Archive for December, 2010

Status Report!

Thursday, December 2nd, 2010

Well, I survived my first Semester at SCAD, the page has a new sidebar, and I finished my first game! I’ve added the rest of the “Gameplay Notebook” entries from class, and I think I might continue to write them on occasion about various games and subjects. Its also my intention to eventually expand the scope of this blog to cover sci fi movies and novels, and analyze or review them.

I have a few more projects to add to the site, and things should finally start to pick up.


Thursday, December 2nd, 2010

Games currently playing:
Global Agenda
Star Battalion

A Battalion of excellent knock-offs?

This week as finals raged on and the rush to complete and clean up projects intensifies, I’ve once again had to fall back on portable game systems to get my moments of relaxation in. But after analyzing the anything-but-casual Infinite Space early on, I decided this time I wanted some lighter-but-quality fare, so I fired up my iphone and checked out the latest offerings from Gameloft.

Gameloft is hard to categorize as a company. They are mostly known for essentially grabbing high profile console games, adapting them to the iPod, and substituting slightly more generic but still recognizable characters in place of the licensed ones. In the case of Modern Combat, a blatant ripoff of Modern Warfare, since the theme is generic modern soldiers, they don’t even have to do that. It’d be easy to dismiss them as disgusting producers of Transmorpher-style mockbuster shovelware, except for two things: first, they are genuinely performing a service by making these play experiences available on the mobile device and second, the games they produce are genuinely of the highest quality yet sen on the iDevices.

Want to play Halo on the go? Grab NOVA instead. Gran Turismo fan? GT Academy. God of War? Hero of Sparta. Diablo? Dungeon Hunter. The list goes on. As someone with interest in the industry as a whole I’m not sure what to even make of it. Should they be applauded for their technical and artistic prowess, or shamed for their lack of originality and mercenary business sense? Or both? I have to admit though, when NOVA 2 comes out I’ll be there waiting.

Star Battalion

This time, however, I found a pleasant surprise waiting for me at the app store. Gameloft has released a space shooter/arcade style flying game for the iDevices that I can’t actually pair up with a specific recent blockbuster game. If anyone can, actually, do let me know. Quality shooters of its type have been absent from consoles for too long. I suppose the nearest analog would be the Rouge Squadron series of games or maybe Starfox 64; 3D shooters that are primarily action games (not space sims) but they do retain full capacity to fly in every direction (in other words, not “on rails” like the original Star Fox). The characters and tone, however, certainly don’t match either the anthropomorphic animals of Star Fox nor are they a blatant ripoff of Star Wars. They remain well within the boundaries of generic sci-fi, though there is an accompanying free comic in the app store; there is a real attempt here in Gameloft’s part to create a bit of political intrigue and characters as backdrop. Still completely one-dimensional and generic from what I’ve seen but I respect the attempt.

The same can be said of the gameplay. There is nothing really new here but what is here is all very well done. And I suppose that shows its still very much the Gameloft I’ve come to accept and even respect. Nothing inspired or groundbreaking or even risky here, but all is accomplished to the highest technical and artistic standards the device will allow. The game is definitely fun as you perform the usual missions of protecting ground targets, engaging enemy aircraft, protecting transports, and attacking the weak spots of larger vessels. It is not, as many would love to see, a next generation version of those classic sci-fi staples; this is the iPod after all. Those of us waiting for a cutting edge HD version of Wing Commander or Freespace will have to wait a little longer. But it is nice to get a solid if generic example of the genre in portable form. This is one I’ll definitely be playing til the end. The game can be controlled with the accelerometer or the gamepad; I appreciate the inclusion of both as the accelerometer needs constant recalibration if you have to be moving around (or fidgeting) and Gameloft makes as good a virtual joypad as any; which is to say not fantastic, but serviceable.

And at the end of the playing session I was right back where I started, trying to decide what to think of Gameloft as game developers.


Thursday, December 2nd, 2010

Games currently playing:
Global Agenda
Star Battalion (ipod)

Coincidences, conspiracies and agendas

Its a strange coincidence that I started playing Global Agenda at about the same time as I started becoming interested in applying for SCAD. A cynic might assume I started playing precisely because it is a game created by a growing game developer near the school where I was going to be studying. The truth is the two are (or at least were) completely unrelated events. I’m not sure I remember how I came across Global Agenda; possibly through a Steam promotion or perhaps during one of my periodic searches for a good Sci-Fi MMO to play. Whatever the case, I have come to be interested in GA both as a gamer and professionally, and its become sort of my go-to game when I have time for just a quick session. I think its therefore past time that I focus a gameplay notebook on it.

Global Agenda

Global Agenda is a class-based third person shooter with RPG and MMO elements. I often consider it part of a recently released trio of games that all hybridize RPG and shooter elements; the other two being Mass Effect 2 and Borderlands. The three create an interesting spectrum; ME2 is a single players, Gears of War style tactical cover-shooter with character advancement. Borderland is a cooperative first person twitch shooter that is where character advancement is key and an intricate randomizing loot system, and Global Agenda is an online competitive/cooperative team based class shooter with some character advancement but emphasis on class-based tactics and twitch-skill. Of the three, GA is oddly though perhaps appropriately due to it competitive nature the one where character advancement matters the least as opposed to player skill. HiRez has managed to strike a very delicate balance and the game succeed because of it. I’ve said it many times and insist upon it; GA succeeds because the core gameplay mechanics work. As a persistent world or MMO of any type GA is a bit thin and repetitive, frankly. Much less so now than when I started playing just before the summer, and reportedly even more less so than when it lunched, but it still has much more in common with an online shooter like Team Fortress or Unreal Tournament.

