Tag Archives: open world

Opinion – World building is tough

A little bit of sugar helps the ridiculously complex narrative go down.

World building is tough.  Adding something on to the tasks video games must complete (controls, gameplay, graphics, sound, art design, etc) seems cruel when many games can’t even get the basics right.  Even so, if a game wants to draw the player into the world of the game, that world needs support.  The player must appreciate its intricacies and be intrigued by its mysteries which requires considerable support throughout the entire game.  The variety of gameplay types compounds the difficulty of world building.  One size does not fit all.  Depending on the type of game, the developer must approach world building in a different way.

RPGs and open world games

In many ways, RPGs and open world games have it easiest.  These styles of game, regardless of genre, tend to have a slower pace, more time to explore locations, and a greater emphasis on story telling.  This allows developers to give the player time to actually walk around the world and interact with its inhabitants.  Through conversations, exploration, ambient noise, and questing, developers can overtly and subtly interweave information about their world into every facet of the game.  Even with all of the available opportunities, some prefer to shove exposition dumps down the player’s throats.  This should be resisted.  With the many ways to draw the player into the world, developers should limit lectures on history, culture, or any other aspect of the game world to sideshows for interested players or only when the situation absolutely necessitates it.  Exposition dumps only appeal to the devoted while even casually interested players tire of reading when they should be playing.  Where possible, the developer should work world building in a way that works with gameplay rather than conflicts with it.

FPS

The pace of a first person shooter often dictates the way it builds its world.  For the fast paced shooters, the developer can’t let the player stop and investigate their surroundings.  The narrative of the environment must be told primarily through the visual elements because the player won’t have the time to stop and absorb text or conversation.  Even the visual cues lose subtlety for every second of gameplay devoted to speed.  FPS players may only appreciate the world in the corners of their vision or through stand out moments that temporarily pause the action.  Players can’t appreciate small details if the game moves too quickly for them to absorb putting a premium on blunt delivery mechanisms such as cutscenes or large visual elements.  Alternatively, some FPS’ take a slower pace allowing for more nuanced world building.  Audio logs detailing story can provide rich context for visual and aural cues, provided the player has time to listen to them.  Even a slow FPS tends to focus on visual cues due to the first person view, but it can augment those cues with the RPGs rich armory of tools.

RTS

The real time strategy game suffers from a decidedly different problem than the FPS.  Yes, RTS games are fast paced making nuanced approaches to world building difficult, but their real problem is that they, by necessity, must take place on a battlefield.  Whereas other games have gameplay justified reasons to explore peaceful areas, RTS games are defined by their combat.  If a player isn’t directing armies, then they aren’t playing the game.  World building in an RTS must rely on the same visual cues of the FPS, but also with a heavy dose of cutscenes.  Since the peacetime version of the game world is always off screen, the RTS must use the story breaks to fill in the non-fighting bits that it can’t communicate otherwise.

Action platformer

Action platformers are also severely limited by their style of gameplay.  In games about movement and action, there really isn’t much time to focus on the areas where those things are not.  Unlike RTS’, an action platformer developer can turn more peaceful aspects of the game into a world for the player to explore.  Hub worlds allow the player to absorb lore and engage with characters taking the load off of the environment.  A player can explore a ruined castle and then hear about the terrible battles that occurred there from a small town where they restock on items.  Developers never get the same level of depth that an RPG or open world game might, but they still have time to add in elements that engage the player with the world.

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Review – Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor – PC

I seriously did not want to finish this game.

If you read my previous article on Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, then you probably know where this review is heading.  Shadow of Mordor (SoM) isn’t a great game, however, it is an interesting one for how it fails.  SoM is less than the sum of its parts because developer Monolith seemed to not understand what makes any of its systems work.  This game is a jumble of contradictory ideas that should never inhabit the same game.  Yet they do.  It’s fascinating!

The game begins with the protagonist, Tailon, dying alongside his wife and child.  Tailon awakens attached to the ghost of an undead elf and a thirst for vengeance.  The plot and characters are carbon copies of stereotypes from other games and there aren’t any real innovations.  The only surprise is the developer’s decision to frame the story as an attempt to stop Sauron from returning.  Given that the game is set just before the Lord of the Rings trilogy, most players will start the story knowing how it ends.  It seems pointless to invest time and emotion into a plotline spoiled by one of the most famous sets of books of all time and a trilogy of blockbuster films.  Combat is similarly clumsy.  Tailon builds up combo points while attacking enemies which he then uses to unleash special attacks.  When enemies attack, the player hits a button above the enemy’s head to counter that attack.  Unfortunately, the button presses are unresponsive and major fights devolve into an endurance battle between the enemy, the player’s ability to counter, and the player’s patience for mowing down wave after wave of the same orc.  Monolith clearly wanted an elegant dance of blades, but the designed battles better fit the ham-fisted Dynasty Warriors series.

These missteps come to define SoM and undermine even its best features.  The only truly innovative aspect of the game is the nemesis system.  Players can mind control (the game calls it “branding”) the evil Uruk and help them reach ascendancy within Sauron’s army.  Branded Uruk will fight for the player and engage in missions on his behalf.  Tailon, on the other hand, didn’t get the message about the branded Uruk being allies.  He’ll happily target them as if they weren’t on his team making large fights a duel battle of killing the enemy and not killing the player’s allies.  Perhaps even more ridiculous and avoidable is the instant death that sometimes follows branding.  Tailon releases the newly branded Uruk by giving them a shove.  He will happily wade through a brutal, frustrating fight, brand an enemy hero, and then hurl him off a cliff requiring the player to start all over again.  This kind of mistake is made all over the game and comes to define it far more than any other aspect.  It’s frustrating to lose time invested in SoM to poor and contradictory feature implementation.

The most confusing aspect of Shadow of Mordor is why it’s an open world game at all.  The story and mechanics of the game conflict with the traditional benefits of the open world genre.  Open world games allow for exploration and discovery yet SoM’s transportation is slow and doesn’t have monuments or features to discover.  Furthermore, the game is set behind enemy lines.  It’s hard to be a tourist when there are Uruk patrols every five feet.  Open world games also allow for emergent gameplay; a feature notably missing from SoM.  Missions are carried out within self-contained levels and rarely include any element of surprise.  Every creature is an enemy and behaves in a predictable pattern.  Finally, there is no way to have a lasting impact on the world.  Nothing the player does appears to alter the landscape of Mordor.  The nemesis system might have provided some sign of progress, but the influence of the branded war leaders only appears to extend to the few bodyguards that surround them.  In some cases, it’s actually more detrimental to fight beside your branded Uruk than apart.  Branded Uruks fighting for the player are identified as traitors by their non-brainwashed compatriots.  Given the vast number of non-brainwashed Uruk, the branded Uruks are overwhelmed quickly forcing the player to hunt down and promote yet another Uruk hero.  SoM is surprisingly bad at all the things that open world games are good for.

I really wanted to like Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor.  The reviews are great and I’m a huge fan of open world games.  I just can’t support a game that is so confused about everything that it’s attempting.  Combat mechanics only work for small parties yet the game is full of huge battles.  The nemesis system wants the player to create an army, yet combat treats branded Uruks like enemies.  Finally, the setting and world totally contradict the virtues of an open world style game.  The game feels like Monolith tried to jam in their idea of a Lord of the Rings game into a publisher’s demand for an open world game.  The mix doesn’t work and I cannot recommend this game.

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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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