Sunday, November 15, 2009

Demon's Souls, on the fun of falling into pits

I'm making my way down Stonefang Tunnel. I've been dealing with these little glowing balls strewn throughout the level that explode when you get too close. I discovered this by walking too close to one; as it began to expand and get brighter, I instinctively rolled backwards right as it exploded, taking most of my health. As the tunnel went from a wide mining cart passage to a cramped tunnel that looks more like it was burrowed by some worm, the fireballs have been appearing behind switchback turns, prompting many panicked runs for cover. So I'm being careful, inching along, barely able to see more than ten feet ahead anyways. Out of the gloom, the spidery letters of a message left by another player in a different world emerge; its presence reminds me that I'm not the only one going down this tunnel somewhere in another world, but that I'm still utterly alone in this world. The message warns me of an ambush up ahead. A few steps later I see a bloodstain on the ground; activating it, I see a ghostly figure of a previous explorer, looking much like me with shield and dagger, hesitantly taking a few steps forward, swinging at the empty air, then thrown backwards backwards by a massive force and crumpling to the ground. The image fades away and I'm sure I'm about to die. Inching forwards, shield raised, leaning forwards on the couch as if I could see deeper into my TV. I don't realize the wall opened up into a side chamber on my left, and hear the grunt of a misshapen miner demon just in time to see his pickaxe come at me. I'm facing the wrong way so my shield doesn't take the hit, and it rocks me backwards, stunning me, giving him enough time to make the second strike... and for the millionth time, I've died.

I really like Demon's Souls. After Fallout 3, Fable 2, and Brutal Legend, it's pleasantly not open-world, there's no journal to keep checking, there are no mini-games to master, and there's no world travel to get to the action. You just choose your level, get through it, and kill the boss. It's way hard, but not unapproachably so. None of the mechanics are individually punishing; as long as you're careful, approach enemies with tactics instead of rushing in, and keep an eye out for the numerous ways to fall to your death, you can make it through a level on your first try. The game does a good job of making sure you know that if you die, it's your fault, which is exactly the kind of challenge I like. However, death means you're back to the beginning; there are no save points, and some of the levels are long.

Dying puts you in Soul Form, in which you have diminished max health, but a little bit higher damage and stealth, and you kinda glow a little, though not nearly enough to keep you from walking into a hole. When you beat a boss, you return to life. So you'll generally be alive for your first run in a level, and then spend the rest of the time dead, until you beat its boss. It's a weird dynamic, as being alive is more of a trade-off than an obvious benefit, though it has an effect on your multiplayer options. Having the extra health while alive is a nice perk, but you know you're going to die before the next boss fight, so it's almost a relief when some dude jumps out at you and one-shots you... or when you walk into a pit you didn't see because it's too dark.

The multiplayer elements are simple but contribute nicely to the game. Players can leave messages that other players can see, using a list of preset words and phrases. There's a shortcut down to a boss that requires dropping off a series of ledges at exactly the right place. Because it's so dark, it's very difficult to see the right place to drop off. But by leaving messages, I marked my own path down as well as showing the way for others. You also see ghostly images of other players, so I could sometimes see other players using the trail I marked. Messages can also warn you of ambush, tell you not to waste your time pursuing a dead end, tell you to use certain tactics or equipment on an enemy, or warn you of the pit right in front of you. Players can recommend others' messages, giving the author a health boost. It's a communal walkthrough that fully fits into the game's fiction.

There's more direct co-op play, too. In Soul Form, you can use an item at certain points in levels and allow yourself to be summoned to another player's world to help kill a boss. If you're the one that's alive, you can summon other people who have offered themselves. Bosses have higher health, but if you beat somebody's else's boss in Soul Form, you come back alive and get a share of the souls that dropped, so it's a good way to get some extra cash and your life back. It's also a nice break from beating your head against a level to jump into a quick boss kill run on somebody else's server.