That being said, it has started to borrow some of the more addictive aspects of RPGs and this has served it well. Even though character advancement and loot plays a smaller role in GA than in almost any other online RPG; it does indeed play a role; and having a persistent character with customized appearance adds a sense of personal investment into matches that would  otherwise be irrelevant or disposable. However, all those RPG elements would be worth little if the core game wasn’t as solid as it is. The four classes feel useful and powerful; the games pace, speed, and physics all work well and the interactions between the classes successfully create a wide variety of strategies to attempt in the matches. I’ve heard the producers at HiRez speak several times now, and they always emphasize how it was the iterative process that led to GAs current system and I find that quite easy to believe. It definitely feels like a fine tuned machine. Just about the only criticism I can  level at is that maybe it too sleek  and shiny and as a consequence not very deep. There is perhaps a hint of a feeling of “design by committee”; the gameplay has been smoothed out to the point that is suffers from occasional lack of personality. That is not to say that GA doesn’t have aspects that are distinctly its own, but in the end it is a game that finds is greatest success from playing a balancing act of various genres while relying on rock solid gameplay to sustain it as it continues to be fleshed out.

I have to note that it was absolute genius on HiRez’s part to drop the monthly fee requirements for several reasons. As a small-to medium studio they would have been hard pressed to justify a monthly fee, and frankly the game does feel a bit too thin in the content variety department to justify a repeating investment. I must say the Sonoran Desert summer expansion was exactly what that game needed; it continued the introduction’s storyline at last, and added some much needed personality and landmarks to the game while also adding new gear and competitive/cooperative game modes. If this was a preview of the expansion model they are pursuing, I believe they have a very solid business model to go along with their solid gameplay. I had long bemoaned the fact that more companies hadn’t adopted the Guild Wars-style MMO model, but I believe that HiRez is doing that brilliantly with a few twists of their own. As a SCAD student and gamer its exciting to watch this happening in what is practically our own back yard.


Thursday, December 2nd, 2010

Games currently playing:
Global Agenda
Homeworld 2 Demo
Ur-Quan Masters  (Star Control 2)
Tribes: Vengeance

Beyond the Farthest Star

Playing an odd mix of games at this point, mostly looking back at some older titles. I’m still looking at space games of several types in preparation for my next project. Also, I am hoping to be selected to help test Tribes Universe at HiRez studios, so I’ve gone back to log some time in with Tribes: Vengeance. The older, more fondly remembered Tribes games are available free online but they’re exclusively multiplayer and I’m unsure if you can still find servers for them. Might be something worth investigating over break. Another series I somehow managed to miss when it was “hot” is the Homeworld pair. Considering the space setting, critical acclaim, and the fact that developer Relic also went on to create Dawn of War, my favorite RTS, its unfathomable how I skipped out on those. At any rate I’ve played the Homeworld 2 Demo and was pretty much blown away. The graphics have aged better than I’d have thought and I’ll definitely have to track down the full game. Sadly it doesn’t seem to be available as a digital download from Steam, Impulse, Direct to Drive, Gog, etc. so I’ll have to buy it the old fashioned way; in a box. The demo was too short for a proper game analysis however so I’ll be analyzing another game this week: The Ur-Quan Masters.

The Ur-Quan Masters

More than any other game I’ve ever played, I credit a relatively obscure little game published by EA in 1986 for setting me on my current path of trying to become a game designer myself. That game is called Starflight. Visually, it’s shockingly primitive by today’s standards, it nonetheless manages to pack 800+ fractally  generated worlds into a single low density 3.5 diskette. Starflight did well enough back then to merit a sequel, and even a port to the Sega Genesis. The official sequel, Starflight 2: Trade Routes of the Cloud Nebula, is almost as good as the original; better, in fact, in many ways. The third game, however, was never made. Legal issues with EA prevented the development team from releasing it as a Starflight game, so it became a game called Protostar instead. I have not played Protostar, though I’ve heard it’s an excellent game that nonetheless feels like it was rushed to market. It’s definitely on my list of titles to track down. Most people consider, however, that the true spiritual successor to Starflight is a game called Star Control 2; I was completely unaware of it when it was originally released (I was much younger then, and the in-home internet was still a thing of the future) but have been aware of it since my interest in Starflight was renewed a few years ago. It turns out that the game’s source code was released by the developers, and a group of loyal fans have created an updated version, combining “updated” visuals and sound from the game’s 3DO port. Again because of legal issues with the original publisher, its has been released as “The Ur-Quan Masters”, the subtitle to the original Star Control 2.

I have to admit that  up until now I have always been very conscious of how much time I spent with a game for my analysis, making sure I played enough to fulfill the requirements but not so much that I neglected other responsibilities. Not this time. I completely lost track of time while playing it, and I really did not want to stop when I did. It turns out that SC2 is most definitely indeed a direct descendant of my beloved Starflight, which makes it a very hard game to analyze objectively.

What these games create, and I am interested in replicating, is an incredible feeling of open exploration. At the beginning of the game the player is presented with a task but given only a vague idea about how to solve it, and is then unleashed with very limited resources upon a very large and very dangerous universe. It is then up to the player to slowly accumulate resources, and follow vague clues gained via exploration and conversation with the ships of various alien races. This process is mostly non-linear, though lack of resources such as fuel and combat capabilities in practice restrict certain areas until later in the game. There is remarkably little hand-holding in these games, and that is something I appreciate. The player will likely need to take notes of the various conversations. A not uncommon session of play would involve limping home after a long journey to repair damage and sell recently mined resources, then refuel and check through your notes to see what region of space is most deserving (and close enough, given fuel and combat ability constraints) of the next journey. This feeling of planning dangerous expeditions into the unknown chasing rumors of ancient ruins and strange new races is a remarkable experience I have not experienced outside of this type of game. Slowly piecing together plots and subplots worthy of a AAA science fiction novel from clues scattered throughout the universe is really fantastic.

