approaching hordes. Character speed and effectiveness seem to me to be very well balanced so that they feel capable and powerful but still very vulnerable. Changing firing direction, for example, is fairly fast, but not instantaneous. Monsters are usually a bit faster than the player. I found this a fair compromise between some survival horror mechanics that make the player feel purposefully clumsy, and straight-up shooter controls where the player character is often the fastest thing in the game. My companion and I were never quite eliminated though we came close to it many times; again, good balance between making us feel powerful but vulnerable.

It’s interesting to note that near the end of our session, we switched to a different character’s point of view with a different weapon set; a flame thrower replaced the rifle and pistol of the first protagonist. The change was welcome as the new weapon did behave very differently from the others.

Entry 24: Humble Bundle pt. 1: Trine

Sunday, July 10th, 2011

Score one for considering Facebook a useful part of society. Due entirely to the fact that I am a “fan” of a certain Facebook game news page, I received a message telling me about The Humble Frozenbyte Bundle; a special limited promotion where indie game developer Frozenbyte offered three of its games, along with soundtracks, editors, a pre-order for a new game and access to a canceled prototype project, all as part of a single bundle, and the buyer could name their own price. Even better, the buyer could choose how much of that money went to the developers, and how much went to one or both of two charities. Good games, good price, and helping to support both an indie developer and charities, while I am looking for games to play and evaluate. It was an easy decision, especially since one of the games, Trine, had been on my “radar” for a while.

Trine is, at its most basic, a simple platform set in a medieval fantasy world. A handful of traits and mechanics serve to set it apart, however. First of all, Trine is absolutely lovely to look at. I have called several games “colorful” or “brightly colored” lately, but Trine’s fantasy world is indeed super-saturated and whimsical, filled with giant mushrooms, enormous clockwork machines, stone fists on chains as traps and other such over-the-top fantasy elements. The plot starts out as generic fairytale fantasy fare, and as a backdrop, it is; this “genericness” is purposeful, though with the serious goals of the game serving as “straightman” for its more subversive elements. The story is straight up heroic fantasy, but the heroes seem hardly heroic; in fact, they are comically un-heroic.  The female thief is simply seeking treasure; the confused wizard is a sleazy would-be ladies man who is missing his trousers and can only be distracted from his hedonistic tendencies by immediate danger or greed for magic, and the “heroic” knight is a bit of a glory hand and frankly just seems a bit dim. This combination of colorfulness, straight story, and subversive humor reminded me a bit of the similar balance achieved by the Fable games.

Trine’s gameplay is also somewhat unique in that all the characters have become linked, so a single player can play as all of them at once, switching between them as he/she plays. This is particularly interesting given that each character plays very differently and possesses not just unique skills, but unique play mechanics. These all interact with the game’s mostly physics-based obstacles, meaning that the game feels “free form” in a way that, for example, Portal doesn’t. While a few obstacles clearly are meant to be cleared in a certain way, most can be cleared in a variety of ways through clever manipulation of the object in the game world. The thief has a grappling hook, but as she uses it, momentum and her own weight are a factor; she might pull things down even as she pulls herself up, for example. The warrior is the most straightforward to play but is very satisfying. Far better than his companions at dispatching enemies, he also has a shield that is very useful in getting past certain traps.

The wizard is the most interesting character. Extremely weak and having no direct way of dealing damage (at least at first), the wizard has a levitate ability that allows him to directly move objects around in the game. Further, he can also conjure up a box or cube by using a fun little mechanic where the player draws a cube onscreen with the cursor and the cube appears. This cube makes a good stepping surface or a counterweight, and it can even be used to jam up things or push around objects that are out of reach.

I only spent a little time with Trine but I like a lot of the mechanics. I’ll be digging a little more into it later.

