Back in the late 80s/early 90s, the Splatterhouse series brought us B movie levels of gore and succeeded at a time where no one else was doing it. Namco, decided to try to bring the brand back with an updated game last year, with all the blood, profanity, and nudity you would expect from a horror movie. Unfortunately, the game was panned by a number of critics. Having played through the game, while it is far from perfect, there were some moments of greatness in the design.

I was interested in Splatterhouse, not from being a huge fan of the original, but because Bottlerocket Entertainment was developing it. They were the designers behind The Mark of Kri, which was one of my favorite titles on the PS2. In fact, it was a source of inspiration for me when I was writing my action game design document. During the development of Splatterhouse, Namco pulled the developers off the project which led to the studio being closed. The game was finished by another studio, along with members from Bottlerocket that were hired to help.

The story is a remake of the original: bad guy steals girlfriend, boyfriend mortally wounded, puts on supernatural mask and goes on a killing spree. That’s pretty much all you need to know. The graphics are good looking, when the screen isn’t covered in blood. Voice acting is decent and Jim Cummings as the mask steals the show, although his one liners repeat a lot over the game.

With combat, you have three main attacks: fast, smash and grabs. Each button’s use can be further modified by holding the run button. The player also has a “necro bar” that fills each time the player attacks an enemy which is used for special attacks. Instead of finding health items, they can use one segment of the necro bar to siphon health from nearby enemies, the more enemies in range, the more health is recover. Later on the player unlocks other moves that do more damage and restores a little health.

The last use of the necro bar is to transform into a monster that acts as a panic button, allowing players to go crazy against the enemies. I like how the necro bar was set up, as it presents the dynamic of balancing the use of stronger attacks vs. having the ability to regenerate health on standby.

The combat system has a fluidly to it in how responsive the character is. Players can go from one combo attack to another very quickly and the options of fast, smash and grab attacks gives the player options. The upgrade system further adds to this.

Killing enemies gives the player blood that can be used at the upgrade system. There are a lot of upgrades here, that gives the player more combos, or enhances attacks. Some upgrades make it easier to chain attacks together such as after doing an evasive roll. Some of the upgrades do seem to straddle the line of being less optional and more required, such as the health and necro bar upgrades, also being invincible while dodging. Still, I like how the upgrades for the most part, avoid the standards like “+10 damage”. When combined with the combat system, I was enjoying my time bashing monsters around. However Splatterhouse does have its share of problems and having finished the game, I can see why it was panned by critics.

Let’s start with technical issues; the camera has a hard time keeping up with the action. Sometimes it will track the player accordingly, while other times it will require the player to control. There was several times where it would get stuck on the player or environment which can be rough during a tough fight.

Loading times are quite frankly horrible to the point that they can drive people away from the game. On start up, the game takes about 15 to 20 seconds from the main menu to the actual game. When the player dies or goes to a new level, the game then takes 20 to 30 seconds to reload. This can become an ordeal during sections where there are death traps or tough battles, as it is possible to spend more time loading then it is actually playing.

Moving on there are some gameplay issues to discuss. Splatterhouse attempts to bring back some nostalgia for the original trilogy by having 2d sections, which in a way reminds me of the Ratchet and Clank game that had 2d areas for captain quark. However, while RC designed a different system for those sections, Splatterhouse uses the 3d engine and it doesn’t work.

The problems are that the controls work for a 3d environment, but are too loose for 2d. There is a noticeable delay from when the player pushes the control stick and when the character starts moving. The hit box for the character is hard to grasp which makes it hard to gauge when to jump and there are a lot of bottomless pits to avoid; both running and dodging leave the player motionless for one second, which makes it very hard to use them while maneuvering through traps. Combining how easy it is to die here with the long loading times, makes these sections less of a reward and more of an ordeal.

Next is that the enemy design was unusual, one one hand it is very repetitive but it does feature some poorly designed unique enemies. The basic enemies can be broken down into light, medium and heavy enemies. Heavy enemies usually require the player to perform a QTE driven finishing move to kill, which due to the colors on screen, makes it hard to see the analog stick prompts.

