The Wii U met with mild enthusiasm at E3 this year, and more feeling of confusion. Nintendo is banking on the Wii U to be their console to pull in the core gamers, while continuing to appeal to the causal fans. However, looking at Nintendo’s past in the console wars and information on the Wii, I can’t help but feel that Nintendo may be heading to trouble.
The first problem is quality, anyone who owns a Nintendo platform knows that the first party titles are the must buys for the system. However, outside of that, there is a lack of great games that the other consoles don’t have a problem with.
Epic Mickey had a lot riding on it. This was an original story on one of the most beloved cartoon characters of all time, with veteran game designer Warren Spector at the helm. Previews had gamers excited for what was supposed to be an excellent third party title for the Wii. Unfortunately, instead of garnering universal praise, Epic Mickey was a polarizing experience. Having finally got my hands on it, I can say that it’s not a horrible failure, nor is it a perfect success.
The story of Epic Mickey is one of the best parts of the game. Mickey, before he rose to popularity entered a magic mirror one night and stumbled into a wizard’s home. There, the wizard was creating a world for forgotten characters using magic paint and thinner. After going to bed, Mickey decides to play around with the paint and creates a monster called the Phantom Blot and accidentally unleashed it on the world, causing untold destruction and creating the wasteland. Many years later, after Mickey has become the star that we all know, the blot returns and pulls him into the wasteland and now must escape.
For a story based on Mickey Mouse, this is one really dark story. Wandering around the wasteland, Mickey is constantly exposed to the damage he’s done. When he meets Oswald, who was Disney’s first big hit before they lost the rights to and created Mickey, Oswald hates his guts because of how popular Mickey became. The world is falling apart and while there are characters living here, Mickey doesn’t have to care about their predicament, and this is where the choice system comes into play.
Mickey has the power of both paint and thinner at his disposal. Spraying paint allows him to reconstruct destroyed structures and can be used to convert some enemies to Mickey’s side. Thinner, dissolves objects and is use to destroy enemies. As Mickey explores the world he’ll have opportunities to use both substances during quests, and getting around the levels.
The concept of having morality choices in an action-adventure title is interesting. Similar to Deus Ex (Spector’s big hit), some choices will come back to effect Mickey later on in the world he’s in. One thing that I really liked about this has to do with the boss fights. Instead of having Mickey choose at the end of the fight whether to be good or bad, his actions to beat the boss determine that.
(Spoiler alert: To discuss an example of this I will be spoiling the first boss fight in the game. If you don’t want to know then skip the next paragraph.)
The first boss is a giant clock tower. The good way involves painting both arms to pacify them, allowing them to carry Mickey to the clock face to paint it and making it friendly. The arms, once stunned by paint will recover, requiring the player to paint a little of both at each time. The thinner way, requires the player to thin out the wood supports on the arms, so that when they crash down they break causing the arms to fall apart and the clock tower is destroyed.
Having morality choices actually factor into the gameplay is something that I want to see more of in game design. Besides combat, there are multiple collectibles for players to find, with some restricted by the player’s choices. For the perfectionist, they will have to play through the game at least twice to get everything. Unfortunately, when it comes to playing the game, that’s where things start to break down.
The elephant in the room would have to be the camera system; quite frankly this is one of the worse camera systems I’ve seen in a game. There are times when the camera can’t be controlled when you want it to be, and then there are times when you want it to stay still and it moves. The camera would also get stuck on either Mickey or the environment, which can be a killer during plat forming sections.
The camera also causes trouble with aiming. To use either paint or thinner, the player has a reticule that is used for targeting. Because Mickey’s direction is not taken into account, it makes it very hard to aim paint due to the camera. There were times where I wanted to paint something above Mickey but because the camera was viewing the action sideways, Mickey kept shooting paint to the left of him. Trying to hit something below Mickey is also a pain, as due to the camera views makes it hard not to shoot at the floor.
The camera also interferes during combat. Mickey’s main form of offense is either converting enemies with paint or destroying them with thinner. This is all well and good for the beginning, but past the first quarter of the game, Mickey will run into enemies that can’t be converted. These enemies require a two step process of covering them with thinner, then hitting a weak spot. The camera makes it hard to get a consistent burst of thinner on the enemy while trying to avoid their attacks.
While not as damning, the game also has a few design issues that need to be said. In order to move from section to section, Mickey enters a 2d plat forming section inspired by a classic Disney cartoon. When you’re in one of the worlds you only have to do this one time to move from area to area, however to travel between the central hub to the start of a world, you’ll have to repeat the same section over and over again. This becomes painfully repetitive doing side-quests that require Mickey to travel back and forth between the worlds.
