Tag Archives: Diary

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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Diary – Dieing is no fun

You should probably avoid it.

My first experience with Ghosts multiplayer was fun. True, I died a lot, but I snuck some kills in, learned some of the game dynamics, and generally improved my skills. Over the course of several matches, I increased my lethality to the point where I wasn’t always last. I was a serious threat for second to last. On rare occasion, I reached third to last, but never by the end of the match. My second attempt did not go so well. In one match, I died about 9 times in under a minute and often without a chance to fire a single shot. I once unload a clip into an enemy who then destroyed me. This was, unsurprisingly, not fun. Let’s see if we can’t get to fun.

The reason for my total failure the second time was fairly simple, I was completely outmatched. The Ghosts PC community has dwindled to the point where only die-hards remain. Those individuals have maxed out their levels, know the maps, and have generally mastered a game and a genre that I have one campaign’s worth of experience with. In a just world, I would be escorted off to my own little corner of the server to play against equally skilled kittens. We would merrily paw each other until the game took pity and declared one of us “the winner”. With server populations down, Ghosts must merge all skill levels to achieve critical mass to start a game. In short, there is no justice. Only pain.

This highlights the importance of good matchmaking. When players of vastly different skill levels play together, the elite players inevitably dominate. This has a number of deleterious effects. First, it clamps down on learning. In the aforementioned bout, I barely had a chance to move, much less begin to understand the intricacies of the map. I never got to try out weapons or tactics and, even if I did, there was a good chance that they may not have worked given the gulf of skill and equipment. It’s hard to learn if you’re totally ineffectual. The second issue is that it slows progression down. Modern multiplayer FPS’s often include a leveling component that increases the player’s abilities as they succeed. If the player isn’t succeeding, then they aren’t accessing the very things that might help them do so. It effectively punishes the player for starting out. Finally, it’s not fun for either the elite players or the new ones. For elite players who have devoted considerable time to improve their skills, mowing down the helpless may hold some entertainment value, but it doesn’t produce the tense matches that great stories are made of. As for the new players, the constant loss is frustrating. Stifling a player’s attempts at enjoying your game is the worst way to start them off.

That being said, skill matching is incredibly difficult. There isn’t a single metric that denotes player skill. High kill count may suggest a competent player, but if their death rate is similarly high then they might just be a fan of explosions or are feeders of better players. Furthermore, if the players figure out the algorithm used, they will undoubtedly exploit it. High kills get you first place? Prepared for suicide tactics. Low deaths? Watch out for extremely conservative gameplay. It’s impossible to implement a rankings system that doesn’t shape the metagame. This must be handled with care lest the best players adopt boring or frustrating tactics to ensure a high ranking. That’s no fun for anyone.

Other games have done this well. Starcraft 2 stands out for its tiered play system and hidden criteria. It generally matches evenly skilled players and occasionally throws in advanced opponents to see if a player is ready to move up. It maintains a sense of progression the keeps players engaged rather than frustrated. Regardless of how it is done, multiplayer games need to ensure that player’s play against similarly skilled opponents. This ensures they are constantly challenged, but rarely face the game ending feeling that they can never win.

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Diary – Call of Duty: Ghosts is a flaming bag of stupid

Because plausible scenarios are just too hard

 

It’s never good when the setup of your game is just so implausible that I can’t get beyond it.  Call of Duty: Ghosts (Ghosts) is rife with such silliness.  It’s a cornucopia of stupidity that stands as a monument to terrible setting design.  The basic premise is this: Venezuela succeeds in unifying South America under a new entity called the Federation and, faster than you can say “empire consolidation”, attacks the USA.  It overcomes our military might by commandeering a US weapons satellite that is apparently capable of leveling cities.  Gee, I wonder why a state would get nervous about that?  That could be the motivation, but Ghosts never tells us why the evil Mexicans are attacking the US. They’re probably after our women and minimum wage jobs.