There are two enemies that seem out of place, the first are these blue enemies that will hit you for all your life in one hit reducing you to one point of health left. If they attack fast enough, you can be killed before you know what hit you. The strange part is that not even the bosses do this kind of damage and the enemy seems imbalanced. The second type was red zombies, which seem to be immune to all your attacks except for weapons and charging up a smash attack. Fighting them slowed the pace of the game down dramatically.

My biggest complaint about the gameplay, and what keeps the combat system from achieving greatness, is that it doesn’t have any advance mechanics to reward expert players. In other words, it had width with the upgrade system, but lacks depth.

When you look at a game like Devil May Cry 3 or Bayonetta, there are advance mechanics in place to take the combat above simple combos. DMC 3 has several: ground to air transitions, unique combos for every weapon, styles, ranged attacks and switch between two weapons at will. Incidentally, these mechanics were also one of the reasons why DMC 3 is considered to be one of the best action games to come out. Splatterhouse however doesn’t which is a shame since the foundation was really good. I like the interplay between the necro bar and the special attacks, and the responsiveness was there, but it doesn’t take off and evolve.

I’m somewhat surprised with how much I enjoyed Splatterhouse, it feels miles above Dante’s Inferno as an action title, but the gameplay and technical issues prevented it from reaching the heights of Devil May Cry. Personally I’m really curious as to what parts of the game were finished by Bottlerocket, and which ones were finished by the second team, as there were some points where the quality of the level design dipped a little bit. Seems like with all flawed titles, they like to tempt me by having an ending that indicates a sequel, however I wonder if we’re going to wait another 17 years for it.

Josh Bycer

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We’re one month away from October, which can only mean one thing: discussing horror elements in games. In the past I’ve talked about horror design in games, such as examining why “Fight or Flight” needs to be around. With the recent release of Warhammer 40k: Space Marine, it reminded me of another game in the Warhammer universe. Space Hulk: Vengeance of the Blood Angels, which came out for the 3d0 in the 90s and as I thought about it, the game is an excellent example of how to do fear while giving the player power, which led me to thinking about the guidelines for how to do this.

1. Player Has To Fight Back At All Times:

While I enjoyed Amnesia: The Dark Decent as an adventure game, I don’t consider it scary for one reason: the player cannot defend themselves.

Going to back to an article I wrote awhile ago, the fight or flight response is part of human nature, as our brains have to make a split second decision in a dangerous situation to either stay and fight or run away and release the corresponding neurotransmitters. When you remove half the equation, it restricts the options the player has. In Amnesia, I didn’t even bother running away when I was caught by a monster because I could just let it kill me and try again. There was more work involved with running away then just retrying.

By having both fight and flight as available options, it forces the player to make that decision. This was one area where Alan Wake succeeded, as the player is constantly outnumbered by the enemies in the game, forcing the player to decide if they can take them on, or try to run to the next safe area.

Another side of this is games that allow the player to fight back, but only at specific times. In Haunting Ground, the player for the most part, is chased by an enemy who wants to kill them with no means to hurt them. At the end of each area there is an actual boss fight where the player has to find a way to put them down.

The problem with this is that the game is still exemplifying one response at a time. Flight during the adventure segments, and then fight at the boss fights. In order for the responses to work, the player must have both options available at all times, if you lock the player in a room with a boss, then it’s no longer a horror game but an action game as the player knows that their only option is to fight.

In Space Hulk, the general plot is that you part of the Blood Angels, a group of space marines whose task it is to keep aliens from taking over planets. In the game, your main foes are the genestealers, aliens who infect races with their DNA to cause their species to grow. From reading the basic plot that was in the manual, the space marines are the kind of people who take on any challenge no matter how suicidal and fight to the last man.

The player is always outnumbered by the stealers and with squad members persistent across maps, they have to decide when to keep moving, or when to stay and fight. While it is easy for the player to survive with a full squad as backup, getting everyone back alive is a completely different story.