 

Entry 23: Real Games on Facebook: NOVA Elite

Saturday, July 9th, 2011

More recently, mobile gaming giant Gameloft has also entered the Facebook gaming arena. In typical Gameloft fashion, their Nova Elite is a fairly derivative but well crafted game. Using the same visual style but little of the narrative of their Halo-inspired NOVA universe, NOVA Elite is more reminiscent of the early Unreal Tournament games, and perhaps even more directly, Quake 3 Arena. Like those games, it’s a competitive first person shooter. Unlike those, it is coupled with some rather unsubtle (but effective) Facebook integration and some light RPG elements, such as leveling and purchaseable upgrades, weapons, armor and equipment. Much of this equipment has direct requirements such a having a certain number of Facebook friends playing the game, or cost Facebook points that are only obtained by purchasing them with real money. Still, there are some that may be earned simply by leveling up ones character, and in my limited experience with the game this equipment is not drastically overpowering. Player skill and reflexes outweigh the level-based and equipment-based benefits, much as they do in similarly structured games like Global Agenda.

Like many of Gameloft’s games, NOVA Elite feels slick but generic. Compared to EA2Ds DA:L, the Facebook integration feels more forced and is definitely unsubtle. Friends are for the most part a currency, and even stage select is limited to a single map until you couch up some cash. I’m not quite sick of the map yet though, as I am playing only a round or two a day (and doing surprisingly well at it!). It could be argued that a competitive FPS, the whole nature of the game is inelegant and unsubtle. As a Unity-based browser game one could argue it’s still an impressive achievement, and despite a bit of lag, which may simply reflect that it’s still a very young game, I found myself rather enjoying the experience.

Entry 22: Real Games on Facebook: Dragon Age: Legends

Friday, July 8th, 2011

The next couple of entries in this notebook will deal with a platform that is not known for its high-quality games: Facebook. At first Facebook seemed a fad, likely to be replaced and made obsolete the same way it had replaced MySpace. As time passes however, it seems that Facebook will not disappear so easily. Companies like Zynga have already made huge fortunes from games created for Facebook. These are stereotypically somewhat shallow and formulaic, though they do interesting things to incorporate  the social aspects of Facebook into their gameplay or scoring mechanics. Now, the success of Zynga and others has attracted the attention of companies that have previously focused on more traditional platforms and game types.

One such company is Electronic Arts. Through their EA2D branch they had already explored using Flash-based games to advertise their retail titles. Among these flash games was Dragon Age Journeys, created to promote EA/Bioware’s Dragon Age Origins. A second game in the Journeys series was long-promised, but EA decided to target Facebook instead. Instead of a direct sequel to Journeys, the game became Dragon Age: Legends, a full featured roleplaying game played through Facebook.

I have been consistently impressed with DA:L. At its core, it’s a simple tactical RPG somewhat reminiscent of the classic 2d Final Fantasy games. Inventory management and real tactical considerations come into play in these battles which can be quite difficult. It’s a repetitive game, but it does keep up the pressure with the encounters becoming noticeably harder as the player progresses through the areas. But while this core gameplay is solid and at the very least competent, it’s the secondary mechanics and clever Facebook integration that set it apart. Like many Facebook games, encouraging “friends” to join the game produces tangible rewards. Unlike most games, it’s not a simple matter of getting the largest number of people. The characters created and customized by the players friends become recruitable party members complete with their current level and the skills, inventory and abilities your friend has equipped them with. Once recruited for a battle, these friend characters have a cool down period of a few hours, so if a player wants to keep battling, he might want to have a lot of friends join the game; but of course joining is not enough; a first level ally is little use to a player taking on challenges suited to level 10 characters, for example. I find that this makes the social dynamic of a game like this feel much more meaningful and I applaud EA2D for coming up with it.

Additionally, DA:L has a crafting system that ties into a castle building mechanic that might be considered a separate game in its own right. This crafting mechanic can even be accessed via a mobile website so that even if you can’t log in to play, you can at least get your serfs making you the proper potions for your next battle. The whole experience feels well thought out and uniquely suited to the Facebook platform. Hardly a day goes by when I don’t pop into the game for a quick battle or two. The general user friendliness and segmented nature of the game means that I can usually sneak in a bit of game time even in days when I am otherwise too busy to play.

 

Entry 20 Metroid Prime 3: Corruption

Tuesday, July 5th, 2011

In 2002, Retro studios released Metroid Prime for the Nintendo GameCube, revitalizing the Metroid series, and in the process created an inspiring genre hybrid that that remains a unique accomplishment to this day. Unique, that is, except for its sequels. It was followed in 2004 by Metroid Prime: Echoes; a great game that nonetheless felt a little disappointing, mostly because of some dubious choices concerning art direction.

