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Game Review: Assassin’s Creed Odyssey

Posted in reviews, video game, video game design by commorancy on October 6, 2018

a2b4debe8beb1ac5dee92d4a3774b014Truly, there’s nothing wrong with this game. Nothing, except for the fact that it’s an almost identical functional clone of Assassin’s Creed Origins, chock full of all the same bugs in Origin. I’ll make this one somewhat short and sweet. Let’s Explore.

Assassin’s Creed Origins

Earlier in the year, I wrote a rather lengthy game review of Assassin’s Creed Origins. I had a lot of gripes about Origins. Well, I’m sorry to say that few of my suggestions in that review made it into Odyssey. Most of those design flaws were pulled straight into Odyssey, something I should have expected.

I’m not going to write much on this game because I already had my long-winded say with Origins. Writing it here again would simply be redundant. I’ll suggest heading on over to read Randocity’s Assassin’s Creed Origins game review if you’re curious to find out what things I truly disliked.

Clone

If we thought Origins was a simple money grab, Odyssey most definitely is. Ubisoft basically copied the entire Origins game, created a new character or two, added a few new quests and called it a day. Odyssey is literally just a rethemed Origins with a slightly different locale and storyline. There’s also a bit more sailing involved, but the ship battles still offer a mostly horrible game mechanic. Senu is replaced by Ikaros. It also adds recruiting lieutenants for the ship which is akin to Brotherhood and already been done. You can recruit them all day, but you can’t do anything with them.

Overall, Odyssey feels like a clone designed to make Ubisoft yet more money without doing a lot of work. I was actually afraid of this possibility when I heard that Odyssey was announced so quickly after Origins.

Combat

I take some of what I said back. Odyssey is actually worse than Origins in combat. Now not only do enemies STILL use the stupid backing up tactic, now they climb away from you. I don’t know who thought THAT was a good idea? Enemies who are engaged in combat should STAY engaged in combat WHERE THEY ARE. Finish the battle right there. I don’t want to have to keep chasing them down to fight them somewhere else. Stay put!

Worse, the enemies are even MORE sensitive than in Origins. As soon as even one sees you, the whole camp knows you’re there. That’s just ass. There is no way one single enemy can alert the whole camp without a warning. And since he’s been engaged in combat the whole time, there is no way for him to alert. Sure, you might argue the clanking of swords might alert someone, but in reality, these guys fight test fights anyway. So, that’s not enough alone to alert the whole camp.

Desynchronization Game Loading

This part is just a total clusterf***. When I save a manual game save, if it is the most current save, I expect that game to be loaded after a desync. No, it doesn’t. It loads some random previous autosave instead. This forces me to wait through that autosave to load, then I have to go and load my manual save again. Stupid and time wasting. Ubisoft, get with the program here.

After a battlefield battle, it’s even worse. This is just some shit. If you run off the battlefield, the battle restarts immediately. If you desync, the game forces you to endure the entire restart of the battle including talking to Stentar and going through all of the game choices. OMG. NO effing NO. If you can restart the battle simply by abandoning it, you can let us rejoin without having to go through that long ass restart process.

Battlefield Simulators

Okay, no. This piece is just suck, all the way through. This is Assassin’s Creed. Got it, Ubisoft? It’s about Assassins. It’s not Warrior’s Creed, it’s Assassin’s Creed. Right? Say it with me Ubisoft, “Assassin’s Creed.” If I wanted to play WAR battles, I’d play Battlefield or Call of Duty or any other war simulator. Ubisoft has plainly gone off the deep end. No more battlefield simulators in Assassin’s Creed games, particularly when they are entirely useless (more about that later).

If you want to add this crap in, then at least let the hero act as an assassin and use the assassin moves. At least let my character get away from the battle and work on stealth or long range tactics. No, you can’t. As soon as the battle starts, at least two guards earmark you and there’s no way to get rid of them short of killing them. Even then, that triggers even more guards to come after you. You can’t shake them to hide and perform stealth maneuvers. Again, this is Assassin’s Creed!

Worse, there’s absolutely no warning of this play mechanic until it’s on top of you. Then, it’s too late to go back and bone up on the warrior skills. You have to fail out and then “come back later”. I hate that shit in a game. If you’re going to lead me into a battle simulator, at least give me a warning that shit is coming long before I get there so I can plan my skill-ups and armor accordingly.

Worse, these battlefield simulators are entirely pointless. You can win the war and claim victory for Sparta, then about a day later in the game be required to go do it again. What’s the point in claiming victory over a territory if you have to keep doing it over and over and over? At least warn me the territory is about to fall to the hands of the Athenians and let me go take care of it before it does.

Such absolute crap!

Bosses

I can’t speak for all bosses, but this particular boss is annoying as all hell. This is the Kalydonian Boar. This thing has two attack phases and the second phase is as frustrating as it is unnecessary. Thanks Ubisoft for making such crap bosses. The boar claims to be a level 13, the same as me. Yet, it takes massive numbers of hits to even whittle its health down. It’s not a 13, it’s like a 26. I hate this fake numbering of bosses when they are many, many levels of above you. Truth in labeling, Ubisoft. Tell us what the actual boss’s level is. Don’t sugarcoat it making us think it’s a 13 when it’s actually 26.

As soon as you enter the ring, it runs at you full speed. If you’re lucky, you can miss this attack and start hammering on it. That’s not the issue. As soon as you whittle its health down by about 1/8th, 4 baby boars show up and start goring you, in addition to big boar boss. Swarming is not something I go in for in any game of any type. When swarming is the tactic, I’m out. I also call bullshit on that tactic. It’s just a way to whittle your health down for big daddy boss. To me, this is a bullshit tactic. I’m here to fight the boss boar, not a bunch of annoying baby boar. And, where the hell did they come from anyway? They’re not in the cave and don’t emerge from the cave. They just miraculously spawn onto to the field. Again, I call bullshit. If you’re going to have enemies show up on the field, make the idea at least appear real. Put cages and open them up so we can at least know what’s coming. Just magically making them appear out of thin air is total BS.

The problem I have with the baby boar is that they gored at me so much, they pushed me off the playing field which… stupidly… resets big boss boar’s health, but not mine. I’m still being gored with red health, yet big boss boar has miraculously healed and the whole thing has reset. Yet, baby boar hang around to be a nuisance? Get with the program Ubisoft.

Even though big boss boar won’t leave the playing field, baby boar will and they’ll chase you down even if you leave the ring. Again, I call bullshit on this design.

In fact, there are so many design problems with this boss level I don’t even know where to begin:

  • If you’re going to have a border that resets the whole thing, then mark it clearly with some kind of translucent effect. I need to know when I’m about to leave it and can move back into the field.
  • I also need to be warned a “return to the battle” timer to avoid resetting the boss.
  • I should be able to kill this thing from the top of a cliff with an arrow. Nope, you are forced to enter the playing field and doing it strictly with melee weapons. Total bullshit.
  • No baby boar necessary. The level is well hard enough without that extra crap.
  • If you’re going to spawn baby boar, when I leave the area, they need to despawn immediately.
  • Set up the baby boar in the cave and have them come out of there so at least it makes sense where they came from.
  • Truth in labeling. If the boss is level 26, then put that number above its head.

More crap design from Ubisoft. This is kinda becoming a trend, Ubisoft. Might want to work on that.

Wood, Wood Everywhere, But None To Cut

As you wander around this forested landscape in Greece, you’ll notice a lot of wooded areas with so much wood, you might be wondering why you’re limited to “Olive Wood”? This part about games like this one makes me terribly frustrated. Just give me an axe and let me chop trees down. Don’t make me hunt all over the land for tiny “special” spriglets that are difficult to find and even more difficult to see.

Wood can only be obtained through the small mentioned spriglets like so:

Assassin's Creed® Odyssey_20181019111022

Instead of being able to use the ready amount of wood you find everywhere as far as the eye can see, you’re limited to locating these tiny little shrublets and harvesting them. It’s stupid.

The resources needed to upgrade your weapons and armor are wood, leather, metal and various crystals. You find these only in specially marked items on the ground and in war chests. In fact, it takes a ton of wood to make arrows, so you’re almost constantly running out just to keep your arrows stocked. On top of this, upgrading your weapons and armor requires tons of all of the listed resources… particularly Legendary Armor that requires a literal shit ton of it.

Assassin's Creed® Odyssey_20181019105956

I can understand the leather problem to an extent. The wood problem has no explanation at all. With piles of wood sitting around like this, what the hell?

The problem I have with leather in this game is that a steer that should yield the maximum amount of leather for any animal, but instead yields about 3 pieces. A bear which is probably smaller than most steer yields 10-15 pieces. An elk yields about 3 pieces. An elk is easily the size of the steer. These numbers are so artificially low, it’s just frustrating to go out and search for this. Oddly enough, wolves tend to yield the most amount of leather even though they’re dog sized. Go figure.

Ultimately, the resources are so scarce it’s not really even much fun to go chase after them. I easily spend hours running around collecting this stuff when I should be concentrating on trying to progress in the game’s story. Yet, to progress I need to upgrade my armor which requires these resources. So here I am, spending hours running around the game trying to find stupid little trees.

Then there’s Orichalcum. How many currencies do we need in a game and why? I’m getting a little frustrated with having 10 or more different currencies to buy from various vendors. Can we standardize on a single in-game currency, please?

Chickens

This story is as humorous as it is frustrating. It also sums up all of the things wrong with Odyssey in a nutshell. I had just gotten my behind kicked by some animal or NPC. I was running away to recoup my health. Anyway, my health was on the verge of being out (like one tiny little tick). I made my way into a city and a chicken attacked me. I’d never been attacked by a chicken EVER in Assassin’s Creed of any version. That chicken’s attack desynced my character. I know this was an intentional addition. The game made the chicken attack me because my health was that low.

This game is wrongly opportunistic in this way. I’m sure some developer thought this is extremely funny to add this in, but it isn’t. I wasn’t attacking this chicken nor had I made any motions to attack it. However, I do now. Every time I cross paths with a chicken, it dies. This is something that should be removed from the game as it is entirely unnecessary.