No game is perfect, of course. There is a certain tedium inherent with these games as one accumulated resources early on in ones exploratory career. The recent Mass Effect games clearly take some inspiration from Starflight and Star Control 2 and even now all these years later they stumble upon some of the same problems. An early grind consisting of repetitive mining missions seems to be a requirement of space exploration games; although perhaps with good reason. It can serve as something of a rite of passage; through hard work one is able to upgrade enough so that one can venture out farther and slowly begin to conquer the imposing game “universe”.  Still, there is no denying that safe, repetitive mining quickly becomes a nuisance. Star Control 2, as opposed to Starflight, has much smaller planets that are much more quickly mined; possibly a reaction to the problem as found in Starflight. Yet I have already noticed   that this makes the worlds seems less like places to explore. I have not yet decided whether this is an overall net positive or negative for SC2 as compared to its predecessor. Combat is another point where the games differ greatly. Where in Starflight the battles were relatively slow and usually consisted of the player battling numerous enemy vessels, SC2 presents one on one duels basically following the pattern created by Spacewar!. Overall this is likely the better system; ships sport widely varying weapons in an inertial based battlefield.

I’m very happy to have found Ur-Quan Masters and can’t wait to unravel all of its secrets. However I hope also to continue analyzing it critically; the space exploration genre is certainly past due for an update, but if it is to be reborn it will have to find its place amongst other modern games.


Thursday, December 2nd, 2010

Games Currently Playing:
Global Agenda (well, a bit)
Strange Adventures in Infinite Space
Red Faction

An architect’s nemesis

I’ve been vaguely aware of the shooter series called Red Faction for some time now, though for some reason or another I’d never actually played one. I was aware that they were known for interactive, destructible environments and were generally well received, but never I think considered quite “A” list. Indeed, the latest game, Red Faction: Guerilla, scored seemed to score mostly 8s of 10 in the gaming press. I put it on my “I might get to that” list but as usual never did. I was aware that the game had later been released on PC for a slightly lower price and some extra content, but I still hadn’t managed to gather up enough interest to bite. I recently booted up Steam, however, to find that it was THQ week and that Red Faction was on sale for 75% off. A year ago the game had been given an 8.0+ review by IGN and called a good value at $40, and here it was staring me in the face at $5. Well, Steam will slowly but surely lead to my financial ruin.

Red Faction: Guerilla

One of the first things I noticed about RF:G was the developers: Volition! I had always wondered what had happened to them after the glory days of Descent and Freespace (and they were glorious!) and it looks like they’ve been devoting themselves to the Red Faction franchise. I immediately felt a little ashamed I hadn’t been aware of that. With solid reviews and a good developer behind them, my expectations or the game were up, but there was one thing that had always bothered me. In the Red Faction games you play a vaguely communist-y revolutionary with bombs. RF:G was also being touted as an open-world game. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind violence in games; in fact I’m somewhat ashamed to admit I really enjoy a good fight. That is not the same, however, as enjoying killing civilians or committing crimes; the dark fantasies of the GTAs never really appealed to me and playing a terrorist bomber is perhaps even less appealing given current real-world realities.

I needn’t have worried. It was perfectly clear within 10 minutes of starting the game who the bad guys were in the game, and you are actually penalized for harming non-combatants. The oppressive enemy faction is so openly corrupt and cruel that Hitler might’ve blushed. I was pretty sure then that I wasn’t in for an amazingly deep story on the one hand, but on the other I was happy to note I’d have no lingering moral qualms about blowing the crap out of stuff. The first thing Red Faction tasks you with doing (shortly before your brother gets killed off and the corrupt military decides to kill you too for being there without even pausing to twirl their collective mustaches) is break stuff. With a big hammer. And then… some bombs. It turns out that you’re playing a demolitions engineer. It is apparently a bad idea to piss off someone who has earned a University degree in blowing things up. And that’s where Red Faction shines, as advertised. Almost everything in the game can be blown up. It’s the game’s greatest strength, but also the cause of its weaknesses. It becomes quickly apparent that the designers concentrated all their resources on developing the ultimate engine for destructible environments; unfortunately one single activity, no matter how well crafted, is not enough to make an open world game come to life.  The designers are aware of this, so you are given other tasks. Conventional gunfights, driving challenges, and other quests compliment the explosive mayhem. The problem is that none of these other gameplay tasks have been given anywhere near the same level of attention as the destructible environments. The shooting feels a bit sloppy (perhaps forgivable because the character is an engineer, not a space marine), the driving is not great, and the enemy AI is reasonably insane. I know these guys are heartless, but I witnessed truly excessive amounts of friendly fire “accidents” in  the game.

Granted, for the purposes of this analysis I only played the first of four sectors; the game’s high-end goal is to liberate sectors by destroying enemy buildings, raising morale, and then completing scripted missions in each zone. It reminded me somewhat of taking down Crackdown’s three gangs in order to liberate different areas of that game’s city. The problem is that to add variety, some of the scripted missions rely too heavily on these flawed systems. The final mission I played, the last one to liberate the first district and one that made a lasting impression, involved essentially running over some destructible towers with a large truck, while enemy vehicles tried to intercept me. By intercept I essentially mean ram. Repeatedly. And more and more vehicles kept spawning out of the thin air. Even more ridiculous, as I got off my vehicle to escape it (as it was smoking and soon to explode) the vehicles ran me over, and did minimal damage. Suddenly APCs piled up on top of me like a defensive line on a too-slow quarterback. It was funny, which given the context I don’t think was the intended effect. Worst of all, it took me a minute or so to die from this, and die I did, many times. I eventually beat it, liberated the zone, and finished up my play session with very mixed feelings. Keep in mind that this was the final story mission for the zone, and therefore unskippable; I can live with subpar design on secondary tasks on a large game like this, but not if its something that is going to interfere with completing the main plot or even reaching other areas. The game has enough going for it that I’ll probably give it another chance, but I found it significantly flawed.

