Archive Page 2

18
Feb
11

Let's Improve Gaming! Issue 2

It’s been over 18 months since the last one of these and, despite the ‘issue 1’ of the title, I’d never really planned on doing another. Still it’s a useful feature title for a rambling game design analysis post, providing the usual disclaimer is in place.

The Usual Disclaimer: I’ve neither designed a game nor spent time dissecting game design and, as such, am not claiming any expert knowledge into the secrets of making better games. The ‘Let’s Improve Gaming’ moniker appended to this post is just as facetious a self-mockery as reading the post will make you hope it is. And with that in place, I’m going to talk shit about RPGs for a bit.

There are a series of missions in Dragon Age: Origins that aren’t about killing or collecting or fetching. They’re given by a ‘fence’ in the city of Denerim and they are about stealing.

He's too ginger to be stealthy.

My first thought on uncovering these missions went along the lines of, “Holy fucking fuck yes! Stealth based rogue-specific quest line all up in my RPG!” Then I found out they were just another set of generic quests available to anyone.

  • Mission 1: Pick a lock.
  • Mission 2: Kill some dudes in a warehouse.
  • Mission – ah, who the fuck even cares?

This isn’t a story about inevitably disappointing RPG quest lines; it’s a story about my excitement at the possibility of unusual RPG quest lines. It surprised even me, and I spent some time analysing just why the prospect of a game I was enjoying doing an about-turn in style brought about such an outbreak of hope. I found two possible reasons.

Reason 1: Divergence

One of the biggest problems with playing a massive 40+ hour RPG is that it requires you to play it for 40+ hours. That’s a lot of time to spend in the same world, fighting the same enemies with the same combat system. It’s no wonder that one of Oblivion’s most praised sections is the Dark Brotherhood quests.* They were an attempt to do something different, to deliberately stand out in a game primarily about getting into a bunch of scraps with some monsters. It didn’t even matter that they were a bit clumsy, attempting to do things that the game’s mechanics weren’t designed to accommodate. That they were trying was enough.

*Obviously Oblivion’s most praised section – and rightly so – is the bit with the raining dogs on fire, which similarly perverted the main game into something that was more akin to an adventure puzzle.

In My Official Favourite RPG Of All Time Baldur’s Gate there were a couple of thief-only stealth missions you could complete within the eponymous city. Despite being a pretty small quest line, it remains a large part of what I loved about the game. Not that this is an observation restricted to RPGs. People will happily tout Bioshock’s Fort Frolic or Thief: Deadly Shadow’s Cradle levels as highlights because of the way they twisted the structure and tone of their parent games to offer self-contained experiences.

It would be nice to see game developers taking more risks within the confines of their own games to provide a bit more variety.

Reason 2: Stealth!

After the critical box-office success of early 00s titles like Metal Gear Solid 2 and Splinter Cell, stealth became the game mechanic du jour for headline grabbing back-of-the-box features. It was crudely shoehorned into so many releases that within a few years it became synonymous with unoriginal, mediocre action games. Fuck that noise. Stealth games – good ones, at least – comprise some of my favourite titles. God knows, I didn’t play through all the MGS series for its plot.

When given the choice it’s a play style I’ll gravitate towards. Take the Hitman series. I’m sure it’s still a good game when played in a more traditional ‘run about killing fuckers’ approach but that’s never stopped me from painstakingly completing every level having killed only the man I’d been contracted to snuff out. Give me a dark corner and an excruciating amount of time to sit observing guard patrol patterns and I’m the happiest person with a gamepad, assuming I’m not playing a corridor shooter’s gimmicky stealth level.

The chance for stealthy stabby fun was the reason I was playing a rogue in the first place, despite many Internet warnings that it was Dragon Age’s most difficult class, and in hindsight I should have realised it was never going to break with tradition. Stealth in the game is a binary talent; you’re either fully cloaked or you’re not. There’s no skill or chance for error, if you’ve levelled the ability high enough you can happily wonder around guards nicking what you like.

Stealth as fuck!