Perfect Vision

NPC characters in the game have perfect vision. I’m not even visible around a corner and NPCs see me and come after me. Again, this is so wrong. NPC vision shouldn’t be that acute. Yet another game design flaw. This is one of those pet peeves about games that truly drives me crazy. Game AI characters should have the ability to “see” about as far as 10 feet in the dark, maximum.

Overall

If you like Origins, you’ll probably like Odyssey. Unfortunately, it doesn’t offer anything substantially different over Origins in combat, exploration or play value. In fact, I haven’t found much that’s majorly different from Origins. The one substantial change I’ve found is that you can play as either Alexios (male) or Kassandra (female). Everything else is pretty much Origins all over again. You can easily fall right into Odyssey as an extension of Origins without batting an eye. The controls are the same, the play value is the same, heck even the lands seem the same.

The graphics are still very pretty and the landscape is amazing to behold, but I got jaded by that with Origins. What I see in Odyssey seems just the same as Origins. In fact, I thought that in some ways, the Bayek character and his armor looked better than Alexios and his armor. It’s almost like the Alexios character was rushed or something.

It’s also nice not to hear the same NPC banter constantly being spoken over and over and over. So, that’s a nice change in Odyssey. It makes the play experience quite a bit less annoying, but you can avoid that in Origins simply by turning the voices off.

Because all of the same things about Origins that I disliked went directly into Odyssey (sans the NPC sayings), I’m giving this game the same review I gave to Origins. You’ll want to read Randocity’s Origins review to find out all of those nitty-gritty details. So, head on over to the Origins review right after this one.

Photo Mode Broken

I’m not sure what Ubisoft is doing over there, but they love breaking photo mode. It was broken in Origins and it is again broken in Odyssey. Half of the time the filter selection doesn’t work (up and down d-pad is locked out). The other half of the time, the HUD doesn’t disappear after 10 seconds preventing using the console’s snapshot feature. Seriously Ubisoft, if you can’t get photo mode working 100%, then why include it at all?

Slideshow

Here’s a slideshow of various images I’ve captured in Odyssey. Oh yes, it’s pretty… very, very pretty. Too bad it doesn’t play as nicely as it is pretty.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Score for Odyssey

Graphics: 9 out of 10
Sound: 7 out of 10
Game Saves: 4 out of 10
Gameplay: 4 out of 10
Controls: 4 out of 10
Combat: 3 out of 10
Stories: 5 out of 10
Multiplayer: 0 out of 10 (there is no multiplayer or co-op).
Stability: 2 out of 10 (unstable, laggy, infused with same bugs as Origins, at times unplayable)

Final Rating: 4 stars out of 10
Recommendation: Buy this game at $20 or less from the bargain bin or rent it.

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Game Review: Spider-Man

Posted in botch, video game, video game design by commorancy on September 8, 2018

SpiderMan2Here’s Randocity’s review of Sony’s 2018 Spider-Man (Insomniac Games) exclusively for the PS4. Unlike so many other game magazines, this review will be brutally honest. Unfortunately, other than photo mode, there’s not a lot to like here. This review will also be short and sweet and somewhat brutal. Let’s explore.

No Holds Barred

SpiderMan1To be perfectly fair, I wanted to like this game. I really did. Unfortunately, this game is one of the worst Spider-Man games I’ve ever played. The absolute worst Spider-Man game being Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions. Dimensions looked great, played like crap. Same problem here, well mostly. Not only is Spider-Man incredibly weak, he dies at the drop of the hat even on casual play. Dying wouldn’t be quite so bad if it didn’t take ages to reload the game. Absolutely worse, the whole game simply devolves into a button masher. This is not why I buy Spider-Man games. I buy Spider-Man games to swing around the city and occasionally get in brawls. I don’t want to spend 90% of my time brawling as a button masher. Basically, this game effing sucks rocks.

Controls

The controls are, in fact, most of the reason this game sucks. I’m all for web slinging fun, but this goes way beyond into craptacular territory. The first mission is practically impossible to complete, even on easy mode. The game simply doesn’t give you enough moves (or health) to take these guys out quickly. The AI on the enemies is frustrating and nonsensical. Worse, the controls make so many mistakes. When I try to get away from enemy, instead, the game chooses to perform a slide under which puts me right next to the enemy… the exact opposite of what I’m trying to do.

Focus

The “focus” game mechanic is entirely unnecessary, distracting and so lamely implemented that it actually prevents you from using it as intended. What is focus for? Healing. In fact, you gain focus so slowly, you can’t even use it to heal. There is no other way to heal other than spending focus. Let’s let that sink in for a moment.

SpiderMan5

What the hell is with healing through focus, anyway? Whose brilliantly crappy game mechanic idea was this? Just let Spider-Man heal naturally on his own. Don’t make me have to take action to heal him. If Spider-Man needs healing by external means, then put first aid kits around the levels and let me just automatically pick them up and apply them. This whole gaining Focus mechanic is so sloppily implemented, I don’t even know how the game designers thought it would be useful. Why not just use health pickups, you know, like practically every other game? Why throw in something so convoluted that it’s useless?

Distracting Game Mechanics

Here’s my biggest pet peeve with these distracting and unnecessary game mechanics. While I understand that Insomniac wanted something new to add to their repertoire of features, game designers should never implement a new game mechanic solely because it’s new. Instead, game mechanics must enhance the game, not detract from it. Why does the focus mechanism fail so badly? It fails because now you’re requiring gamers to watch the focus and health bars constantly. This means moving your eyes away from an ever changing play field of AI enemies.

In this game, even taking your eyes off of the, admittedly, poorly designed and unrealistic AI enemy combat moves, will see your health drop from 100 to 20 (or less) in one blow (even on easy mode). Ignoring the fact that Spider-Man is a superhero in the Marvel universe, has super strength and is super resistant to injury, there should never ever be a mechanic designed that forces the gamer to take his/her eyes off of the combat field and then manually apply health.

Instead, if you’re planning on forcing a health recovery system, then the health system should either auto-regenerate or self-apply at critically low levels. I shouldn’t have to monitor my character’s weak health and manually apply anything. Spider-Man is a superhero… a Marvel SUPERHERO! Treat him as such and at least give him some level of auto-health generation. Seriously, what is the point in manual application of health in this game? It is absolutely not a challenge, it’s just stupid design.

Web Slinging Cooldown

What was the point in this game mechanic? You have six bars of web action that when depleted means you can’t use your web to subdue any more enemies. No NO NO! Why is there an arbitrary count of how many times you can use your web? Again, this doesn’t make the game challenging, it makes the game stupid. If he has the ability to create web, then it should work 100% of the time or until he runs out of web solution. If you plan to add a game mechanic here, then make it a mechanic that sees him run out of web entirely and need to change his web canisters. At least, that’s realistic. Though, why even do that? This isn’t intended to be a simulation, it’s intended to be a superhero game. Just let Spider-Man sling webs infinitely. There’s no point in this web cooldown system at all.

Spider-Man is Weak

The other big problem I have with this game is that Spider-Man isn’t treated like a Marvel superhero at all. He’s like a random schmoe who picked up a costume and decided to be a vigilante. Not only does it take many blows on an enemy to finally knock them out, Spider-Man loses health at an incredibly rapid rate, even from just one bullet or one enemy punch. This is entirely ridiculous. He’s a Marvel superhero, not a random normal guy in a costume.

Insomniac treated this version of the Spider-Man character with all of the grace of a bull in a china shop, bumbling their developmental way through to a game that, in my opinion, barely resembles Spider-Man.

Photo Mode

The one and only one redeeming feature of this game is photo mode. If you’ve used photo mode on Assassin’s Creed Origins, then you’ll feel right at home in this one as photo mode looks and behaves nearly identical. This feature doesn’t make the game worth playing by a long shot. But, the composition tool does have some cool overlays (see the first image in this article), assuming you can actually play enough into the game to use these overlays in some real way.

Overall

My rating for this game is 3 out of 10. It needs a whole lot more developmental time and it needed better usability play testing. It’s not worth playing. If you must play it, then rent it from Redbox or rent it someplace else. Or, wait for it to get to $15 at Gamestop. Don’t waste your money buying this trite piece of Sony garbage unless you truly enjoy torturing yourself with really bad games. If Insomniac can push out patches that can address all of these identified problems (doubtful), then maybe this game might improve. I wouldn’t hold my breath.

For me, this game goes back to Gamestop as a trade-in. I’ll wait until the game drops in price which will have given Insomniac plenty of time to release more patches… not that that will improve this game. Though, I’m willing to give it a second shot much later in the future.

Graphics: 8 out of 10
Audio: 8 out of 10
Voice Acting: 8 out of 10
Gameplay: 2 out of 10 (repetitive, nothing new)
Combat: 1 out of 10 (enemies swarm in unrealistic ways, manual health application)
Overall: 2 out of 10 (rent only)

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Game Review: Detroit — Become Human

Posted in video game, video game design by commorancy on May 27, 2018

Chloe from Detroit Becoming HumanI’m usually a big fan of Quantic Dream video games. However, this one tries a little too hard and fails in many ways. Let’s explore.

SPOILER ALERT

If you’re interested in playing this game, this review may contain spoilers. You should stop reading now and play first. I encourage you to come back to this review once you have played it.

Story

This is a story of android emancipation. The world has androids as servants which are being sold in retail stores. They are used as personal assistants, house maids and so on. However, something has happened and androids have awoken from their blissful subservience into thinking and feeling entities. Herein lies the opening of this story and the game.

Stories vs Gameplay

Let’s take a step back just a little from this game and analyze its broader genre within the game industry. The story versus gameplay war has been waged in earnest for the last 10 years, particularly when Quantic Dream released Heavy Rain on the PS3 in 2010. Note that there have been a semblance of these kinds of cinematic games going all the way back to the Amiga days with Rocket Ranger and Defender of the Crown. But, these full blown episodic TV games arrived with Heavy Rain. With the release of Heavy Rain came a game where you effectively watched a TV show unfold with periodic button choices thrown in to change the flow of the narrative.