The checkpoint system also adds to frustration. The game uses checkpoints which also act as saves whenever Mickey turns in a quest or moves to a new section. The problem is that in the same section, it will only checkpoint after Mickey turns in the quest. If the player dies on the way back to the quest giver, they’ll lose all progress with the quest and start from square one again.
The final complaint I have has to do with the stage design. Every section has one exit, but multiple ways of unlocking it. This is based on either using the solution involving paint (being good) or thinner (mischievous). The problem I have with this is with having multiple solutions in the level, it makes things unfocused in my opinion. There were some stages that without knowing it, I found two ways of opening the exit. It’s hard to know at the start what actions will lead to the good or bad way, as thinner is used to clear objects from your path for both options.
With these complaints mentioned, the camera is still the biggest deterrent to playing the game. This is a shame when the worse problem a game has is technical. From the animated cut-scenes to the excellent story, you can tell this was a labor of love for the designers. Getting a mature Disney title these days is rare, with exception to the Kingdom Hearts series and hopefully this won’t dissuade developers from trying again.
As I’m playing through Civilization 5 and not falling in love with it, I felt an urge to play a RTS again. I could feel my blood pressure rising over the thought of playing Starcraft 2 again. In these last few years, I found myself drifting away from the RTS genre. As I started to think about one of my favorite RTS games: Rise of Nations, I started to realize why I’ve felt this way towards one of the first genres I enjoyed, and it has to do with E-Sports.
One of the key foundations behind Starcraft’s popularity came from South Korea. The game’s tight balance and the need to be fast at the keyboard, made it the perfect competitive game to be adopted by the World Cyber Games. In South Korea, Starcraft became as big as professional sports in the US. Professional teams were created, gamers became celebrities and the whole thing took off. Since then, it feels like the majority of RTS designers are chasing the dream of having their game included in the craze, and this is where my problems lie.
To me, making your RTS “E-Sports worthy” takes away from the design instead of adding to it. With RTS games aimed for the E-sports market, there is a definite pattern to their design. These games seem to be more about being designed for someone to watch, rather than for someone to play. This also figures in to their less then useful UIs, because they want experts to have to get their APM up (actions per minute).
Concepts like: flanking, unit promotions, territory and so on, have become a thing of the past. Instead of having battles with massive armies, the RTS scene has moved to smaller skirmishes. The only recent RTS I can think of that went for massive scale was Supreme Commander 2 and it turned out to be a surprise hit for me. I just downloaded R.U.S.E and getting into that. The part that really pisses me off is what this has done to UI design.
Instead of developing UIs that aid the player and leave them free to focus on the game, many designers create less than adequate UIs which force the player to concentrate on it instead of playing. One of the best design mechanics I saw in a RTS UI came from Rise of Legends, when they implemented the ability to set the rally point for unit constructions directly to control groups. After using this in ROL, I expected every RTS game from that point to feature this functionality, except they didn’t.
I know it can’t be a matter of complexity after all this time, instead it’s because that would take away from having players focus on the UI and their APM. In Command and Conquer: Red Alert 3, every unit has a secondary attack or use that has to be activated through either a mouse click or hot key. This meant not only having to deal with activating multiple abilities in the middle of combat, but also having to find the unit on screen at the same time. There were no ways around this, such as in Warcraft 3 with being able to toggle some skills to always be used.
I’m tired of playing RTS games as click-fests. What I want is to command my army and focus more on the macro level instead of having to quickly bounce between my army and base to set up rally points and making sure I don’t have any idle units. What I’m saying is that I want to wage wars, not skirmishes.
Rise of Nations was not perfect, but it did so much right for the genre. The big reason was that developer Big Huge Games, adopted TBS concepts into RoN’s design. Mechanics like supplying units in enemy territory, cities becoming self sufficient once full of citizens. Making it play more like a real time version of Civilization, even with how the game changes once you hit the modern era and oil becomes a needed resource.
I’m really getting tired of RTS designers trying to design the next great e-sports game, as that just means copying Starcraft 2, which in a sense is copying Starcraft 1. In other words, someone please f#(king make Rise of Nations 2 so that I can cross that off of the list of “things that I can die happy from”. I’ve gotten to the point that if I see anywhere in a game’s preview the mention of “e-sports” or “cyber games”, I know to skip it.