2. Enemies Have To Fight At A Different Level Then the Player:

One of the basic rules of horror is that you should be experiencing something that you are not accustomed to. While horror games get this right to a degree with weird monster designs, many miss the point that enemies should not fight from the same rulebook as the player.

Tell me, why is it that Gears of War is considered an action title and Dead Space is a horror title, when both games have the protagonist fighting otherworldly enemies with advanced weaponry? The difference is that in Gears of War, the majority of the enemies fight the same way as the player, using guns and grenades. While in Dead Space, the enemies are completely different from the player, both in how they attack and how to kill them. With Dead Space, the monsters or necromorphs can only be killed by severing their limbs, as they will just regenerate from body or head shots.

In Space Hulk, the player’s squad is heavily armored and uses powerful weapons to stop their enemies. The marines’ standard load-out includes a ranged gun and a power glove for close quarters. As a marine, they have the advantage of ranged attacks, and in a one to one fight against the genestealers they will win.

The stealers on the other hand, are quicker and better at close quarters due to their powerful claws. If they attack a marine from behind, that marine is dead before he turns around. The stealers also move through vents and can appear behind the marine group, even with a motion detector the player has to be on the lookout. The last, and most dangerous advantage, is that the stealers will always outnumber the marines and in many levels, they will infinitely spawn.

As you can see, Space Marine is about asymmetrical balance, both sides are completely different and how the player reacts and fights, is not the same as the enemy. Going to Fatal Frame 3 for a second, the player is at a constant disadvantage when fighting ghosts, as they can disappear and reappear while going through walls, floors and ceilings to attack the player.

One problem I had with the Silent Hill series is that while the monster designs were unique, the majority of the enemies followed the same attack pattern: get in close to do damage. Since the player’s main weapons are close range, both interactions are similar (with the pyramid head fights of Silent Hill 2 the exception).

3. Linearity Should Be Avoided:

One of the biggest ways to remove horror in your games is to have linear attacks, as once the player knows that the game is setup this way, it removes the tension.

With F.E.A.R, the game is split between action and horror segments. During action, the player is attack by the enemies, while in horror; they wander around while creepy stuff happens. The problem is that nothing scary happens during the action segments, and there is no danger while the horror segments play out (until the very end of the game.) Instead of being scared, I was more relaxed while the game was trying to scare me as I knew I was in no immediate danger.

When you can make the players guess, as to when the next attack is, it increases the tension and horror. The reason is that constant feeling of “when am I going to be attack?”. That buildup is an excellent source of fear, but it has to have a breaking point when the player is finally attacked. If they go through an entire area and not be attacked at all, then the buildup was for nothing.

In Space Hulk, the player’s only way to tell that there is danger is their motion sensor. Similar to the movie Aliens, it beeps louder as something dangerous gets closer. With Space Hulk, there are times that the sensor will go off, and there won’t be an attack, other times the player will have to defend themselves. This keeps the tension high, as the player doesn’t know when the next attack is coming, only that there is one on the way.

In order for the horror genre to get out of its current rut in my opinion, it has to take a cue from rogue-likes and implement randomized enemy positions and attacks. The faster they move on from “monster closets”, the better for the genre. I would also like to play a horror game, where the enemies won’t always attack the player, like in Space Hulk, making the player question if this situation will turn dangerous.

4. If The Player Evolves, So Must the Enemies:

Becoming more powerful gives the player a feeling of security and can lower the tension of the game and can be used to provide the player with an area that is toned down as they can now fight back effectively. The problem with horror games is that they forget to ratchet the tension back up, and the best way to do that is to have the enemies evolve.

Alan Wake suffers from this, as the game goes on the player is introduced to more weapons and grenade types, however the enemies never change. Some enemies may require more light to weaken, but the process remains the same from beginning to end.

In Dead Space, the player will get new weapons and armor as the game progresses and the designers did implement new enemies to challenge the player, including two fights with an enemy who could only be wounded by their weapons, not killed.

The moments in Silent Hill 2, where the player encounters the pyramid head monsters are scary, as this is something different from the normal enemies the player fights. Getting up close to one is suicide when they start swinging their over-sized swords, forcing the player to either fight from afar, or run away.