Well, that’s exactly Detroit: Become Human. In fact, the story that’s being told in Detroit seems like a failed TV series turned into a video game. In reality, that’s what it is. That’s not to say there’s not actual button-press game play in this game, but these segments are so infrequent as to feel less like a game and more like watching a TV show with an interactive narrative component.

Note that there have been a number of episodic style games released very similar to Detroit. In addition to Heavy Rain, these include The Last Of Us, Quantum Break, L.A. Noire, Beyond Two Souls and the Alan Wake series. Note that Quantum Break took this whole idea one step further by including 20 minute (or longer) live actor-filmed episodic TV segments as part of your reward for finishing a game segment. That game was truly like watching episodic TV. Detroit doesn’t make this leap, but does the next best thing by trying to make its rendering as photo realistic as possible on the PS4.

Choices

As with all Quantic Dream games, the game is reasonably chock full of gamer choices. That is, choices that you make that affect whether a character lives or dies or whether you uncover an important detail or not. Though, even Quantic Dream’s stories are not unlimited and must follow a certain limited path to the end. Yes, there may be two or three outcomes, but ultimately the outcomes don’t drastically affect the next segment or, indeed, the entire plot. In fact, the choices may not affect much at all.

Chapters

The game breaks each ‘episode’ into chapters. Each chapter focuses on a specific character and their role in that particular story segment. Occasionally, the chapter switches between two or three different characters… and even less frequently, sometimes the characters meet.

What is the story?

The story is much like I, Robot. It’s about androids that become self-aware and, instead of simply being a utilitarian “thing” now wish all of the equality that humans have. Effectively, it’s a modern day slave story… where humans enslave androids for utilitarian purposes, yet they wake up and become aware that they no longer want this and wish to live free.

As a result, Markus (an android hero of this story) rises up to revolt against humans and bring the android freedom cause front and center. How you make that cause unfold is up to the gamer. You can effectively go pacifist or violent. If you go violent, the story unfolds a certain way. If you go the pacifist way, then the story takes a different turn. It’s left up to the gamer to choose the path.

Story Inconsistencies and Contrivances

Unfortunately, Quantic Dream’s writers failed in a number of important ways. For one, the story establishes that androids have direct contact memory probe capabilities. One android can probe another android’s “mind” simply through touch. Yet in one segment of the game, there’s a 1.5 minute timer that counts down after an android is revived and before it expires again. In this segment, you’re playing as Connor (an android enlisted to work with the cops to solve ‘Deviant’ murders). A deviant is an android that is no longer obeying its central programming and has become self-aware and can make choices for itself.

In this 1.5 minute countdown timer, an android needs to impart crucial information for Connor’s and Hank’s investigation. It would have been simple for Connor to touch and extract that data he needed in less than a second without saying a word to the android. This would have made the countdown timer pointless, yes. Instead, the game forces you to waste time using speech to try to talk to the android via interrogation. If it had been Hank (Connor’s human partner) forced to do perform this investigation segment, this section would have made sense. But, since it was Connor performing this interrogation, it made no sense at all. It’s these stupid little story details that are a pet peeve and that get in the way of telling the story. It doesn’t matter whether the story is in a game or in a novel, logic must be followed in full. If the story’s details aren’t logically presented, then the story fails.

A second one of these writer failures was after Connor is shot and dies in a previous segment. I won’t say exactly how, when or by whom, but it happens. Yet, in the next chapter, Connor is very much alive, undamaged, dressed in his normal Connor android garb. He looks the same and meets up with Amanda in the garden yet again. Is it the same Connor? *shrug* A tombstone in Amanda’s garden says not, but who erects tombstones for androids and when and why would it have been erected? How would Amanda have even known? There was no story detail to state that Amanda had even known of Connor’s demise. However, the title to the upper right of this segment says ‘Betrayed’ with a down red pointer. Amanda completely ignores this betrayal. Without any explanation, Amanda talks with Connor and inexplicably gives him yet one more chance to quash the android rebellion. If this were a replaced Connor as the tombstone suggests, this replacement would have some significant drawbacks… particularly the rapport that he had built with Hank along with all of the knowledge Connor had built up about the deviants’ hide out. Though, later, another story contrivance shows that androids can somehow transfer their entire memory consciousness in the 2 seconds it takes to fall off of a several story building. If this is the case, then why would Connor be afraid of dying in one section of the game?

A third contrivance is the rA9 moniker that’s found written all over walls and posters during the beginning of the game. In fact, Connor makes a point of stating that rA9 had been written on a wall over 1000 times. Yet, halfway through this game, the thread is dropped never to be heard from again. What the hell, guys? If you’re going to bring it up as an important discussion point, at least close it out at the end of the story! Was Markus the rA9 or not? And, what is an rA9? This one deserves an eye roll.

Unfortunately, much of this game is chock full of such story contrivances… this is why I call this premise a failed TV series. Perhaps it’s time for video game studios to actually hire some seasoned TV writers to write these video game stories, particularly when they are so cinematic in nature. These video game stories need to hold up to logical scrutiny in just the same way as any story arc does. Quantic Dream, you need to hire better writers and you need your games to follow through with every story detail.

Gameplay

Combat is where the game really fails the hardest. For some die-hard Mortal Kombat fans, the combat part of the game might be considered fun. For us casual gamers, where random button presses don’t make sense, this section of the game is not only no fun, it entirely detracts from the game and story being told.

This game intentionally plays mostly like one very long cinematic with only small and brief interruptions for you to control a specific character to accomplish a task, get from point A to B or to make a decision. These small interruptions in the narrative only serve to force the gamer to lead the story down a specific path. However, the majority of the game is like watching episodic TV. Unfortunately, Quantic Dream made the entirely wrong control choice for the combat portions.

Much of the game choices are a casual X press or a motion of the controller or some simple untimed action. These casual selections are perfectly acceptable. However, when it gets into full on combat, this is where the Mortal Kombat style combos take over. A style, I might add, that is entirely no fun and detracts heavily from the story at hand. Not only is the gamer presented with sometimes 15-20 different button presses, six-axis motion, multi-button presses, shoulder button presses or any number of other combo choices, they’re presented with such randomness and in such quick timed succession that unless you have the reflexes of an android, you’re not likely to succeed pressing most of them on time. Frustrating.

In these combat sections, the timers are incredibly short, sometimes less than half a second. The button or movement choice also doesn’t make sense with the action requested. You could press the left arrow joystick to kick then press R1 the next action to kick then press X the third time to kick. There’s absolutely no rhyme or reason to why an action ends up on a specific button.

The only saving grace is that these actions are the same in each play through. If you want, you can map them out and then follow them like a script. However, the easier method is to keep pressing pause. This gives you enough time to decipher which button it is, prepare, take it out of pause, press it, then pause again. Whether or not you use pause, this combat system heavily detracts from the story action, so much so you can’t even keep up with what’s going on.

It’s entirely one thing for a developer to assign a specific combat action to a specific button. For example, many games assign X to a sword press or some other melee attack. The left shoulder button button might be block or parry. The triangle button might be kick or jump. When they’re hard mapped, you know what they do. It’s entirely another thing to free form map actions with random abandon. In this game, there is no mapping. The buttons being pressed or the actions being performed have no logical sense to whatever the character is doing. The button or action appears randomly and the gamer is expected to decipher that, process it and press that button all in less than a second. Some gamers are very good at this, many are not. This means that, by choice, Quantic Dream has automatically alienated a lot of gamers who are not good with this style of combat. A style of combat, I might add, that is perfectly placed in Mortal Kombat, but makes zero sense in a narrative driven story like Detroit: Become Human. Who at Quantic Dream thought this was a good idea? The question then is… Do you want your game accessible to all types of gamers or just those who are good at this style of combat? This is QD’s biggest fail in this game.

As gamers, we want predictability in our combat button mapping. We want to know that X is mapped to melee attack. It’s simple to understand why. When we get into combat, we press X naturally. It then becomes second nature pressing X. Most of us don’t want to second guess what’s about to appear on the screen, then try to reach for the button in time. It works fine with Guitar Hero, but it sucks hard in a game like Detroit.

Additionally, the failure with this random combat style is that you don’t know when the next press will appear on the screen. It could come immediately after a previous press or it could be 5 to 10 seconds later. Sometimes you need to wait 1 minute for a bunch of screen action to play out before the next is presented. Sometimes they appear in rapid succession. It’s the combination of this full randomness that is what I consider not only a horrible combat system, but one of the worst I’ve ever encountered in any game. It is also entirely out of place here.

For the gamer who’s trying to remain focused on the story, this gameplay style completely detracts from watching the unfolding story. Not only can you not focus on the story action at hand, you’re so focused on that next button press that that’s all you’re looking for. There’s also no warning when combat starts. It starts without warning and ends without warning. Most recent games have begun adding musical queues to know when you’re going into combat and when you’ve left it. Not here. Worse, there’s no way to succeed in this gameplay section without tunnel vision focus on the button presses. Even then, you’re likely to miss a few. The game doesn’t even let you know if you’ve ‘won’ or ‘lost’ this action scene after missing one or more than one of these moves. In fact, ‘won’ or ‘loss’ is randomly part of the story whether or not you succeed in hitting every move. In this game, these actions are, in fact, entirely pointless.

This, Quantic Dream, is your greatest failure in this narrative. Not only does this combat style entirely detract from the cinematic / TV episodic nature of the story, it forces the gamer to become so tunnel vision focused to avoid missing a button press, the story is lost. You simply cannot watch what the characters are doing AND play the combo button game. Even more than this, when the combat is all over, the character may die anyway because, you know, story. When designing a combat segment, make that combat actually mean something… especially when the gamer has to jump through hoops to get there. Else, just let the combat play out based on previous dialog choices.

To me, this style of combat is on par with fetch quests. They’re a means to an end, yes, but the techniques are forced, contrived and unnecessary… particularly in a game that relies on this level of cinematic storytelling.

Characters battling other Characters — Confusion

Latching onto the previous combat issue presented, this issue extends that problem even further. There are at least two times in the game when two of your characters end up fighting each other. The already convoluted combat system becomes even more convoluted and confusing. I didn’t think that was possible. Yet, on top of the random button presses and actions, now you can’t even decipher to which character the action is attached. Was that last move for Connor or Hank? *shrug* Sometimes you can tell when they’re far enough apart. Most times, they’re struggling with each other, when the button or action appears, you don’t know to which character the action applies. This system is completely detestable.