I believe its all tied up with the same thing; as much as it wants to be an open world game, Red Faction is basically a one trick pony. Destructible environments have long been seen as desirable to new cutting age games, but here we have a game that exposes and exemplifies the best and worst aspects of that possibility. Destructible environments are simply not something you can drop into a game and it’ll magically be better. First of all, anything and everything not destructible will stand out as an arbitrary game design decision, making the invisible walls/magic circle that much more obvious.  And second, dealing with its effects on gameplay may be far too much work for all but the very largest teams to handle, unless the game itself centers on the destruction. When it sticks to its “thing”, Red Faction is a great game. When it shines a spotlight on its lesser systems though, the imperfections become glaringly obvious and off-putting.


Thursday, December 2nd, 2010

Games Currently Playing:
Global Agenda
Super Mario Galaxy

Entry 5: Plumbers in Spaaaaaace…

This past week I had a house guest most of the week, leaving me with less time than usual. My guest is a fairly solid gamer, but not the kind to play the hardcore sci-fi strategy niche games I’d reviewed the last couple of weeks. So I decided to break out Super Mario Galaxy. I’d played the game a bit before, but sadly I hadn’t had access to my Wii in a long time. In fact, that system never made it out of my house; I purchased a new one when I moved here to Atlanta. New Wii meant new save file so I handed my friend a Wiimote and we got to playing.

Super Mario Galaxy

Mario. This short, chubby, Italian plumber has long been been gaming’s #1 ambassador to pop culture everywhere, having eclipsed the previous title-holder, Pac-Man, ages ago. Pac-Man ruled the arcades once, but it was Mario who conquered our home TVs in 1985. The bright, colorful, side scrolling world of Super Mario Brothers was truly a revelation to us children of the 80s. SMB was not Mario’s first game, of course, but while Donkey Kong and Mario Bros. Where both excellent arcade games, SMB was really the game changer. And I believe there lies Mario’s continued appeal; though each new Mario game in the core series builds on what has come before, Nintendo’s designers (including of course the legendary Shigeru Miyamoto) have always been willing to try new things with the ultimate mascot of gaming. And frankly, no matter what else one might think of Nintendo’s marketing strategies and corporate policies, the fact is that their core brand games usually succeed brilliantly, even when they do try new things.

Mario 64 was arguably as influential a game as the original SMB. It was hardly the first 3D game anymore than SMB was the first sidescroller, but for whatever reason it was the game that heralded the arrival of 3D as one of the primary ways to design games. By comparison, Super Mario Galaxy is perhaps not as revolutionary or influential, but it still manages to wonderfully embody the best aspects of Nintendo’s current strategy while at the same time succeeding at being an excellent “pure” gaming experience.

SMG’s “gimmick” is multi-sided, spherical worlds. Apparently inspired by the notorious Mario 128 GameCube demo, it is this “spherical” gravity centered gameplay that sets the game apart from other platformers and its own predecessors. The game is a level designer’s ultimate fantasy; every conceivable shape becomes a surface to play on. While the early levels seem inspired by The Little Prince’s tiny homeworld B-612, things quickly get ever wilder from there. Aside from the odd angles at which the action often happens, gravity manipulation and distortion quickly becomes a factor, and soon Mario is traversing spacescapes that would give MC Escher vertigo. Actually, perhaps one of the most remarkable things about the game is how quickly one adapts to the strange space it inhabits. Any feeling of discomfort at the weird angles and strange circumstances quickly passed. The game has been criticized for being too easy, but in truth I think that is a testament to the excellent level design and very tight controls. At one point I remember getting to a level that looked so insanely challenging I laughed out loud; partially at the absurdity of the setting, but partially at the realization that I was about to run through that at full speed and I also knew that somehow I’d make it; perhaps not at the my first try (I didn’t) but soon. That tightness of control, combined with the bright colors and beautifully rendered cartoony environments (truly impressive on the Wii’s hardware) makes the game a joy to play. And that’s what I meant when I called the game a “pure” gaming experience; there is a pleasure to be found merely in experiencing and traversing the environments that I can compare only to the PS3 title Flower; except that where Flower was serene, SMG adds a constant element of danger and challenge.

I must admit my gaming preferences usually steer me towards games that are high in drama or have rich, deep story lines, there is something very nice about going back and enjoying the basic pleasure of interacting with something so stimulating on a purely sensory level. A basic example of this is Mario’s spin move. It is multi directional to subtly help the player cope with having to hit enemies coming from many possible directions; it is accomplished by quickly shaking the wiimote, a gesture that works consistently, and it is accompanied by one of Mario’s yips of joy. Nothing in that basic action is revolutionary, but its plain and simple good design from start to finish.

There’s one more thing I would like to mention about the game: the cooperative multiplayer. Its an asymmetrical mode, with the primary player still playing Mario as in the singleplayer, but the second player can sit in and help by grabbing things, stunning enemies with star bits, collecting more star bits, and in general being helpful to the first player. It does make a relatively easy game even easier, true, but I cannot think of a better way to involve a casual or non gamer in a core franchise like this. My friend is not a fan of platformers or Mario in general, but she genuinely was having a good time helping me out as I tackled the game; for new players or players who frustrate easily this is perfect; they can be very helpful, but they can’t really hurt the player no mater how badly they play, and they have no avatar on screen that can be hurt by the enemies or environment. I’m hardly advocating this kind of multiplayer be added to every game, but its different and fun and very successful at doing what it was meant to do.

My hat is off (once again) to Mr. Miyamoto and the rest of Nintendo’s designers. If he continues to star in games of this caliber, I’ll be happy to allow Mario to continue his ambassadorial duties on behalf of gaming in general.


Thursday, December 2nd, 2010

Games Currently Playing:
Ascension War: Incursion
XBL Indie games
Infinite Space

Entry 4: Infinite potential, limited success.

