For those that read my played games list then you know that I’ve been playing Starcraft 2. I’ve been attempting to learn the Zerg side but have spent time with all 3 and having watched more replays and video casts on SC2 then I care to admit, it’s time to test my analytical skills and breakdown each side. The main reason why I’m posting this here and not over at the SC2 forums is simple, the elitism over there is strong and most people will look at my silver rating and scoff at anything I have to say. For this analysis I’m not going to be talking about nerfing any of the sides but instead talk about improvement.

Terran: Terrans right now are considered by a lot of the fan base to be the most overpowered of the three currently. Watching replays and playing as them it is easy to see why with how many of the pro players are moving to Terran and the majority of the wins. However even as I come from a Zerg background I’m going to argue that the Terrans are not overpowered but in terms of development, feel like the most completed race.

In my opinion it is due to no small part that the first campaign was developed for the Terran side. I’m not going to breakdown the campaign for this entry but there is one detail I want to mention. In the campaign the Terran side has access to a lot more units than they do in multi-player. To Blizzard’s credit they made the right choice to “thin the herd” for two important reasons. First is that Terran would truly be overpowered if it had access to all those toys, such as powerhouse melee units, even more defenses and more. Second is that it would make the Terran side bloated, units like the firebat and medics have their roles fulfilled by new Terran units and having so many options available would cause a lot of the units to be simply unused.

Let’s talk about strengths, when it comes to being versatile Terran easily outmatch the other two. Each unit in the Terran army has a secondary purpose or feature allowing them to be viable in most situations. Vikings are long range anti air units who can also land to back up the ground army and Thors are powerful units against air and can destroy most non armored units quickly. The ability to swap add ons between their unit producing buildings allow them to change their game plan easily, going from producing cheap units quickly to higher tech units.

Moving upward with tech with the Terran is the most vertical of the three. What I mean is that by building one structure it opens up the opportunity to build something else that is viable. For example if I build a barracks it means that I can now build an engineering bay or a factory, then if I build a factory I can then build a starport or armory. In essence the buildings that I produce as the Terran will naturally give me the tools and units I want without going down any dead ends. The only two exceptions to this rule are fusion cores and ghost academies that allow you to build Battlecrusiers and Ghost respectively

What has been dubbed the MMM ball or Marines Marauders and Medivacs is arguably the most versatile troop composition in the game, with the ability to attack all potential enemies and the ability to heal or power up with stimpaks. When it comes down to it, the Terran side has the biggest play book of the three and it is up to the other two sides to keep up. This is why TvT matches are the most interesting of the mirror matches as both players can have completely different yet viable strategies to use.

Trying to find a weakness with the Terran is hard and where the outcries of overpowered come from. The only one I could really think of is if you catch the Terran with their pants down, either completely countering their forces or attacking them while they’re in motion leaves you with a window of opportunity to go in and possibly win. As I mentioned at the start this entry is not going to be about nerfing at all as in most cases it is better to fix what is lacking instead of breaking what is working.

At this point I would call the Terran side “done”, they don’t need any new features nor do they need to lose anything.

Protoss: Moving on we have the Protoss, which currently sit in the middle of the three. From the original SC and now in SC2, the Protoss are the quality race. In 1on1 encounters the Protoss units are arguably of a higher quality than their other race counterparts. One reason is due to the higher damage and second is the shields that produce another layer of health for them.

Two new features to the race have mixed things up considerably for the Protoss. First is chronoboost, which can be used on any building to decrease the amount of time for whatever that building is doing, either producing units or researching an upgrade. Second is the ability to transform Gateways (the default unit producing structure) into warpgates allowing the Protoss to warp in the majority of their forces to anywhere on the map that they have Prism energy. These two additions allow the Protoss to quickly get a sizable army on the field fast and can wipe out armies with shear muscle.

The Protoss have a wide variety of units at their disposal, such as Dark Templars who can just destroy someone who doesn’t have detectors and Void Rays which can ruin the opponent if they are caught without adequate defenses. In many cases just having one or two different units in your army can be enough to break through with just raw power but a Protoss player that has a diverse army can be terrifying for their opponent. Having an army of Void Rays attacking your base while colossi and stalkers cloaked by a mother ship are coming up your front door is not a happy time.