As the player progresses in Space Hulk, they will be promoted with new weapons, including ones that grant the player an advantage in melee combat. As the game goes on, the player will fight new types of genestealers, along with chaos marines, which are the evil version of the player. Later enemy types include stealers who have psychic attacks, such as pyrokinesis, or making your weapons act up. The point is that while the player becomes more powerful, the enemy is growing in their own way to challenge the player.

It’s important to note for this category, that if the player doesn’t evolve then the enemy doesn’t have to. In the Fatal Frame series, the player will be using their camera as the only means to defend themselves from beginning to end. The camera can be upgraded to do more damage, but that coincides with fighting stronger ghosts that have more health. Later ghosts do have different attack patterns, but the way to defeat them remains the same.

5. Give the player downtime:

Going back to randomizing attacks to keep the player tense, there should always be a period of rest or safety to wind things down. The reason is that if the player is constantly being bombarded with horror, they’ll become desensitized to the situation. Even though I didn’t find Amnesia scary, I do appreciate the fact that the designers did give the player periods of safety, where they can focus on the puzzle solving and nothing else.

Of course giving the player a safe zone can be used against them at some point. One of the best moments of fear in Fatal Frame 3, was how the period of safety slowly trickled away as the game went on, I don’t want to say anymore as it would ruin the event.

If you want to challenge the player to figure out what is going on or make important decisions, they need time to process the events of the game, where they aren’t running for their lives or fighting against strange creatures.

Space Hulk has an interesting way of doing this. Once the player reaches the point where they can give squad members orders, they can use the pause screen to view a map of the area to accomplish this. A meter at the bottom of the screen slowly drains, representing that time is currently frozen, allowing the player to think and command in safety. Once the meter runs out, time starts again and the player will now have to command while enemies are attacking. As the player is controlling their character, the meter fills back up again allowing them more time to think.

We all have different degrees of fear, that’s just human nature. However, I think that the points in this entry can serve as a focal point, which will scare any player. One of my design goals is to create a game that gives the player all kinds of weapons: shotguns, rocket launchers, flamethrowers etc, and yet is still completely terrified of the dark and unknown. With that said if I do make that game at one point, I have one bit of advice for you: be afraid, be very afraid.

Josh Bycer

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Dead Island has had one hell of a launch week, from releasing the Xbox candidate version for the PC, a controversial skill name and turning off the multiplayer servers for two days. Now that things have settled down, it’s time to do some vacationing. Dead Island tries to emulate Darksiders’ success, by combining mechanics from several popular games to create something unique; however it doesn’t go far enough to establish itself.

From looking at the mention of “4 player co-op” and the word “island” in the title, most gamers would think that Dead Island is similar to Left 4 Dead and Just Cause 2. However, from playing the game, it takes its cues from Borderlands and Dead Rising 2. The story is zombie game standard: zombies have broken out on an island resort and you are one of the few people immune to them, which leaves you to do all the dangerously stupid interacting with the undead.

The game is open world, as each act takes place in a huge piece of real estate. Quests involve players going from point A to point B and either killing something, using something, or taking something back to point A. As you can tell, there isn’t a lot of variety in the missions. Weapons take the form of everyday items like hammers, knives and later on, guns.

Taking a cue from Borderlands, weapons have levels attached to them which determine their base stats, a level five paddle is worse than a level ten paddle (I guess they use better wood.) As you explore the world you’ll comes across items ranked in terms of rarity, which means eventually using your super rare purple hammer to fight the undead. Weapons deteriorate with use; forcing players to keep a supply of weapons on hand, with bladed weapons seem to break quicker. Besides weapons, you’ll find random junk and money all over the place. Money is used along with junk at upgrade benches as well as at traders to buy items.

The upgrade bench is where a bit of Dead Rising 2 comes into play. Weapons can be repaired and upgraded at the bench, for a cost. Rare weapons cost more to upgrade, but will of course be more powerful than their regular counterparts. You can also combine weapons with the junk you find to create new weapons from blueprints that are either found or rewarded. These weapons have even higher stats and using a very rare weapon as the base can give you one hell of an edge.