Midterm crunch is on, but as always bits of gameplay happen here and there. Still, as day to day happenings change, so do the games I play, and as usual, when the going gets tough, the portables see more use. An interesting thing that did happen this week though was that while doing research for my 503 class, I ended up spending some time in the indie games area of XBL; while I wasn’t there to play games, I couldn’t resist downloading a handful of trials, to predictably mixed results. Still, its an interesting way of getting some games out there to be played. I sat through a session on XBL publishing at SIEGE and am ever more intrigued by the possibilities here.

Infinite Space

Infinite Space is a game that I picked up with some doubts. On the one hand, the subject matter and touted features couldn’t be more up my alley, but on the other, it is essentially a jRPG, a genre I have long since ceased to have much patience for. Its not surprising then that my analysis is pretty mixed.

I decided on Infinite Space (IS) this week for several reasons. I was going to be on the road, so a portable game was ideal. Like Sins, its a game that I’d purchased but hadn’t gotten around to playing. It also has some thematic similarities to Sins and has some elements that I was interested in exploring due to some of where my thoughts are going for a future game. It’s developed by Nude Maker and Platinum Games, two Japanese developers with solid reputations, and not known for jRPGs, so I had some hope for this one. During development, the developers compared the story and scope to Arthur C. Clarke’s novel “Childhood’s End”, a hard sci-fi classic. The premise, to have a deep space combat and exploration game on the DS, seemed very promising and ambitious.

Like many jRPGs, Infinite Space is a menu-based game. By this I mean that as a player, one never gets the impression that one is controlling the ship/character represented on screen directly; the graphics rather are there to essentially illustrate what you are doing with the menus. This can lead to the player feeling removed from the action; I often feel more like a manager or planner than a hero or even a general. I feel this is an interface issue; games like Baldur’s Gate and Knights of the Old Republic are equally decision based, as opposed to direct-control like an action game or even action RPG, but because of the interface design it often feels more like I am in direct control of my character or units. Particularly with the DS’s stylus, I feel like there was a missed opportunity to add somewhat to the immersiveness of the game. On the other hand, because the player is representing the commander of a small fleet of ships, rather than a single character or even a small party, I feel that the sense of remoteness is less jarring; the player is after all sitting in a command center giving orders, not personally manning the cannons.

The basic combat system is simple; it takes a paper-rocks-scissors approach (literally, there are three choices). The player can choose to dodge, to take a normal attack, or a full barrage attack. A full barrage does a great deal of damage, but is negated by a dodge. A normal attack does less damage but is harder to negate, and a dodge protects you from a barrage but actually makes you more vulnerable to a normal attack. To this you add a dimension of time, since you must wait for a gauge to fill up before you can perform actions, and a dimension of distance, since you can choose to fly either towards or away from the enemy (but not to the sides; combat is literally linear). Underlying this is a complex system of stats representing your ship and crew members that affect everything from the ships speed, to the accuracy and damage of the weapons, and even how fast your actions gauge fills up. This creates an interesting and somewhat frustrating dichotomy. The combat system itself, though not a bad design, can quickly become repetitive and tedious. This is made worse by the three biggest flaws of the jRPG genre: length, grinding, and random battles. On the other hand, the underlying strategy and construction “games” in which you design your ship and assign crew members and the like can be very interesting, and apparently gets more so as the game progresses and more options become available. You are then playing an enjoyable sub-game whose ultimate purpose is to make it easier to succeed at a less enjoyable sub-game.

The story is presented via dialogue between the characters over still images. To advance the plot, it is often necessary to go to specific place, or trigger a specific conversation at a given planet’s space port. The problem with this system is that it is often unclear where you have to go next or what the trigger is, so the player ends up having a lot of conversations at random bars. Even worse, sometimes to move things forward you have to speak to a certain person a second or third time, and there is nothing to indicate this. So in my playthrough I often found myself speaking to everyone twice to make sure I wasn’t missing anything, and since most characters only have one dialogue, this led to many repeated chats. The story so far is interesting and well written but unspectacular; however one does get the impression it really hasn’t gotten going yet. From what I’ve read from reviewers it gets more and more intriguing and is one of the reasons to stick with the game, but ultimately that the ending is unsatisfying.

Aside from being menu driven, the game’s presentation is quite good. Ship models are varied and I found most of the designs appealing; the interface looks appropriately futuristic, and the bridge views are well done and reinforce the feeling that the player is in command of a great space vessel. Being able to fly back and fourth can be confusing (and a little frustrating given the tedium of random encounters) but it does create a feeling of freedom and exploration. Characters are rendered in somewhat stereotypical anime fashion, but while unremarkable they are attractive enough.

Overall Infinite Space is almost frustrating to analyze. There is no denying the game’s ambition given the DS format, and the depth of both the story and the underlying ship-and-crew creation system are impressive and satisfying. Yet for every two steps forward, the game takes a step back by holding on to conventions of a genre that in my opinion is for the most part obsolete now. Combine with a combat system that though clever cannot sustain interest for the length of the game and you have a mixed bag of a game that though hardly bad, is full of missed potential.


Thursday, December 2nd, 2010

Games Currently Playing:
Metroid: Other M
Dead Space: Extraction
Ascension War: Incursion

Entry 3: Sins of a Would-Be Game Designer

Its been a while since my last play session as work has ramped up on my projects. Still, there’s always a bit of playing here and there. Very soon I will be receiving a visit from someone very fond of zombie “lightgun”games so I bought a couple of pistol grips for the Wii and spent a couple of hours testing them out with the two “gun games” I have. The first is House of the Dead 2+3 which I’m happy to say is as ridiculously badly acted as ever, and quite fun with the pistol grip. Only caveat: the Wii doesn’t calibrate well up close, meaning something like 10 feet. The “wiistol” got heavy after a while but its that’s pretty arcade accurate; the game itself encourages short sessions anyway, again probably because of its arcade roots. Dead Space extraction is a different story altogether. Having played the original Dead Space on PS3, I am very much looking forward to whatever plot revelations come to light in this lightgun controlled prequel. I’ve only played a bit and won’t likely be playing much more until my visitor arrives in a bit over a week, but I already see a problem: unlike HotD, DS:E uses the nunchuck. That leaves the player aiming and firing the gun with one hand. The problem is, the very reason for requiring the nunchuck (more gameplay options) also means that the game encourages longer play sessions. I might write a mini follow-up on this later.