Seriously, how did this game even get out of beta testing with this level of combat confusion?

Unexpected Choices and Restarting

Unfortunately, it’s almost impossible to predict the story outcomes from choices you make. The dialog choices which seem the most innocent and the least problematic can turn out the most deadly for your characters. This is frustrating on so many levels. Because of this unpredictability of story, it’s almost impossible to read into a specific dialog choice and assume you know what it might accomplish. This is particularly problematic when dialog choices are strung together one right after the other, but then the outcome playback isn’t seen until after all choices have been made. This is an incredibly poor design choice. Instead, the dialog choices should unfold one at a time immediately after each choice.

Many actions I would have deemed to be the ‘safe’ choice end up getting a character killed or taking the story in the wrong direction. This unpredictability, while good in one way, is a horrible idea in the long run. You do want some character predictability. Characters should act in specific ways, or more specifically, show a certain type of moral bent. If I want to keep that character on that same moral path, that shouldn’t lead to death for other characters. I shouldn’t have to compromise my character’s morals to keep some other character alive. The AI should understand this ideal and uphold it for each character. Should you decide to take a character down a path that’s nefarious intentionally, then the consequences should be problematic.

I find the storytelling problems disturbing on so many levels with Detroit. If taking a specific action leads to certain death for a character, or at least a high probability for danger, that choice should be called out in the dialog by flagging it with a red color. At least let me know that the choice that I’m about to make won’t necessarily end well. In reality, the game should offer at least some level of foreshadowing in the choices. For example, if you drink too much then choose to drive, the dangers of this outcome are quite apparent. Let’s offer at least this level of forewarning in game choices.

This also leads to a broader problem with this game. If you make a choice during a long episodic segment, there is no way way to save your game, reload and remake that choice a different way. Instead, you have to cancel out of the entire segment back to the title screen and start the whole segment over. Or, alternatively, you need to wait for the chapter to play out in full, then exit to the title screen and redo whatever checkpoint is available forward to the end. The game makes you jump through unnecessary hoops to start levels over. This is a horrible design choice.

This game mechanic is also quite stupid. If you’re designing your game to enforce an unpredictable choice mechanism, then damn well give me an easy way to restart and remake those choices. Don’t force me to wait up to 15 minutes through an unexpected choice only to spend even more minutes and play through again. This is my time you are wasting. It’s a game, give me the option to abort where I am and start over at some recent checkpoint. I know that the game designers intended you to play it through in one long stretch, but that’s not how I want spend loads of my time (backtracking and starting over)… especially when the obviously ‘safest’ choice isn’t. If you can’t offer reasonable dialog choices that offer some semblance of sane outcome, then you need to offer a compensating control to allow restarting the segment quick and painless. Without one or the other game mechanism, it actually turns this game into a chore to play.

And no, I’m not going to listen to the title screen character telling me to give it a play through in some random way the first time. I’m going to play this game in the way I approach all games… I play it in the way that gives me the most satisfaction. If the game intentionally gets in my way of doing that, then the design is crap.

Making Development Choices

Quantic Dream needs to take a drastic change to its play style choice in its next game title. You have a decision to make. Is this to be a TV show or a game? Trying to marry both concepts into a single whole doesn’t work in many ways. You need to rethink the current combat button play style. In this game, you’d already added the computational component to the game. This component, like VATS, allows the player to pre-calculate the odds of success to a particular string of movements. This play style allows the player to play the scenario out to see the success or failure outcome before commencing the real movements.

This would have been the ideal combat method for this game. Get rid of the quick succession button presses and let Markus (or whomever) calculate the odds of success in advance with a particular combat strategy. Then, unleash the action and let it play out just as it did in other sections of the game. This way, the gamer gets to watch the entire action unfold with his/her strategy choices without unnecessary constant button press distractions. You already had this system in the game, it simply needed to be added to the combat.

After all, these are androids. Let them do what they do best… calculate. Again, this goes back to narrative logic failure. The writers simply did not impress story logic enough upon the game developers … and enforce the significance of the android in this gaming narrative. This, in fact, would have not only shown more of what the androids are capable (cold calculated combat), it would have decidedly ensured a terrifying outcome of exactly how dangerous the androids are. Quantic Dream entirely missed this incredibly important story point.

Title Screen Taunting

This is an issue that’s been progressing at a rapid pace in the video game industry and this title is no exception. When you reach the title screen, an android’s face appears (Chloe) and begins prompting you to do things and even goes so far as to tell you how you should play the game. To her I say, “shut the hell up”. I don’t want to hear what you have to say. If you want to be there and fidget or blink or do whatever, that’s fine. But, don’t intrude on my game and try to tell me how to play it or that I missed a crucial element or that one of my story’s characters died. I already know this. You don’t need to further “rub it in” by telling me this again. Keep in mind that part of the reason a character may have died was due to a stupid decision by the story designer to turn an innocuous dialog choice into a massacre.

This is my game and it’s my choice how I play it. Give me those tools to play the game in the way that I choose. If I want to quit out of the middle of a segment and restart it, that’s my choice. I don’t want to hear taunts from the title screen character telling me in no uncertain terms just how I eff’d up. I’m there trying to work through the story again to correct that mistake. A mistake, I might add, that had nothing to do with me, but had to do with the story designers who chose to turn a dialog choice or action deadly. To me, that’s both poor story design and poor game design.

Skipping Cinematics

Any game that offers long cinematics (by long, I define that as longer than 1 minute) needs to offer a way to skip them. This game does not offer that. There is no button to skip watching very long and, after you’ve seen them once, unnecessary cinematics. Once is most definitely enough in this game. This is, again, a waste of time.

One of the first things a game designer needs to learn is not to waste the gamer’s time. If we want to skip past a long unnecessary segment, give us the option to do so. Quantic Dream has not yet figured this out. By this game, they should have.

Characters and Guns

Here’s yet another thing that chaps me. A character finds a gun on the ground and we are given the choice to pick it up. Yet, the character is never given the opportunity to use the weapon at all… not via dialog choices, not via actions and not via any other means. Why have a character find a weapon then not be given the choice to use it? I shake my head here because this is one of the weakest designs I’ve yet seen in a game. If it’s important enough to have a character do something, then it’s important enough to bring it back into the game later.

Graphics and Sound

This is the single brightest point of Detroit: Become Human. The rendering engine is probably one of the most realistic I’ve yet seen on a console. The models, unfortunately, are a bit stilted in places (hands and mouths), but that only adds to the androidiness of the whole thing. If they were entirely realistic to the point you couldn’t tell them apart from the humans, that might make for a more compelling story, but at the same time, it’s kind of already been done in various TV series including Westworld.

Detroit: Become Human™_20180527171319

Keeping the game a bit less than real only serves to enhance the android idea and to allow buy-in for this world. That’s not to say that the graphics couldn’t be better. Of course, they can always be better. Where this game falls down is mouth movements for speech. I’ve seen so much better mouth movement in video games, it’s surprising this part is so stilted and poorly done. It’s long past time for a developer to produce a mouth phoneme movement kit for the industry as a whole. With rendering engines that look as realistic as Quantic Dream’s games, you’d think they would have spent the little bit extra time to develop a better mouth movement toolkit? Nope. The mouth movement is particularly bad on the main screen android because her mouth is front-and-center. It’s really the only thing you can look at. In-game mouth movement is allowed to be a little off because most times we’re not seeing it. Quantic Dream, spend a little more time when you’re building title screen animations.

The sound quality is very cinematic, particularly the music which ebbs and flows perfectly with the scenes. Unfortunately, the musical themes don’t end properly at times. The music ends abruptly when the task is done. At least get your composers to write an outro for the segment that seamlessly flows with the music already playing… or, at least fade it out. Do something a little more professional than just abruptly stopping the music in the middle.

Movie Replay

I was expecting that by the time we reached the end of creating our narrative that we would be able to replay the full movie without interruption. Alas, no. Quantic Dream doesn’t offer that level of game foresight. When you get to the end of your narrative, it’s over. There’s nothing else to do but replay parts of it again. Again, I shake my head.

Overall

I give Detroit: Become Human 6 out of 10 stars. It’s not game of the year in my book. But, with a few patches, they could fix up some of the deficiencies. Though, it’s doubtful they can patch the story problems or the failed combat system. Though, they might be able to introduce the playback system as an extra.

My recommendation is to rent this. You can get through the entire narrative in about a day. It’s very, very short and definitely not worth $60. The ending isn’t really an ending. It’s more of a cliffhanger. There are also story elements simply left unclosed. Also, Quantic Dream is not known for offering up sequels. I wouldn’t expect one here.

If you liked Quantic Dream’s other games like Heavy Rain and Beyond Two Souls, you’ll probably like Detroit: Become Human. But, don’t expect perfection. If you like heavy story driven games (to the point of almost being episodic TV replete with monologues and touching scenes), then you’ll probably like this game. However, don’t set your hopes high for the game play elements.

Graphics: 9 out of 10
Sound: 9 out of 10
Gameplay: 7 out of 10
Combat System: 1.5 out of 10
Story: 8 out of 10
Fun Factor: 6 out of 10
Stability: 9.5 out of 10
Length: 3 out of 10 (main story takes no more than a day to get through)

Overall: 6 out of 10 (It’s way too short, rent it).

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Game Review: Resident Evil 7 Demo

Posted in video game design, video gaming by commorancy on June 20, 2016

While I realize this is a only demo and may not resemble the real game all that much, what I will say about it is, I’m not terribly fond of it overall. I’m hoping the game is far different from this. Let’s explore.

Story

Your character ends up stuck in a creepy old farmhouse and must figure out a way to get out of it. Along the way you find things that may or may not help your character. Can you actually get your character out of the house alive?

Game Mechanics

Whether or not you can actually get out of the house is not really the question. The question is, are the game mechanics good? First, it is a preliminary game demo. So, in that aspect, it’s a little dumbed down.

