January 19th, 2011
Same rules, one last time: “for every game I’ve played this year I pitch a short, snappy summary that tries to be informative and interesting at the same time”.
The level of interactivity is frequent enough to call Dragon’s Lair a game, but a very dubious one at that. Alas, I quite admire the animation.
Dead Space is rather poor at horror, relying on jack-in-a-box scares and rushing players. In regards to the combat, when every confrontation is fast and immediate, there’s little space to wedge dimension into the equation. Dead Space has a great assortment of weapons and a good, albeit limited, range of enemies that work harmoniously with the weapons to support the “strategic dismemberment”, but it’s all put under stress by the impetus to catch the player unawares. The paralysis technique (which slows enemies down) becomes a crutch, which speaks to the space needed in the 3rd person combat. As an aside, the sequel seems to be ignoring these issues outright, with the developers putting their energy into producing bigger, barely interactive set pieces.
Dead Space Extraction
(Am I allowed to say that Extraction is better than the original Dead Space?)
If on-rails shooters hadn’t fallen off into arcade obscurity, then they’d probably be more along the lines of the rather dynamic Dead Space Extraction. Lots of unique, well implemented ideas here which combine to set Extraction apart from a typical rail shooter.
Resident Evil 2
Resident Evil 2 forgoes its predecessor’s cryptic puzzles in favour of a more practical approach. Instead of odd coloured gems and pieces of statues, the inventory in RE2 is more practical, including chords, cogs, handles and fuses—meaning that thinking up the answers to a riddle is considerably easier and more logical. Oftentimes it seems that a new item could have a whole range of uses, so finding out which one pushes the game forward is part of the joy. This modification, along with more in-game directives to steer the player on course and a greater emphasis on combat, made Resident Evil 2 more palatable to the masses and such a massive success.
Resident Evil 0
Resident Evil 0‘s puzzles aren’t so cryptic as in Resident Evil, but also not as practical as in Resident Evil 2, rather the prequel is a mix of both with most puzzles utilising the player zapping mechanic (switching control of Rebecca and Billy). Each character’s personality in this relationship is defined by the pros and cons that each offers the player. Rebecca can mix herbs and because of her weight can fit through or be lifted up to certain areas, however she can’t carry much inventory or take as much damage as Billy; this defines her as a fragile, but resourceful character. Billy is the opposite, he can carry more gear and take more damage; this defines him as the defender. Since Billy is the heaviest he helps Rebecca climb up to certain areas, so although Rebecca is weaker in strength, Billy cannot go very far without her. I felt that much of their relationship was communicated through these actions, causing me to dislike the Resident Evil 0 when it came to defining these characters through cutscenes.
Resident Evil: Umbrella Chronicles
Hasn’t got a patch on Dead Space Extraction when it comes to innovation, but Umbrella Chronicles similarly makes a stand for rail shooters by putting forward a surprising amount of content and smartly positioning itself as a part #1 anthology of the series to date.
Zelda: Phantom Hourglass
The revolutionary Zelda I was hoping for, but never expected to find in this game. Phantom Hourglass overhauls large components of the Zelda tradition with touch screen controls, new inventory items, new and interesting ways to interact with the game world, the infamous Temple of the Ocean King which altered the dungeon-to-dungeon progression model and a new, semi-automated mode of transport just to start. I plan on outlining all the revisions in a future article. For now though, I’m looking forward to see how Spirit Tracks and Skyward Sword will advance these changes even further.
Meteos‘ match-3 gameplay is great for a while, however nothing is built up from this core. No modes or different takes on the basic gameplay.
Before I played Phantom Hourglass, I thought that Okami was the future for Zelda. A lack of structure to this massive adventure (which leads to a ton of burnout) demotes this title to an alternative to the legend and not a replacement. Still, an awe inspiring alternative though.
Passage is a metaphor for life, that is, the passage of life. There are several parts to the metaphor:
Space – In the course of life we take, there are some avenues that we can’t go down because of the people we are with. This is shown through the narrow corridors where you cannot go with your partner, but could alone.