In 2007 Retro moved the Prime series to the Wii, with Metroid Prime 3: Corruption. As it is the one game in the MP series I have not completed, I’ve decided to start playing it once again, especially as I want to incorporate some elements on its design into the game I am writing documents for in my ITGM 706 class. I had begun the game a long time ago, but those save files are gone, and I think I would have been rather lost anyway. Instead I’ve chosen to re-start the game, which I thought might provide some different insights.

The unique thing about the Metroid Primes is that despite being sci-fi games played from the first person perspective and involving a lot of shooting, they are not generally referred to as first person shooters;  rather, they are considered first person adventures. They have as much or more in common with 3D adventure games such as the Zelda series or even 2D point and click or text adventures. Exploration and problem and puzzle solving, are all as crucial to progressing in the game as are dodging and shooting. It is interesting to note that MP3 places a greater emphasis on fast, accurate shooting than its predecessors. This might be the influence of the Wii’s motion controls, and it works relatively well. In fact it’s one of the few times where I’ve found the Wii controls to enhance an existing interface instead of feeling gratuitous. Weather they are truly overall a better system is debatable, but they do allow for a different balance between accurate combat and exploration without substantially altering the MP formula, which is an interesting accomplishment.

The Metroid Prime series succeeds above all at immersion. This aspect is achieved so well that is makes a compelling case for the original move from the series original 2D side-scrolling perspective to 3D. Metroid Prime 3 is no exception; like in previous games, the player is truly made to feel like they are inhabiting the body and power suit of interplanetary bounty hunter Samus Aran; no small feat given the character is female, yet the games are aimed primarily at male gamers; and unlike the Lara Crofts of the game world, Samus rarely allows herself to be gawked at; in the Prime series, she is not a character one moves in the game world, but rather a person one becomes and inhabits. This is mainly achieved by replicating the inside of Samus’ helmet on-screen; it rocks slightly from side to side with collisions; water droplets spatter on the clear faceplate; it ices over in the cold and mists up when leaving a liquid. Shoot the weapons at a certain angle, or switch to the game’s scanning mode, and a faint reflection of Samus’ eyes and nose become visible. It is done well enough that it feels like looking in the mirror and seeing someone elses’s face. Other aspects of the characters movement, the placement of the weapon-arm, the visibility of the other arm in key moments, etc. all subtly reinforce the perception of inhabiting the body of Samus Aran.

Another key aspect to Metroid Prime’s immersiveness is the level and art design. Here MP3 shines, using the slightly more powerful Wii graphics to push the graphics a little past its predecessors. The art style of the Metroid Prime games can be described as “organic sci-fi”. Alien worlds feel truly alien but believable; creatures are varied and colorful, alien cultures feel both ancient and mysterious, and the integration of technology and organic elements is superb; even the mechanical objects often feel subtly alive. Overall the art style is different and fresh (Darkspore subtly reminded me of the MP visual style, part of the reason I praised that game’s visuals in an earlier entry).

The level design is nothing short of brilliant. Each area feels unique and distinct, foregoing the repetition often found in first person sci-fi corridor shooters. Environmental puzzles all feel clever and few feel contrived, and seeing areas that lie out of reach is always intriguing as you wonder when you will be able to access them.

The game’s mechanics also support the immersion. The scanning mechanic allows the player to gather information about an amazing number of creatures, devices, and characters in-game, via an interface that makes sense from within the narrative. The other non-shooter aspects of the game and the ability to interact in various ways with the environment combine to make the gameworld feel like an area to inhabit and explore, rather than simply a backdrop for the combat like many other recent sci-fi games. And as I mentioned, for once the Wii controls feel like they make sense. The main controller becomes Samus’ arm cannon, while the “nunchuck” attachment becomes her left-arm mounted whip. That 1 to 1 correlation of the player’s arms with Samus only reinforces the feeling of oneness with the character, and the ability to “free look” by subtly tilting the Wiimote allows quick and accurate shooting and lessens the importance of the useful but ultimately immersion-breaking lock-on mechanic from earlier games.

