My trip through the wasteland is over. This has been attempt #4 to get into Fallout 3 after getting it from a steam sale a few weeks ago. Each time I played for about an hour and each time I quit the game annoyed. It wouldn’t be very analytical of me to say that “this game sucks” and be done with it. After sitting down and thinking about it I realized where my trouble is.
Before I begin I want to say that I respect Bethesda and their titles. I bet it is not easy to develop games at that scale; however after playing Oblivion and FallOut 3 I’ve come to the conclusion that their game design style is my antithesis.
When it comes down to it I’ve always been about quality over quantity in just about every factor of my life and that of course goes for games as well. I’d rather play 8 hours of amazing game play against 20 hours of mediocrity. The major selling point in Bethesda’s titles is a huge open world to explore allowing the player to control the pacing of the game. They love allowing the player to put together a character and basically send them off into the world. My chief problem however has to do with that wide open attitude.
To be frank there just isn’t anything meaningful to do out there. Being able to define a character to your specifications is great, but there isn’t much you’re going to be doing with that person. When I’m trying to get information out of people or picking a door my overall skill at the game is meaningless in the matter. Looking at the game play there are basically two systems at work, the stats that define the character and the player’s input. Stats are the biggest factor in the game and affect everything from getting a better deal when selling to having your bullet hit its mark. Player input mainly is for movement, selecting dialog options and firing your weapon but none of that was really satisfying for me. My character feels very wooden when I control him and with so much about the combat determined by stats which keeps things from being interesting.
This lack of player interaction also hurts the world in my opinion. Besides a main quest the player has the entire world to explore with landmarks to be found which could either mean dungeons or new towns with quests. However I’m just not motivated to run across the map looking for goodies when there isn’t much to do. The prospect of finding a dungeon or some hidden piece of real estate is tempered by the lack of anything good to be found or to test the player’s skill. I completed two different dungeons in Fallout 3 and other then health and ammo I found nothing that made it worth my time. No rare pieces of equipment, or clues to other quests in fact I wasn’t sure that I was finished the dungeon but then I realized that everyone else was dead.
As I explored several cities I found that the biggest affect I can have on the land is deciding who live and who dies. Going around completing quests there doesn’t seem to be much of an impact in the world (other than the big megaton quest). This coupled with a lack of game play are the two nails in the coffin for me. I was thinking that open ended games were not my thing but then I remember two that I loved.
Sid Meier’s Pirates! (yes the exclamation point is important) was a remake of the original Pirates which was created by Meier as well. In Pirates! you have the entire ocean open to you and can choose where to go. The game play is split between controlling your ship, buying and conversing in town and mini games for the rest. Ship battles, duals, dancing, treasure hunting and city raids are each broken up by its own mini game. What I enjoyed about Pirates! was that even though each interaction was a mini game they were still engaging enough in my opinion to keep the player going. Player skill was the determining factor to succeed; however there were items the player could buy to give them an advantage such as flintlock pistols or a fluffy shirt.
The story in Pirates! leaves the player to do what they wish while a scoring mechanic is used to drive the player to certain goals. Each event in the game from dating a governor’s daughter to finding a family member adds a notch on your belt and an increase in score. When the player retires (IE ends the game) all the accomplishments you’ve earned is tallied up and you are given a score based on it. The player is allowed to do what they want but the idea of getting a better score is always there to focus the player. My main complaint with Pirates! was that I wish my actions had a greater affect on the world but the game was still good enough to play through several times.
My other example comes from one of my all time favorite titles: Star Control 2. Which if you haven’t played it I order you to look up ” Star Control 2:Ur Quan Masters” to find a freeware version of the game. SC2 much like Fallout and Pirates! had a main plot that allowed the player to do what they want within the game space. The player had to free Earth from enslavement by an alien race by getting the resources needed to upgrade their fleet. Similar to Pirates! (and in a sense X-Com) the game play in SC 2 is split between three different modes. First is a general ship control and management where the player chooses what systems to explore and how to upgrade their flagship. Next is going down to a planet in a Lander to gather minerals and animals to gain the needed resources for upgrades.