Age – The pixelated appearance of the 2 avatars changes so slowly that you don’t even noticed that your appearance has changed until it’s changed significantly.
Blur – There is always a blur surrounding the player. In the beginning, the path in front of you, your future, is unclear. As you walk forward you travel further into the centre of the screen and the two balance out. By the end, the past is a blur and your future comes with no time to think; you often run into walls that you can’t even see.
Actions – Certain avenues will lead to boxes which you can open, as in life where certain decisions can lead to pathways with rewards.
Space (2) – The path is narrow and you can’t see what is either side of you only what is in front or behind you. It is possible to explore these areas and even get lost, but you often find your way forward again. It appears that this could represent life’s distractions.
Standing still – It is possible to stand still and just die; to do nothing with your life. If the player chooses to do nothing the aging process happens slower.
What Osmos represents through its gameplay is that you only get what you give. In order to absorb the bigger circles, you must sacrifice part of your own size for acceleration.
It’s much harder to infer what Everyday Shooter is all about. Each level does have a narrative, but it’s much harder to make a story out of the abstract shapes on screen. In any case, I found Everyday Shooter to be enthralling, one of my personal favourite games. It’s just so damned engrossing. Still trying to figure out why, must be the interactive art and musical ensemble.
Beneath a Steel Sky
Dave Gibbons, a post-apocalyptic, pulp action set up, criticism of consumerism and hierarchy, and clever writing all indicate the Beneath a Steel Sky is cut from the same cloth as many good British comics.
And Yet It Moves
Another clever indie puzzle-platformer which stands above the gimmicks. The level design is of a professional caliber and the unique presentation really sells this excellent game.
Castlevania: 2 Pak
Two pretty good Castlevania games on one cart. Harmony of Dissonance is primarily dissonance with such open-ended level design and so little to tip the player in the right direction. Aria of Sorrow, on the other hand is void of this issue thanks to a strong central hub design. And then there’s the soul system which just keeps on giving.
January 16th, 2011
There I was really digging Fallout’s professional storytelling and engrossing atmosphere when the grinyness of the whole experience dawned on me. Now forget for a minute the collocation of “grind” to JRPGs, because Fallout is nothing of the sort. Rather than being based on mindless repetition, there are three other elements which significantly chaffed up my Fallout experience.
Managing large amounts of inventory in Fallout is just a complete and utter mess in micro-management due to the forced reliance on the clunky interface by the inventory-limiting strength stat. Let’s start with the equipment screen.
This screen is used for checking stats and equipment items for use. There’s an obvious issue here in that only 6 items are displayed on-screen at the one time and that access to other items requires repeated clicking on the two arrow buttons. This interface quirk is exacerbated by the fact that every new item gained or de-equipped automatically goes to the bottom of the list. The items that you use most frequently are the same items that are constantly equipped and then re-equipped (for instance, switching out guns to accommodate enemy types), so over time the least used items become the most readily available ones and accessing useful items becomes a chore and creates dead space in the gameplay.
This screen is the looting and stealing screen. It is effectively the screen for “free trading”, being stealing, trading with NPC cohorts (which, by design fault, is also stealing) and taking items from interactive window dressing (cupboards, bookcases, tables, etc). The issues here are doubly worse than the prior screen because this time there are two limited displays of inventory, one for either party. Just like with de-equipped items, anything traded automatically goes to the bottom of the heap.
