Monthly Archives: September 2015
Fear the mud crab.
Calibrating the difficulty of an open world game is hard. Most games present a wide variety of scenarios and, unlike linear games, open world developers can’t decide the order the player faces them. The one thing the developers have going for them is the consistency of player power. Most open world protagonists have a narrow band of strength that the player can either drop to or achieve. Developers need only target that band to ensure the player can beat the level…unless it’s an open world RPG. Including RPG elements add player input into the protagonist’s abilities thereby widening the power band considerably and making difficulty setting much more… well, difficult. The premiere open world RPG maker, Bethesda Softworks, and the premiere open world RPG series, the Elder Scrolls, is instructive to understanding this problem.
Morrowind takes the simplest approach to difficulty by keeping it static throughout the game. The attributes of monsters stay the same, regardless of the player’s achievements. This creates de facto limitations on the open world by forcing players toward content they can beat and preventing them from going places where they lack the skills to overcome. It also creates a very real sense of achievement, provided the player is willing to power through the opening slog. Enemies that were powerful in the beginning become progressively less so as the player increases their skills. The player has a clear sense of their power relative to the world and it’s hard to deny the feeling of success when they finally beat X creature that was so difficult in the early game. Once the player levels beyond the most powerful creatures, the game becomes easy and the challenge is gone. Morrowind takes a brute force approach to difficulty which increases the sense of achievement, but at the cost of approachability.
Responding to criticisms of Morrowind’s static difficulty, Bethesda Softworks added variable difficulty to its successor, Oblivion. Every ten skill levels, the player gained a character level which provided bonuses based on the skill levels used to achieve the player level. Monsters and gear in Oblivion scale based on the character level which should provide a consistent challenge across the game. In theory, this dispenses with Morrowind’s punishingly difficult zones by ensuring each monster is within reach of the player. Unfortunately, that’s not how the idea worked in practice and it’s questionable whether the goal was worth achieving in the first place. Character levels (and, therefore, monster levels) increased without regard to the player’s lethality. The character level could increase five times without the player boosting their combat skills. This means that combat difficulty is tied to a system that could, potentially, not reflect combat ability. If they player spends a couple of levels working on their sparkling personality, they face a significant combat difficulty spike without the means to deal with it. Alternatively, if they focused exclusively on kill power, fights become laughably easy and the vaunted difficulty scaling fails to achieve one of its major goals. The game does have a difficulty slider, but having to constantly adjust it breaks immersion.
One of the major issues with the Oblivion method is that its fundamental goal is questionable. The static approach to difficulty, while brutal, provides a very real sense of achievement. The player knows they’re getting stronger because they can defeat monsters they couldn’t before. If Oblivion had achieved its aim of consistent difficulty, the player would never have that feeling because their opponents would always provide a similar challenge. As it stands, the character leveling ensures that monster challenge feels arbitrary by the constantly changing the difficulty based on player choices. It’s hard to feel accomplished by beating a giant when the player knows they could have leveled differently (or avoided leveling all together) and drastically changed the achievement.
For Skyrim, Bethesda Softworks found an interesting solution by combining the two methods. Skyrim merges the world leveling of Oblivion, but restricts those levels within region set bands. Monsters level up with the player, but areas have minimum and maximum difficulty levels that restrict monster growth and decline. A giant in one region will never go below level X(let’s use 15 as an example) meaning that a level 1 player will likely die if they fight it. It remains at level 15 until the player surpasses level 15 and the starts leveling with the player until it hits its region’s level cap. Rather than difficulty scaling, Skyrim difficulty smooths. The goal isn’t to provide a consistent level of challenge, but rather to ensure regions exist at the player’s level while still providing monsters for the player to measure their power against. Furthermore, Skyrim’s method ensures that the game’s challenge will remain for the duration of a region thereby minimizing the times a quest is either too easy or hard. Skyrim provides both Morrowind’s sense of achievement and Oblivion’s (attempted) difficulty consistently. It’s the best of both worlds.
Renowned Explorers: International Society is a vindication of the indie games movement. It’s a unique take on several genres without indie gaming’s typical excesses and is completely outside the realm of what large publishers would go for. It’s fun, fresh, and, to my dismay, much too short. Still, it’s a worthy purchase for players with a little extra cash and a desire to see something new.
The game begins with the player choosing an exploration team. Each character is infused with Victorian era personality and unique charm. In the character screen and throughout the game, Renowned Explorers possesses a distinct artistic identity that adds much needed flavor. In addition to their backstory, characters have a mix of skills that encourages distinct playstyles. The player will need to think about the construction of their team if they want to get the most out of it. Sadly, the skills all pull from the same pool of talents. Not using the character’s backstory to create character specific attacks feels like a missed opportunity.
Once selected, the team of *ahem* renowned explorers embarks on a new adventure in an exotic land. Each map is broken into a series of locations separated by supplies consuming distances. The player ventures to a location and explores the surrounding areas. Sometimes the location is as simple as gathering a few resources, but often the explorers embark on a mini adventure that taps team skills to resolve conflicts and reap extra rewards. Each adventure introduces fun dialogue segments that add character and humor with solid writing to match the stylized exploration theme. Unfortunately, this clashes with the intended roguelike gameplay. Developer Abbey Games wants the player to replay the game repeatedly, but scripted content for the adventures is never new and quickly skipped. This speaks to the only real weakness of the game: using scripted events in a notionally roguelike game. Computer generated content is often used in roguelikes to ensure a fresh experience. Abbey Games’ decision to use scripted content means the challenge will remain the same throughout repeated playthroughs thereby limiting the amount of value the player gets from the content. Furthermore, the amount of unique content is fully accessed in a couple of runs through the game meaning the player will see everything in a few hours.