That doesn’t mean it couldn’t work. In fact I think an RPG structure – the peculiar mix of adventure, action, tactical planning and inventory/skill management that defines the genre – would be perfect for a stealth game. While dedicating the length of a cup of tea to imagining the form such a game could take, I arrived at an espionage based RPG. Proper espionage too, not the James Bond shoot and fuck-a-thon that game developers tend to gravitate toward when making anything about spies. For example, playing as a spy posing as a low level employee for a security firm and working out the methods for stealing data from a secure room. That way each level would be about gathering information, bribing the right people, cloning access keys, even levelling up RPG-like skills like speech, lying and technical abilities.

But that’s just one example born of a desire to see the RPG break out of its narrowly defined shell. I’m sure there are plenty of others, so I’ll finish by asking: what changes or improvements would you like to see RPGs take?

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21
Jan
11

Mini Crits: Kane & Lynch 2

I wanted to like this. All the previews, videos and even the demo suggested it would be something special. Not that I had any fondness for the first game… Hell, I didn’t even play the first game, but what I saw of a friend’s playthrough suggested sloppy targeting and shitty AI. No, what interested me was the presentation.

(That and if IO are going to deny me another Hitman game I at least want the project they’re working on instead to be good.)

To be fair, Kane & Lynch 2’s presentation is striking. Presented in the style of an Internet video it’s full of digital artifacts, pixelation and diegetic music. It works well, although has an inherent problem:

Kane & Lynch 2’s Inherent Problem #1: Creating a YouTube video upload effect for your game implies the presence of a guy filming it all – something that isn’t in anyway supported by the fiction.

That sounds like a minor nitpick and it’s something I doubt most people would even notice… But that’s most people. It bugged the fuck out of me for much of the game. Why the fuck are they killing people on camera? Why isn’t the cameraman taking cover? Who the fuck went through and pixellated everything? Did they get signed release forms for all the civilians running past? The fuck, game?

Away from my own issues suspending disbelief, the look of the game is pretty interesting. It’s all muted tones contrasted against stark neon, lending a moody atmosphere without treading the waters of an exclusively grey/brown palette. As for the two main characters, they’re probably the ugliest protagonists of all gaming: middle aged, balding losers – unashamed and unrepentant arseholes who’ve failed at every aspect of life. Frankly, they’re a refreshing change from muscled soldiers and JRPG lady-boys. Their appeal lies precisely in their complete lack of appeal.

All of which makes it a great shame that the game is a bit shit.

Kane & Lynch 2’s Inherent Problem #2: It’s pretty fucking boring.

In theory it’s a good idea. While not realistic it does at least shy away from needless explosions, turret sequences and that bit where you have to take down a helicopter with an RPG that you handily picked up the level before. It attempts to be more Michael Mann than Michael Bay. Which is a good idea, in theory.

The problem is K&L2 doesn’t have any ideas to replace the standard action clichés. Even pretty average shooters understand pacing, the idea that something is needed to break up endless rooms full of men waiting to be shot. K&L2 doesn’t. The closest it gets to pacing is adding a corridor between rooms full of men for the characters to run down and shout at each other. The rest of the time it’s just taking cover and shooting.

Sometimes you’re taking cover and shooting while escorting an angry British guy, sometimes you’re taking cover and shooting at people trying to kidnap you girlfriend from another building, sometimes you’re taking cover and shooting while naked and sometimes you’re even taking cover and shooting from a helicopter. The rest of the time you’re simply taking cover and shooting… For 4 hours… And then the game ends.

The taking cover and shooting mechanics are perfectly fine – in fact all the controls work well, with the exception of the sprinting which feels a lot like trying to control a drunk on a unicycle. That’s the weirdest thing about Kane & Lynch 2, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a game so polished be quite so dull.

While so much surrounding the game is actually pretty damn good, the bit that matters – the actual game – just isn’t. One to avoid, unless you really love taking cover and shooting.

42%

A quick note on the multiplayer: I didn’t play the multiplayer.

14
Jan
11

Mini Crits: Singularity

Before I begin reviewing the shit out of Singularity I should take a moment to thank Adam who is fast becoming the official sponsor of this blog. You see, Adam buys literally every console game that has ever been released which is handy when I’m looking to try out an FPS that didn’t receive a whole lot of coverage without actually spending any money. I can then hand over my opinions to you. Everybody wins… Except the Russians.

