Uncharted and the Sense of Being De-equipped

December 30th, 2009

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There’s an awkward contradiction in the original Uncharted where the gorgeously detailed jungle landscape and its lack of interactivity juxtapose to create a hollow feeling within the player. In fact, it’s just one of ways in which Uncharted, through Naughty Dog’s virginity to the genre and the Playstation 3 and their determination to neatly place the player in one of either two modes of gameplay, severely de-equips the player, or rather instill the feeling of being de-equiped.

Eats Your Greens

(We’re still razzing on the inactive landscape here)

Intended as a benchmark for the Playstation 3’s technical capabilities, Uncharted‘s jungle landscape, even now after the release of its sequel, still inspires great awe. Yet I’ll be damned if it isn’t anything more than digital window dressing. Sure, wind will blow in and stir up foliage or a scripted event will send a rock crashing onto car, but during standard play the landscape does little to respond to the player. The jungle is simply a conduit to the next gun fight, climbing sequence or story event where Uncharted can operate in its comfort zone as a derivative mix of Prince of Persia and Gears of War. External to these sequences, the player is covered in bubble wrap and can only look but not touch. In this sense, the landscape hardly contributes to the game in a meaningful way on a mechanical level, unless of course it’s within the aforementioned capsules of gameplay. Examples of the latter include shooting exploding oil cans and the tear-away platforms.

(One could quite correctly argue that this is the case for most games, and indeed it is. My response to that would therefore be the very fact that Uncharted‘s environment is so darn pretty, that is has such an important presence in the game world unlike most games before it, that it almost suggests to be more important than it really is. This, I’d wager, is the implication.)

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The lack of seamless interaction cuts at the environment’s personality and to some extent the believability too (although it’s pretty hard not to believe it when it looks so good!). Personally speaking, I found that the implications affecting my attitude towards the game were numerous. There’s feelings of betrayal as the environment is something of an illusion. There’s the feeling of selfishness in that you’ve been spoilt with such lovely visuals but don’t have the means to appreciate it beyond turning the camera angle to get a more picturesque view. To put it in another way, it feels as though you’re “wasting” Uncharted’s graphical splendor. The feeling which lasted the longest for me though was a feeling of helplessness. That is, you want to interact with the environment but you can’t, the game does not permit it.

A Tiny High Definition Reticle in a Highly-detailed Jungle Landscape with Fast-moving, Ultra Responsive Enemy Types

Put those words together and consider what this means for gameplay. That is, have you ever tried to shoot an ant from 30 metres away? Everything that you shoot at in Uncharted feels so distant. There are several reasons for this as touched upon in the title:

High definition

Means more stuff can fit on screen, more so than it takes for an analog stick to cleanly sweep and target. Naughty Dog haven’t quite hit the right spot when matching this with a suitable reticle movement speed.

Small reticle

This is the area where you shoot; a tiny white circle in the middle of a high resolution image

Highly-detailed Jungle

That high resolution image is full of heavily textured landscape, swatches of rich colour, dispersed lighting, detailed scenery and animation. Point being that there’s many distractions to throw your attention off target.

Fast-moving, Ultra Responsive Enemy Types

Maybe they’re not that fast, but they’ll certainly flinch once you’ve hit them. Hitting a pirate (bad guy) anywhere on the body apart from the head will cause them to sporadically throw themselves in the opposite direction. This can totally off-balance your shooting as the nimble reticle speed makes it difficult to re-align your shots.

Layout of the Arenas

Although not mentioned in the title, the layout of the gun fights (arena layout, cover spots, enemy spawn points, movement patterns, etc) is the primary reason why aiming in Uncharted feels so terribly myopic. Gun fights are very spread out, layered almost like a shooting range where the player clears a hoard of goons, jumps the fence and closes in the enemies by taking refuge at the next point of cover. The closest row of goons in the shooting range are often distanced at a point which is a little uncomfortable. However, the core problem lies in that enemies which occupy the back rows are given startlingly good accuracy—and with three or so of them in the back and reinforcements moving to the front, it’s tactically safer to camp at a distance than risk moving forward. Furthermore, when the rows of pirates at the front are few, there are side rows which contribute to the tactical security of staying put.