Sins of a Solar Empire

Much more interesting (and satisfying) to me right now is the fact that I finally(!) sat down and really played Sins of a Solar Empire. After briefly talking about it with Corwyn at class a few weeks ago, I hadn’t stopped thinking about it. A few months before Sins released, I’d purchased a game called Galactic Civilizations II, hoping to relieve memories of a game called Ascendancy, itself being just a particularly polished Master of Orion clone. GalCiv 2 was very good; I generally don’t have the time or patience for 4X strategy games, but I do enjoy them from time to time and GalCiv2 is as solid an incarnation of the genre as I’ve seen in a long time. I was interested, then, when I found out that Stardock, designers and publishers of the GalCiv games, were also publishing another space strategy game from developer Iron Clad Games. Their core concept seemed as appealing as it was ambitious; they were essentially attempting to make a real-time 4X space game. The advance press was all very positive and the screenshots were very attractive. I ordered the “collector’s” edition and eagerly awaited its arrival.

And then I didn’t play it. Not because I thought the game was bad; I hadn’t played much myself and reviews were overwhelmingly positive. In fact, later on it would receive IGN’s PC Game of the Year award, quite the coup for a small developer’s niche title. I didn’t play it because I was intimidated, frankly. 4X games take time to play, and I found the idea of playing such a complex game in real time to be overwhelming. It didn’t help that the earliest release featured overly-powerful pirates; my one game attempt saw my early fleet gutted before I even contacted my real opponent. And frankly, I’ve come to realize that very often I play games to unwind. The reflex-intense actions of an shooter game or simple mechanical intuitions of a puzzle game (like Bejeweled) let my mind relax and my instincts take over. After a long day of making stressful, time-critical decisions, it can be very nice.

The problem is that Sins is absolutely bursting at the seams with stressful, time-critical decisions. So I’d put it off, always thinking I’d get to it eventually. Well, now I have. And it is awesome.

Sins is unapologetically complex. Admittedly, it is simpler than most hardcore turned-based 4x space games, eschewing the custom ship building of its elder sibling Galactic Civilizations 2, for example. It also gives up some of the deeper politics and alternative win conditions of those games, although its second expansion, Sins: Diplomacy supposedly adds some of those factors back into the game. The base Sins game, however, is one of straightforward conquest. You expand your empire, build your forces, and face your opponent. Compared to the average “build your base and attack” RTS game, however, it is very complex. While you’re maneuvering your fleets, you are required to constantly be exploring new worlds, researching technologies, building colonies, and developing an overall strategy.

The game I played, on a “small” randomized map of about 20 planets, lasted about 4 hours, but I could have finished it in three, and I think a more experienced player could have forced a decision much earlier. Owing to my previous experience with the pirates, I started a game on the easy difficulty and got to playing. The first thing one notices about Sins is the smooth combination of graphics and interface. Indeed, the only thing keeping Sins from becoming an unplayable mess is the truly impressive interface. With a flick of the mouse wheel one can zoom out, continuously and without a break or interruption, from a close up view where you can see your capital ship’s individual cannons track the enemy and fire, to a godlike view of the entire star system where the game takes place. Icons clearly show all the player’s assets on the left hand side organized by planet/zone and can be clicked on or collapsed. It takes just a moment to, for example, select your entire military force (but not utility or civilian ships) in a system and send it to another. Ships, planets, and stations can all be selected in various different ways. Having so many alternatives seems daunting at first, but it quickly becomes second nature. Of course the system isn’t perfect, and its still not easy to find, say, a specific group of a specific kind of ship while things are hectic in more than one system at a time, but its still an impressive achievement given the task at hand.

It quickly became obvious to me that the game is not a tactical combat RTS at all; for the most part fleets fight by themselves and make mostly correct tactical decisions. At times I did feel the need to target a particular craft, or withdraw one of my more important ships to a better defended sector rather than let the AI valiantly fight to the bitter end (and it was my AI opponent’s reluctance to do the same that probably cost him the game). But this game is about overall strategy; selecting what to build and where to build it; what systems to set up defenses in, etc. More than once I was reluctantly forced to concede a poorly protected sector, pull my fleet out, and entrench a more defensible position, then return in force. At one point I had to halt a long advance when it became clear I was spreading myself too thin, so I built up a recently conquered planet and “bottled in” my opponent, knowing he would not be able to rebuild as fast as me given his lack of resource worlds. Understand, I am not really a strategy player; the fact that such strategies came naturally to me is more of a testament of the game’s play systems than my skills.

Overall, my brief experience with Sins was very positive. I think I knew it would be. Its long and exhausting, even on easy on a small map, but its also very rewarding when you win. It remains a niche game and exhausting and certainly not something I’d pick up and play on a whim, but its a wonderful experience. It succeeds brilliantly at what it sets out to do. Its not perfect, but I can’t really think of any one thing to fault the developers for. I don’t know when I’ll work up the courage (and time) to face my interstellar nemesis again (maybe even on… normal?) but I’ll be looking forward to it.

Other thoughts: Its becoming a habit for me to post thoughts about the industry in general after these gameplay journals, and since I think its a useful habit, I think I’m going to keep doing it.

