Saturday, 1 September 2012

Too tough to be sneaky - by Edmund Colley

My lack of my new PS3 games has led me to scour my old collection of PS2 games as a source of entertainment and mild nostalgia. In doing so I've been playing through some of my old stealth games. Mainly a game called Stolen, in which you play a Lara Croft like cat burglar as she goes through museums and high-tech facilities while being in denial of her obvious unexplained and unmentioned kleptomania. Her suppression of this plot hole has an adverse effect on that manifests in her behaviour, taking the form of cringe worthy one-liners and need to leave as much DNA at crime scenes as possible. 

The story involves a conspiracy surround an upcoming an election in which "Good Guy McMayor's" sole policy involves bring new treasures and artwork to the city's galleries and museums and "Bad Guy Joe's" policies involve clamping down on the city's extremely high crime rates. Rose tinted glasses much?

Game-play-wise, Stolen is very similar to Metal Gear Solid (cardboard box excluded) in its stealth mechanics, guard tactics and use guns to stun guards and take out security cameras. The stealth mechanics of Stolen are the only really notable point about the game. The game manages to maintain a balance between characters ability and threat of being found that most games fail to meet. Although the protagonist, Anya, has an arsenal of high-tech gadgets and some acrobatic skills, being discovered generally means that retreat and re-strategizing is a better option as confrontation with guards is the fastest way to a game over. In doing so puts an emphasis on the need for stealth and cunning makes for very engaging game-play.

Though we all know the correct way to sneak into facility is tip-toeing to Minnie the Moocher. 

This balance is one I find that too many stealth based games seem to miss the mark on. The Assassins Creed series being a long time suffer from this. Personally, I thought the first Assassins Creed has used stealth mechanics best in the franchise as guards were very quick to mark you as an assassin and chases could have you go all the way from one side of the map to the other in an attempt to flee your pursuers. Sneaking into compounds, taking out all of the archers silently and pouncing upon your unsuspecting target was the best tactic as you weren't likely to succeed in a head-on or mad dash approach due to vast amounts of guards surrounding you long enough for your target escape in the struggle. My main issue was that there was no real threat from any opponents. Altair could defeat any number of enemies in open combat if the player was willing to stand still and spam counter until every adversary is defeated one by one (similar to me standing around awkwardly at a New Year's Eve party high 5-ing relatives drunker than I am until they let me leave or at least play guitar hero in the corner).

However, all of the additional mechanics added in the sequels only served to undermine the stealth elements further. The notoriety meter resulted in guards being thoroughly disinterested in Ezio's activities to the point he can run full speed past them, climb a building and jump off it on to the minstrel that had the audacity to ask you for spare change without batting a city guard's eyelid. Even at full notoriety guards weren't as suspicious as in AC1 and at most you'd only have two or three run after you on roof tops. The gun mechanic meant that even high priority targets could be killed from a far without challenge and Ezio could still somehow teleport and have a chat with them before they die. By the time of Revelations, Ezio is the walking arsenal of Italy and in possession more pointy objects stuck to him than on a hedgehog being treated with acupuncture. To top it all off, the addition of large pouches of medicine, our favourite Italian assassin is also gifted with instantly regenerating health. Why would this guy ever need to hide from anyone?

Assassin's Hidden Blade™. Now with hook blade, spatula knife and web shooter attachments. 

In fairness that missions and guard strengths have been changed in Revelations; and to an extent Brotherhood, but neither problem is fully resolved. Missions will force you to go undetected while stalking a target, but it feels rather unnatural like most forced stealth sections in action games do with sections that have you follow a guy and jump in to cover every time he turns around for a second thinking forgot his keys. The guards have been altered to be more aggressive in later games to stop the "counter spamming" but it's still not compensated for the fact you have a gun, crossbow and now an array of explosives to fight people armed with swords. The developers seem to be turning the assassins into acrobatic mercenaries/soldiers rather than skilled infiltrators. By the looks of the trailer, Assassin's Creed 3 seems to put you in the middle of a full sized battle. If you're an assassin and you’re having to hide behind cover from an army of soldiers that can clearly see you, you're doing it wrong. You should be disguised as the targets horse in a pantomime configuration or at least hiding in a nearby bin.

I feel that the perfect balance comes in stealth when the player feels that they have enough abilities to get around the situation, but barely any power to protect them if they are discovered. The looming threat of discovery countered by the feeling of skill and cunning when you satisfyingly duck and weave past enemies is perhaps a metaphor of brains vs. brawn that stealth fans find so appealing. With Assassin's Creed 3 on the horizon, I hope that Ubisoft can put back some of the challenge to being a skilled infiltrator and assassin while continuing a stand-out triple A series.