Maybe I’ve been spoilt by the PSP’s lower resolution screen in the similarly-styled Syphon Filter PSP titles, but damn it can difficult to shoot things in Uncharted. I actually played Uncharted on the hard difficulty setting (hence my comments for the last dot point may have otherwise differed) and unlocked most of the headshot trophies (I think), so it’s not that the shooting is bad, by any stretch, rather shooting feels like trying to put thread through a needle. Myopic is the perfect word to describe it. Uncharted‘s shooting makes the player feel nearsighted. The reticle moves at a speed unaccommodating of the resolution and the AI makes no allowances for this. The player has to therefore put in extra work (though more considered aiming and willingness to tacticise around missed shots) to make up for the “weaknesses” they’ve inherited.

Platforming Cues

The visual cues in the platforming sections can be really unclear at times. Some might say that I’m nitpicking here, because generally it’s pretty good. The camera in particular follows very dynamically and presents rather well, but the points of interaction can be difficult to read. Ledges, for instance, are represented by black decay in the side of a building, resembling a groove, yet these are often more akin to random structural decay than a climbable surface. Much is the case for other parts of the game. Constantly missing a visual cue puts fault on the player and further makes them feel unequipped for the game world. My twin brother disagreed with me on this one, perhaps I’ve again been spoilt, this time by the Prince of Persia series.

Bad Stealth

As we know, gun fights occur in preset “arenas”. As the pirates are often just going about on their usual business, the action doesn’t always start right away, rather the player is offered the opportunity of approaching these sections stealthily by hiding behind props and so forth. This mechanic feels ill-thought-out as rarely can the player make any progress as an assassin. Pirate walking routes almost always ensure that the arena is heavily monitored. Paths of sights cross too frequently for stealth to be a tenable option

Conclusion

Saying that Uncharted de-equips the player is a false argument. It’s as guilty of this as any other game. Rather, Uncharted, by the dilemma presented in its graphical splendor and the player’s want to engage with this in a meaningful way, its imprecise aiming and spastically-flinching enemies, difficult to discern platforming cues and wonky stealth, creates a sense of being de-equiped, of not being able to fully provide the player with the tools to the task. Incidentally, one could argue that this is the very nature of Drake as an avatar.

Super Monkey Ball – Leading into a Banana Blitz

December 26th, 2009

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Super Monkey Ball was the best Gamecube launch title nobody bought. Imperative to Monkey Ball‘s premise of rolling a caged primate through levels of mid-air platforms is player skill and coordination. Sega’s arcade port requires a steady thumb to beat and Nintendo’s latest home console of the time offered the perfect companion: A sturdy analog stick second to none. The software and hardware combination was a perfect match, the first fruit to fall from Sega’s shift into 3rd party development. Having originated from the arcades, Monkey Ball encapsulated all that was great about Sega’s arcade philosophy; a glorified skill tester of the truly excellent kind.

As the series slowly built a name for itself within the gaming community, Super Monkey Ball 2 effectively split the game into two schools of level design: the precision-demanding tightropes of the original and over-the-top gimmick levels that require more luck than actual skill. The latter seems to have been derived from the few, less serious levels of the original game that, while still very much skill-based, were akin to that of amusement park rides; twisty pathways, cylindric cones etc. With the sequel, the developers became a little too ambitious in this regard, incorporating too many gimmicks, in turn subverting the very foundation that the series was created on: precision, skill and tightly measured challenge.

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Super Monkey Ball: Banana Blitz, the 3rd installment which incidentally released along with the Wii 3 years ago, is actually the first Monkey Ball game I’ve ever owned. The previous games were almost impossible to find on store shelves, so up to that point most of my experience with the series had been relegated to the good 4-5 times the original was rented and played to excess in the way it should be played: With good company and many a Gamecube pad.

With a good word put out prior to release by IGN, I was certain that Banana Blitz would be my first proper foray into the series (nevermind the fact that I’d basically completed the original game and thoroughly fleshed out all of the great multiplayer modes). That was the last time I ever trusted IGN. Not long after buying my Wii on release did I realise that Banana Blitz only continued on the sequel’s downward spiral into the depths of silliness, and then some. I recently returned to Banana Blitz to wipe it clear off my current playlist, here are some of my main criticisms with this iteration.

Orientation of Wii-mote

Contrary to common sense, Banana Blitz can only be played with the Wii-mote held vertically (pointing towards the screen). As such, the player rotates their arm to turn the level, putting a lot of strain on the wrist. Playing Banana Blitz is therefore a physically uncomfortable experience. The smart alternative to this would be to hold the remote horizontally as in Excitetruck and other racing titles, therefore relieving pressure from the wrists.