This time I think I’m going to go back to a favorite topic of mine: game genres and gameplay hybrids. Genres are both a good thing and a bad thing in all media; they can help a person identify something he or she is likely to enjoy, and they create a common language. But they can also be restricting and limiting. The problem with video games sometimes is that the genres exist for artificial reasons. Unlike movies and books, in digital games genres refer to the format as much as the content. Halo and Hexen, for example, are both “first person shooters”. If they were books, they’d both likely be “fiction novels”, but their genres would likely be “military sci-fi” and “high fantasy” (or swords and sorcery). Genres then describe gameplay more than the thematic concept of the game. That’s not necessarily wrong in and of itself, but it does often mean that developers stick to a handful of gameplay formulas that can be as limiting as they are helpful. Surely this early in the industry’s development we haven’t exhausted >all< possible gameplay combinations. That’s what I like about Sins of a Solar Empire. Once, the idea of a real time strategy 4X game seemed impossible, so developers never attempted it. But Iron Clad Games solved the problem, simply by adjusting the scope of the game by creating a new interface that was up to the task. That is all it took. I find more and more each day that I am attracted to games that deliberately mix genres. The most popular combinations seem to be those mix “twitch” (reflex) based gameplay with “RPG” elements such as levels, classes, weapon loadouts and customization. With faster internet connections becoming more prevalent, even MMOs are adding more “twitch” based content.

In particular I am very interested in seeing how the new Deus Ex turns out. I’ve only played bits and pieces of the original, but Deus Ex has a reputation for being one of the better genre benders around. Lets hope the new prequel lives up to the original. At any rate, there it is. As developers look to new gameplay formulas to stand out in an ever more competitive market, genres may become more and more fluid (again) and in my opinion that is an encouraging trend.


Thursday, December 2nd, 2010

Games Playing:
Halo: Reach
Global Agenda
The Dig and other Adventure games.

Exercise 2: The Dig and other Adventures

In preparation for my proposal and first prototype I’ve been trying my hand at classic point and click adventure games. I’m hardly a stranger to the genre; the first computer game I ever saw was Kings Quest 2. The first PC game I ever owned was Quest for Glory I: So You Want to Be a Hero. These games and their sequels, along with the Space Quest saga, will always have a special place in my heart. But the truth is it has been several years since I’ve played them, and when I do play them I find it hard to look at them objectively. Therefore, before writing my proposal I wanted to get myself reacquainted with that type of game by playing something similar I’d missed. There were definitely plenty of titles from back in the golden age of adventure gaming to choose from. I knew I didn’t have time to go in-depth with more than one of them however, so I chose LucasArt’s “The Dig”.

Before I get into my thoughts on “The Dig”, I’d like to mention that I did also try a few games made with the Adventure Game Studio (AGS) engine that I intend to use for my own project. Essentially I wanted to make sure it was up to the task and I was very pleased with the results. The games I tried varied wildly in quality, but the engine ran well in all cases. I was impressed by how customizable it seems to be; some of the games had very traditional interfaces, but some were very different. “A Second Face” uses a traditional interface and seems to be very large and epic in scope; that might be its downfall however as some of the areas seem under-detailed. “A Day in the Future” does quite a bit with a single room though it was apparently originally in French and the translation is a bit uneven. My favorite of the bunch I played was a game simply titled “Automation”. Its very short and the design is very simple, but the art is very well done and the puzzles are clever and logical. Its polished and the limited scope means that a lot of care went into the environment; it even has a clever sense of humor. All these games have one fault in common: linearity. I’ll return to that subject below.

As I said, I chose to play “The Dig”. I had been aware of this game for years and was intrigued by it but never had a chance to play. It is one of the later games to use LucasArt’s SCUMM Adventure Game Engine. For many years, LucasArt’s Adventure Games were known as being Sierra’s main competitor and the only company with as good (if not better) reputation in the genre. Other SCUMM games include the Maniac Mansions, the first two Monkey Islands, Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade, Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, Sam and Max Hit the Road, Full Throttle, and Loom. The Dig is the 11th game created with SCUMM, making it one of the last titles created with that system. The original concept for the game’s story was provided by Steven Spielberg , and well-known Sci-Fi author Orson Scott Card is credited with writing the dialogue. Yet despite this “star-power”, the game suffered through prolonged and turbulent development until it was finally released in 1995. Apparently, as is often the case with games that release much later than intended, its look and technology were seen as dated when it finally launched; by this point 3D CD-Rom games like Myst and The 7th Guest had been released and had already begun to alter the adventure game genre. As one online reviewer had it, however, the modern eye can’t easily distinguish 1995 outdated from 1992 outdated, so perhaps in the long run it’s best that I played this game now and not when it was released; though I doubt even then I would have minded the graphics.

So, the Dig. Like other SCUMM games it is a third person adventure game. The action takes place in distinct “rooms” which consist of static artwork, often hand-painted, populated with sprites which make up the objects and characters in that can be interacted with. The main objective in such games is invariable to progress the story by solving riddles and puzzles. Usually there is a clear, narrative objective that becomes the player’s ultimate goal. The Dig pretty much sticks to this formula, but after playing and re-playing several adventure games recently, I have come to realize that it is far too easy to dismiss the genre as formulaic; in many ways it is akin to dismissing novels because they’re all linear books that you read from left to right, page after page to reach a conclusion. What is actually hard to do is evaluate a given adventure as game and as experience, both together and separately.

As an experience, The Dig is a science fiction masterpiece. All of the purely aesthetic elements are superb, both separately and as a whole. The narrative is great Sci-Fi stuff, and a lot of its themes would actually be echoed in later Hollywood productions. It is a tale of a trio of Earth astronauts who go into space to deflect an incoming asteroid, but instead find themselves trapped on a seemingly abandoned alien world. The art, mostly in the form of hand-painted alien landscapes and structures, supports the story brilliantly. Much of the time in an adventure game is spent exploring, and with The Dig I always felt like I couldn’t wait to see what was behind the next corner; in fact, I’ve come to recognize that with this kind of game, simply gaining access to the next environment becomes a kind of reward-system for the player. An interesting note: some pre-rendered CG elements were added to the game, particularly during transitions; this was an attempt to “modernize” the game by the time of its final release. I’ll echo what some have said online here and say that these more “modern” elements have aged more poorly than the lovely hand painted art. CG has come a long way since ’95, but sci-fi paintings have not changed nearly as much, even if perhaps the resolutions they were presented in back then seem limited today. The final aesthetic element I’ll touch upon is the sound. The voice work is quite solid (and Scott Card’s dialogue is excellent) but it is the ambient music that really stands out. Every time I made an new discovery and reached another breathtaking new area, there would be a swell of haunting, inspiring music. To summarize then, The Dig is a tour de force of sci-fi storytelling and art. Its production values remind us that there was a time when adventure games ruled the PC landscape, but beyond that, it’s a remarkable “high” sci-fi construct in its own right.