Lastly there was ship combat; every species in the game had its own ship design from the cloaking Ilwraths to homing missiles from the human ships. As you explore the universe you’ll be able to recruit ships to your fleet to supplement your flagship. SC2 also featured a time limit like the original Fallout where after enough time has passed one of the alien races will start a genocidal march across the universe limiting where you can go and eventually destroying the Earth and ending the game. My only 2 legitimate complaints about SC2 are a lack of a randomize Universe feature and a high learning curve (prepare to restart a few times to get it right).
Looking at SC2, Pirates! and FO3, all three of them share similar elements of open world design, however SC2 and Pirates! have one important distinction that separates them from FO3. They each rely more on player input and skill to drive the narrative compared to FO3 where stats rule. There is a guiding purpose to go out and explore in SC 2 and Pirates! that I find lacking in FO3. Now to be fair though, FO3’s game space is larger than SC2 and Pirates! but this goes back to my original point on quality vs quantity.
To put it another way, imagine a game that has incredibly refined and tight game play something you would see from a AAA developer like Blizzard or Nintendo as a five star restaurant. When you eat at one you’re going for their specialty, you wouldn’t go to an Italian restaurant for Chinese food. Now take a game like Oblivion or Fallout 3 where the game play is all over the place, instead of having a few refined game systems you just have system overload. To me this is like eating at an all you can eat buffet, sure there is a lot there but don’t expect the quality of food you would see at a five star restaurant.
If you are going to give the world to the player you have to make sure that the player is going to have something to do. My final example that is the most modern would be S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Shadows of Chernobyl. The game had a huge game space to wander around but unlike FO3 there was a point to this in the form of rare artifacts or guns. Also the combat was good enough to carry the game and required both player skill and decent gear to survive.
In my opinion to create an excellent open world or macro experience, you have to start in the details, look at each element of the game and try to make it the best that you can. If you are going to have a character who can run, shoot, sneak and be witty, either create an involving system for each, or one system that can handle everything the best way it can. Now then if you’ll excuse me I feel the urge to play Portal again or maybe Braid.
Of the new series introduced during the Ps2 era, God of War stood out on top for its combat, story and graphics at the time. With Gow 3 the storyline is wrapping up for everyone’s favorite sociopath, Kratos. However having followed Kratos through his journey, I can say that I’m sick and tired of God of War both from the story and the game play.
For those that did not play any of the Gow series I want to give a brief explanation into its combat. Kratos’ main weapon is swords with chains attached to them that are wrapped around his arms. His attacks are most often wide to hit multiple enemies or have an area effecting explosion to attack a localized area. Kratos can also grab enemies and either use them against other enemies as a battering a ram or finish them off, however stronger enemies need to be whittled down first. The last pieces of equipment in Kratos’ arsenal are magic attacks and items, both have a limit to how much you can use at once while magic needs to be recharged with orbs, items recharge quickly. Magic is akin to a panic button and allows Kratos to clear rooms easily. The problem that I have with Gow 3 and with the series in general is that Kratos’ ability is detrimental to combat based on the threats he faces.
As I mentioned in the last paragraph Kratos’ attacks are designed to hit multiple enemies, however there are set number of enemies for fighting to be optimum. If Kratos is fighting one or two enemies, his attack are so wide and slow that it can be hard to hit something specifically. Also being slow leaves him very open to counter attacks or being hit before the bulk of his combo connects with the enemy. This is painfully made area when fighting bigger enemies who shrug off basic hits or can block his attacks.
Then we have huge fights, with enemy groups at least six and more at a time. While Kratos’ attacks are wide enough to deal with enemies in front of him, it doesn’t help when there are enough to surround him. A lot of his combo chains ends with a powerful area effecting attack which can usually hit everyone within close proximity. However to reach that point you need to let the rest of the combo play out and Kratos can be knocked out of his combo by any attack, which leads to the weird solution of starting a combo when there is no one nearby and letting it finish as they run at you.