On the one hand, it is somewhat better than Resident Evil 5 and 6… meaning, there aren’t zombies running and jumping at your character at every step. On the other hand, there are no zombies at all. In fact, the entire house is devoid of enemies entirely (other than when you answer the phone or find the back door key and try to leave). And then, the enemy is a cut scene that you can’t fight. So, in effect, this is more or less a puzzle questing game… and not a very good one at that.

Second, the only redeeming factor is the video tape. Because watching the video tape is also player interactive, you can do things with the characters on the tape (in the past) that open things up for the player in the future. This is the one and only one cool gimmick about this demo, but it is so underused as a game gimmick that it’s almost hardly not worth mentioning.

Graphics

Plainly and of what you can see of them, the textures, wood, roaches, character models and environments are supremely well done. Unfortunately, you’re hindered by having to roam the house using a flashlight. This means you can only see what you can illuminate with the flashlight. Otherwise, it all ends up dark. It reminds me a little of the way that Bioshock was lit in terms of the dark undersea lighting that gets brighter as you approach walls and items. Not so much the textures, but the lighting concept. In some ways this works, but it gets old and tiring after about an hour of play. I was hoping the fuse box would have actually let me flip the lights on in the house. But no, the only thing the fuse box does is let you drop down the attic stairs. And, that’s just a little weird. In such a decrepit old farm house, why would the owners have installed a drop down electric set of stairs that lead to the attic? Doesn’t really make any sense.

Puzzles

Unfortunately, other than the video tape gimmick mentioned above, the puzzles are mostly weak. Worse, the puzzles are tied to successfully completing events. Meaning, unless you do a very specific thing in the house, you can’t progress to and find the next puzzle piece (i.e., it simply won’t appear). If you cannot figure out what the game wants you to do, you’re stuck. Too many games offer puzzles like this. Some puzzles are glaringly obvious what you need to do. Though in this game, many of the puzzles are so obscure that you can run around for hours and never figure it out. That doesn’t make a game fun, it makes it tedious.

Game Development / Demo / Beta Testing

The game devs have a whole lot of work ahead of them to get this game right. I’m assuming this demo was released to test the waters with gamers. RE4 was a spectacular achievement for the Resident Evil series. But, as much as RE4 was an achievement, RE5 and RE6 were not.

I’m one of those people who firmly believes, “Once Bitten, Twice Shy”. In fact, I’ve been bitten one too many times with this series… both with RE5 and RE6. Shame on me. I won’t be bitten again. This is the reason I’m playing this demo. I was, in fact, hoping that this would have been another Leon game like RE4. After all, it’s been well long enough to finally get another Leon game.

Commentary

While Capcom seems to be on the right track with Resident Evil 7, assuming it can expand on this puzzle questing and video tape idea, I’m still very skeptical. This game has all of the hallmarks of tricking gamers into a decent opening puzzle level only to convert the game into yet another dual player zombie shooter (like RE5 and RE6 turned into) once you exit the house. If Capcom can keep this puzzle questing survival horror idea on-track throughout the entire game (throwing in some zombie apocalypse battles here and there), it might turn out to be a decent game. Unfortunately, it has a little too much of the telltale signs of converting into a completely different game once you leave the house. For this reason, I will wait until the game is fully released into the stores before I plop down $60 for this title. I simply don’t trust Capcom.

Though, I absolutely love the video tape idea of going back in time and opening doors, finding hidden secrets, leaving things behind, etc, for future characters to find and use. This is probably one of the freshest ideas in this game. Unfortunately, it’s way underused in this demo and I’m not certain exactly how much it could be used unless the main character carries around a camcorder and finds tapes along the way.

Game Review: Assassin’s Creed Syndicate

Posted in video game design, video gaming by commorancy on November 9, 2015

Warning: This review may contain spoilers. If you want to play this game through, you should stop reading now.

acsWhile Ubisoft got some parts of this game right, they got a lot of the parts very very wrong. And, this game cheats, badly. Let’s explore.

The Good

As with most Assassin’s Creed games, Syndicate is filled with lots of very compelling gameplay in its open world environment. The stories are decent, but short and the assassinations make it feel like Assassin’s Creed I (mostly). They’ve done well to bring back a lot of what made Assassin’s Creed I fun. Unfortunately, there’s also a whole lot of bad go with that fun. And, if you’re sneaky enough, you get the chance to use cover assassinations, air assassinations and haystack assassinations with much more regularity. Unfortunately, this game is about equally outweighed by the bad and the ugly.

The Bad

Controls

As with every single Assassin’s Creed game, the controls get harder and harder to work as the game progresses. And by harder and harder, I mean the designers require much more fine grained control over button presses or else you miss the opportunity to do whatever it is they have you doing. This usually means you miss your opportunity do take down an enemy, you fall off of a building, you can’t escape a fight or whatever.

For example, a person steals something and you have to tackle the thief. Unfortunately, as you happen to be running after the thief, if you also happen to straddle along side a carriage, the carriage will usurp the tackle button and you’ll end up stealing a carriage (all the while letting the thief get away). The really bad part is that you cannot break out of the carriage stealing maneuver and attempt to continue on with the thief chase. Oh no, you have to watch the entire motion capture playback from beginning to end all while your thief you were inches away from tackling runs away.

As another example, there are times where you begin a fight and a ton of enemies surround you. Then, one of them takes a swing and practically knocks you out with one blow. You don’t even get enough time to press the medicine button before you’re dead or desynchronized.

On top of this, the game still does not tell you every side mission requirement in advance. You only find them out after you’ve failed them.

Zipline Gun

And this is not the only incident of these types of bad controls. Once you get the zipline gun, it’s handy to use for quick getaways to the top of a building. That is all except, when the designers prevent you from using it. And they do prevent its use intentionally in some areas. Meaning, you can stand in front of some buildings and the zipline control appears. In others, nothing. This is especially true in areas where you have to complete a mission. So, you’ll be down on the ground and spotted, the first thing to do is find a rooftop to zipline to the top. Unfortunately, you can’t in a lot of mission areas. In some you can, in others you can’t.

Ubisoft, if you’re going to give me the zipline gun, let us use it on any building of any size. Not just those you randomly allow. This is so frustrating.

Calling Attention

When you’re sneaking around as an assassin, the pedestrians around you are constantly saying things like, “I hope he knows he can be seen” and other stupid things. While it doesn’t bring attention from enemies, it’s just nonsensical and stupid. Most people would merely ignore someone doing something like skulking around. Worse, it’s not like we have control over day or night in this game. Clearly, for most of the work of an assassin, it should be done at night under the cover of darkness. Instead, you’re out doing this stuff at noon.

Syndicate

Syndicate? What syndicate? Sure, you have a gang that you can find and call together on the street, but you barely ever get to use them alone let alone on missions. You can rope in a few at a time, but it’s almost worthless. When you enter into any place, they only thing they end up doing is drawing attention to you. As an assassin, that’s the last thing you want. You want stealth kills, not big grandiose street kill events. This is not Street Fighter. Other than that, there is no other syndicate. It’s not like you can switch to and play Greenie, which would have been a cool thing. It’s not like there were other assassins roaming the city that join in on the cause. I was hoping the syndicate would have been a huge group of assassins who all band together to get something done. Nope.

Recognition

On some levels, you don’t get recognized quickly. On others, it’s almost instantaneous. It’s really frustrating that there is not one level of recognition that you get with this game. Instead, it’s random and haphazard based on the level designer’s whim.

The Ugly

Glitchy

While it may not be anywhere near as bad as Unity, it’s still bad enough that you have to start (and restart) missions over to complete them. I’ve had glitches which locked my character up in a move that I had to quit out of the game to stop. I’ve had glitches where Jacob falls off of a rooftop merely by standing there. I’ve had glitches where I stand inches from an enemy and don’t get the assassinate action. I can hang below windows with enemies standing in front of me with no assassinate action. I’ve fallen off of the zipline for no reason.

The controls get worse and worse as the game progresses, to the point that if you want to get anything done, you nearly can’t.

Cinematics you can’t abort

Throughout the game, you’ll find that when you click a button to enter a carriage or zipline to the top of the building, you cannot break out of that action until it’s fully complete. If you were trying to do something else and accidentally launched into one of these cinematics, you have to fully complete the action entirely before you get control back.

Character Levels

The introduction of character levels is just plain stupid. I understand why they are in the game, but the reality is, they make no sense. Fighting a level 9 versus a level 2 is not at all realistic. You don’t have levels in real life. You have people who are more skilled than others, but not levels. These enemies are no more skilled than any other. If I walk into an area, my level should not dictate how hard it is to kill an enemy. I should be able to perform moves on a level 2 or level 9 in the same way and take them down at the same rate. In fact, enemies shouldn’t even have levels.

Bosses & Gang Wars

As you complete a section of the city, it unlocks a gang war segment. So, your gang fights their gang. Except, it’s not really a gang war. Instead, it’s half a gang war. The first segment starts out as a gang war where your gang fights theirs and you get to participate. After that first segment is complete, you must fight 5 to 6 of their gang members alone (including the boss). That’s not exactly a gang war. That’s an unfair fight. Where is my 4 to 5 other gang members to help me out. If it’s a gang war, make it a gang war. If it’s to be a 1 on 1 fight then make it so. Ganging up 5 or 6 against 1 is not a gang war and is in no way fair. I know some gamers like beating these odds, but I find it contrived and stupid. If it’s supposed to be a gang war, make it a fight between gangs.

The only consolation is that the game gives you one shot at taking down the section boss right before the gang war. If you can manage to kill them then, you don’t have to do that segment during the gang war. Still, a gang war should be about gangs.

Desynchronization and Load Times

This is one of the most ugly parts of this game. If you fall off a building and die, you have to wait through an excruciatingly long load time. So long, in fact, you could go make yourself a cup of coffee and be back in time for it to finally load. I mean, this is a PS4 and the game is loaded on the hard drive. Yet, it still takes nearly 2-4 minutes just to reload a level? I’m amazed (not in a good way) at how long it takes to reload. Once the game finally does reload, it drops you off some distance away from where you were. This is also frustrating. Why can’t you drop my character exactly in the location or at least close enough that I don’t have to run a ton just to get back there.