In terms of weaknesses the Protoss are obviously the most expensive race in the game. Losing your entire army can be a death sentence due to the cost of rebuilding. Also the Protoss race doesn’t tech up as smoothly as the Terran, meaning that it is harder to switch to a different troop composition in mid game compared to the other two when you compare cost and time. If you see the buildings the Protoss has in their base, you’ll have a pretty good idea of what to expect, however being able to challenge the army is another story. Completely hard countering the Protoss army will leave them very vulnerable as it will take time for them to get the necessary counter units up.

It’s hard to suggest changes for the Protoss without hurting their concept as the quality race. I would lower the production time on their horizontal tech buildings (templar archives, dark shrine, etc) slightly to allow the Protoss to make that necessary tech switch a bit easier but still keep the cost.

The problem with suggesting units and restructuring with the Protoss is that by making them more complete like the Terran at the same time pushes the Zerg down farther.

Zerg: Talking about the Zerg is going to be tough, as a Zerg player I’m going to come off as biased no matter what I say about them. As things stand right now the Zerg are considered to be the weakest of the three and have the most calls for needing improvements.

Let’s start with what is new about the Zerg, like the Protoss the Zerg have two new features. First are queens, which aid in larva production (all Zerg units evolve from larva) as well as acting as early anti air. In SC1 the only way for Zerg to increase the larva production was to build more hatcheries (main building of the Zerg), now a queen can use an ability to spawn larva quicker allowing the Zerg to create more units quicker.

The other new feature is how Creep works. Creep is the substance that spreads across the ground and allows all Zerg structures (with exception to extractors and hatcheries) to be spawned there. Also Creep now gives the Zerg player line of sight to anywhere that the Creep has spread to along with unit speed bonus; using Creep tumors spawned by the Queen allows you to slowly but surely coat the entire map with the goo.

As it stands right now the Zerg are the most macro oriented race to play as, to be effective you need to be constantly spreading the creep for vision, while having larva spawn to create units, while of course dealing with enemy forces trying to kill you and scouting out said units. This alone makes the Zerg a high level race to play as and also makes balance talks about them tricky as some complaints are from people not knowing enough about the race while some are legitimate complaints.

The Zerg’s biggest advantage comes from their late game effectiveness, once they are fully teched up and with multiple expansions, they can easily pump out massive amounts of units to fit any situation. Of the three sides the Zerg in my opinion is the strongest with their combination of late game units and easily mass units. Unfortunately it is very hard for the Zerg to survive that long and where the problems come in.

First off is the lack of versatility with the units. With the Terran and Protoss sides their early units both complement each other and can handle most situations early on. The Zerg however lack a true anti air unit until they tech up and don’t have access to the majority of their units until later in the game compared to the other two.

On the subject of teching up, the Zerg is the most horizontal of the three, In order for the Zerg to get access to their highest tier of units they need four buildings: a spawning pool, a lair, infestation pit and a hive. With exception to the spawning pool none of the other buildings will also net you a main army unit by itself such as the Roach or Hydralisk. With the Protoss and Terran, when they build a structure that unlocks a higher tech at the same time it gives them a new unit or units that can be easily incorporated into their army. The Zerg basically have to make the choice between teching up vs. building structures to unlock their army.

The problem with suggesting chances for the Zerg is how to keep things balanced between the other sides. I’ve read on the forums people calling for new units, restructuring the tech tree and more. What it comes down to is what role the Zerg are supposed to play in Starcraft 2, as right now they seem to have a split personality disorder.

Currently there are two popular trains of thought about how the Zerg should be. Some say that the Zerg should be a reactionary race, meaning you build X I counter with Y. The other is that the race should be about swarming, which is, I out number and out produce you into oblivion. From what I’ve seen and played as however, the Zerg are not good at either right now.

Let’s talk about reactionary first, other then ultralisks, corruptors and banelings there are no other Zerg units who are strong against specific unit types. In order to be able to be reactionary, units need to be able to specifically counter units which for the most part with the Zerg army they don’t.