In many ways the Metroid Prime series remains the high-water mark for 3D adventure games of recent years, and I am eager to continue playing MP3, hopefully this time to the end. I will likely revisit the game with a future entry to focus more on this particular game’s strengths and weaknesses and less on the series as a whole.

Entry 19 A Slow Year

Monday, July 4th, 2011

Ian Bogost’s “A Slow Year” is next up on the list of assigned titles. It is made up of four “game poems”, programmed to run on the Atari VCS, perhaps better known as the 2600.

As the title implies, “A Slow Year” is meant to be experienced slowly. I must admit to only having spent a few minutes with each title, and having read only the first part of the accompanying booklet. I must further admit to not having read any of the booklet’s “machined haikus”, though I’m likely to give them a glance out of curiosity alone. I will likely revisit this “game” in a later entry, once I’ve had a chance to spend a bit more time with it.

I am frankly not entirely sure what to make of these “Game Poems”. Having read the booklet, I can certainly respect Bogost’s intent. In fact, I’d call the whole collection an unqualified success as an interactive artifact. The images and interactions of the four seasons are wonderfully represented in a minimalist yet evocative way; each set of imagery is powerful enough to engender feeling and encourage the “player” to bring his own emotions and memories into the play space. This is especially impressive given the extreme limitations of the VCS/2600; I recently studied the system for another assignment and was fascinated and horrified to learn about its lack of a frame buffer and other constraints. Like Bogost says, it’s definitely “programming to the metal”, and here the designer has managed to create images that not only serve to depict an item, but also engender real feeling.

I am unsure if they can truly be called games, however. They each have a “win” condition and a set of “rules”, so they are formally games; I am not sure if this enhances them as an artifact in any way. Ironically, I think that what may happen is the very thing the author criticizes about the PSN title “Flower”; that “game” might get in the way of enjoying the interactive artifact. Still, I have not spent as much time with it as the author clearly intended; I have not truly upheld my part of the bargain. So far my impression is that I wish I didn’t care about finding the “game” inside each season/vignette, so I could simply sit and enjoy the experience. As it is, I think it adds a level of tension that goes counter to the other goals of producing slow, enjoyable interactive art/poetry. Still, the designer claims that the key to succeeding at the games is to slow down and enjoy the scenery; if so, then it would succeed brilliantly as a game. That has not been my experience, but my experience has been brief and the possibility is fairly tantalizing. The quality of the work, the elegance of the programming and obvious investment in time and passion by the designer all compel me to return and give it a second look sometime later, when I can better afford to slow down to the pace of “A Slow Year”.

Entry 18: Portal

Saturday, July 2nd, 2011

This was a triumph! I’m making a note here: huge success! It’s hard to overstate my satisfaction!

Portal, little more than a Valve prototype game, quickly became a runaway success, not to mention the origin of numerous internet catchphrases and memes (the cake is a lie!). GlaDOS, the game’s antagonist, has been named the villain of the decade and even best game villain of all time by various publications. With Portal 2’s launch right around the corner, I decided to revisit the original game and play it straight though.

Built using the Source engine that was originally designed for Valve’s Half-Life 2, Portal’s first success is in demonstrating that the first person point of view can be successfully utilized for other gameplay interactions than mercilessly mowing down hordes of enemies; IGN has referred to Portal 2 as “the un-Call of Duty” and I would definitely agree. At first glance, Portal uses the first person perspective to present the player with a series of increasingly complicated spatial puzzles. This is the game’s primary interaction, and in many ways it can feel like a puzzle rather than a game as there is usually only a single correct solution to get through an area. Still, the puzzles become increasingly clever and there is much satisfaction to be had from overcoming obstacles that become more and more complex with a limited number of tools; later on, accuracy and quickness with the Portal gun become more important as well. Though it can be argued that the 3D Realms-developed “Prey” featured similar portals as part of its level design, they were seldom player controlled and never to the degree found in Portal. This gameplay felt fresh and along with Portal’s brevity, it would have been a fine experience all on its own.

What really pushed Portal past “fun experiment” and into “instant classic” was the atmosphere and narrative woven into the game.  Utilizing only the distant voice of GlaDOS and a handful of robot turrets, along with the frantically scrawled graffiti of previous inhabitant of the facility, Portal creates an atmosphere of desolation, madness, and magnificently black humor. The narrative is entirely linear, but few will argue with its effectiveness as a backdrop for the player’s mad escape from the Aperture lab; it’s hard to argue with the lack of interactivity of the writing when the writing is that good.