Let’s say that you stumble upon a rare item, but are filled to capacity. The obvious thing to do is to offload excess gear to an NPC to make room in your inventory (space, ie. weight, which is dependent on your strength stat). Keep in mind that the total weight can only be seen the inventory screen (above) and weight of individual items is shown on the same screen after right clicking and selecting observe (this changes the text in the box on the righthand side). Weight is therefore only displayed on this screen. So, you trade away. The rare item that you want is, let’s say, 3kg. You have 1kg of free room in your bag. You trade away one lot of ammo that is 1kg and another that is .75kg, leaving only 2.75kg of space. After making the initial trade with the NPC, you try to pick up the rare item again but you still can’t, your bag is supposedly full (short .25kgs). So, you go back to trade, and trade some more to the NPC, but whatever you try to trade is too large by maybe .30kg. Therefore, you trade the prior items back and start again hoping to match a winning combination. All of your trading is done rather arbitrarily, as it takes exiting a trade and looking through the inventory screen to view the actual weight, and doing this for each item consumes copious amounts of time; that is even if you can hold the items you’re wishing to weigh. Also consider that each time you trade back items, you must scroll to the bottom of the list to find it. Needless to say, trading items when you’re near full capacity is a disaster best avoided.
Maybe the biggest cock-up of them all is the bartering screen. Four sets of scrolling inventory. At least this time there is a value which indicates if the transaction is even possible.
Repair: The simplest form of repair would be to use the white space to the left and right of the interface to display more items. Specifically, the “free trading” screen could display 18 items per character if it used both the outside whitespace and the internal space, granted the avatars for the parties were placed above. And for the bartering screen, there’s an easy fix: don’t waste the above area in the middle of the screen.
Lack of Quick Exit
Watch from 6:28 to end (may wish to mute sound)
In Fallout‘s towns that are spread over several screen transitions (Junktown, The Hub, Necropolis, Brotherhood of Steel and Boneyard), it takes entirely too long to exit one of these areas. On entering each town, players can quick jump to any previously visited area divided by a screen transition via a map, however, no such option can be brought up if they wish to leave. In larger areas like The Hub, this can create 1-2 minutes of pure dead space where the player is simply waiting, unengaged, for their avatar to make it to the other end of the map.
Repair: This problem could be easily sorted with a quick exit option, speeding up the run (not sure how viable this is while still keeping the game realistic), removing large, unneeded chunks of terrain from the maps or adding exits to the main may on every section.
Exploring the Skinner Box
Fallout, as an exploration game, is faced with balancing the realism of the locations and the obligations of exploration. These two elements ought to be considered here. Firstly, each individual player has their own degree of committal to exploration in a given game. Some players choose to leave no rock unturned, other players aren’t honestly all that fussed about leaving areas unchecked. Secondly, in order for many of the environments to be contextually appropriate, they need a fair degree of furnishings. Take, for example, the Brotherhood of Steel stronghold. For this area to be a stronghold, it needs its fair share of rooms, lockers, beds, toilets and so forth. If the stronghold didn’t have enough of these things, then it could hardly be a believable stronghold, now could it? Since the furnishings can all be checked for hidden loot and may contain rare, secret goodies, obsessive explorers are unwittingly baited into mindlessly scanning every part of the environment and so ensues a grind. Now, let’s remember that this is a ramification of using interactive assets as window dressing for environments.
And thus we enter discussion on the whole skinner box debate, which is really a debate about the size and frequency of rewards in game and how it affects play behaviour. Fallout falls on the high frequency, small reward end of the scale, while, my go-to comparison game, Super Metroid, falls closer to the opposite end of the spectrum. In Fallout, players that explore often are rewarded frequently, but only in pint-sized doses. Occasionally, players will stumble on an incredible reward, in turn rationalising the need for these players to explore everywhere. This design obviously fuels an obsessive compulsive approach to play. Fortunately, there aren’t terribly many incredible bounties strewn around the place, so the skinner box effect that I just outlined isn’t all that potent, albeit still present. In Super Metroid the rewards are fewer, but more significant and require more sophisticated play behaviour to obtain (keen observation and problem solving skills).
There’s a separate argument to be had over whether interactive elements of a game which don’t yield any significant contribution to the gameplay ought to be included in the game at all. After all, if they don’t create counterpoint or interplay with the core mechanics then is there really any need for them? Yet if they weren’t there, then would there be all that much credibility to the environment? A solution depends on where you stand on this argument.