For point two, in order to overwhelm you need a lot of units (duh) which once against the Zerg doesn’t excel in. With exception to the zerglings there are no other army units that have one supply. With units that are weaker in a straight up fight you need to have an overwhelming force to win, but once again until you reach the late game it is not possible. Zerg units are expensive in terms of gas to build and with the reliance on tier 2 and up means that you will be scrapped for resources which is why the macro side of things is so important. Until you have enough resources to have at least three or more expansions up you won’t be able to produce or afford a lot of units at once. Instead of having cheap weak units or strong expensive units, the Zerg have cheap expensive units.

The best example of this thinking in game would be the roach unit. The roach is a tier 1.5 unit that costs two supply like the marauder and stalker from the Terran and Protoss side respectively. However it is very slow, shortest range, and requires three different upgrades to be effective. The unit was toned down in the beta but as it stand right now the unit needs work in my opinion. Right now it costs too much both in terms of upgrades and stats to be worth it to get. Either the unit needs to be made a bit stronger (to be reactionary) or have its cost lowered so that while it’s weaker it would be easier to mass them more compared to stalkers and marauders (to be like a swarm).

So is there some magical way to completely balance the Zerg? I among my Zerg brothers wish. However one other important point that also is a great design question, is how do you balance something that gets better as the game goes on? Currently the Zerg’s window of opportunity happens later on in the game, mostly past the 10 or 15 minute mark. This means that at the start the Zerg are very susceptible to early aggression that can destroy the Zerg’s macro play or outright beat them. If the Zerg become stronger then what is happening is that we move the window of opportunity earlier.

On the other hand if the Zerg become too strong then to balance it Blizzard may weaken the Zerg’s late game potential, or in essence swap the weakest time and the window around. It would be so easy to suggest more units for the Zerg and be done with it, but would we be breaking the balance instead of fixing it?

Personally I think it all boils down back to my point about the Zerg’s play style, if the Zerg want to be reactionary then change stats around to match that; if they want to be swarm like change things that way. As it stands right now the Zerg really don’t have a unique advantage until the late game but without adequate defenses and units, it’s hard to last that long.

Blizzard recently remarked that they are still looking into balancing issues before releasing a patch and they said that there are builds to be discovered yet for the Zerg. I would like to comment on that by saying if Blizzard could drop us a few hints about these builds that would be nice. As that would help at least alleviate some of the frustrations of playing as the Zerg right now.

Personally I don’t think that the problem is lack of units, but it comes down to that the units the Zerg have are less useful then their Terran and Protoss counterparts, but still cost as much. Zerg simply have more things to keep track of compared to the other sides and when everything gets added together it creates one major headache for the Zerg player.

At this point I could just start listing every little buff, tweak, suggestion that I would like to see but the challenge still stands on how to make the Zerg better without making them too overpowered. In my opinion the first thing is that Blizzard needs to do is lighten the macro load required by the Zerg. Make spawn larva and creep tumors easier to manage and require less attention by the player. Next defenses need to be enhanced, as the Zerg lack the ability to wall in like the other two. The amount of time required to deploy should be decrease and attack damage should be increase to compensate for the lack of adequate Zerg defenses.

One crazy idea that came to mind about Zerg defense structures was to have them work similar to creep tumors that once you have one built you can spawn another one nearby, still costing resources but not requiring a drone to sacrifice. That way it is easier to get Zerg defense structures up without completely killing your economy early on.

The best thing to do with the Zerg is to start small; I do not think a grand restructuring of the race is needed but rather a few small tweaks here and there. I’m curious to see what Blizzard’s plans for balancing are; for right now however after the countless beatings online and for the sake of my blood pressure I’ve decided to take a small hiatus from playing Starcraft 2. I’m curious to see if this entry will find its way over to the forums as I do lurk over there.

Josh.

P.S. Perhaps renaming this entry to having 6 mutalisks killed would be more apt.

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First off I want to apologize for the title of this entry I will work on creating better pun titles in the future. Once again thanks to Steam I got to increase my backlog a little more and play a game I missed the first time around. FEAR comes from Monolith (at least the main game), the developers behind Condemned, No One Lives Forever and more.