I take that back.  They can’t be after our women; we don’t have them!  During some unmentioned catastrophe, all the American women disappeared except for the one that we sent into space.  Ghosts has no other women.  One of the protagonists mentions his mother, but I suspect she died in the Great Female Purge of 2015.  We lost so much.  Including diversity.  California is made entirely of white people.  So far, I have seen exactly two minority characters.  One was an NPC that got a whopping five seconds on screen before disappearing into the ether.  The other was a black guy whose first scene is him dying.  Don’t want to wait on that kind of thing.  He does get a brief scene in a flashback where he at least benefits from the temporal requirement that he not die, but he’s probably well aware that it’s coming.  The knowledge so paralyzes him that he doesn’t speak a word until disappearing sometime later.  Poor token black guy.  I feel for you.

This all results from the need to pander to what developers think their audience wants.  To Activision, players want manly, white protagonists who kick ass in the name of the stars and stripes.  Unfortunately for them, this leaves very little room to build a realistic world or solid characters as they must conform to simplistic, overdone archtypes.  The end result is characters that are uninteresting.  Emotions are rather important components to the development of a narrative arc.  Remove them and you just have meatheads fighting for non-descript “freedom” while, and I’m not kidding, wrestling wolves.  Ghosts relies entirely on reverence for the military and generic machismo to connect to the players and (surprise!) it comes off as flat as you’d expect.  At little character complexity and genuine conflict would go a long way towards making these characters feel human.  Or close to human.  At least part of the same biological family.  Let’s not get too ambitious.

Bland archetypes also force the story down very silly paths.  Consider the conundrum of realistic war games.  They all feel the need to use the United States of America as the protagonist, and must place the country in peril in order to have sufficiently high stakes to keep the player interested.  Small problem: the USA is a military beast.  In the 15 years preceding this game, the US military has successfully invaded and occupied two remote countries with strong insurgencies.  It has the largest Navy of any country and almost double the number of aircraft carriers of the second place country, Britain.  It takes a lot to weaken that kind of force and the ham-fisted theoretical attempts by developers all come off as wildly misinformed.  They require that the US be both vulnerable and strong, and so contort into strange positions and awkward alternate realities to make it happen.  Case and point, requiring the takeover of a satellite superweapon by a collection of countries that don’t have a space program.  Maybe they just got a really good running start.

There is a solution to this.  It involves introducing realistic scenarios, complex characters, and adding a bit of diversity to a stupidly white world.  It means giving your audience credit for having read the occasional news article and being able to appreciate that the world is not just lava guzzling super men without more emotions than revenge and indigestion.  It means growing up as story tellers and speaking about the actual realities of war instead of the eighties action movie version.  But that would be hard, and stupid is so easy.

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Diary – South Park: Stick of Truth – Polish

More than just a spit shine

(Note: While South Park: The Stick of Truth is the negative inspiration for this article, the game is quite enjoyable. Using my amazing powers, I can say that the review of the game will go up next week and it will be positive.)

It struck me as I was picking up a dildo for Mr. Slave that the quest didn’t make sense. Not because a child was going to the post office to pick up a sex toy for someone he didn’t know, but instead because I never had any reason to grab the package in the first place. I had not yet met Mr. Slave and had no reason to believe that he was in need of mail. Stick of Truth allowed me to start and complete a quest without having to go through the trouble of acquiring that quest. More than not making sense in our world (much of this and other game worlds don’t), the quest didn’t make sense in the context of the game. This was an example of a lack of polish and it ever so briefly pulled me out of the game.

Polish is hard to nail down, but the general idea is that the developer has removed the aspects of the game that pull the player from the experience. Obvious examples of polish are things like bugs. Crashing to desktop is a sure way to ensure that any momentum is lost. In many cases, polish is more subtle than that. Polish also includes things like difficulty spikes, poor translation, or terrible interface design. It effects all aspects of the players experience and prevents them from interacting with the game as easily and cleanly as they would like. Whenever the play begins to question the game world, chances are the game lacked polish.

Polish matters because a lack of polish disrupts the experience the game maker is attempting to create. Most games have a feeling they wish to impart on the player and failure to remove the roadblocks can destroy that feeling. For example, I still remember the Hades level in the original God of War where the player is forced to climb rotating bladed pillars. They spun so quickly and became frustrating quickly. They destroyed my feeling of invincibility and replaced it with wonder as to why such a challenging but fun game devolved into a twitchy Frogger knock off. I began to think, not about Kratos and his mighty struggle, but why the developers decided to squeeze in this terrible idea. When I’m ripping apart Greek monstrosities, I shouldn’t be encouraged to pause and consider the merits of a certain section of a level.