Now while all of this sounds good so far, Dead Island runs into some issues with the implementation of the game mechanics. First is with leveling up, as you kill zombies and complete quests, you’ll gain experience which will eventually give you a level up. With each level you can assign a point into one of the three skill trees (each character has the same three trees, but different upgrades on them). The problem is that this does nothing to change the game play.

Each character is proficient with a type of weapon (bladed, blunt, firearms, and throwing), but no matter what skill tree you go up, there is no real change to the gameplay. The only exception is the “fury” skills which are unique abilities that each character has, the rest of the skills are small modifiers like “+5 to durability” or “+ 10 to damage”. As characters level up, they may unlock other abilities, but it doesn’t do much to change their interaction with the world. You are going to be slashing and bashing zombies in the same manner from level 1 to level 50. Further adding to the sameness of the gameplay are the weapons themselves.

While the developers tried to emulate Borderlands with the variety of weapons, it doesn’t work here. Besides the weapon mods, there is no real difference between how weapons of the same type behave. A level 10 hammer and a level 50 hammer will look, animate and attack the same way. In Borderlands each type of weapon was further differentiated by the fictional gun manufacturer. Each manufacturer had different variations of weapons, one pistol may have a built in scope, and another may have rapid fire. This meant that no two guns were alike and this helps give a lot of variety to the weapons.

Also, for a game that is about scavenging items to survive, I was really surprised that the developers didn’t take the RPG elements further with being able to fashion other equipment like armor or enhancements for weapons. Anything to allow players to further personalize their characters would have helped the game out.

Melee combat is unsatisfying, especially having been spoiled by Condemned 2. In Dead Island, your actions in combat amount to: one type of swing, fury mode, throwing the weapon and your kick attacks. The only interesting element has to do with stamina, which depletes when you are attacked or when you are attacking. Run out of stamina and you won’t be able to attack and you’ll be knocked to the ground when injured. This makes fighting groups of zombies very dangerous and a good way of providing tension when running around.

It’s a shame that the melee combat lacks depth, as the developers’ implemented location based damage. Hit a zombie enough times with a blunt weapon to break a limb, or with a bladed to cut it off. This becomes a potential strategy when dealing with larger zombies (which are like mini bosses), to make it easier to finish them off. Watching zombies fall apart from your attacks is cool, but it would have been more satisfying with a deeper combat system.

The game tries to mix things up when guns are thrown into the mix, but ranged combat is just as unsatisfying. Guns also have levels to them and no discernible difference other then the stats. Be prepared to run around to each dead enemy after a firefight to see if their pistol is any better than yours. Gun control is more on the arcade side of things and due to ammo limits, keeps you from relying solely on guns. Zombies also take more than one shot to the head to bring down, meaning that you will go through ammo fast.

While the zombie models are varied, in terms of size and shape, there isn’t a big difference in fighting them. The as mentioned larger zombies sometimes appear, but due to the simple combat, don’t give the player a lot of options for fighting them. Another design mistake has to do with leveling up. Besides the weapons, zombies also have levels to them, which are unfortunately tied to the player’s level. What that means is that the world levels with the player.

This hurts the game as the only difference between levels is the damage and health of zombies. It also kills the sense of exploring and running into a higher level zombie, or coming back to an area after leveling up more. Speaking about leveling up, because of zombies leveling up with the player, it also means that the player will level up faster as the game goes on as the experience grows with higher level zombies. It took more time to level up from 1 to 2, and then it did to go from 2 to 3 for instance. Because the world levels up with the player it also kills the chance of finding higher level items as chests will only spawn items around your level (unless you join a game with a friend who is a higher level.) For a game that tries to add RPG elements to the design, they did not get it right.

The final set of problems comes from the game being developed for the console first, PC second. The interface is cumbersome, mouse controls aren’t fully utilized and push-to-talk is nonexistent. One poor example of the UI is that if you pull up the map, in an area where there is no map information, the mouse pointer disappears, preventing you from clicking to other sections of the inventory. While not a huge issue, it’s just more proof that the game was designed for consoles first.