Singularity basically does a reverse Bioshock. That game attempted to cover it’s uncouth gun toting, spanner-wielding, blood pouring nature with a plot and setting designed to make it look Important. Singularity revels in multiple ways to mutilate your enemies so as to distract you from it’s absolutely terrible plot and setting. Spooky Russian research base? Evil experiments gone wrong!? Time-travel? Just forget about all that and explode limbs off generic soldiers with a gun that lets you control the path of bullets.

It could have been worse. It could have been Nazis.

It’s a game with willfully old-school corridor shooter design, albeit one that borrows liberally from various seminal FPSs of the past decade; full of moody foreboding, bosses with luminescent fleshy sacs marking weak points and crates – so, so many crates. However, it takes an important element of 90s shooters to heart: being unashamedly fun. In addition to your arsenal of quirky weapons the true star of the show is the TMD (Time Manipulation Device – obviously,) which is a sort of cross between HL2’s Gravity Gun and Bioshock’s plasmids. It’s a weapon, an environmental puzzle enabler, a bullet-time trigger and hidden object finder all rolled into one. The TM of the TMD is entirely automated as most things you can use it on only exist in two states; soldiers can be alive or disintegrated, messages can be obscured or legible and crates can be crates or crumpled crates. The TMD merely moves each object between these states… Although it can also turn soldiers into disfigured mutants that attack their former comrades. I’m not sure what time-travel theory is at work there, but you don’t want to try and apply logic to Singularity if you can help it.

The true test of any in-game gimmick is how well it performs when the shit hits the fan. As a horde of mutants rushed me in one particularly brown-trousers moment of Singularity I managed to freeze the majority of them in a time-bubble thing, throw in an explosive barrel and then kill any stragglers before unfreezing the time-bubble, destroying them all in a localised explosion. Not only did it look cool, but it was proof that the game is competent enough at introducing it’s myriad of features in a way that facilitates their use. More chances for experimentation would have been nice, but what is there works well.

I mentioned it also doubles as a puzzle enabler. Here’s Singularity’s one puzzle: You have a crate and a door with a gap too small to crawl under. You must use the device to age the crate so it’s all crumpled down, fit it under the door then reverse it so it’s full size again, lifting the door enough to crawl under. That’s the game’s only puzzle. Still, between that and the quiet periods of exploration that provide enough spooky audio and visual clues to make it obvious that you’re about to face a new enemy there’s enough downtime between fights to get you invested in the atmosphere of the game and prepare you for the next inevitable battle.

If you're thinking, "Wow that's a boring screenshot," know that it's a fucking official promotional shot. What?

And there’s a lot to like about the game’s atmosphere. Numerous visual effects create a unique experience. Not the bits where past events are played out in ghostly hallucination – that’s been done to death – but where a building peels away like dried paint to instantly decay 60 years just looks neat. Also there’s a level set on a ship that falls apart as you progress through it and I’m a complete sucker for levels set on a ships that are falling apart as you progress through them.

Essentially then, Singularity isn’t likely to be a game you remember in X years time as you reflect on the best of the genre but it’s a fun romp through B-grade Russian shenanigans that I highly enjoyed despite my current weariness with FPSs as a whole.

74%

A quick note on the multiplayer: I didn’t play the multiplayer.

27
Dec
10

Hat Trick, Part 4: The Towering Pillar of Dreams

My deft salesmanship had brought me within reach of acquiring the fabled Towering Pillar of Hats. Would I be able to get the legendary headwear?

Yes.

In the end it was easy; I simply posted on the trading forums that I was looking for a non-vintage Towering Pillar and was willing to pay 2 Refined Metal for it. Within 10 minutes I had an offer and the deal was done.

The non-vintage distinction is important. All items – hats and weapons – players had in their backpacks before the Mann-Conomy update became designated as ‘Vintage’. That is the only difference between them and their non-vintage counterparts. They don’t look different in game or have any special advantages – they just have an extra word in their name. Needless to say they are worth significantly more in trading. As such, if you can bear to have a non-vintage item you can usually pick stuff up for much cheaper. I’d settled on my 2 Refined price tag by noticing vintage Towering Pillars were going for 3 Refined and giving myself a discount for not being stupid.

That’s that then – I’m now going to fill out the rest of this post by talking about rare and promotional items and how you could be sitting on unknown fortunes – in TF2 at least.