There is a very minimum window of how many enemies nearby that Kratos is effective at fighting. Unfortunately this window does not occur often as you’ll mostly face large groups of weak enemies or one or two strong enemies. Fighting strong enemies especially bosses is a pain, as basic attacks won’t stun them and they can easily hit you while Kratos is in mid combo. What’s worse is how little defensive options Kratos has.
The game touts that there are three ways to defend, a generic block, counter attacks and finally an evasive roll but it isn’t that simple. Defending works ok at the start but when you start running into heavier enemies who have unblock able attacks you lose your basic form of defense. The counter attack system is based on hitting the block button on contact however it’s hard to suggest to the player to use that when the enemy can break your blocks. Finally the evasive roll not only feels less responsive this time around but doesn’t go as far as I remembered. In past Gows one roll was usually enough to get clear of an attack, in Gow3 I’m doing two or three rolls to avoid a boss’s attack and sometimes that isn’t enough.
Moving down my list of complaints is Krato’s arsenal. Like in previous Gow titles Kratos will unlock new equipment as the game progresses but other than the items everything still feels the same. In fact three of the four weapons Kratos has are blades attached to chains with the last one being the supposed “heavy weapon”. Still every weapon controls the same way, with wide unfocused attacks and a big area affecting one. The only stand out between each weapon is the magic attack which you’ll be saving for an emergency. This drags Gow3’s combat further into derivative territory.
Going back to last gen, Devil May Cry 3 and Ninja Gaiden Black nailed it with weapon diversity. Each weapon had a different feel to it and this also made the weapon switching ability in DMC 3 all the more useful. Going from the strong but slow gauntlets to the shock guitar provided unique combos. In NGB wielding the bow staff vs the heavy sword required different strategies to be useful.
The more I play Gow 3 the more I see where the main problem with the combat stems from. Because Kratos is only effective against small groups of enemies and not in one on one fights it limits his ability to fight. In an action title the player should be able to manage one on one fight and have all the tools needed to help them. Looking at other action titles such as Batman, Bayonetta, and of course Devil May Cry 3, each one of these titles has the main character being very effective in one on one fight. They either gained the ability to fight groups of enemies with better gear or abilities, or advanced moves at the start allowed them to fight multiple enemies.
Gow 3 however has none of this; Kratos starts out with his limited attack range and never grows from there. Not at one point does Kratos’ move set evolve allowing him to take down different enemies. Even Kratos’ gauntlets while the closest you have to a focused attack still is swung wide making it hard to keep attacking a single enemy. For someone who was the God of War and a mighty warrior, Kratos really isn’t all that useful in a fight and his greatest nemesis is someone who knows how to block.
My last complaint I swear is about the story, it feels at this point that the writers aren’t even trying to humanize Kratos. Instead of being a man on a mission in Gow3 Kratos just feels like a spoiled brat with a tantrum. There’s one bit of story that is so absurd that I want to go into detail about how bad it was but I want to keep this as spoil free as possible. So I’m just going to say two words to tell you what scene I’m talking about:
Minor spoiler warning
At this point I’m no longer playing Gow3 for excellent game play but to see how insane the story is going to get.
To be fair I don’t think Gow3 is horrible in the sense that the designers couldn’t keep the magic from the first two, instead I think it’s because I’ve seen better action titles. When I put the Gow series next to other action titles the faults become more apparent. In the past I actually finished both Gow and Gow 2 on the hardest difficulty setting, with 3 after I’m finished I’m just going to shelve it. I think next I’m going to go back to finishing Darksiders and if it goes on sale I might pick up Dante’s Inferno to see where it took Gow’s style.
Lastly just because I don’t want to be completely damning to Gow 3 I do have to compliment the graphics, the game looks amazing even on my SD TV.
Now that I have the Gow series under my belt I feel that the first one was still the best in the series hitting all the right points. The boss fights were few but epic and it felt that it had the most coherent story of the three. A lot of the events of the 2nd and third game could have been easily avoided if anyone stopped and talk things out, but then again “God of rational discussion” doesn’t sound as good on the box.