Starrick Boss Level

This level is ultimately the most asinine fail level of the entire game. Once you finally find the shroud (which is the whole point to the present day piece of this game), the game should immediately stop and move to present day. No. Instead, you have to attempt to assassinate Starrick in one of THE most asinine levels I’ve ever played in a game.

Evie and Jacob, the two twins, have to be the two most stupid people on Earth. Otherwise, they would simply realize they could cut and drag that shroud off of him with a good cut of their knives and then stab him. No. Instead, you have to attempt to wear-him-down while wearing the shroud. As if that were possible with the supposed healing shroud. If it were truly as healing as it is shown to be, there would be no way to wear his health down ever. I’m not sure what the writers were thinking here, but this level is about as stupid as it gets.

Worse, there are times where Starrick gets these hammer-on-your-character-without-fighting-back segments. Starrick just punches your character and you just stand there taking it. Really? There’s no reason given for these segments. These just wear down your health without any method of fighting back, breaking out of it or countering it. Now that’s just plain out cheating from a game. There is absolutely no need for this part of the fight. When in real life would this ever happen? Like, never. It makes the ending twice as hard without any real payoff.

Either of the twins could cut and pull the shroud off of him. It’s very simple. Then just assassinate him like anyone else. Why is it that you must melee this guy to death? These are assassins who kill from the shadows or by using other stealth methods. Assassins are not street fighters. That the game turns AC into Street Fighter is just plain stupid. This is NOT WHY I BUY Assassin’s Creed games. If I wanted a fighting game, I’d go buy Mortal Kombat or Street Fighter. The game devs have lost it. Whomever thought it would be a great idea to end this Assassin’s Creed game by turning it into a stupid fighting game should leave the game development field and specifically be fired from Ubisoft. That person has no business making gaming choices for this (or any) game franchise.

Overall

I give this game 4.0 stars out of 10. It’s a reasonable effort in places, but it’s in no way innovative and the ending plain out sucks from so many perspectives. The zipline is cool, but it doesn’t really help you as much as it needs to. There’s way too much carriage driving. The boss levels are mostly okay up until Sequence 8 as a Street Fighter ending… especially considering that the ‘present day’ part only needed to confirm where the shroud was located. After locating the shroud, the game should have immediately transitioned to present day. There is absolutely no need to kill Starrick, especially in a Street Fighter way. These people are assassins, not fighters. Sure, they can fight, but this tag-team-switching-melee-brawl-that-only-intends-to-wear-down-health is just insanely stupid, especially considering just how quickly that fight would be over by cutting that shroud off of him. I don’t even know how many times either of the two of them had gotten close enough to yank that thing off of him. Yet, the game insists on throwing punches to bring him down.

Ultimately, it has an insanely stupid ending that is majorly out of character for a game franchise that deserves so much better and which offered so much promise. And, of course, where is the Syndicate in all of this melee stuff? Why is it the gang is not there? Instead, Starrick should have been killed by a standard overhead assassination by both of them simultaneously through instant decapitation. I’d have preferred if Greenie had been in on the action and then have all three of them take Starrick out. Even the most healing shroud in the world couldn’t heal a severed head… and it should have been done in one big maneuver by both or all three of the assassins at once. That would have been an ending befitting of the name Assassin’s Creed.

Recommendation: Rent

The State of Gaming

Posted in botch, business, video game design, video gaming by commorancy on December 11, 2013

I’ve been an ardent gamer since the Atari 2600 broke onto the scene. Before that, I was an avid pinball and arcade attendee. Suffice it to say, I’m a gamer. So, let’s explore what’s changed about gaming.

Early Days

In the earliest stages of gaming, experimentation was commonplace. This is not as much true in early pinball games as the physics were pretty much set, but in video games the bounds are endless. Though, the pinball technologists would definitely surprise me over what they could do with a table and with digital displays. I digress. In the beginning, games like Pong (1972) set the stage as to what could be done. A simple table tennis game seemed a good first step. It was a game everyone already recognized, but now it’s on a screen with no need to carry around real rackets. Now you just moved your finger and the paddle moved. No more physical exertion. What was born was couch entertainment.

However, you couldn’t take the arcade home with you. At least, not for a while yet. We wouldn’t see video games become true couch entertainment until after the Atari 2600 is born five years after Pong’s release to the arcades in 1977.

Arcades

I loved visiting the arcades during the early 70s. The ambience, the music and the machines (oh so many to choose) all beckoned for that quarter. One quarter, the fuel that drove your gaming satisfaction. Of course, at the time, I was too young to have a job, so I was at the mercy of my parents to give me some money. When we visited the mall, my mother would always give us (my brother and I) a couple of bucks and off to the arcade we’d run. For her the cost was a shopping experience without a couple annoying kids constantly making trouble. For us, we got to explore the latest video games in the arcade like Atari’s Pong or US Billiard’s Shark (where you play as the shark eating the swimmer) or some of those old-style pinball games with the wheels for numbers. No digital numbers on these pinball games. Digital displays would come later.

This particular arcade (my first) was always fun and had unique games. It sat right across from a five and dime store. Some of the games even had some quirky behaviors born from carpet static. One of the pinball games would add a free game just by rubbing your feet on the carpet and zapping the coin slot. Unfortunately, living in humid Texas meant you could only do this at certain times of the year. The way-too-humid rest of the time you had to pay. That is, until the arcade owners figured out the trick.

Throughout the 70s and early 80s, I’ve visited many different arcades in malls, strip malls, at bowling alleys, at batting cages, amusement parks, convenience marts, standalone arcades, at mini-golf and at Malibu racing tracks. They all had their own ambiance and games that made each experience unique and left a lasting impression on each visit. I never tire of visiting a new arcade.

One of the arcades I would occasionally visit had a mammoth pinball machine that used what looked like a white cue ball as the pinball. This pinball game was ginormous. Though it was big, it really wasn’t one of the most exciting pinball games. Its uniqueness was in its size, not in its game board mechanics. I always thought that it played like everything was in slow motion. I always preferred the smaller pinball games. This particular arcade had a cave-like quality that made it seem like you were the only one in there.

Video Game Experimentation

During the early years of video games, many different companies experimented with video game ideas. There were even hybrid pinball and video games combined, though none of these really successfully married the two technologies.

The earliest games were flat single color games. The earliest video games also used black and white CRT screens. When color was needed, flat gel color panels were applied to top of the black and white screen. It wouldn’t been until later that color CRTs would be added to video games.

This was a great time to watch as video games progressed from being simple flat shapes on black and white screens to more complex pixel drawn characters in later games like Mortal Kombat.

Arcade Video Games

As we moved into the era of video gaming, games became increasingly more complex graphically and sonically, but the games themselves remained relatively simple. Games like Pong, Space Invaders, Asteroids and Shark moved into games like Donkey Kong, Centipede, Venture, Burgertime, Dig-Dug, Mr. Do and Galaxian. All of these games had a simple level based premise. Do something to ‘win’ the level and move onto the next level. The win-the-level premise really had its roots back to pinball and simply carried over into video games. However with pinball, it was less about winning the level and more about keeping the ball in play as long as possible. With pinball, you were typically given 5 turns or balls to play. Once you used up all 5 turns, the game was over.

With video games, the premise changed from ‘playing as long as possible’ to ‘playing as short as possible’ so that arcades could maximize their profits. You really didn’t want the same kid playing the game on the same quarter for hours on end. This could easily happen with certain pinball games, but with video games that was not a goal. As we moved into video gaming, it became less about skill and more about defeating the ‘enemies’ (whatever they happened to be). Video game creators quickly learned that ‘enemies’ were the motivator for play. At the same time, the enemies got more and more complex, ingenious and harder to beat. In centipede, it happened to be a big segmented centipede squirming its way down the screen towards your ‘gun’. If you managed to destroy all of its parts of the centipede, the level was over.

Many games adopted the ‘Centipede’ approach to levels and began building more and more complex ‘waves’ of enemies, such as Galaga. So, from where did Galaga descend? From Galaxian, of course. And, Galaxian descended from Space Invaders. Space Invaders was an early somewhat higher res game depicting ‘ufo invaders’ at the top of the screen that you had to shoot until you destroyed them all. From this game alone descended a bunch of other games, some direct clones like Galaxian, Galaga and Gorf, some indirect clones like Defender (a side scroller). From Defender came some sonically similar games like Joust. Note, there are plenty of games I could reminisce over games from this time period, but I’ll move on to get to my point.

Game Innovation

As we progressed, game designers continued to push the boundaries with newer and more interesting ideas with higher res and more compelling gameplay like Paperboy, Marble Madness and Pole Position. There were also a number of vector based games like Battlezone, Tempest and Star Wars which also pushed the boundaries using vector graphics which would ultimately die as a technology. At the time, though, vector games were some of the first games to depict objects in 3D space (even though they were just wireframe drawings). The vector technology did offer, at least for me, more compelling gameplay due to the pseudo-3D experience. Unfortunately, the vector drawing method would only become a stop-gap technology to getting us to the 3D shooters of today. Though, the games that utilized vector technology were definitely one-of-a-kind and would also see produced a home arcade cartridge driven version named Vectrex in 1982. I always wanted one of these.

In among all of the flat 2D sprite based games, I applaud Atari for pushing the vector boundaries at that time. Without these innovative arcade games to keep us interested in plopping more quarters into the machines, we wouldn’t have kept playing.

Moving on, innovation continued with games like Gauntlet which took the arcades by storm. The Tron games didn’t do so bad either. Even Journey (the rock band) got in on the gaming action with the mostly horrible Journey arcade game set to Journey music from the Frontiers album. An earlier Atari 2600 console game was also released based on the Escape album. We would even see video game innovation in the form of laserdisc based games such as Don Bluth’s animated Dragon’s Lair and Space Ace titles. I have no idea how many quarters I plopped into these machines. There were even controversial video games based on movies, like Exidy’s Deathrace 2000 (1976) where you ran people over which turned into a grave.