To be fair to Starcraft 2, it did feature one of the best single-player campaigns I’ve seen in a RTS, simply because it made no attempt to teach the player multiplayer through it. Good RTS campaigns are hard to come by and that is a blog entry onto itself.
Lastly, to be fair to smaller scale RTS games, I did enjoy Company of Heroes. Even thought it was about skirmishes, it did have those concepts I mentioned above such as flanking and unit promotions. Although I tried Warhammer Dawn of War 2 and did not get into it, the UI really bugged me for some reason.
Strategy games have been put on the back-burner lately with the only two big name games I’m aware of being the next Starcraft 2 expansion and Stronghold 3. For the genre to advance, designers have to stop thinking in terms of how people will watch the game, and instead how will people play the game.
There are many video game related arguments out there: Console vs. PC, CRPG vs. JRPG, and Old-School vs. New-School to name a few. Tonight, it’s about regenerating health and its affect on game design. Thinking back, the first game that popularized this mechanic was Halo. Since then, the mechanic has become a major staple in First Person Shooters. However, many gamers argue that by removing the need to find health items that it has hurt game design.
There is a now famous screenshot showing FPS map design back in the 90s and today that gets mentioned every time someone brings up this discussion. The point that gamers bring up, is that FPS map design has become simplified due to not needing to find health items anymore. When I talked about old-school difficulty, I mentioned that we need to examine why the games were hard in the first place. That same kind of examination I’m going to apply to this matter. If the only point to explore the world was to find errant first aid kits, that doesn’t sound like good design to me. You can still offer players hidden areas and secrets without the need to heal. In the Condemned series, every level has collectibles for the player to find, or objects to break that contribute to game completion.
Personally, I’m for regenerative health, especially in action titles. The reason is that it frees up the designer to create insane situations without worrying about the player not having enough health from a previous battle. However, I can see why many gamers don’t like it.
The problem with regenerative health in most games is that it feels like the odd man out; a mechanic that is just plopped into the game without being thoroughly integrated into the design. For instance, is it ever explained why in the Call of Duty games, that someone can take twenty lethal shots to the chest, and is fine after sitting behind a wall for ten seconds?
Most games that feature regenerative health leave it completely out of the player’s hands. The player knows how long it takes to heal and how long before they are in danger. When regenerative health works best, is when it is a part of the game design.
The first good example in my opinion comes from the Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay. Here, the player’s health bar is represented by several squares at the top of the screen. Each time the player takes damage, a square will begin to drain out, when it completely runs out; the next square in the line begins to drain. Once the player is out of danger, the square that still has filling will regenerate. For those that were emptied, the player has to find a healing station to recover.
What makes this work is that it offers the best of both worlds. The player can regenerate health, but it is capped requiring the player to still play well to succeed. For games that want full regenerative, integrating it into the game mechanics can make it more rewarding.
In Infamous, the player will recover health slowly when not in combat. When the player recharges Cole’s energy supply by draining electricity, it also rapidly heals him. This sets up the dynamic of fighting enemies near sources of power to have emergency healing on standby.
Recently with Bulletstorm, I was surprised that the designers couldn’t find a way to link restoring health to making skill-shots, and instead went for the “hide behind the wall” style. If the designers went as far to explain how making skill-shots fit into the reality of the game, why couldn’t they take it a step further and use that as a form of healing?
When I did my analysis on Bulletstorm, I started talking about an idea I had for an open world version of it. For that idea I thought up how regenerating health could work better tied to skill-shots. I even went a step further and figured that the player could “over-load” their health be constantly performing skill-shots to take their health bar over 100%.
The more control you can give the player over regenerating their health the better, and there are so many more clever ways of implementing it that we haven’t explored thoroughly yet, for instance, a game in which the player can take painkillers to restore their health, but if they constantly take it, they’ll become weaker due to damaging their body.
If the game has the player choosing from different classes/powers to build their character, why not have different models of regeneration based on that? Such as, if the player is imbued with fire, allow the player to recover health by standing in flames, such as ones caused by grenade explosions from your enemies. Or if the player uses water, they can jump into bodies of water to heal, or carry inexpensive water bottles that they can drink to rapidly recover their health.
Regenerating health is like any game mechanic, when used properly it can add depth and make the game better, but used improperly, and it can drag the game down. Besides, it makes just as much as sense as being able to eat fruit or use a first aid kit to patch up hits from rocket launchers or having a fireball hit you in the head.