That’s not to say that polish guarantees a perfect game. A polished turd is a polished turd. Polish reduces the friction between the player and the base game, but it does not ensure that the game itself is any fun to play. Poor story, mechanics, or level design won’t be hidden by a well-tested interface. Instead they are more exposed as they provide contrast with the problematic aspect of the game. If the controls are tight and the graphics are clear, then the player knows that the problem is the game mechanic and not the input surrounding the mechanic. The same can be said of even good games. It’s a fact that players look for different things in their games. A well-executed game in a genre I don’t like isn’t likely going to change my view of that genre. It might convince me to continue playing that game long after I would have put down similar games and that is worth considering.

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GTA V Diary #4

It’s okay if we offend as long as we offend everyone…right?

One of the common defenses of GTA V’s heavy use of stereotype is that the game is an equal opportunity satire that holds a mirror up to our society and shows how ridiculous we’ve become. Offending people is fine, so the argument goes, as long as it serves the higher purpose of social commentary. The fact that just about everyone is in GTA’s crosshairs means that no one is left out and so no one can be offended. As far as the basic argument goes, I don’t object. Satire is a legitimate form of social commentary that often takes extreme and objectionable views to highlight the flaws in an idea. Furthermore, GTA V can honestly make this claim. That doesn’t mean it does satire well, just that it is doing it.

I wrote earlier that Rockstar populated its world with a non-stop barrage of vapid stereotypes . As I have progressed through the game, I can honestly say that the only exception to this rule is the inclusion of Trevor and Michael. Both are well developed with interesting variations on old clichés that make them fun to watch and discover their character arcs. Everyone else is just a one note cardboard cutout designed to facilitate a section of gameplay and pass along GTA V’s big message: Everybody is shallow these days. That’s right, GTA V is your crotchy grandfather who is angry at the world for not raising its kids right anymore. I wish I could say there was more to it, but that’s it. From Michael’s daughter Trisha getting hump for fame to joining a Scientology knock off cult that very clearly is taking your money, every bit of satire in this game is calling the modern world shallow. That’s all GTA V has to say.

Good satire explores the ideas that it targets. Satire doesn’t just ask that you laugh at an idea; it says things about those ideas and points out the silly or contradictory nature of the idea. The shame about GTA V is not that it is offensive, but that it wastes its voice to make intellectually stupid comparisons that have been made many times elsewhere. It’s no longer enough to have an entitled millennial who just wants everything handed to them on a platter. That stereotype is well worn. The stronger statement is why that is or is not a fair evaluation of that population and what that means for society. Instead, GTA V just collects all the stereotypes in one place and lets them roam free in the most mindless incarnations. Good satire says something. GTA just repeats it. Ad nauseum.

This is not to say that Rockstar’s approach isn’t entirely without merit. In some areas, such as the aptly named Facebook knock-off “Lifeinvader”, the game speaks more intelligently about the loss of privacy and cult of self involvement that results. Occasionally, Rockstar even drops satire in favor of ranting on a soap box such as when Trevor monologues on the ineffectiveness of torture. GTA V can say things when its creators want it to. The game just needs to be smarter about it. Like realism and the mini games, Rockstar needs to pick on a few ideas and work with them rather than dumping underdeveloped copies in the game. Less can be more, particularly when it comes to saying something worthwhile.

Next Up – The actual review!

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GTA V Diary #3

Gameplay elements!  Go to your corners and think about what you’ve done.

 

There is a moment following the first bank heist where the player takes control of Franklin in a strip club.  Franklin can play a simple mini game where he throws cash and the stripper (let’s call her Sophocles) likes Franklin more.  Throw enough money at Sophocles, and she will invite Franklin to a private dance mini game which increases both the gyration and boobage on offer.  Maxing out Sophocles’ “like” meter results in the anticipated sex scene which is actually just a panoramic shot of a building having an orgasmicaly good time.  Sophocles’ contact information is added to Franklin’s phone and the game continues on unchanged.