Friday, 31 August 2012

Winterton’s Fridays- Duke Nukem Forever: A Defence

On a day when 103 Percent Complete releases a list of joke articles that never got written, you might be mistaken for thinking this is another one. I assure you, however, that this article is completely genuine; I am indeed going to (attempt to) defend the abomination that was, and still is, “Duke Nukem Forever”.

I won’t bore you with the long and often hilarious history of the Duke’s most anticipated outing, but will give you a quote from the Bradygames Official Strategy guide: “Three engines in three years… If you’re keeping score at home, that’s not a normal process”. The guide also prints a timeline, showing all the consoles that were released during the game’s development time; the most recent being the 3DS, and the oldest being the Game Boy Colour. You know, the thing that had the first “Pokemon” games on.

Pictured: Graphics that are newer than "Duke Nukem Forever"

So I recently had the somewhat ambiguous pleasure of playing through “Forever”, expecting a big mess of a game with no original ideas. What I actually got, however, was a big mess of a game with a couple of original ideas.

Yes, obviously, “Duke Nukem Forever” is a bad game. You already knew that. If you don’t know that, I invite you to download the trial of it. I don’t think a game could go through the development that “Forever” went through and come out as a decent game. Except maybe “Alan Wake”. But there are those few original ideas…

Ultimately, what I wanted from the Duke was a game that was unapologetically comedic, flicking the Vs at mainstream titles with some clever sideswipes at current gaming and popular culture as a whole. Regretably, it fails to do this, but it does do some things I genuinely really like in games. Firstly, it comes up with interesting reasons to mix up the gameplay and scenario. We get monster truck sections, dream sequences, helicopter rides and crashes, and Duke playing his own meta-textual version of “Forever”. Are these sections good? Not really, but they do a decent job of linking them together.

The controls for this vehicle are even worse than you think they are.

Also, the general layout of the game is good. I’ve bemoaned the exclusion of chapter selections before, as well as the removal of cheats and extra content. The Duke delivers on both these accounts. The achievements are also quite a lot of fun, putting focus on different ways of playing, as well as the standard “beat a boss” style of achievement. And no bloody multiplayer achievements either.

Moreover, the actual gameplay isn’t even that bad. I mean, it’s not great, but it’s functional, and certainly not a game killer. The biggest, most criminal mistake “Duke Nukem Forever” makes? It is quite simply not fun. And when the supporting cast is strippers and you are a 90s twat killing aliens, you can’t exactly challenge “Bioshock” for character and plot.

In summary then? Shit.

Thursday, 30 August 2012

Ahead of the Difficulty Curve - by Tom Dransfield

Difficulty curve is an important feature of games, for some reason we enjoy struggling through the bits that are hard and returning to them once we are better. But is also important that we get better. Gamers love a system of character enhancement in RPGs, but unless this balance is adjusted perfectly we’ll end up either frustrated or bored.

In my experience game designers seem to spend a great amount of time perfectly honing the level development and difficulty curve to make it an appropriate challenge....then they bring out some DLC and decide to throw that all to one side. They’re so desperate to go “Look at what cool stuff you can get!” that they forget that this stuff is often totally game breaking.

It's like bringing this NERF gun and its Super Soaker equivalent out into the street as a kid. 

A good example is when I played fallout 3 collectors edition. Having never played before, I didn’t know where to start and the first mission I did was Operation Anchorage. I had a great time creeping around like a cold war spy taking out several soldiers before finally facing their leader in a one on one showdown. The problem was, for this 3 hours of tricky and interesting gameplay, I was rewarded with both an invisibility suit and the most powerful melee weapon in the game. Putting the two together, I effectively became gray fox from Metal Gear Solid. Awesome! But utterly game ruining.

After I had upped my sneak skill I got to the point where I could walk square up to the strongest group of enemies I could find and kick one of them in the nuts with my electro-sword only to have them go “What! Is somebody there?” until I had chipped away all their health. I got bored after about 2 hours of this and put the game permanently aside never to play the much hailed New Vegas because of the dry boring memories.

Now you may tell me that I could have simply not used the items I had and challenge myself that way, but that’s hardly engaging gameplay. If I’m supposed to be role-playing as a survivor in an apocalyptic and dangerous wasteland I don’t want to think, ahh, a gang of murderous bandits, better not use my mint gear or else it won’t be a challenge. Then it is reduced to a pointless self-challenging experience like a crossword or Sudoku. I will not be forced to play Sudoku.