I'm still collecting thoughts on the implementation of difficulty and how it affects gameplay, so more on that later, but I definitely enjoy that it's a hard game. For me, it's hit a perfect balance of being challenging but also rewarding my efforts enough to keep me playing it almost exclusively. I'll be falling into pits for a bit longer, while Borderlands sits in my Amazon queue, unpurchased.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Brutal Legend, on expectations and let downs

One of the best parts of Brutal Legend, apart from the cut-scenes, is driving around. The open world environment has just the right mix of detail and size; you don't drive around forever trying to find a point of interest, but nothing feels too cluttered together. Considering all the things in the world you need to discover for completion, you'll find yourself getting out of your car and doing something every minute or so, at the most; no five minute long treks where you rubber-band down the trigger and go make a drink. However, as rewarding as exploration is, when you die, you respawn at last your last checkpoint, which, because you had so much fun exploring, could be halfway across the world. The environment doesn't do a very good job of warning you environment hazards; jumping off a cliff may lead to a totally sweet jump or sudden death. A minimap might help with this, since they often demark the active gameplay zone, but there's no minimap. So be careful there.

The RTS aspect of the game becomes a lot more central in the second half, where you basically go from stage battle to stage battle, doing side quests in between to upgrade your abilites (which, while usable and useful in stage battles, are probably not that important if you're actually good at commanding your troops). The game does a good job of introducing you to the practical details of RTS gameplay in an incremental manner; one battle you're just directing troops, the next you learn about upgrades, the next you learn about the important of structures, etc. However, there's a lot of details there, and around my fourth stage battle, I forgot how to upgrade the tech level of your troops.

Stage battles are pretty cool to watch. The units have a ton of style; too much, really, as it's hard to tell what kind of units an enemy is using against you. The seven foot tall dude who barfs rats? Short-range infantry killer. The pram that launches babies at you? Long range infantry. If you complete the mission or die and have to restart, you'll get info about the units added to your tour book, but they definitely chose form over function on this one. The visuals are great, mostly because the units and battlefields are just so metal, but there's not enough useful info for you.

It's incredibly hard to split your units into squads and send them in different directions, since a command affects 'everybody in the range of your voice', whatever that is, and one misstep would ruin everything by giving the same command to all squads. I had to change my tactics for the limitation of not being able to efficiently split and direct my troops, like, send my main force out to the front lines so I can make some dudes and send them to guard a merch booth, which was dangerous because I wasn't ready to go to the front line, but I wouldn't be able to split my squads unless there was sufficient distance between them. There is a method for selecting a subgroup, but it just doesn't quite work in the heat of battle.

The pacing is unfortunate. You spend the first quarter of the game doing solo stuff, advancing the plot. Then the next quarter is stage battles against the first evil faction. Then the next quarter is stage battles against the second evil faction. By this time you've seen elements of the third faction around the world, so you expect there to be a fourth quarter of stage battles against them, but after the last battle against the second faction, there's a single mini-battle against the third faction, and then a boss fight and game over. Furthermore, the penultimate stage battle is much more grueling than the final one, so the last battle is just not rewarding at all. A co-worker last week wrote in his gmail status line that he "accidentally beat Brutal Lenged", so I was prepared for an abrupt ending, but even so, it was kind of surprising. After beating the final boss, I spent another hour exploring the world and doing some completion stuff, but then I was just done with it.

It's too bad. The game is just full of fantastic art and style, top notch writing and voice acting, and the balls to do something really different, but in the end, the disappointment I feel due to failed expectations will last longer than the joy of the game's triumphs. Like a relationship gone bad, I want to cling to the great parts and forget that it was ultimately a let down. I want to rave about the game more than complain about it, but I feel jilted, and in video games, like in love, it's worse to have high expectations dashed than have low expectations surpassed.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Dead Space Extraction, no really

At work, we have My Game is Better Than Your Game, in which people nominate games for the company to buy, add to the library, and generally spend all week playing during lunch time until we get the next one. Everybody votes on the nominees and majority wins, so it's often a game that is super popular, but sometimes it's something that is kind of weird and about which everybody is curious but on which nobody wants to spend money without checking out first. So last week, we got Dead Space Extraction.