FEAR is described as a playable action movie and the description is apt. Enemies get flung through the air from explosions, you have a “slow mo” power allowing to see bullet trails and rag doll physics at work. The gun play in FEAR is excellent in my opinion; you can just feel the weight of the guns when you are firing them. A few months ago when I took a 2nd look at Bioshock I commented on how soulless the weapons felt, FEAR is an example done right. When you fire a shotgun, you see the gun recoil back, bullets fly out knocking apart the environment and the enemy reeling from the blast.

The other side of FEAR is the horror element, taking a cue from The Ring you are constantly followed by the specter Alma. The game attempts to freak you out with all manner of effects which I won’t spoil. The problem is that the pacing of the game prevents the game from being terrifying. The game play in FEAR can be divided into
two sections:

Action: Shooting your way through clones and everything else.

Tension: The game’s attempt to scare you.

The issue is that these segments are mutually exclusive 99% of the time. If I’m fighting enemies there is nothing scary and when the game is trying to scare there is no combat or threat at all. The levels are so clear cut that you can just feel as if someone is pulling two levers “horror” and “action” and it makes the game feel padded out. Even the combat sections start to feel worn out the later you get in due to the enemy group composition never changes. When you are dealing with mech suits you will not fight any clones or vice versa. This kind of sectional level design reminds of Half Life 2 and having gone back and finished HL2, FEAR in this regard is like a poor man’s Half Life.

I’m going to save my discussion on this type of level design for another entry but I want to touch briefly on why it worked so well in HL2. First is that there are more sections in HL2 compared to FEAR. I’m not just shooting or listening to exposition which helps with the pacing. Second, sections in HL2 are constantly changing, one minute I’m fighting; next I’m solving a puzzle, and then back to fighting and so on. This keeps the game from feeling fractured and also keeps the player guessing as to what will happen next. The level design in HL2 just feels more refined compared to FEAR and in this way it is what makes HL2 an A title and what keeps FEAR in the C+, B- range in my opinion.

I know that from what I’ve written here it sounds like I’m coming down hard on FEAR but for what’s it worth I enjoyed FEAR. The feel of the guns and the fire fights were great and if I were compared both HL2 and FEAR to this alone I would rank FEAR higher. However looking at the entirely of FEAR is where my complaints are and where I’m disappointed. Condemned 1 and 2 showed that Monolith knows how to create creepy environments and keep the player on edge. I would absolutely love to see a game from Monolith featuring the shooter aspects from FEAR with the environments and tension of Condemned.

Josh

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It has finally happened after playing Legend of Zelda titles since the last 80s I’ve finally met a challenge that I can’t win. I recently picked up Spirit Tracks which is the latest Zelda title for the NDS and I’m hopelessly stuck and to make things worse I haven’t even reached the first dungeon yet.

Every Zelda game has its own gameplay twist, Windwaker had controlling the winds and the last Zelda game had you using the touch screen to draw spells. Spirit tracks give you a pan flute and require you to play notes in relation to someone else’s performance. However for the life of me I cannot do this and I’m now effectively unable to get past the 30 minute mark of the game.

The problems come from a combination of annoying controls and a situation that Nintendo did not consider. To play the flute you need to blow into the microphone while sliding the stylus along the touch screen to play the notes you want. Problem is that the microphone on the old DS is in a spot that I can’t effectively hold the stylus in my left hand and blow into the microphone at the same time. This requires me playing a game of finding the correct position to hold the DS so that I can do this event. Second I believe that you have to breathe into the microphone continuously over all three notes which may work for a normal person, but when you are allergic to nature and can’t breathe through your nose it does put a hamper on things.

So there you have it, an epic adventure to save the kingdom thwarted by allergies and bad button placement.

Josh.

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One of the more recent and fastest growing additions to the game industry would have to be the inclusion of an achievement system. During the last GDC Chris Hecker talked about achievements and the danger they could pose to game design. The topic of achievements is an interesting one for me, as someone coming from the days where the only achievement we got was the game over screen. At this point the question of “should we have achievements?” is a moot point, they are here to stay. The better question to ask is “what distinguishes a good achievement from a bad one?”