False Advertising, these puzzles have nothing to do with cool tigers. Shut up, book.

For an example of a game that tries to give you upgrades but ultimately fails, there is Resident Evil 5. The upgrade mechanic in this game is nearly entirely pointless, they give you the chance to upgrade your peashooter guns in such pathetic amounts and so rarely that it barely makes any difference. 

Combine that with the ridiculously tough, ammo draining enemies and the lack of pickups and you’ll quickly find that your most useful tools are the knife and the ‘run away and look for ammo’. It’s quite fortunate that the upgrading in this game is so unsatisfying or else people might be tempted to play it further and discover its other horrible qualities.

Sheva Alomar was reportedly included in Resi 5 to tone down the overall racist overtones in the game.  

One game that I will say gets the upgrading balance absolutely right is the game Bayonetta. A game so torturously hard that it doesn’t allow you to play it on hard until you’ve played through it on normal at least once and picked up some upgrades. The upgrades give you new techniques and moves (a-la Devil May Cry), so that as you become more skilled at controlling it you get more moves to learn and ultimately master. As well as this you get some incredibly tough enemies that will fully slap you around and you will need some of these upgrades to even stand a chance of facing these challenges without thousands of retries.

We seem to want these games to be hard for us, and hate it when we get to the point where they have become easy. There is something so much more satisfying about a game being torturously challenging throughout, I’m not going to claim to be an anthropologist or a behavioural psychologist, so I simply like to think it’s because deep down we hate ourselves.

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Let's Talk About Challenge Pits

Well there's been enough examples of this gaming trope for me to write a full on article about it so sit down, get some Quavers and read on. A Challenge Pit is an endurance challenge which is typically broken down into rooms, floors or waves of enemies that get progressively more challenging as you wade further into it. At certain intervals there are opportunities to 'cash in your chips' and leave with whatever loot or bonuses you've earned so far or risk moving forwards to the harder waves in the knowledge that failure along the way will result in not only zero rewards, but the knowledge that you wasted all that time getting as far as you have.

Let me clear up something and say that there's a distinction between challenge pits and rogue-like adventures. Some would say that Spelunky is a challenge pit. Sure, there's a pit consisting of many floors but there's never any incentive to call it quits early as scores are logged at the moment of death if that happens but more importantly, a true challenge pit should be an optional bonus quest in a much larger game. Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door  features the Pit of 100 Trials where the series of fights are an increasingly challenging tour de force of the enemies from all of the other areas in the game. With no checkpoints other than the aforementioned 'wimp out' opportunities, the stamina and strategy required to get all the way to the end is not to be underestimated. 

Then you need to have enough left in the tank to take on Bonetail, the hardest boss in the game.
The real burn with Paper Mario's challenge run is that the reward for what is a disproportionately difficult challenge compared to anything else the game has to offer is a game breakingly useful equip item. The power of the item isn't even the issue it's just that I have nothing worth using it on! I've beaten the super boss, which required me to have enough stats, items (and good fortune) to an extent that I could have sent the story's final boss packing many times over. A Sound Test would have been a much more appropriate reward, or some concept art. Super Mario World had the guts to at least say "No more game left, but we've tried to give you something as a reward" with it's alternative aesthetic mode.  They make some kind of attempt to fix this in Super Paper Mario by having two challenge pits and a further mode where you need to take on King Sammer's samurai so if you finish one of them your reward is... making the other two marginally easier? Exhausting if you ask me.

Reaching this fella required more than a few anguish filled, failure induced tantrums
Nintendo, never one to let an idea not be re-used to death. Included such modes into  
both Wind Waker and Twilight Princess games and by making the rewards for success useful in other parts of the game, they fixed one problem with the Paper Mario challenge but created a new one by making them too easy to give them the same gravitas. Another common feature with these particular pits is that there's no element of chance involved with the challenges themselves. Every time you attempt any of these challenges you can know in advance what is going to feature at every stage if you've seen it once before, which dampens the whole risk-reward element of things. 

Even Darksiders 2 didn't fix this when they threw the most recent example of a Challenge Pit together. Randomness would make the player think twice about progressing and is something that can be done more irritatingly. Final Fantasy 7 showed us this was possible with their Battle Square feature at the Golden Saucer. Although not a true Challenge Pit, the player is subjected to random sequences of battles with rank and file enemies, with the added sting that a new handicap is introduced in between battles. What's more, some of the most powerful upgrades can be earned here, the challenge is satisfying to conquer and the powers that you gain are useful tools elsewhere in the game. Surely it isn't asking too much for concepts that were doing the rounds in a game published in 1997 to be implemented in full scale console releases. Then again maybe a bit of originality and suspense is too much to ask of a gaming concept which is borne purely out of recycling old ideas. Actually it isn't at all, but I thought that sounded clever.  