Moments like the above scene can be extremely valuable when establishing a sense of place in a world.  They are an isolated bit of gameplay that, by virtue of being untied to the larger game, promote the idea that the world has hidden nooks and continues on while the player is elsewhere.  This encourages the player to explore the world as if it were real and rewards that exploration.  Unfortunately for GTA V, the stripping mini game is not just a world building vignette, but also an example of one of the game’s major failings.  GTA V has tons of disparate gameplay elements that don’t interact with each other.  They exist in separate universes without contributing to each other. 

Consider the previous situation again.

In his brief time with Sophocles, Franklin shelled out money and treated the player to a couple of scenes sure to titillate the 13 year old crowd.  Nothing else, besides Franklin’s bank account, changed.  Franklin didn’t become stronger, get access to special weaponry, or open up a new story line.  There is no discernible difference between a player who completed the mini game and one who did not.  The same can be said of a number of mini games that pop up throughout GTA V.  At one point, Franklin helps out an old flame by running her husband’s tow trucking business while he is strung out on drugs.  Again, Franklin performs the required actions and receives nothing at the end.  Nothing Franklin does in the tow truck appears to contribute to anything else he will do in that world.  What this does is force the player to evaluate the mini game strictly on its own merits.  If the game isn’t fun by itself, then there is no reason to do it because it doesn’t add value anywhere else.  Unfortunately for Rockstar, most of its mini games just don’t hold up.

There’s a reason Tow Truck Simulator never made it to the top of the sales charts.  It’s not a particularly glamorous or entertaining job, yet that is exactly what GTA V has the player do repeatedly without compensation.  Contrast that with the Saint’s Row series where each element of the game links which each other element.  GTA-like minigames called diversions provide money and new abilities.  Main missions capture territories that provide income and protection for the next mission.  Even traditional money sink holes like businesses and shops provide the player with the tools to take on larger tasks.  Not all of these activities are fun, but they are worth doing on the merits of what they contribute to the rest of the game. 

 

In creating a myriad of isolate game elements, GTA V gives off the impression that Rockstar just threw ideas into the game without considering how they would fit.  As a result, they’re, at best, worthwhile only if the gameplay they present is worthwhile.  Rockstar needs to focus on what value its activities add and judge them both on their own merits and what they add to the rest of the game.   Few, more focused minigames with a clearer conception of what they add is more fun than randomly modeling a game of darts.  Until Rockstar gives me magic stripper superpowers for frequenting the clubs, I’m sorry Sophocles, but we’re through. 

Next Up  – Stereotypes are not satire

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GTA V Diary #2

Realism Is Not Your Friend

I’ve had trouble conceptualizing the value of realism in a game.  On one hand, a sufficiently realistic game can draw the player in by creating a world that feels coherent and relatable.  It also increases accessibility by using concepts the player is familiar with in everyday life and turning them into game mechanics.  On the other hand, realism in games can also hamper immersion by taking the familiar and making it frustrating.  Far from promoting immersion in the game, this kind of realism encourages the player to remember that the game is an artificial construct.  What is both required and annoying about reality is just annoying in a game world.

GTA V seeks to increase immersion by trying to make the world as realistic as possible.  Movie theaters only show movies at certain times.  The garage door will only open if nothing is in front of it.  When shopping for clothes, the player must move their character to the rack with the clothing item (pants, shirts, shoes) and try on just that item.  These are certainly more realistic than GTA’s competitors, but they are realism without purpose.  Immersion is not increased by including these elements and is actually harmed by it.  Consider the movie times.  Yes, most movie theaters aren’t open after midnight and all have specific times when they start their movies.  In replicating this model, GTA is accurately representing that small part of the movie experience.  However, when I walk up to GTA V’s movie theater, I am very aware of the fact that I am playing a video game.  I know that Rockstar could provide me with that content at any time and could even integrate it into the phone mechanic without a hit to immersion.  That means that when I can’t access that content, I am aware and annoyed by the artificial limits that Rockstar has created. 