All during this period, game designers were pushing the envelope on game ideas without much thought to the idea of game genres. That would come later. So while there were fighting games like Mortal Kombat and Street fighter and racing games like Manaco GP and Pole Position, these games would become a staple at most arcades. There would also be a few sports titles like Punch-Out! and these would introduce the idea of sports games, but the Maddens and FIFAs of the world would have to wait until consoles improved. Specifically, the later linked racing games where 4-8 players were linked and could race in unison in sit-down driving arcade cabinets. Other than racing, no other arcade games braved linking their cabinets for multiuser play. That wouldn’t happen until the dawn of home networking and later Xbox Live.

Arcade Gaming End

So, while arcade gaming has never really ended specifically, it is greatly diminished as a result of the introduction of the Atari 2600 and later the Nintendo NES and the Sega Genesis. It’s funny, Atari, Nintendo and Sega were all huge builders of arcade games. Yet they all introduced home gaming consoles that would ultimately more-or-less kill the arcade as the place to game. I guess you might say that it was inevitable looking back now, but it is interesting to consider this fact.

Keep in mind that all during the later home console period (mid 90s), home gaming on the PC would become stronger and stronger with games like Doom, Quake and Wolfenstein. Thanks to iD software, Doom would actually usher in the era of first and third person shooters and, thus, bring this genre front and center. It would be a bit later that consoles would steal the PC thunder and introduce games like Halo.

Anyway, as home gaming consoles improved from the Atari 2600 through the to Atari 5200 and then later from the Sega Genesis to the Sega Dreamcast, from the Nintendo NES to the Nintendo Gamecube and to Sony Playstation 1, this ensured that home gaming would continue to prosper and that arcades would lose ground. However, even up until the Sega Dreamcast, we continued to see innovative titles arriving at home from games like Blue Stinger to Yu Suzuki’s Shenmue series. With Shenmue being one of the first open-world free roaming games that allowed you to interact with much of the world including real-time season changes.

The Era of Home Gaming

With the introduction of the Xbox and PS2, the whole course of gaming changed. Once these consoles were introduced, the gaming landscape began to be shaped primarily by Microsoft and Sony. At this point, we began losing a lot of innovative titles. Sure, we might see one every now and then like Rez, but these were an anomaly and not the norm. Still, with the Xbox and PS2, the genres were solidified into basically a handful of names like ‘shooter’ or ‘racing’ or ‘fighting’ or ‘multiplayer’ or you get the picture. With these new branded titles, it was easy for developers to create and drop games into the slots and people would understand exactly what they meant.

Still, while the genres were pretty much set by the Xbox and PS2, there were still a few developers willing to go outside of these and produce something new and different, but rarely.

As we move forward to the introduction of the Xbox 360 and the PS3, we see undefinable genre titles diminish further and the standard genre become defined. Basically, if your game didn’t fall inside a genre, it likely wouldn’t be released. Or, it would be released as a low priced digital download game. The only real exception to this was Valve who seemed to be able to get a games like Portal released onto consoles. Still, Portal could be considered a first person shooter even though that wasn’t the primary objective of the game.

With games like Halo 3 and Gears of War on the Xbox 360 and God of War on the PS3, this era saw primarily genre based titles released. Few developers ventured outside of these tried-and-true genres, but the rule was that they could if the developer chose to and these still might happen occasionally. In fact, by the Xbox 360 and PS3, there were effectively no titles that fell outside of the genre labels.

Era of the Home Console

With the 2013 introduction of the PS4 and the Xbox One, the era of home gaming is likely coming to an end. With what I consider to be an incremental update to these consoles (Moore’s law no longer applies), these hardware updates are only minimal updates to their predecessors. There was a much bigger leap in quality from the Xbox to the Xbox 360 (moving from 480p 4:3 aspect and component video to 16:9 1080p HDMI output). Changing the video standard between the Xbox and Xbox 360 and between the PS2 ad PS3 was a huge leap. Not to mention, the cell multiprocessor system that Sony put into the PS3. At this point, the 2013 consoles are at the point of diminishing returns.

Both the PS4 and the Xbox One are simply mid-priced PCs with standard Intel processors and standard ATI graphics cards. They’re effectively mid-grade PCs running proprietary operating systems. In fact, I’d actually say the Xbox One is likely running a modified form of Windows 8 with greatly reduced features from the Xbox 360. The PS4, however, is running Sony’s own proprietary operating system similar in looks to was on the PS3, but also with greatly reduced features. Though, the Ustream/Twitch live streaming features of the PS4 are a much welcomed improvement.

Yet for the cost factor of the units, the games haven’t dramatically improved. Let’s observe the problems. With the new consoles, the genres are pretty well set in stone. At this point, no developer would be willing to stray outside of the standard defined genres: shooter, fighting, sports, real-time RPG (which is slowly being combined with shooter), turn-based RPG, puzzle, simulation, strategy, party (encapsulates dance and other party games) and creative. While there may be some sub-genres such as ‘horror’ or ‘mystery’ or ‘period’ which can apply to each of the genres, these are the top genres that are used. Sports encapsulates all forms of sports including baseball, football, racing, skiing, skateboarding, etc.

In fact, most games fall into one of the following: shooter, fighting, sports or RPG. The rest of the genres are lesser used.

The End of the Console?

As the PS4 and the Xbox One are now available, it’s becoming more and more clear. It’s expensive to create a game title on these consoles. To create a game that looks like Ryse, you need to outlay a hefty sum of cash to license the Crytek game engine. And that’s just to get the engine you need to drive the hardware. Still, once you’ve spent your wad obtaining a CryEngine license, you still need to hire a slew of programmers, artists and writers to develop a compelling story and then work to make that into some kind of a compelling play.

From concept to completion, you’re likely talking at least 3-5 years depending on the size of your staff. Of course, the more people you throw at the problem, the faster you can get it done. But, speed isn’t your only enemy here. For the example I mentioned earlier, Ryse, this game is absolutely gorgeous. The environments are amazing, the characters and armor are outstanding. So then what’s the problem?

The gameplay in Ryse is absolute trash. They could have taken the game mechanics straight from a 1990s Mortal Kombat game and plopped into to Ryse for all I know. The characters move in unrealistic ways, the game forces pauses at the most inopportune times and the gameplay is just overall bad. So, this issue is firmly the enemy of the PS4 and the Xbox One. A developer spends years and loads of cash creating a title only to produce something that plays like Ryse. In fact, Ryse is a firm example of what NOT to do on a next generation console. It is the low bar by which to make sure your game is above. Sure, it’s pretty, but that’s where Ryse all ends.

Limited Games, Longer Create Cycle

This will be the continual battle of the PS4 and the Xbox One throughout their console lifespan. Consider that the Xbox 360 and the PS3 have both been on the market for at least 8 years now. That’s 8 years of back catalog of games. Now, go look at these titles. Many of these games took less than 2 years to produce. And, of course, some of them show it (i.e., Two Worlds).

With these new console generations, the bar has now been raised again. Specifically for the graphics. To produce the graphics needed to look great at 1080p, this is not just a small amount of work. Not only does it require high res textures, it requires high res models. Producing such models and textures is not a quick process. Where the textures may have been half the size on the Xbox 360, they are now twice the size on the Xbox One. That simply takes longer time to produce.

This means that instead of the 2 year time it took for the Xbox 360, it might take 3-4 years to produce a title on the PS4 and the Xbox One. So, that means in 8 years, we’re likely to have half the number of big name titles we have on the Xbox 360. That also means it will take perhaps twice as long to produce titles for the Xbox One and the PS4. Further, this means there will also be a lot of engine reuse with new graphics dropped under the hood. In fact, I expect a lot of texture reuse across many games.

For the game studios that can afford the time it takes, these will continue. For those that can’t afford the time it takes to produce that level of a title, they will likely fold, stop producing or move to a different market.

The State of Games

Unfortunately, today we are seeing a convergence of genres. No longer do we see the new innovative titles, other than in digital downloads as small diversions. Occasionally a Japanese developer will produce a title geared toward the Asian market that will cross-over to the US market. But, that’s rare. Most titles produced today fall into one of the predetermined genres. It’s just too risky for game studios to gamble on an experiment. Game studios want to know their title is a guaranteed success. The only way that can happen is by making sure they stay within the trappings of the genres.

When games were like Pong or Shark might take a few people a several months up to a year to produce the game, it now takes many years to produce something like Halo 4. It’s too risky and expensive to gamble on experimentation. Game studios, therefore, won’t risk this. This is why we are firmly seeing more and more repetitive, trite and cliche games. Basically, we are effectively seeing games that you’ve already played at least twice already. Game studios believes having that level of familiarity with the subject matter will make it more likely to succeed. If it’s similar to a game you’ve already played, they assume, that familiarity will keep the gamers happy.

Unfortunately, the only thing this does is make the game crappy and annoying. Game studios don’t want to see or know this, but it is most definitely true. If you make your game feel like some other game or a game that you’ve played before, then it is that other game. It’s then not new or innovative and becomes an exercise in futility.

Predictions and Mobile Devices

I expect we will continue to see the smaller game studios close or be bought out. The larger game studios may continue to weather the longer cycle, but not forever. They have to see a return on their investment or they will also stop producing.

Overall, I expect that we will see less and less studios producing games for consoles. I also see this as the likely end of the ‘epic’ game. Game developers will begin go move back into smaller more easily built titles like ‘Farmville’ and move away from the epic titles like ‘Call of Duty’ and ‘Halo’. The only game studios producing such titles will be those that are subsidized by Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo.

Those game studios not being subsidized to produce such ambitious titles will move away from the consoles and begin developing titles for mobile devices. Since mobile computing is pretty much taking over, there’s really no need to own a living room console. It’s easier to play games on devices you are already carrying. Eventually, game studios will realize that it’s far more lucrative to produce games to play on what’s in your pocket than what’s in your living room. Especially considering how many devices are sitting in people’s pockets untapped.

Just a few compelling titles on iOS or Android, like Angry Birds, and you’re pretty well set. Angry Birds has already paved the way, it’s just a matter of time before studios wake up and realize what they are missing.

Technology Watch: Calling it — Wii U is dead

Posted in botch, video game design, video gaming by commorancy on June 10, 2013

I want Nintendo to prove me wrong. I absolutely adore the Wii U system and its technology. The Gamepad is stellar and it feels absolutely perfect in your hands. It just needs a better battery. The battery life sucks. There’s no doubt about it, the Wii U is an amazing improvement over the Wii. So what’s wrong with it?