It is much harder to evaluate The Dig as a game, but I will make the attempt. As I have said, it does not stray far from the adventure game formula, nor does it attempt to anymore than Halo: Reach attempted to be anything other than a First Person Shooter. However, the game does make one important departure from other SCUMM or SCI games relating to the interface, or rather the lack thereof. There simply is no menu to be found anywhere in the game, except a single button in the lower left corner to access the inventory screen. There is no title bar, no icons, no list of actions, not even a score tab. The player’s actions are therefore reduced to walk, use, or examine, along with the ability to use objects in the inventory with objects in the environment. Interestingly, there are screenshots from early builds of the game that do have a more traditional interface, so apparently the decision to switch to the the almost interface-less system came late in the development process. I have mixed feelings about this choice. On the one hand, it does free up the screen and removes “artificial” hud elements and icons from view; it therefore does subtly enhance immersion; there is no score bar or icons to remind you that you’re playing a game, which keeps your focus on the story rather than the mechanics. On the other hand, the lack of defined commands to try on objects can actually have the effect of making you feel less in control of the character. You click on something, and context, not you, decides what the character is going to do. This reliance on context to determine action had already started to happen when adventure games moved from text-based to icon-based interactions, but this system takes it one step further. As I said, I have mixed feelings about the results. Control in a mostly linear adventure game is already something of an illusion, but recognizing that, I believe the illusion should be maintained as best as possible. Conversely, there are elements of adventure games that dovetail better with storytelling than many other genres; once thing I’ve noticed is that in adventure games you actually play what in most other genres; including, sadly, many RPGs; is relegated to cutscenes. Linear though they may be, if an alien secret is uncovered, a peace treaty is signed, or access is gained to a new area, its because the player did it, not because you killed a boss and then it happened in an automated story segment. Again, this control is largely an illusion, but it can be very effective at making a player feel like an integral part of the events his character is experiencing. In some ways this mirrors many of the non-combat elements from pen and paper RPGs that are mostly missing from their digital counterparts.

The Dig is no exception to this. As I mentioned before when I discussed the artwork, the game succeeds brilliantly at creating a sense of achievement stemming from pure exploration. At its best, it does manage to make you feel as if you were there, meaningfully affecting a powerful sci-fi story. At its worst, however, The Dig still suffers from the genre’s long-standing pitfalls, and it all comes down to the puzzles. The trick, in my opinion, to a good adventure game puzzle is to make it seem logical and challenging, so the player feels like he successfully used his wits to overcome an obstacle, but not so challenging that it leads to frustration, devolves to a pixel hunt, and brings the game to a screeching halt. Often I think it comes down to what information the game gives the player, but there is always the danger that the player misses the information at hand. Forcing the player to receive it, however, can quickly degrade the exploration aspect and once again perhaps remove the illusion of control.

Puzzles in “The Dig” are uneven. Many rely on alien devices whose purpose is not readily apparent. Often that purpose can be gleaned by context, and these are satisfying. I did became stuck on a couple of occasions, but it’s hard to tell from my experience alone which cases where simply my lack of attentiveness and which were genuinely hard or unfair puzzles. One particularly nasty puzzle, however, involved re-creating an alien turtle-like creature’s skeleton using a pile of strewn bones. There is a fossilized version of the creature elsewhere, which is clearly the clue the game is providing the player to solve the puzzle with. But actual bones are hard to identify and building the creature becomes a matter of trial and error, even though the clue has been received and understood. To my relief, the alien turtle puzzle is much reviled in the online community as well; it does seem to be a definite case of poor puzzle-building. There is art online for an alternate alien puzzle from an earlier build; its a totally different creature that would seem easier to build. Perhaps too easy? I wonder what the exact reason for the change was. I also really do wonder how much playtesting has changed since the golden age of point and click adventures, as this seems to me the only real way to really track which puzzles are problematic/frustrating to players in general.

Finally, a word on linearity. Though the player is generally free to roam through all the accessible areas, The Dig is very linear. Every puzzle in the game, as far as I can tell, has one and only one solution, and the story can progress in only one way, with only one very minor alteration very late in the game. This is a symptom of adventure games in general, but I would note that previous games had at least attempted to alleviate this problem somewhat. The Quest for Glory games in particular had a significant amount of puzzles that could be solved in a variety of different ways, often but not always determined by the player’s class. They also had a number of side quests that were not necessary to complete the game, but which could have a considerable effect on the ending (if only in the text). In fact, even King’s Quest 1, perhaps the second graphical adventure game ever made (after Sierra’s own Mystery House), often gave you an option to either, say, slay a mythical creature, or get past it in a more clever and peaceful manner, giving you a higher score if you chose restraint. These are little things which might not significantly alter the narrative but at least give the player a sense that he or she “played their way”.

In the end, I’m glad I played The Dig. Its is very much the archetypal adventure game; it is very strong where the genre is strong and yet suffers from all of its traditional pitfalls. As a research subject it was very useful, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy it. I was sucked in from start to finish and I became convinced that this type of game remains viable and enjoyable to this day.

I still think that the best “form” this game can take is by feeding from other genres, as Quest for Glory did, or by lending some of its elements to another genre altogether, as with the Metroid Prime series. I believe that the Ultime Game Ever (In the woooorld…) probably contains a generous amount of Adventure Game influence, but that is definitely a topic for another day.