Rockstar is mistaking petty realism for realism that promotes immersion.  Petty realism is the inclusion of the tiny constraints that pepper our lives and that we don’t often think about.  Waiting for a cab is a consistent feature of life that serves as a necessary evil.  It is not something I enjoy, nor is it something that draws me into the moment.  While standing on a corner, I have never thought: “Man, waiting for this cab is soooo enthralling.  I’m hooked!”  Instead, the delay in game gives the player time to think about how driving distance and speed are artificially constructs in a game world.  It also separates the player from the gameplay.  The fun things the player would do normally are stuck behind a wait time.  The player has effectively stopped playing so Rockstar can be realistic.  Immersive realism focuses on getting the big things right that are necessary for the player to identify with the situation presented.  Immersion isn’t effected if the cab arrives early, but it is seriously harmed if the cab hovers five feet in the air. That kind of detail is useful for the exact opposite reason that a wait time is not.  An accurately modeled car draws the player into both the game world and fun driving mechanics.  This kind of realism ties immersion with fun rather than frustration.

GTA V reduces the noticeable amounts of petty realism that permeated GTA IV.  However, GTA V still has unnecessary levels of realism that intrude in on my game experience.  The game sacrifices play on the altar of realism when it doesn’t actually increase my immersion or enjoyment of the game.  I know the detailed world is a hallmark of the series, but Rockstar needs to decide which realistic elements actually help the game, and which ones hinder it.

Next Up – Stop isolating gameplay from itself

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GTA V Diary #1

And So It Begins

I have a confession to make: I’ve waited an embarrassingly long time to play any of the Grand Theft Auto series.  Despite over two decades of gaming experience, the first time I played any GTA game was when I started GTA IV three weeks ago.

AND IT WAS TERRIBLE.

The character’s personalities fluctuated constantly, the missions were unimaginative, and the whole game had a weird obsession with realism at the cost of enjoyment of the game.  After gritting my teeth through five hours of gameplay, I finally put the controller down when my new best buddy Roman informed me that I could not use the game’s fast travel feature because he had run out of cabs.

Yup.  Computer generated and controlled cabs were apparently in short supply.

As I wrote about my dislike of the game, I felt I was being unfair.  After all, GTA IV came out five years ago and hadn’t games evolved since then?  Reviewers and friends both singled out GTA V as a great experience so I decided it was unfair to judge a five year old game by modern standards.  Instead, I purchased GTA V and will now embark on a reviewing diary of it.  The idea is that I’ll play during the week and sum up my experience on the weekend.  This is the first of those entries.

Diary #1

GTA V starts off with a neatly conceived tutorial mission.  The player starts off as part of a group of bank robbers mid-heist with the aspects of the robbery serving as impetus to teach controls and concepts.  It also unfortunately serves as an introduction to GTA V’s love affair with the word “fuck”.  I generally don’t mind cussing in games, but it seems that the characters can’t get a sentence off without jamming fuck, shit, or crap in.  Rather than feel organic and part of the characters, the repeated cussing just feels forced to convince the player that the characters are hardcore.  This shit has a place, and it’s not every fucking sentence.

After the heist concludes, the player takes control of Franklin.  Franklin is a young, black street tough who’s got dreams of making it big.  Joining him in the stereotype parade is Lamar, Franklin’s ambitious and hotheaded childhood friend.  Together, they “repossess” cars for Simeon, a slimy Eastern European car dealer.  I noted that poor characters were one of my issues with GTA IV and that comes roaring back here.  Both major and minor characters seem ripped straight from the stereotype handbook with little attempt to do anything interesting in them.  In the brief time I have played, I’ve also seen: the whiny feminist, the gangbanging street thug, and the vaguely Jewish psychologist who is more interested in running out the clock than helping his patient.  To that we can add the bratty teenagers and the nagging wife.  I’ve seen all these characters before.

I will say that the one character aspect that GTA V does innovate on is suggestibility.  Franklin will do anything anyone tells him.  Need someone to drive a tow truck?  Franklin will do it.  Just met Franklin and now want him to help you stalk celebrities?  No problem!  Need a third for a kidnapping?  Franklin doesn’t even mind that you didn’t give him five minute’s notice.  It’s ridiculous how quickly Franklin signs on for stupid plans with high danger and low reward.  Franklin is willing to do just about anything, and the game portrays him as the smart one.  I’d hate to think what playing Lamar would be like.

Next up – Realism!

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