Monthly Archives: June 2015

Declaring Vacation

Sorry team, but my vacation caught up with me.  Regular post next week.

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Diary – This game is not detail oriented – Shadow of Mordor

I PRESSED Y, DAMN IT.

Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor is a surprisingly mediocre game.  I’ll try to review it a little later, but I want to take a little time to investigate one of the major sources of disappointment: getting the small things wrong. It shouldn’t be a big deal.  After all, the small things are small things for a reason. However, the little touches in a game are often the most important and draw a line between fun and dull. For a game that got a Metacritic average of 84 and rave reviews from a number of users, Shadow of Mordor misses some of the tiny things that should make the game shine.

Button delays

As my line above might suggest, one of the first issues is combat responsiveness.  Shadow of Mordor pulls from the Assassin’s Creed/Batman school of fighting with timed button presses to fend off attacks.  When it works, battles flow from one swing to the next with the player feeling like an unstoppable badass.  What’s wrong then?  The delay in responding to button presses.  Pressing the appropriate button at the last possible moment doesn’t work because the game will ignore that button long before it removes the button queue above the enemy character’s head.  This isn’t much of an issue in early combat, but as the game becomes more difficult, the small issue creates a large crack.  With numerous enemies on screen attacking and a combat system based on chaining together hits, delayed button responsiveness destroys flow and make it difficult to access high levels of combat.  The little thing becomes a big thing.

Tower placement

Towers serve as Shadow of Mordor’s fast travel system.  Though no map is particularly large, towers allow the player to get around enemy patrols and pointless dead time between missions.  Unfortunately, the towers don’t cover the whole map making some areas difficult to access.  Often these areas are strongholds for enemy forces which means the area is both far from a tower and blocked by combat.  This makes sense during a mission, but becomes frustrating when trying to nab collectibles.  The player can’t take a break from combat (one of the best parts of collectibles), because the tower placement ensures that combat either must take place or be actively avoided.  Whereas a player might collectible hunt in Assassin’s Creed for a break, they must leave Shadow of Mordor to accomplish the same task.

No joy in motion

Most open world games have a mechanic whereby the player can just enjoy running around the world and soaking in the sights.  GTA and the Saint’s Row series have cars and radio stations.  Assassin’s Creed has rooftops and the occasional pirate ship.  Shadow of Mordor has…well….nothing.  The player is confined to his feet most of the time and the occasional ride on a feral Caragor doesn’t help considering how inconvenient it can be to get on one.  This doesn’t hurt basic gameplay as the maps are small, but it does hurt the downtime between missions.  There just isn’t a fun way to get around the game which hurts when that’s all the player wants to do.

Small things often add up to big things when there are enough of them.  Shadow of Mordor’s small things are often wrong and show an ignorance of what makes an open world action game tick.  They take tiny bites out of the player’s enjoyment until only the game’s true strengths are any fun.  Nailing the small things, particular in an open world game where the player will often want to mess around, is the key to making a great game.  Sadly, Shadow of Mordor doesn’t and so isn’t that game.

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Opinion – Final Boss Success

I must have been tempting fate.

Remember when I said the boss of Persona 3 met most of my criteria for a bad final boss fight?  It proved it this week.  After fighting for an hour and having a relatively easy time, the last boss reached 25% life and dropped a final attack that wiped out my party at nearly full health.  ISN’T THAT FUN???

Obviously, it’s not.

Having just gone through an example of a terrible final boss, I feel it’s time to identify what a good final boss looks like.  Final bosses are an awesome opportunity to put a satisfying ending on a game that the player may have invested tens of hours into.  It can be the ultimate moment of closure for an epic storyline.  In short, final boss fights have considerable potential.  Here are a few ways to take advantage of it:

Reflect the story of the game

Developers often feel the need to have a major boss battle as the conclusion to their game and there is something appealing about one final duel against all odds.  Unfortunately, that may not organically mesh with the game’s story.  Not all enemies are super-powered villains who destroy worlds and provide challenges to elite groups of warriors, yet some games try to jam them in anyway.  Consider the end of Wolfenstein: The New Order.  The final fight is against Totenkopf, a maniacal Nazi scientist.  To make Totenkopf a challenge for the player, they stick him in a giant mech suit reminiscent of mechaHitler from the first game.  Nothing up to this point suggests that Totenkopf has any great skill piloting a mech, nor that he wouldn’t be better off handing the controls to a trained henchmen, yet that is how he’s presented as the final boss.  Wolfenstein would have done better to play to Totenkopf’s established skills rather than invent a martial persona which clearly didn’t fit.  The end boss fight feels tacked on because it is out of character with the character as he’s been portrayed up until that point.  Of course, if a video game has set up the final boss as a destructive warrior, then it would do well to ensure he is one when the fighting starts.

Minimize frustration

Too often do developers confuse difficult with frustrating.  Bosses have a myriad of special attacks, absorb tons of damage, and always seem to have another form.  A good final boss fight shouldn’t have the player tearing out their hair.  Developers should minimize random elements that deny player skill and avoid overlong attacks or cutscenes.  If a developer insists on a long fight, then it ought to facilitate restarting that boss fight should the player fail.  Nothing destroys the mood of a final boss by having to restart a long sequence all over again.  In short, the fight should be a test of skill, not patience.

Build on the game

Most games have a signature mechanic or story that helps define the game within its genre.  Unfortunately, most games also have a final boss that ignores that element in favor of brute strength and endless repetition.  Persona 3’s final boss is a perfect example.  Until that point in the game, the player exploits enemy vulnerabilities to gain extra attacks and win fights.  The final boss, on the other hand, has no vulnerabilities.  The developer completely ignored the defining battle mechanic of the game in the service of avoiding an “easy” boss fight.  Instead, we get a boss that could fit into any RPG.  It would have been better if the developer could have used the skills the player already learned to create a unique and memorable boss.

It doesn’t have to be long or hard to be epic

The end fight of Saboteur has the player fighting their way to the top of the Eiffel tower in pursuit of a vile Nazi commander.  After killing the last guards, the player finds him waiting next to a ledge.  The game slows down and the player shoots the commander with the glittering city of Paris as the backdrop.  The fight wasn’t long, the battle wasn’t difficult, but the end imparted a sense of completion and grandeur that a thousand bloated fights couldn’t match.  Game endings can achieve superior conclusions without demanding time and skill from the player.  If the preceding game sets the whole event up, then sometimes a boss fight needs nothing more than a well-conceived shot to make a memorable end.   Give the player credit for all they’ve done up until this point and don’t demand more if you don’t need to.

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Review – Rebuild 3: Gangs of Deadsville

Brainsss…..and building materials…..and socio-economic infrastructure….

I’ve long been a fan of the Rebuild flash game series (one and two) and their unique take on the zombie theme.  Rather than explore the zombie apocalypse from the perspective of the lone survivor (for the millionth time), the Rebuild series has the player collect survivors to revive destroyed cities while fighting off the zombie hoard.  In Rebuild 3: Gangs of Deadsville, developer Northway Games has a chance to turn this idea into a fully fleshed out experience.  Unfortunately, Northway doesn’t seem to understand what makes the game tick, and so misses the mark.

Each round starts the same.  The player controls a small band of survivors and limited territory in a once thriving city.  Using each survivor’s specialty (engineering, building, soldiering, leadership, and scavenging), the player expands out to conquer new territory and while fending off zombie attacks.  The player must balance several key resources to ensure their team remains safe, fed, and happy.  Inhabiting the same town are multiple factions with their own goals and seedy stories.  Some factions are zombie staples, such as the Pig Farmers with questionable meat sources, but others are genuinely new and entertaining, such as the ninja gangsters (Hint: Always ally with ninja gangsters.  This goes for in game and real life).  Players may trade with factions and ultimately form alliances…or just murder the whole lot.  Northway Games carried over the foundation from the flash game and it remains solid as ever.