Repair: Possible ideas for repair include making all window dressing non-interactive, removing all rewards strewn throughout the window dressing in set areas to indicate that an area is free of rewards (a clear distinction between these areas must be made, otherwise players will be confused and ultimately explore less) or just reducing the size of the areas and therefore reward granting elements.
Each of these solutions has its own issues. Removing all interactivity from window dressing would make the environment feel lifeless. Having fixed areas where exploring the environment yields rewards and other times doesn’t would diminish the player’s trust in the game world and encourage them to abstain from exploring. Reducing the size of each environment would make the game, by appearances, seem less epic.
Fallout’s poorly designed interface for inventory management, the amount of needless walking and compulsiveness to grind for loot all dwell on the overall experience as types of grind. For now, this concludes my writing on Fallout, the Wasteland Ventures continue though as I make my way through Fallout 2. Included in my readings below is discussion on interface grind and pleasantries which may also be of interest.
January 13th, 2011
Same rules: “for every game I’ve played this year I pitch a short, snappy summary that tries to be informative and interesting at the same time”. Still have another article to get through yet, so stay tuned.
God of War II
More of the same with some immaterial additions, so just more of the same then. God of War II dilutes Kratos character into the one-dimensional ball of rage he’s been ever since this sequel. At least it nails the core assets to any good blockbuster: good pacing and a grand sense of scale.
Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories/Vice City Stories
What appears to be a sideways look at GTA III and Vice City is nothing but a slew of uninspired missions and lack of concessions made to fix the atrociously dated primary combat systems that such missions are often based around. The results? A set of games that fall apart whenever combat is mandatory. At least the combat isn’t half as offensive as the narrative.
Mario Kart: Super Circuit
I just couldn’t “get” the power sliding no matter how hard I tried. As a Mario Kart enthusiast, that’s certainly disheartening and speaks much to my experience with Super Circuit. As a safe bet hybrid of Mario Kart 64 and Super Mario Kart, Super Circuit adeptly blends the mechanics of both games.
Wario Land 4
The tightest, strangest and arguably best Wario Land game. The folded levels are the next evolution in the series following trademark inability to die and body slamming moves the series has been known for.
There’s a smooth feel of aiming and movement in id first person shooters that makes their games so timeless. Playing Quake II now is a joy, as is Wolfenstien 3D and as is Doom because the movement has a layer of lubrication that never chalks up the playability. Gotta be careful with the wordplay there DP, but I’m sure you get my point all the same.
Every screen presents a new and interesting idea within the level design that maximise the application of the simple gravity flip mechanic. VVVVV is constantly creative in this way and one of the best games of the year for it. Also, the soundtrack is downright amazing.
An inherent issue of not being able to see, and therefore plan ahead for, gems just above the upper margins of the board, constricts advanced play, creating a randomness that is the gems outside the player’s view. Puzzle Quest is addictive for what it is, but is an unavoidably shallow experience.
Chibi Robo: Park Patrol
I was thinking the other day, how can a game that’s so destructive to someone’s life still earn itself a 78% on Metacritic? Chibi Robo: Park Patrol tasks the player with the same routine as a factory worker, with variation (smoglings, building new areas, making friends) only impeding the process of repetition.
I’m really curious about what it would take to make the capitalism metaphor in Diner Dash more apparent to players. There’s a base here for a form of complicated expression, but it’s just not persuasive enough at this stage. I have this topic thumbed down.
There’s a lot of small things Doom Resurrection could do to be more dynamic (see: Dead Space Extraction), but it simply follows the status quo of on-rails games which is a bad decision given the inherent limitations of the genre. One could argue that Doom Resurrection suffers from too much automation in gameplay due to its ambitious graphics on a limited platform, but really it’s just a lack of ingenuity.
Space Invaders: Infinity Gene
Space Invaders: Infinity Gene references its long absence on the shoot ’em up scene with a homage to decades worth of design advancements in the genre. The project is an indirect acknowledgement of Space Invaders port-heavy, innovation-lite former years, so I’m curious about how the developers pitched this proposition to their superiors and what they make of this interpretation.