Promotional Items

Every now and then TF2 gives away items for pre-ordering other games on Steam – Bill’s Hat for pre-ordering Left 4 Dead 2 for example. Due to their rarity these are now worth a ridiculous amount in trading. It’s not unusual to see them going for between 5-8 Refined Metal chunks. The same goes for the earbuds granted for signing on to the game with a Mac during the week of its Mac release. If you’ve got any of these items, you can basically take your pick of what in-game hats you want. With one exception:

Unusual Hats

I mentioned in the second post that crates have a small chance of unlocking AN EXCEEDINGLY RARE SPECIAL ITEM!!!!! This is it. Unusual hats are the regular TF2 in-game hats with an added ‘effect’. This effect can be a spinning TF2 logo, flies buzzing around the wearers head, flames or more. Essentially it’s a closed market – unusual hats tend to trade for other unusual hats and nothing else. If you do find someone trading an unusual for regular hats, the amount people offer is ridiculous. The only pre-order item that has a chance is the Severed Max Head for pre-ordering Sam & Max Series 3. Otherwise Unusuals are pretty much reserved for the hardcore traders (the ones who probably haven’t played the actual game in months) or people happy to spend all their money on crate keys.

Which about wraps up my look at trading in TF2 – as bizarre as it may be when your presented with this new ludicrous, entirely player defined, in-game economy it’s the easiest way to get a specific item. The item-drop system is entirely random and the store costs actual real world money. With a couple of forum posts and a bit of patience, however, you can easily get any weapon or hat that you desire.

Like this one.

Woo!

26
Dec
10

Hat Trick, Part 3: To Arms!

Previously on Hat Trick: “I want a TF2 hat, crates are shit, trading servers are inefficient.”

After what seemed like far too much effort, I’d finally got rid of all my crates for various weapons and, bizarrely, a can of paint. It was time to start amassing metal. Metal is the basic currency of Team Fortress 2 trading and, with enough of it, you can buy almost anything. Metal is obtained by the in-game crafting system, and breaks down as follows:

  • 2 Weapons of the same class can be crafted into 1 Scrap Metal
  • 3 Scrap Metals can be crafted into 1 Reclaimed Metal
  • 3 Reclaimed Metals can be crafted into 1 Refined Metal

In order to trade for a hat I would need a number of refined metals, the equivalent of 18 weapons each. Despite the number of weapons I’d received in crate trades, and some more I’d found through simply playing the game, I didn’t have enough. Luckily, like some Del Boy of Team Fortress 2, I had a plan.

First though I needed to get rid of that paint can.

Items

Paint lets you change the colour of hats. The cans were added as part of the Mann-Conomy update presumably to give people more customisation options that are the bread and butter of all micro-transaction schemes everywhere. Also added were Name Tags – which let you rename a weapon – and Description Tags – which let you re-describe a weapon. None of them have any effect on the game, they’re just bonuses if you can think of something to do with them. The only item that has a real in-game application is the Duelling Minigame, which challenges a player of your choosing on your current server to a duel and tracks the number times each player kills the other throughout that match. I’ve only tried a duel once, when another player challenged me for seemingly no reason, and they’re a pretty fun addition – essentially providing the same focus as when you’re attempting revenge on a player dominating you.

Anyway, predictably there are wild variations in the price of paints – some trading for a substantial amount for no discernible reason. Not my purple however, so I picked what seemed like the basic item rate – 1 Reclaimed Metal – and, eventually, managed to sell it.

Now to get rid of those weapons.

Weapons

As I mentioned, you can use two weapons from the same class to craft a scrap metal. Using basic maths this means that each weapon is worth 0.5 scrap metals. As such I thought I was being really fucking cheeky when I decided to advertise my weapons for trading at the cost of 1 Scrap or – and here’s the ludicrous part – 2 Weapons each. Apparently though, ripping people off like this is absolutely fine because on the first attempt 5 or 6 people got in touch immediately to get hold of my weapons. Here’s a guy giving me two of his weapons for one of mine:

Thanks guy!

I was roughly getting a 50/50 split of scrap metal and weapons which meant that not only was I building towards the refined metals I’d need for my hat but also any weapons I traded away were immediately replaced by people giving me two more – which I would immediately list as available to trade for scrap/weapons. Essentially I was making free money, if money were virtual metal with very little applications in an FPS.