I’ve realized that while I could never narrow down all the games I’ve played into a favorite’s list I could at least do it for some of my favorite game companies. Before I get started while this is a list of my favorites please don’t assume that I am a fan boy for any of them. Thanks to being a multi platform gamer I can switch games at just about any time. Also even though this list is pretty short that doesn’t mean that I hate everyone else. These companies are those that I follow their developments and always keep an eye on what is coming next from them. Without further ado here are my picks (note: this list is made up of companies that are still around, RIP Working Designs):
Nintendo: Considering the first video game I’ve ever played was Super Mario Bros it should come as no surprise that Nintendo is on my list. Growing up I think I’ve played every system Nintendo has made and yes that includes the Virtual Boy. You can argue that Nintendo games these days come few and far between and that they are not going completely out there with new game designs, but their first party titles are still amazing. At this time I’m still working my way towards 100% in Super Mario Galaxy 2.
Looking forward to: Insert N3DS and E3 announcements here
Telltale Games: The adventure genre for the longest time has been a genre that I avoided. I could not get into the old school design and considered myself adventure game challenged. I then found my way over to Telltale after they started working on Sam and Max and since then they have managed to get me back into the adventure genre. I recently finished Tales of Monkey Island which I loved and can’t wait to see how season 3 of Sam and Max play out. I also have to give a shout out to their customer support, which whenever I had to contact them were excellent.
Looking forward to: Puzzle Agent, Back to the Future, the rest of Sam and Max.
Atlus: Atlus has for the longest time catered to a niche audience with titles like the Shin Megami Tensei series and recently Shiren the Wanderer. Fortunately for me I belong to that niche of gamers who like challenging RPGs and basically snap up any game bearing the Atlus logo. Besides developing unique titles they have also taken up the mantle of Working Designs to publish those unique Japanese titles over here that most often would not get picked up. This is how they scored a home run in the US with Demon’s Souls and how we got to experience Disegea before Nippon Ichi started publishing titles in the US. If there is one thing I learned from Atlus is to never wait for their games to go on sale, or you may not find them.
Looking forward to: Whatever game that bears the SMT prefix, Etrian Odyssey 3.
Grasshopper Studios: Speaking about niche titles, Grasshopper Studios along with their president the man known as Suda 51 has this department covered. Killer 7 and No More Heroes were different, disturbing and all around crazy. I dare you to completely explain the plot behind Killer 7, I’ve finished the game 5 times and still only have a vague clue as to what is going on. At the time of this entry his studio released Fatal Frame 4 in Japan which sadly doesn’t look like it’s going to be brought over here anytime soon, but I can dream (or import it).
Looking forward to: Continuation of No More Heroes, Fatal Frame 4( if it gets ported).
Valve: Valve has managed to achieve a feat that not a lot of developers are known for. They have reached a status not only as a powerhouse developer but also as a publisher with Steam. Their ability to not only create amazing titles like Half Life, Team fortress and Left 4 Dead but also develop them into full blown brands is amazing. When it comes to getting the word out with their blogs and videos they are second to none in this regard.
I basically bought Team Fortress 2 solely on how well done their videos were . Valve along with Nintendo and Blizzard are the few companies that I would love to be a fly on the wall during their design meetings to see how they come up with their game design. Granted they do take a long time to create their titles,(something tells me I won’t be alive to see Half Life 4) but you can’t say that the quality is not there.
Looking forward to: Portal 2, more DLC for Left 4 Dead 1 and 2 and whatever their E3 announcement is.
Stardock: Another developer that has also taken on the role as publisher. Headed by Brad Wardell, Stardock is known for releasing utility software , games and now publishing games along with their digital platform: Impulse. Galactic Civilizations 2 was an excellent 4X turned based strategy game which became even more epic after the expansion packs were added. Stardock is also known for listening to their fans and having extensive beta periods allowing them to fine tune their games and get feedback.