I actually really liked Resident Evil: The Umbrella Chronicles, which follows the same kind of formula: take an existing franchise and make a prequel or midquel (I just made that word up, but it's true, right?) that is heavily story-based and involves pointing a Wiimote at the screen and slamming the B trigger. While the on-rail shooter genre deserves criticism, I think they have their place. For one thing, have you ever watched somebody play a game really carefully, exhaustively exploring every area, and you just sit there like, "dude c'mon, blow some shit up already?" This is often what spending lunch hour watching a QA tester play a game is like. You can't do that in an on-rails shooter.

The production quality of Dead Space Extraction is pretty high. It's a really good looking game for the Wii, though that may be because it's really, really dark. It's definitely Dead Space; the assets are right out of the original, just blurrier. The voice acting is pretty good, though in the five missions I saw, there's too much of it. You spend a lot of time watching what are basically cutscenes and listening to dialog, with some shooting necromorphs in between. The shooting captures the feel of the original Dead Space fairly well; you can't just blast everything, and you have to aim and wait for clean shots. There's even a stasis shot that freezes enemies for a short while, so it's a common tactic to freeze one enemy, take out another, then return to the first. Overall, it feels like the game succeeded in doing what it set out to do.

Using the line gun to mow the limbs off of multiple enemies is much more pleasing in Extraction than the original game. This is where the Wiimote interface shines. Turning the Wiimote sideways to activate alternate fire is something I've been waiting for every since I heard this game was in the making. For everybody who turned their hands sideways to blow zombies away gangsta style in Chronicles, this game is for you. ... Okay, was it just me who did that in Chronicles? Never mind.

There is co-op here, though it's unapologetically fictionless. Instead of one reticle representing your character's aim, there are two, with two sets of weapons. You share the same health and weapons, though you have different ammo counts, so there's either some negotiation for resources, or perhaps just competition, depending on who you're playing with. The hacking mini-game is also co-op; you take turns completing steps in the game while the other person fends off attackers. This keeps the tension going very nicely and involves both players equally; if you're going to have a mini-game, this is way to do it.

I found the game a bit slow, but then again, we were playing in a well lit room with twenty cyncical and outspoken game developers, which is definitely not the right environment for this "guided experience." It deserves a dark room and a big TV, and the willingness to let yourself be guided. If you're the kind of person who loudly berates horror movies for being unrealistic, you probably won't enjoy this, but if you enjoy being scared, this will do it.

My biggest complaint is the method by which you obtain ammo and other items; you have to hover over objects to pop up a label for them (much like the original game) and then use the A button to fire a glowing yo-yo that springs out, grabs the item, and pulls it back to you. The fiction for this is that it's the telekinesis beam, but really, it's a glowing yo-yo, and it's pretty annoying, especially since you're constantly spamming it during conversations to try to open lockers in the background and steal ammo from your partner. Chronicles' method of handling this was much less intrusive, and Extraction, which does a much better job of building the mood, really suffers because of this.

Also... unless we missed something, save points only happen at the end of missions, about thirty minutes apart. What is this, Resident Evil?

I'm definitely picking this us as soon as I'm done with Brutal Legend and Demon's Souls, and maybe even sooner, though switching the TV from Component 1 to AV 2 is pretty inconvenient, so we'll see. But if you are at all intrigued by this game, it's worth a look.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Brutal Legend, on why hot games have to be easy

I'm three hours into Brutal Legend. We played the demo three times at work; the humor and pacing and unimpeded progress made it a big hit. It only went downhill from there in my three hours of gameplay. Which isn't a bad thing at all; the cutscenes are well-acted and written, the story is pretty decent, I love it when I can catch a reference (I'm not very metal), driving is way fun, and the art and sound are absolutely top notch. I'm left a little wanting with the gameplay, though.

I don't know if I just wasn't paying attention or was too busy only paying attention to what I wanted to see, but I didn't realize the combat was so squad-oriented, and I had no idea that it'd be so heavily RTS-y (you can pronounce that "ritsy", I just made it up). The squad aspect became apparent on the trip up to the Kill Master. This is set up as a classic escort mission with a squad. I kept losing the mission because Lars kept dying. The team-combo with the headbangers was key here, as you seem to do a lot more damage when teamed up with a group, and the formation was especially helpful with the mission at hand; I got the feeling that this was how the mission was designed to be played. But then I tried just sending my dudes to the back, and found I could just snipe enemies with Clementine without endangering Lars. Was this a genuine alternate solution, or was the encounter not flexible enough to balance other approaches?