And so, before long, I had used the scrap to craft two shiny pieces of refined metal, without having to craft a single weapon and even ending up with more weapons than I’d started with. It was time to get my hat.

Next time: Getting my hat!

25
Dec
10

City 16's Top 10 Games of 2010: #1

It’s the 25th December! This means two things:

  1. It’s Christmas (Merry Christmas!)
  2. More importantly, it’s time to reveal my pick for the best game released this year!

And this year it was easy. Only one game displayed such nuance to its characters, deftness to its narrative, sheer scope to its world and just plain enjoyable game mechanics. I’m sure you’ve guessed already, but let’s go through the motions anyway. The City 16 Game of 2010 was:

Call of Duty: Black Ops

Ha, not really. I’m just kidding – dear God I’m just kidding. No, the real City 16 Game of 2010 was… (deploy drum-roll)

[audio:drum.mp3]

…was:

Red Dead Redemption

Which is actually something of a problem considering I’ve already written a significant amount about the game. Oh well, we’ll plow on anyway.

Actually, while we’ve got the audio player out for it’s annual drum roll secondment, let’s have a track from the game’s soundtrack to set the mood.

[audio:rdr.mp3]

At the beginning of Red Dead Redemption your character, John Marston, meets Bonnie McFarlane. They spend some time together, flirt for a while and the sudden inevitability of the plot starts to creep in. She’s such a deliberate romantic foil that inevitably – obviously – Marston will find his wife murdered and promptly shack up with the farm girl who saved his life. That’s not what happens. In a later scene Marston’s wife meets her and afterwards she mocks Marston on his inability to notice Bonnie’s interest in him.

Games don’t really do stories with that sort of subtlety.

Another example: The final act of a game is usually about empowerment. Think Half-Life 2 and the Super Gravity Gun or Mass Effect 2 and trying to beat the odds against an apparent suicide mission for the good of the galaxy. Or they try and ramp up the action – In Rockstar’s own GTA series for instance, instead of the previous 20 hours of going to a place and shooting a man or going to a place and blowing up a thing or going to a place and having a chase, in the final missions you usually have to go to a place and have a chase then blow a thing up before finally killing a man… all in the same mission! Imagine!

This isn’t how the end of Red Dead Redemption works. The final act’s a far more personal tale after the violence of the previous missions. You build up your ranch, teach your son and generally live the life Marston’s been promising himself since the beginning of the game. It’s all leading to something, a dark undercurrent of foreboding running through it all – accentuated by an encounter with the ‘Strange Man’ you’ve been meeting throughout the game – but before the game’s conclusion it wants you to know what the stakes are – happiness.

In terms of traditional cutscene based storytelling, it’s probably the most mature example yet seen in a game. But it’s not what makes the game truly memorable, because RDR is all about the world. So much of the game’s story is told through the world in which Marston inhabits. For instance, when you finally reach the city of Blackwater, it’s almost unrecognisable from the the rest of the game. Cobbled streets, brick buildings and even citizens in finery. Plenty of characters speak about the death of the west before hand but Blackwater is an explorable symbol of its demise – civilisation has arrived.

This rich, detailed world combined with Marston, easily Rockstar’s most likable player character to date, means you actually find yourself playing to that character. Throughout the entirety of my time with the game – a staggering 4 days before I’d even completed the story thanks to my penchant for abandoning progress in favour of just exploring – I’d killed about 2 civilians, both of which were cases of mistaken identity. Everything about the style of the game seems to dissuade from random outbursts of violence, a far cry from so many open-world games (unintentional pun).

In all then what Redemption really reminds me of isn’t the GTA series that is always the touchstone comparison for any open world game, Rockstar or not, but Bully – another game with a strong sense of place, an interesting story and brilliant characterisation. But where Bully limited player agency with its structure and the tools available, RDR gives massive scope. It’s entirely possible to go off script on a murderous rampage from America to Mexico and I’m sure many have – for me though that would betray the achievement that RDR represents. It’s by far the best Western to appear in gaming, no other game that shares the setting comes close to portraying the mix between wild opportunism and fledgling civility mixed with a world as dangerous and unforgiving as it’s inhabitants.

In summary then – Lasso: best gaming tool since the grappling hook.

24
Dec
10

City 16's Top 10 Games of 2010: #2

It’s Christmas Eve, which means one thing for this blog: time for the runner up!