Looking forward to: Elemental
Cryptic Comet: Chances are most of you have probably not heard of my last choice. While it is the youngest of the companies on this list does not mean anything towards the quality. Run by Vic Davis, his first two titles Armageddon Empires and Solium Infernium are expertly crafted turned based strategy titles. In a time where many game companies are simplifying their mechanics both AE and SI go all out with complex play. You can just feel yourself getting smarter from mastering either title. The only real knock I can give against Vic is that neither title has continuous online multiplayer but I can easily let that slide with the quality.
Looking forward to: I believe he’s working on a free expansion to SI and then your guess is as good as mine.
Honorable Mention goes to Treasure, while I love their games they rarely release information making it very hard to find out what they are working on.
Looking forward to: New Sin and Punishment for the Wii.
A few months ago I talked about the concept of difficulty levels and the right and wrong ways in my opinion of how difficulty levels should be used. For this entry I’m going to talk about the concept of adaptive difficulty and the subtle and not so subtle ways I’ve seen it used in video games.
The simplest explanation is a system that adjusts the game’s challenge level based on player response. The benefits to this is that it smoothes the difficulty curve of the game, the better the player is the more the game will try to match them and the worse the player is the more the game will hold back. This is a more optimal situation compared to games that lock the difficulty level from the start especially when the only thing the level adjusts are the stats of the enemies. Left 4 Dead besides having 4 difficulty levels also has the director which attempts to match the player’s skill level with more or less infected hordes and items. Looking at this type of system I can break it down further and I have some examples of each sub division.
Raising the bar: for this classification, these are titles that use different challenges or game systems to affect the difficulty. Platformer titles like Super Mario Galaxy, Banjo Kazooie,etc are great examples of this. Basically to beat the game you have to do X tasks or gather X collectibles to reach the final stage and beat the game. However there are more things to do then require to beat the game and the player can effectively choose what challenges to attempt and come back to harder ones later. In the latest Banjo Kazooie title every challenge in the game is separated into three tiers of difficulty: bronze, silver and gold. The higher the tier the better the player has to do in the challenge. To complete a challenge on gold requires greater skill then on bronze but it is not required to get gold on every challenge to win.
In Super Mario Galaxy the majority of the challenges were on the easy to moderate side, but later on in the game you unlock harder challenges like the purple coin quests. These challenges are not required but are there to test players later on. Another element of this is when the difficulty of the game affects the game play.
Going way back in time, the original Theme Park made by Bullfrog allowed the player to choose different difficulty levels. Each level the player goes up starting at easy unlocks a new system for the player to understand. For example on easy the player just has to worry about building rides and organizing the park, on normal the research screen is unlocked requiring the player to put money into research to unlock better equipment and rides. Once again the same theme is there, the player doesn’t have to play the game on hard to win, but the options are there for the player if they want.
Next example comes from Perfect Dark although there are more examples of this. In Perfect Dark there are three difficulty levels that you can play on which are classified as easy, medium, and hard. The difficulty level affects two things, first being how much damage enemies do and second it affects the objectives required. Each mission in Perfect Dark has a main objective and several objectives that have to be done on the way. The harder you play the game the more of these objectives are required. I think this is a great way of challenging the player without just out right stat tweaking the enemies into a cheap experience.
My last example comes fromHinterland for the PC. In Hinterland your mission is to clear a randomized map of monster lairs to settle the land. Before the map is created the player can choose different variables which in turn affect the difficulty. Such as how big the map is ,chance of finding resources and etc. With each choice the bonus given to the player’s score at the end is increased or decreased and this allows the player to tailor their game to how hard or easy they want it.
Tweaking along the way: This grouping is for games that allow the player to alter the difficulty of the game in mid play without having to restart the entire game. In some titles like First Person Shooters altering the difficulty will tone down the enemy damage and accuracy while in other games it can affect the game play itself.
In God Hand for the PS2 the difficulty of the game is measured in terms of levels : 1,2,3 and Die. As you play the game if you are constantly avoiding damage and hurting the enemies a bar will slowly rise and once it fills up you’ll go up one level. Consequently getting pummeled or dying will lower your level, the player can also raise or lower the level by taunting or begging respectively. At higher levels enemies will respond quicker, attack in groups ,do more damage and even spawn more enemies in the level.