There is a lot of modern gameplay elements here: button mashing combos, unit combos, squad orders, and ultimately, RTS battles. The side missions include a lot of racing elements. There's a steady stream of tactical ability upgrades. But it seems that you can eventually bumble through a lot of the challenges without necessarily being good at any of these things; I think the difficulty level decreases with successive failure until you can almost let the game play itself. That's the right solution for a game like this, but it begs the question; if you're going to let the player off the hook in order to progress the story, why bother in the first place?

Nevertheless, I'm enjoying it a lot. The world is just so cool. I read that the designers wanted you to be able to make a heavy metal album cover out of any view in the world, and it really shows. Look, there's a giant stone dude holding a sword in the distance. If I turn to the right, there's a plain of rusty metal crosses. Behind me is a statue of a snake in bondage gear. To the left is a gloomy, barren field of sinister shrubs and trees. It's a pleasure simply to travel from mission to mission.

The gameplay is there if you want it, but it's not challenging enough to really have to get good at it to progress. I'm not sure if that's a good or bad thing here; the draw for me is the story and art, so frustrating gameplay would just get in the way of enjoying that, but at the same time, if it's the right kind of challenging gameplay it can really support the theme, like Shadow of the Colossus, and bind the whole experience together. I think a year from now I'll remember cutscenes and landscapes from Brutal Legend, but the RTS gameplay will be forgotten. The gameplay doesn't get in the way, but I'm not sure I need it or even want it to enjoy the rest of the experience.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Oblivion, on system over story

"Blorple cube" is from the game Spellbreaker, by Infocom. It's the first game that left a real impression on me, though I'd played games on Atari and Commodore 64 before that. I took a short break during the college years, skipped the Nintendo and Sony consoles in favor of a Dreamcast, and then squeaked by on Mac ports and World of Warcraft. I've recently purchased the necessary hardware to get back into gaming mainstream, and am still trying to catch up on those lost, dark years. As such, I try to split my time playing modern games and classics that I missed.

Currently I'm making my way through Oblivion for the first time. I spent most of the night doing the Glarthir quests in Skingrad. So this dude Glarthir suspects a series of people are spying on him, and you're tasked with following them as they leave their houses each morning, and reporting back to Glarthir every night. So there's a lot of doing things at certain times of the day.

I'm fascinated by open-world sandbox games because of the systems behind them and how they make the game compelling, or fail to. Time-oriented quests are interesting in that it's very boring to have to wait until a certain time to do something, but very easy when there is a "wait for x hours" command. The mechanic of having to wait seems superfluous with such a feature, but what it really draws attention to is that the world looks different at different times, from cosmetics such as the color of the sky to the number of NPC's present on the streets. While it risks boring the player by having him stare at a closed door for long minutes in real time, it shows the player that the game makes different things happen at different times.

While following people around Skingard, I watched them pass each other in the street and stop to exchange a few words before moving on. Sarah commented on how ridiculous it seemed compared to actual written narrative: generic greeting, generic response, comment on subject X, comment on subject X, farewell, farewell. Most of the time the exchanges don't make sense: "Enough talking!" "You, too." The mistranslated dialog of Final Fantasy VII was more compelling through sheer quirkiness, but I like being able to perceive, through the flaws, that these interactions are more programmatical than scripted. It makes me feel like the game exists on a level independent of a designer's intention, making it more real to me. I wonder if the difference between the American RPG player and the Japanese RPG player is the appreciation of system rather than story, and that there is value in creating systems that are just flawed enough. Fable 2 tried harder and was a little more successful, I think, but when it failed, man, did it fail. Oblivion, so far, seems a little more honest about its abilities.

However, at the end of the day, do I want to feel as though I've played a system or enjoyed a narrative? Ultimately I like hanging out with designers more than programmers, so we'll see.

Although I didn't enjoy the Glarthir quest line so much, I enjoy reading stuff like this in the walkthrough: "If you tell Glarthir to to take care of his problem, and you pickpocket his lockpicks, he will be unable to break into their houses and will be forced to stand outside their doors all night." Now that's some emergent narrative.