Ultimately, Dead Island has some good ideas with the damage model, world and 4 player co-op, but the rest of the foundation is shaky. The designers tried to follow in the same shoes as Borderlands with its “Role Playing Shooter” elements, but where Borderlands gets it right, Dead Island stumbles around (pun intended.)

Josh Bycer

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As consoles have become significantly more powerful over the last decade, more and more developers are capitalizing on this by releasing games on both the console and PC. Unfortunately, this has led to many games being released on the PC, significantly worse for wear compared to the console. Many gamers see this as the developers creating the game with the console in mind primarily, leaving the PC in the dust. This problem leaves PC gamers annoyed at developers over issues that any self respected PC gamer would have caught. The following are some of the taboos that designers have made with multi-platform games.

1. Forgetting the Mouse: When it comes to PC games, the keyboard and mouse is the most recognizable control scheme. One of the biggest tell-tale signs that the game was a port is the mouse not being utilized such as, when a game asks players to use the arrow keys to scroll down a list, as opposed to just clicking and dragging and that raises a major red flag. Basic functionality like drag and drop, double clicking, scrolling the mouse wheel and using the right mouse button should be implemented in the game.

What is even more annoying is when the game sometimes uses the mouse, and sometimes not. In Borderlands for example, the mouse is used on just about every menu screen, except for quest details. To scroll down while looking at quests, players have to use the page up and page down keys. Same issue was in Bulletstorm, where the main menu is mouse compatible, but the in game shop system isn’t.

2. Wrong Control Scheme: This issue, I’ve only seen once as a PC Gamer (although it could have appeared in other games,) but it was so blatantly wrong that it needs to be made its own category so that developers will never do this again.

When you’re in game menus, control scheme and tutorials only reference console controls and not keyboard and mouse, I saw this in the game: The Last Remnant by Square-Enix. You have no idea how fun it was to decipher control commands when the game tells me to press the right trigger on my keyboard or the A button on my imaginary 360 controller.

3. Forgetting you’re on the PC: There are two elements to this category, first are PC preferences. One of the biggest advantages (and disadvantages) for PC games, is the variety of PC configurations available. Some people having the latest and greatest, others have dual monitor setups and so on. As PC gamers, we like to make the most out of our specific hardware and adjust the settings just right and when developers leave out the ability to alter the settings of the game, forcing gamers to adjust a game file, that’s just a major mess up.

Second are hot keys, one the best advantages to having a keyboard, is having all those extra keys available for additional commands. Being able to get around a cumbersome interface by having hot keys is great. When developers just move the console UI over and forget about the keys, it becomes very annoying. Another side of this is not allowing gamers to reconfigure the control scheme to their personal preference.

4. Voice Options: This one annoys me a lot as it seems like something so simple that it would be hard to forget: not having push-to-talk as an option. I prefer to use push-to-talk, as the room where my PC is, is right next to the hallway where my family walks and talks around; I don’t need complete strangers to hear what my family is talking about. Some people are going to say that I should just buy a headset, but when every other PC game I like features push-to-talk functionality, it shouldn’t be a big deal to implement.

When all these issues are combined, the term “consolized interface” is used. As a designer, you don’t want to hear people saying this about your game. The issues mentioned in this article should be as basic as making sure your game has save functionality, yet so many developers either slip up or just ignore these points. The sad part is that I didn’t even mention the games when ported, feature technical issues like: slowdown, crashing, or graphical issues that aren’t in the console versions.

Developers who continue to exclude PC gamers like this will find their PC sales diminishing , the part that really pisses me off, is when I see a $10 or $20 game, get all these points right, while a $50 game completely flubs it. To me, this shows a lack of quality by the designer and if it’s that much trouble to release a PC version of the game that has these points, then just don’t release it, as you’ll be doing more harm than good to your fan base by putting out an inferior port. Gearbox (the makers of Borderlands) has promised that the PC version of Borderlands 2 will be made for PC gamers; hopefully they get a chance to read this entry.

Josh Bycer

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