The reason why you want to make the game harder is that at the end of a chapter you are rewarded money based on how many enemies you fight and their difficulty settings. Money is used to purchase new moves and essential upgrades which mean that in the long run the game can become easier by raising the difficulty level now.
Before I move on I want to stop for a second and discuss another action game and why it is not an example of adaptive difficulty. Ninja Gaiden Black which is one of my favorites set up each difficulty level to rewrite the game. Different enemies and items will appear as you raise the level up. However while the game changes with each increase or decrease it is not a form of adaptive difficulty like Perfect Dark or God Hand due to one fact in my opinion.
You cannot control the difficulty level after starting the game, in my other examples the player in some way can alter the difficulty of the game in mid play. However in Ninja Gaiden Black once the player has picked a level they are locked into that (with the one exception of playing on very easy mode). I can’t played 10 hours on normal and then decide I want to move it up to hard. My last example comes from one of my favorite titles and I can’t believe I didn’t think of it when I first started typing this up.
The World Ends With You for the Nintendo DS was a Square-Enix anomaly and I could write up an article solely on how unique it was but for now I want to talk about its difficulty settings. In TWEWY the player can alter the difficulty of the game in several ways whenever the player is not in a fight.
1. The difficulty level of the game can be raised or lower at anytime. This determines the stats of the enemies and how aggressive they are. A boss on easy won’t be that tough but a regular enemy on ultimate (very hard) is another story. This also affects what items an enemy can drop, every enemy in the game can have different items they will drop based on what difficulty level you are fighting them on. Of course the best stuff comes at the higher levels.
2. Leveling up in TWEWY mainly determines the max health you have going into a fight. The player can drop what level they will fight at from the menu which will of course leave them with less health. The reason you want to do this is that for each level below your max level you lower it to, the greater the chance enemies will drop items will increase. A great touch is that you can see this per monster from the beastery while affecting this. Bosses have a very low chance of dropping anything and unless you’re very lucky your only way of obtaining the best items is to weaken yourself.
3. Lastly when you are running around in the game you can attempt to control how many enemy battles in a row you will have to fight. Fighting more enemies in a row can be tough if you are low on health but the more you fight at once, the more money and experience you will get at the end.
All this talk about adaptive difficulties looks great so far, but there are several issues that need to mention.
First is that it is hard to make a good adaptive system (duh). The designer needs to be on the ball at making it meaningful to play the game at a higher setting and not just for the masochistic players. There is also the fine tuning of making challenges that can be rated “easy, medium or hard”. For games that have the difficulty affect the game systems, time and resources will need to be spent altering the game at each setting. You’re not just making one level, but instead several variations of the same level. Another major problem is the big opponent to adaptive difficulty systems.
Linearity, while a great way of building a narrative is also a major obstacle in creating adaptive challenges. In games like Left 4 Dead and others that have the game constantly trying to adapt to the player’s style, the problem is that when the AI is dealing with a set # of possible item and enemy placements it means that the challenge is not truly adaptive. The AI can only put so many enemies or have so many spots to leave items that eventually the player will be able to exploit it.
When I play Left 4 Dead with my friends who a lot of us are expert players we know where the item spawns are and where enemies can be. At our level of play we know the absolute extent that the AI can make the game difficult and it is not a challenge for us now.
Another argument is how much should the difficulty be swayed by the player’s actions.
There is a fine line between giving the player a challenge and flat out punishing the player for being good at the game. This was one of the complaints people had with God Hand. It can be very hard to learn a game when as the player is getting good that the game decides to crush them with difficulty. Also if things aren’t affected too much then the system is wasted as well. For example if the only thing the AI will control are item drops then it is a moot point for good players as they wouldn’t need those items in the first place.
When adaptive difficulty is done right it can elevate a great game to an amazing title and allows players of different skill levels to enjoy the same game in different ways. Games that find ways of adapting the difficulty also have the advantage of improving replay ability across the board. It also reduces the need to have to use difficulty levels like “medium easy” or “very very hard” when attempting to balance your game out.