Monday, 27 August 2012

Project Zomboid: An Undead Adventure in Pictures - Part 2

Two weeks ago, we embarked on an escapade with Project Zomboid, a survival horror sandbox game I’ve had something resembling an obsession with lately. When we last saw our Hero, Ben Jakson (or Jak Benson), he had had a rather nasty run-in with a hoard of brain-munching meat bags which left him running for his life. Inadvertently saved by an unfriendly NPC, we find himself injured, panicked, hungry, and on the verge of breaking into a suburban home for shelter.

“Or what I like to call “Thursday Night”

1.  The back door to the nearest house is locked, so I let myself in through a window. There might be zombies about which need a frying pan to the noggin, and I don’t know if any of the hoard has followed me, so I might still be in danger. Naturally, I do the only logical thing and cook myself some chicken. Moments after I turn the oven on, I hear a shotgun blast from somewhere nearby. I’m going to try to steer well clear of wherever it came from.

2.  Fed, and stronger, I head upstairs and craft some bandages from bedsheets to treat Ben’s wounds. I’m till very nervous about the shotgun blast I just heard, especially since there’s blood on these walls. I can’t see any bodies around, and the house is empty, so I take a gamble and decide to get Ben some rest. Hopefully I’m not visited by a looter in the middle of the night.

3. Morning brings news both good and bad, (but mostly bad). Ben Jakson is starting to feel queazy. That scratch to the face must have done more harm than I thought, because this is the first sign of infection. So, I’m in pain, anxious and probably infected with a zombie virus which gives me (at most) a few days to live. What’s the good news? I found a pool cue, and a white vest. I’m like Paul Newman in The Hustler, but with more zombies.

4.  Figuring there’s no real point sitting around a house with no food, zombifying like an unemployed student gamer (hah, irony), I decide the do some house-hopping to see what I can salvage. If there are any zombies out here, they’re invisible to me, much like the glitchy pool cue I’m wielding (the game is still in alpha, and buggy as hell, as I’ve mentioned many times before).

5. I find myself in the Old Town, so named by me because it was the entire map in the first version of the game, and the spawn area for the original Story Mode. I know this area well, at least, so finding food and medicine won’t be a concern. However, my condition is worsening. Ben Jakson has escalated from “Queazy” to “Nauseous” on the zombie-sickness-o-meter. I have a day or so left before the infection takes over. I can only imagine a solitary tear runs down Ben’s cheek as he realizes what must be done before the end; getting drunk and smacking some heads with a pool cue.

“Or what I like to call “Friday Night”

6. While I’m in the supermarket looting some crisps and booze, a lone zombie wanders in, a straggler from a hoard perhaps, presumably looking for bargain discount deals on Ben’s brains.

7. “Every little helps, bitch!” quips Ben Jakson, wiping grey matter off his pool cue.

8.  Loaded up on whiskey, and beginning to feel weary, I find a hoard of zombies outside, and Ben staggers into what will be his final battle.

9. For a fight to the death, things go very well at first. Within a few seconds, I’ve knocked a few zombies dead (dead again? I don’t know the terminology). However, more hear the hubbub and quickly take their place. Combatting this many zombies at a time will only end one way in Project Zomboid. Soon exhaustion kicks in, and each swing grows increasingly feeble. Zombies begin to get closer and closer to you, and are no longer knocked to the ground by your blows. After a time, you become so exhausted that you can no longer run away.

10.  Eventually, 2 days and 6 hours after our adventure began, it comes to an end. After a brief melee, Ben Jakson succumbs to bleeding and collapses into an already impressive pile of corpses. Moments later, he rises again in his final, zombified form. 2 days and 6 hours doesn’t sound like much, and it isn’t, but that’s what I love about this game. There is no space marine-esque grandeur to it. You’re don’t have heroic strength, nor a superhuman immunity to hunger, pain or illness, you’re just an ordinary bloke trying to survive horrible circumstances for as long as you can, and every zombie you kill was once just like you. But fear not, reader, and find comfort in this final sentiment. Ben Jakson, as tragic as his demise was, left this world very much the same way he entered (spawned into) it; inexplicably shirtless.