In my opinion we can group achievements into three broad categories:

1. Grabbed along the Way: These are achievements earned through the normal progression of the game, for ex:” You beat level one”, “unlocked double jump” and so on. Basically the player who goes through the game from start to finish is going to get every achievement of this set.

2. Masters Exam: Achievements that require advance skills to get or going beyond the main quest of the game, for ex: ” Beat the game on hard”, “get a 100 hit combo” and so on. These achievements are usually reserved for players who want to go for 100% or play the game on harder difficulty levels. They can also involve completing a task with an additional restriction or requirement to prove your expertise.

3. Going against the grain: Lastly are achievements that are from the grab bag of sorts. Most often these achievements don’t fit with the main game play of the title and either asks you to do something different or something you wouldn’t do normally within the game. What could also be almost a sub section of this group are “situational” achievements, these are ones that require a very specific action to achieve which either requires pure luck or a lot of foresight on the player’s part.

A few examples that come to mind are : Team Fortress 2 Scout : Kill an enemy in the air, on the ground and underwater in one life, Assassin’s Creed 2 : kill an enemy with a jump down assassination while the enemy is poisoned, any game that asks you to beat a level/game without using specific weapons and so on.

With that said it’s time for me to go down the list and talk about each grouping. #1 in my opinion is the least favorite as it really isn’t an achievement in my opinion. You’re getting rewarded for something that you would have done no matter what. This grouping goes along with Heckler’s concern about achievements from the article: “Fundamentally, he explained, his concern is based around a growing body of research suggesting that giving people extrinsic rewards for completing tasks — for example, rewarding kids for reading by giving them pizza — decreases the subject’s genuine interest in the actual task.”

#2 is my preferred achievements as they live up to the title of “achievement”, rewarding the player for getting better at your game. These achievements promote replay-ability as most often an average player will not be able to earn these the first time around. Often a side effect of completing these achievements is improving the player’s skill at the game which can help them either in another mode of the game or with the genre.

#3 I have mixed feelings about as this is where I’ve seen the majority of what I considered bad achievements . Team Fortress 2 seems to be the best example of both good and bad achievements. One of the medic achievements was to have the player kill certain # of players with the Medic’s close ranged weapon. The problem is that when your medic is attacking people then he’s not healing which in a team game is not good. You don’t want to reward a person for doing something that doesn’t help them learn the game or play it in such a one off way that after the achievement is finished the player will never do the same thing again.

Some of these random type achievements can be good as a way of blowing off steam but you have to be careful in not making them too random. If the only way to get an achievement is by pure luck then it’s not really achievement but just a random event. In Left 4 Dead 2 there are several achievements that require you to perform a specific action, at a specific time in a specific area to get. The problem is that unless you convince the other players to help you or the planets go into alignment, most likely you will not be getting these achievements. The same can be said for ridiculously difficult achievements that require less skill and more an obscene level of min/maxing your play style.

Thinking back my first exposure to an achievement system was actually with an edutainment game, The Logical Journey of the Zoombinis was a logic building game released back in the early 90s. The goal was to lead a band of these creatures called Zoombinis to their new home, the achievement system rewarded players both for getting an entire group to their new home and for getting X # of Zoombinis total. This was an excellent hook for teaching children how to improve their reasoning as once again it rewarded the player for getting better at the game or in this case learning about logic.

A great achievement rewards the player for going the extra mile in mastering the game or giving them something else to go alongside the main gameplay, while a bad achievement doesn’t teach the player anything. The secondary goal of achievements is to prolong the play time of your game and for those both good and bad achievements succeed there. I do feel that achievements should be something considered from the start of the design and not something required to be tacked on at the end. This in my opinion is the reason why we see so many achievements based on the first grouping.

Lastly I know this should be a given but it needs to be said, as a designer please make achievements that are in fact possible to achieve without requiring some kind of demonic pact. Beating the entire game on very hard without getting hit and using the basic weapon is a challenge but there is no achievement that is good enough to reward driving your players insane.

Josh

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