Upon completing the exploration of an area, the player is taken to a view of the globe and has a chance to use the resources they acquired to research power boosts, acquire support characters who grant benefits, and buy new equipment. The overworld map has a lot of options that allows players to customize their team and bolster their strategy. It also establishes a set of priorities during the exploration phase as the player must acquire specific resources to take advantage of this screen. The depth is considerable and the initial difficulty level is low enough to permit exploration without total loss.
For all of the strength of the other parts of the game, the battle system is where Renowned Explorers really stands out. Rather than confine the player to murder and killing, the game’s battle system uses a rock-paper-scissors style combat that includes speaking. The player may either act friendly, be devious, or stab their opponent. Each action in a combat style contributes points to the party’s disposition that, when combined with their opponent’s disposition, grants bonuses or debuffs. For example, if the player’s team acts friendly while their opponent is devious, the player’s team gets a bonus and the opponent becomes weaker. The same is true in reverse. It’s important to balance the party’s disposition to ensure the enemy doesn’t gain an advantage. In addition to disposition, individuals have moods which effect their strengths and weaknesses. Attacks influence moods which allows the player (and the opponent) to set up target vulnerabilities and then exploit those vulnerabilities. Matched with party disposition, the combat is incredibly deep. Players determined to plumb its depths should bump up the difficulty as understanding combat isn’t needed for victory at the default levels.
There’s a lot to love about Renowned Explorers: International Society. The combat is deep, the adventuring is fun, and the flavor is strong. There just needs to be more of it. This game is not a value purchase, but for those who can spend freely, it’s a lot of fun.
A totally original tale of space marines fighting aliens.
The thing about calling a game a “classic” is that you have to measure it against the established standard of the day. Classic games aren’t a reflection of the time they’re created, but rather of how they compare to current games. With that in mind, the reason Starcraft and Starcraft: Brood War aren’t undisputed classics is because developer Blizzard reentered the RTS genre again and gave us Starcraft 2. Starcraft 2: Wings of Liberty is one of those rare games that evolves the formula so much that it’s practically a revolution.
The game picks up after the events of Brood War. Jim Raynor leads a revolutionary group against Emperor Megnsk while the Zerg and Protoss remain quiet in their respective territories. The calm is shattered when Kerrigan launches another invasion of the Terran Dominion. The player takes control of Raynor as he tries to protect humanity against the Zerg while still prosecuting his war against Megnsk. There’s a lot of back story here, but Blizzard chose a solid starting point so that newcomers won’t feel too lost. The introduction of a few new characters (I’m a big fan of Tychus) keeps the story from being a retread and provides much needed outside perspective to characters who are absorbed by their own drama. The focus is squarely on the Terrans (they’re they only ones with a solid campaign), though Protoss and Kerrigan play roles as well. Overall, the story is a solid space opera that sacrifices a bit to the needs of the campaign, but remains compelling in its own right.
While still recognizable, nearly every aspect of the campaign has evolved. This is most apparent in the missions where Blizzard figured out how to move beyond the glorified skirmishes of the original Starcraft. Missions now focus on taking advantage of the traits of individual units and they encourage the player to experiment with all the unique abilities. Blizzard has crafted clever set ups (such as a moving wall of fire forcing the player to lift their base) and cleverly includes units too unbalanced for multiplayer. The unit based focus forces some unnecessary plot diversions in the story, but is a solid edition to the gameplay. Outside the missions, the player has access to a ship based hub where they can purchase upgrades, talk to team members, and replay old missions for achievements. The whole package, plus the ridiculous polish, makes for a compelling experience that is worth returning to.
Like the campaign, the multiplayer received a major overhaul. Interestingly enough, it doesn’t touch the basic gameplay. Starcraft’s tight balance between the three races carries over to the sequel with a few new units and stat changes to vary the experience. Instead, the biggest shifts come from match matching. Blizzard established a tiered ranking system based on player success. The player plays five evaluation matches which then places them into the appropriate rank. This system does a couple of neat things. It ensures players are matched against opponents of a similar skill and provides clear feedback on player success. It’s easy to tell how good of a Starcraft 2 player you are based on your ranking. Playing matches also provides experience which goes towards acquiring minor rewards like portraits and unit animations. The only flaw in the multiplayer is that Starcraft 2: Heart of the Swarm is out. Many of the best players have migrated over to the next iteration of the game.
Rounding out the Starcraft 2 experience is a clean, compelling presentation that shows off Blizzard’s technical capacity and movie making. Units are distinctive, colorful, and animate smoothly. The environments move beyond the original Starcraft’s bland grays and browns to more vibrant jungles and ruins. The cutscenes make impressive use of detail and scale to create the feel of a living world. It’s telling that one of the opening cutscenes was the first time I really felt the size and majesty of the battlecruiser. Still, the movies growing grandeur feel discordant with the scale of the gameplay. While cutscenes include massive battles between huge armies, the missions and skirmishes have no more than 400 units on screen with space ships the size of 10 marines. It’s a necessary conceit to the genre, but it’s jolting to switch between the two.
There are a few flaws in Starcraft 2: Wings of Liberty, but they are small. The incredible amount of polish and creativity in the game makes it compelling and one of the true greats of the genre and gaming in general. For players with even a passing interest in RTS games, this is a must buy.