Skill-Gimmick Ratio

My brief overview of the franchise alludes to the fact that Banana Blitz features more gimmicks than it does skill-based gameplay, uhhh…yeah, that’s unfortunately the case. The majority of levels in Banana Blitz are actually pretty comical for the first few tries, until you quickly realise that failing due to downright chance isn’t very amusing at all. Most of the levels, even the partly sensible ones, incorporate some form of gimmickry or bad design which soon becomes the bane of the experience.

Take for example a level which consists of a tower with a rotating runway leading to the goal at the very top. The player must turn their wrist unnaturally back and forth to the left in order to fight the momentum of the spiraling treadmill. Twisting the remote in such a way causes the camera angle to curl around to your left, putting the platform’s guard rail out of the player’s view. Once the player reaches the top, the revolving staircase tapers off, unbeknown to the player who is busy grappling against the backwards-pushing momentum and awkward camera. As a result the player cannot anticipate that the staircase will fall from beneath them and can very easily roll over the end of the staircase, fall and bounce their way off stage instead of rolling onto the central platform. It’s a common occurrence throughout Banana Blitz; a small oversight which causes unnecessary difficulty and drags out the play time.

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Another example of ill consideration of the player is the notorious octopus boss battle at the end of the 5th world (Super Monkey Ball 2 introduced boss battles, these also tend to deviate too). The battle takes place on a small circular platform surrounded by water. Land in the water, ie. ring out, and you lose. A giant octopus leaps from the water at frequent intervals, assuming about 75% of the platform. If the octopus or his tentacles land in your nearby vicinity then you have, roughly, a 60% chance of rebounding and landing in the water. Once he’s landed, sometimes even just touching him will also send you straight towards a ring out, so caution is a must. The way to defeat the octopus is to dong him on the back of the head. This can be achieved by keeping your distance and using the 25% of available space to move around his body. Alternatively you can snuggle up to the beast and clumsily jump over his tentacles to maneuver your way around. Either choice often results in an unintended ring out. After he’s taken 3 hits, he’ll crawl back into the ocean (highly problematic considering once you’ve hit him he drags you backwards into the water) and then send mini-octopus goons to make the confrontation even more bothersome. It was at this point in the game that my patience ran out, somehow on my return I managed to defeat the vile beast, but not after much struggle. Having struggled through this, I’m doubtful that Sega ever playtested this game as surely this mammoth spike in difficulty should have set off some alarms. To put it into perspective I completed the boss of the following world in about 15 seconds flat, easy.

Launching off huge ramps onto tiny islands (whereby the short, 2 second window just before the jump determines your success), zooming down a gated highway while trying to keep the sporadic bounces out of control and spinning around a giant cone make up the typical slew of gimmick designs, among others.

Jump Button and Bouncing

All of this could be forgiven as severe nitpicking if it wasn’t for the fact that Amusement Vision made additions and modifications to the core mechanics which indiscriminately favour luck over skill. The primary culprit here is the inclusion of a jump button. Jumping is an integral part of Banana Blitz‘s level design. However, maneuvering the 3D playing field with the Wii-mote and jumping is an inherently precision lacking task. It lack precisions as judging the distance of a jump by the tilt of the remote (and the backdrift from tilting the stage the opposing way whilst in mid-air) is a rather vague and tricky exercise. Particularly with the delay in the Wii-more’s reception.

Jumping also makes it considerably more possible for players to jump (or even bounce) their way past some of Banana Blitz‘s more challenging sections, circumventing the very point of the game. Ironically, in several of the levels such an approach is required to meet the goal. Sure, the original game had similar secrets, but they were just that; secrets. Banana Blitz makes the whole deal overt and teaches players early on to cut corners. Because the game set the precedence, the player follows suit, and I’d consider the type of play being supposed here as a bad practice to hand down to players.

Jumping, and the two examples highlighted in the earlier paragraphs, are compounded by the succeeding bounces follow a landing. The player doesn’t just jump and land safely, they bounce out of control for a few seconds. Judging the bounce is just as much of an issue as the jumping itself and only exacerbates the whole issue.

There’s simply a design clash between the chaotic jumping and bouncing and the narrow pathways and tight platforms of the earlier titles. In this regard, the levels have been adjusted to suit jumping, abandoning what was the essence of the series.

Slash in Difficulty and Content

It’s probably worth mentioning that Banana Blitz is significantly more easy than the previous games and features much less content. I tended not to notice this respective of the other bullet points.