It also means that I’ve totally run out of things to say in this intro. Actually you may have noticed that I did that days ago and have just been writing any old shit before announcing that day’s game. Instead of doing that today I’ll just say this –

My second favourite game of the year is:

Mass Effect 2

Holy shit this game has an exciting start. A lot of people like to praise the Half-Life style of introduction; a long tram ride allowing the player to exist in the world and understand the character before shit goes down. Mass Effect 2’s take on gently easing players into its story is to say “fuck ’em, they had the whole first game to figure out the world and character, shit goes down now!” Still, it works. As the Normandy explodes around you and Shepard barks orders at crew members it’s hard not to smile and think, “Shepard’s back… My Shepard’s back.” And then she dies.

Fuck!

[On Shepard: I’m actually quite glad that all the marketing and promotional videos that come from Bioware to advertise the Mass Effect series feature the male Shepard. That typical macho-marine looking douche bag bears so little resemblance to his female counterpart that they may as well be showing a completely different character. What’s far worse is to see another player’s female Shepard. It’s jarring; they use the same voice and tend to look ever so slightly similar to mine but, importantly, they’re not mine – the true Shepard. Because despite being voiced by the same person, my Shepard feels entirely my creation. She’s quite probably the best character in videogames.]

Of course after the start the plot falls back to the familiar routine of finding a new team and proving yourself to them. Cleverly this time round the purpose of the game is to prepare for a ‘suicide mission’ the details of which you’re pretty hazy on. It means that unlike the first game, which always stressed the urgency of the main plot but allowed you to explore side-missions anyway, Mass Effect 2 is all about the side-missions – finding a team, gathering materials for the mission, helping the team work through their problems so they’ll be more focused and loyal.

The team you can accrue is far bigger than in the first game as well. Luckily this means you can pretty much avoid the duff ones – Miranda and Jacob replacing Ashley and Kaiden for the title of Most Boring People in The Universe and the entirely pointless Samara being entirely pointless. The rest of the team are a joy to be around; from Mordin, the hyperactive scientist both proud of and tormented by his role in the genophage, to Thane, who manages to be a brooding assassin without falling completely into the cliché brooding assassin archetype. Even Jack, the star of one of the most obnoxiously bad trailers I’ve ever seen, actually has some nuance and depth to her character.

Of course having a new team means that the old team have been left to do their own thing out in the Universe. Only two of them rejoin your team, Garrus and Tali. These were probably the best choices, not only because they were two of the best characters from the first game but because they allow the sequel to do interesting things with the relationship between them and Shepard. Tali’s addition means players finally get to experience a quarian ship in a fantastic courtroom scene. Garrus is the really interesting returning character though, his time in the interim between games having been spent following Shepard’s lead; gathering together a team and taking down criminals using not altogether legal methods. It’s all about the results y’see.

The rest of the old team stay doing their own thing. This is one aspect of the game that isn’t handled particularly well, with most of them not only not showing surprise at seeing their old Commander alive after years but also having pretty crappy excuses for not rejoining. Wrex is the only character that both seems happy to see you and has a genuinely good reason for not rejoining, which is lucky because he was the only other character I’d have wanted back. While I’m ripping into the writing I should bring up the whole Illusive Man/Cerberus thing. A lot of the framework for the story comes across as wanting to get to a specific place for the third game but not really having the a good idea about how to transition there through the second. As a result some parts of the set-up just don’t make any real sense.

Still, so much of the game is more enjoyable than its predecessor. I’ve not even touched on the shooting, inventory and alignment mechanics, but they’ve all had something of a makeover and work a whole lot better. Really though, the reason I’ve spent so much of this post talking about the characters is because they’re what make Mass Effect 2 special. It’s one of the few games where I’ve actually played the character and not the game. Usually I’m content to make choices that will lead to in-game advantages for me – like playing the good route to get shop discounts and benefits from characters. In Mass Effect 2 Shepard has a personality which she acts according to, rather than working toward some possibly beneficial future outcome for me. In the final decision in the game I picked the renegade option, after long minutes of deliberation. It was obviously a bad idea and is probably going to backfire somehow in Mass Effect 3, but it was also the choice my Shepard would have made. Nothing speaks to the quality of an in-game character more than that.