At its heart, Rebuild 3 is a game of scarcity.  The early game is easily the most entertaining when the player is making tough choices over what resources should go where.  Risking the future of the survivors on scavenging enough food can be thrilling and gives the player real choices.  As the game progresses, these decisions fade and take the fun along with them.  Rebuild 3 doesn’t have a way to either channel the many resources of the mid and late game or continue the pressure of the early game.  If the player survives the first few turns, they fall into a bland pattern of killing and expanding until they achieve victory.  The nail-biting team management of the early game becomes annoying micromanaging as they player must move 7+ characters each turn without the attending weight of failure for sub-optimal choices.  In a game about scarcity, Rebuild 3 has no idea about what to do with plenty.

The confusion extends to the campaign.  Each level begins and ends the same way with little variation in-between.  The player starts off with five tiles, expands until they run into factions, and then either converts or kills said factions.  Occasionally, new objectives are thrown in, but they often reflect the “click end turn to win” style that plagues the modern Civilization games.  In only one level does Northway Games use Rebuild 3’s setting in a meaningful way and that is also the best level in the game.  The factions could have been another interesting avenue for development, but they too are ignored.  They each have stories associated with them, but the player must actively seek out those stories through mundane game actions that, on every other level, would produce the same old diplomatic menu.  Rather than focus on the strength of the setting, the campaign acts like the quickplay feature with some mild variations.

I hate to write this review because I love the potential of the series.  Underneath the poor execution is an amazing game screaming to come out.  Assuming Northway Games can learn from their mistakes, I would absolutely welcome a Rebuild 4.  As it stands, I have a hard time recommending this game.  If the idea appeals to you, it might be worth it on a Steam sale.  Otherwise, pass.

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Opinion – This looks familiar: Replay edition

You can never go home again…unless you reload.

I am about to complete my second run through of Persona 3.  Staring down the barrel of a stupid final boss fight (it violates just about all of these rules), I’d like to look back at why I started on this path in the first place.  After all, the Persona 3 is a ridiculously long game and I’ve already beaten it once before.  The broad answer is that the game still gives me something that I want to experience.  The more specific answer is as follows.

Persona 3 has nothing to offer that it didn’t have the last time around.  The game is still very linear with the same enjoyable cast and collection of stories drawing from all walks of Japanese life.  As someone who tires quickly of the same experience, I usually find it difficult to go back to RPGs and relive the old storylines that I often remember.  Persona 3 gets around this by being big.  The huge narrative draw, the vignettes surrounding the main NPCs, are difficult to do in a single run through and therefore represent new content to explore.  The size of a game allows it to include content that most players will need to revisit if they hope to see it all.  Coupled with the high quality of the content I have seen, Persona 3 makes a compelling case to return to the game and see what I missed.

JRPGs is one of the worst genre subtypes for replayability, but there are some that specialize in it.  Strategy games, be they turn-based or real-time, are excellent at providing long term replayability.  They do this by eschewing linear, static content in favor of static gameplay elements that can be recombined in a plethora of ways.  Consider a game like Civilization V.  The civilizations, technology, terrain types and much more are carried across games unchanged, yet the game is infinitely replayable.  This is because it mixes its elements up to produce drastically different results in each playthrough.  A player may be a strong maritime power in one game and engage in cultural domination in the next.  They may rush towards economic techs to shore up a weak economy or ignore them in another game thanks to abundant gold resources.  The options are limitless.  Of course, this only works if powerful game elements are randomized.  If one method of success dominates the game, regardless of the situation, then it’s effectively a linear game.  This concept hurt Beyond Earth as the player just turtled to victory in every game.

A heavy skill game can also keep things fresh.   For a certain type of player, the ability to learn a game inside out and see that knowledge make them a better player provides plenty of reason to continue on.  The new part of the game comes from the player’s continual striving to master every aspect of the game.  While some players need only the basic game to continue on, many prefer to match themselves up against human opponents.  With the inclusions of leaderboards or match play, the player now has a metric by which they can measure themselves against.  Unless they’re in first place, there is always someone who’s better and represents another level of unattained success.  Furthermore, human opponents are more likely to craft new strategies that were not conceived of by the player or the developer.  Introducing competition provides a continual stream of new content.

The above tend to be the major motivators for me.  What drives you to play a game again?  What is your favorite game to replay?

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