50 Mini Games!!

Super Monkey Ball had only a handful of mini games which were all as refined as the core game itself. Each of them individually fantastic, even if Monkey Flight didn’t reveal itself as well as the others on first play. Banana Blitz has 50 predominately rubbish mini games. To be fair, some of these are okay, but on the other hand some of them fail to operate as games and the rest are largely unengaging. If you need to blame a game for crisis of bloated, poor quality mini-game compilations on the Wii, point your fingers here. The bloated number of mini-games is the truest indication of the series’ downward spiral.

Conclusion

I’m not really sure what Amusement Vision were hoping to achieve with Banana Blitz. If we use the new graphical style as a guide, one could assume that Sega were looking to create a more kid friendly game to boost sales and therefore sought to tone down the difficulty. Lowering the difficulty isn’t a ridiculous idea at all, considering the nail-biting difficulty the series is known for. Yet watering the experience down to a serving of ill-conceived gimmicks isn’t faithful to series roots nor does it serve the intended market. I only hope that Sega reassess the past few iterations of Monkey Ball and come to their senses.

Lastly, can anyone explain why Baby is wearing a space visor? Did Dr Bad Boon severally blind her at the end of Super Monkey Ball 2 or something?

Additional Readings

Game Critics Review of Banana Blitz (similar vein to my own)

Interview with Toshihiro Nagoshi on Banana Blitz (pre-release)

Differences Between House of the Dead II and III

December 19th, 2009

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I’ve been meaning to chat about the differences between House of the Dead II and III since I finished the Wii “remake” a few months ago. Basically there are two fundamental differences between the games:

Player Routes

House of the Dead II employs a more organic progression system than the series’ third installment. By saving civilians or shooting important props (such as keys) the path branches off to a divergent stream which runs parallel to the main path. These “triggers” will also turn up on the alternative streams and if they’re not activated then they’ll send the player on another course, often back to the main path. Each level in House of the Dead II is therefore a tree of branching routes which shoot off and intersect with one another. Since activating the “triggers” is skilled based, the respective path which opened up are often scaled to the corresponding difficulty. That is, if the player reacts quickly to the situation, then they’ll be diverted to a path which increases the challenge. Alternatively, if the player misses a “trigger” then they’ll remain on the same path or revert to an easier course. What this means is that a novice and professional player will likely have different experiences through the same levels. As such the experience unfolds dynamically in real time, catering to needs of the player.

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House of the Dead III on the other hand is mostly linear, instead offering the player to choose their path at two select points in the game. The first point (the car park) only allows the player to follow a single route from a selectable two for the duration of the level. The other point though simply asks which order the player wishes to complete a set of three levels. In this sense, House of the Dead III is a more rigid game.

From my perspective, part of the joy of House of the Dead II comes in discovering new routes and secrets, even 10 years after its release I’m still finding new content in the game and that itself is rather worthwhile.

Health Rewards

In House of the Dead II rescuing civilians is the only way to regain health. Some generous civilians hand out health packs just after you’ve rescued them, otherwise the game will reward you with a health pack at the end of level if you’ve rescued a certain quota of civilians. Often though I’ve found said quota to be beyond my reach.

Besides the cast themselves, House of the Dead III’s setting is completely void of hapless civilian fodder and as a result the health system has been slightly altered. House of the Dead III, even during single player, features two protagonists, so instead of saving innocents the player must save their partner in a series of fixed sequences throughout the levels, by which case they’ll receive their bonus health pack. The contrived nature of these sequences, whereby they interrupt regular gameplay, isn’t as natural as rescuing civilians. House of the Dead III is sure to separate these parts from the rest of the game, yet in House of the Dead II they’re seamlessly interwoven with the fabric of the core gameplay.

Health packs can still be gained at the end of a level, but this time the requisites lead into a sub-system unique to House of the Dead III. The player receives a alphabetic ranking at the end of each level which is determined by accuracy, head shots and whatever else, along with time. The enemies in House of the Dead III now have two levels of death, so to speak. The first level is that a zombie will die straight away if you target their weak spot. The second level, being that if you just shoot them enough, they’ll die but take longer to clear the screen, sucks up precious time. Players can then save time by either attacking weak points or quickly dispel zombies with another round of led after the initial blast.

Conclusion

Based on these observations I guess it’s easy for one to assume that House of the Dead II is the superior game—and truth be told it probably is—but I don’t necessarily think so. Rather House of the Dead III is a more controlled experience that House of the Dead II, however that’s interpreted depends on the player. I personally adore House of the Dead II, but both games offer different interpretations of the genre and therefore worth playing.