Part puzzle, part first person shooter, part interactive story, somewhere along the line Portal becomes something greater than the sum of its parts to become an experience that most who have played it instantly come to treasure. I don’t know if the experience will be sustainable through an extended sequel, but I’ll be sure to find out very soon when Portal 2 arrives.

One thing is for sure: it’s nice to occasionally get an “un”Call of Duty, and fantastic to see a company as large and influential as Valve thinking outside the box; it’s even more satisfying to know that the gamble paid off in spades.

 

Entry 17: Today I Die

Saturday, July 2nd, 2011

Next on our list of assigned games is a little art game called “Today I Die”. Visually, it is made up of sprite-based graphics reminiscent of early VGA adventure games. Gameplay consists of mouse dragging items or characters across the screen and placing them on or near other items. Other mechanics include holding items for a certain time and waiting as they change, and dragging items around to avoid contact with other, pursuing objects. Atop the vertical game area is a poem that can also be interacted with. Most of the poem’s text is in white, but at key moments during the game’s progression, certain words change color and may be interacted with. Actions must be performed in the game space to reveal new words that can be used to replace words in the poem of a similar active color; altering the poem changes the game space, which in turn allows the player to find further words to interact with, etc.

The primary aesthetics of the game are sensory pleasure and exploration. Though it is brief and uses simple graphics, the game’s mood, music, and artistic choices create an experience that is quite beautiful, and the poem/game’s progression from bleak and hopeless to bright and optimistic can be touching. The fact that the game has no instructions, icons, or consistent elements beyond manipulating the poem make it a fascinating space to explore, not only for the “literary” content, but also as a puzzle. The game is brief and as far as I can tell totally linear, although at the end there is a choice that does lead to two endings.  I found it to be relatively light on “game” elements, but as an interactive, digital interpretation of a poem it’s quite interesting and a great reminder of the potential of interactive art to powerfully convey emotion.

Entry 16: Fruit Ninja and Pewpew: Android quickies

Thursday, June 30th, 2011

Recently I’ve been downloading many Android apps as to study as I am hoping to develop some games for the platform. There are several kinds of Android/mobile games; some, like Gameloft’s library of games, attempt to reproduce the home console experience on tiny smartphone devices.  But another kind of game caters specifically to the mobile format and the usually very short game times associated with it. This short playtime means that they resemble older arcade games in many ways; like those early games, they are designed for a quick turnaround. These games often work best as reflex-based sensory experiences, a trait both the games considered in this entry share. Pewpew is clearly based on the Geometry Wars series of games and serves as an adequate replacement for that series on Android.

Like those games, it is played with dual joysticks (in this case, virtual touch-based joysticks). Though not quite as accurate and responsive as the dual analog sticks of an xbox360 controller, the virtual sticks work remarkably well. The left “stick” controls the player ship’s movement, and the right stick controls direction of fire. The game’s bright, colorful, but simple graphics, replete with fast, exciting particle effects, make for a game that is as much light show as shooter. This is reinforced by the heavy beats of the game’s soundtrack. The game is very challenging, and while game modes technically last until the player is eliminated, in practice each play session lasts only a few minutes. The end result is a pleasant, stimulating, but shallow gaming experience, but that is perhaps its intent.

Though very different in subject matter and control system, Fruit Ninja is in many ways a similar experience.  The player “slices” fruit apart by making a “swiping” motion across the touch screen with a single finger; the fruit are tossed up from the bottom of the screen, arc, then fall back below the screen. If the player is unable to slice three fruit, the game ends and the player is given a score for his performance. Combos and corresponding extra points are awarded for slicing multiple fruit in a single swipe. The game is attractive to look at. Colorful, well textured 3D polygonal fruit are well drawn and seem reasonably accurate; when sliced, their insides also accurately portray the fruit they represent. Sound design is excellent. The sound of slicing fruit and the splash of juice against the game’s “back board” are particularly satisfying. Like Pewpew, Fruit Ninja makes for a pleasant, fast-paced sensory experience. It is similarly shallow, but satisfying for short play sessions.