Titan Tidal Forces

There are many tidal forces amassing against the Wii U which will ultimately be its demise. In similarity to the amazing Sega Dreamcast and, before that, the Atari Jaguar, the Wii U will likely expire before it even makes a dent in the home gaming market. Some consoles just aren’t meant to be and the Wii U, I’m calling it, will be discontinued within 12 months in lieu of a newly redesigned and renamed ‘innovative’ Nintendo console.  Let’s start with the first tidal force…

What Games?

Nintendo just cannot seem to entice any developer interest in porting games to the Wii U, let alone creating native titles. With such big game franchises as Bioshock Infinite, Grand Theft Auto V, Saints Row 3 and Deadpool (Activision, surprisingly) side-stepping the Wii U, this tells me that at least Rockstar and Activision really don’t have much interest in producing titles for this console. Even such bigger titles like Call of Duty, which did make it to the Wii U, didn’t release on the same day as the PS3 and Xbox versions.  Call of Duty actually released later, as did The Amazing Spider-Man.

Worse, Nintendo doesn’t really seem committed to carrying any of its own franchises to this console in any timely fashion. To date, there is still not even an announcement for a native Zelda for Wii U. Although, we’re not yet past E3, so I’ll wait to see on this one. My guess is that there will be a Zelda, but it will likely fall far shy of what it should or could have been.

Basically, there are literally no upcoming game announcements from third party developers. And there’s especially nothing forthcoming from the big franchises on the Wii U (other than Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed IV, which is likely to be just another mashup and rehash). Yes, there are a number of b-titles and ‘family’ titles, but that’s what Nintendo is always known for.

Sidestepped, but why?

I see titles like Grand Theft Auto V, Saint’s Row 3, Destiny and Deadpool where there is no mention of a Wii U version. For at least GTA5 and Saint’s Row, these developers likely had well enough of a lead time to be able to create a Wii U version. So, what happened? Why would these games not be released for the Wii U?  I think it’s very clear, these developers don’t think they can recoup their investment in the cost needed to produce the game for that console. That doesn’t mean that the games won’t be ported to the Wii U six months after the Xbox, PS3 and PC releases. But then, what’s the incentive to play a 6 month old game? I don’t want to pay $60 for has-beens, I want new games to play.

Hardcore gamers want the latest at the moment when it’s released. Not six months after other consoles already have it. As a hardcore gamer, I don’t want to wait for titles to release. Instead, I’ll go buy the an Xbox or a PS so I can play the game when it’s released, not wait 6-9 months for a poorly ported version of the game.

Competition

With the announcement of both Sony’s PS4 (*yawn*) and the Microsoft’s Xbox One ( :/ ), these two consoles together are likely to eclipse whatever hope the Wii U has of gaining the hardcore gaming element. In fact, it’s likely that Sony’s PS4 is already dead as well, but that’s another story. Also, with the lackluster announcement of the Xbox One, we’ll just have to wait and see.  Needless to say, people only have so much money to spend on hardware and only one of these consoles can really become dominant in the marketplace. For a lot of reasons to be explored later in this article, Nintendo’s Wii U cannot survive with the course it is presently on.

I can’t really call which is the bigger yawn, PS4 or Xbox One, but both have problems. Namely, no compatibility to previous console games which really puts a damper on both of these next gen consoles. Maybe not enough for either of them not to become successes in 5 years, but immediate adoption is a concern. Available launch titles will make or break these new consoles as backwards compatibility is not available. Meaning, without launch titles, there’s literally nothing to play (other than Netflix, which you can pay far less than the price of a console to get.. i.e., Roku). For competition alone, this is a huge tidal force against Nintendo that will ultimately keep the Wii U in third place, if not outright dead.

Let’s not forget the nVidia Shield based on Android that is as yet an unknown quantity. Although, the way it is currently presented with the flip up screen and the requirement to stream games to the unit from a PC is a big downer on the usability of this system as a portable. I don’t believe nVidia’s approach will succeed. If you’re a portable system, then it needs to be truly portable with native games. If you’re a console, then make it a console and split the functionality into two units (a controller and a base unit).  The all-in-one base unit and controller, like the Shield, isn’t likely to be successful or practical.  The attached screen, in fact, is 1) fragile and likely to break with heavy usage and 2) make it hard to play games because the screen shakes (loosening the hinge) when you shake the controller.  For the PS Vita, it works okay. For the Shield that still requires a PC to function, this isn’t a great deal, especially at the $350 price tag.

Nintendo Itself

Nintendo is its own worst enemy. Because it has always pushed and endorsed ‘family friendly’ (all age) games over ‘hardcore’ (17+ aged) games, the Wii U has pushed Nintendo into an extremely uncomfortable position. It must now consider allowing extremely violent, bloody, explicit language games into the Wii U to even hope to gain market share with the hardcore 17-34 aged gamers.  In other words, Nintendo finally has to grow up and make the hard decision. Is it or isn’t it a hardcore gamer system?  Nintendo faces this internal dilemma which leaves the Wii U hanging in the balance.

It’s clear that most already released titles have skirted this entire problem. Yes, even Call of Duty and Zombie U do mostly. Assassin’s Creed III is probably the hardest core game on the system and even that isn’t saying much.

Game developers see this and really don’t want to wrestle with having to ‘dumb down’ a game to Nintendo’s family friendly standards.  If I were a developer, I’d look at the Wii U and also ask, “Why bother?” Unfortunately, this is a catch-22 problem for Nintendo. Meaning, Nintendo can’t get people to buy the system without titles, but Nintendo can’t rope in developers to write software without having an audience for those titles. The developers just won’t spend their time writing native titles for a system when there’s not enough users to justify the expense of the development.

Worse, the developers realize they will also have to provide a ‘dumbed down’ version for the Nintendo platform to placate Nintendo’s incessant ‘family friendly’ attitude. For this reason, Nintendo can’t turn the Wii U into a hardcore system without dropping these unnecessary and silly requirements for hardcore games. Nintendo, as a word of advice, just let the developers write and publish the game as it is. Let the ratings do the work.

Bad Marketing

For most people, the perception is that the Wii U is nothing more than a slightly different version of the Wii. The marketing was all wrong for this console. Most people’s perceptions of this system are completely skewed. They really don’t know what the Wii U is other than just being another Wii. This issue is cemented by naming the system the ‘Wii U’.  It should have had an entirely different name without the word ‘Wii’. Unfortunately, the Wii was mostly a fad and not a true long-lasting gaming system. It picked up steam at first not because it was great, but because people latched onto the group gaming quality. For a time, people liked the ‘invite people over for a party’ quality of the Wii. This group gaming quality was something no other gaming system had up to that point. Then came the Kinect and the Move controllers and competition wiped that advantage out.

The Wii U design has decidedly dropped the idea of group gaming in lieu of the Gamepad which firmly takes gaming back to a single player experience. Yes, the Wii U does support the sensor bar, but few Wii U games use it. Worse, the Wii U doesn’t even ship with the Wiimote or Nunchuk, firmly cementing the single player experience. Only Wii compatible games use the sensor bar for the multiple player experience. Because of the focus back to single player usage, this again says Nintendo is trying to rope in hardcore gamers.

Unfortunately, the marketing plan for the Wii U just isn’t working. The box coloring, the logo, the name and the way it looks seems like a small minimal upgrade to the Wii. Until people actually see a game like Batman Arkham City, the Amazing Spider-Man or Call of Duty actually play on the Wii U, they really don’t understand what the ‘big deal’ is. Worse, they really don’t see a need replace their aging Wii with this console knowing that they rarely play it at this point anyway. So, when the Wii U was released, the average Wii user just didn’t understand the Wii U appeal. The Wii U marketing just didn’t sell this console to either the family audience or to the hardcore gamer correctly.

Bad Controller Button Placement

The final piece of this puzzle may seem insignificant, but it’s actually very significant to the hardcore game player. Because the PS3 and the Xbox map action buttons identically to the controller across games, you always know that when you press A, it’s going to do the same thing on the Xbox or the PS3.  So, you can move seamlessly between either console and play the same game without having so shift your button pressing pattern. In other words, you can play blind because the button location+action is identical between the Xbox and the PS3.  The buttons placement is then as follows:

Y/Triangle = 12 o’clock, B/Circle = 3 o’clock, A/X = 6 o’clock, X/Square = 9 o’clock (Xbox / PS3)

The actions of Y and Triangle are the same between the systems.  The actions of B and Circle are the same and so on. If you play Call of Duty on PS3 or Xbox, you always press the button at the 6 o’clock position to perform the same action.

The Wii U designers decided to place the buttons in opposition to the Xbox & PS3. The button placement for Wii U:

X = 12 o’clock, A = 3 o’clock, B = 6 o’clock, Y = 9 o’clock (Wii U)

This button placement would be fine if A (3 o’clock) on the Wii performed the same action as the B/Circle (3 o’clock position) on the Xbox and PS3. But, it doesn’t. Instead, because the Wii’s controller is labeled ‘A’ (3 o’clock position), it has the same function as the ‘A/X’ (6 o’clock position) button the Xbox and PS3. The ‘B’ button at (6 o’clock) matches the B/Circle (3 o’clock) on the Xbox/PS3. This means that you have to completely reverse your play on the Wii U and retrain yourself to press the correct button. This means you can’t play blind. This is a difficult challenge if you’ve been playing game franchises on the Xbox for 10 years with the Xbox/PS3 button and action placement. This would be like creating a reversed QWERTY keyboard so that P starts on the left and Q ends on the right and handing it to a QWERTY touch typist.  Sure, they could eventually learn to type with keys in this order, but it’s not going to be easy and they’re going to hit P thinking it’s Q and such for quite a while.

For hardcore Xbox gamers, making the switch to the Wii U is a significant controller retraining challenge. When I replayed Assassin’s Creed III, I was forever hitting the button at the 6 o’clock position thinking it was the A button because that’s the position where it is on the Xbox and PS3. Same for the reversed X and Y.  By the end of Assassin’s Creed III, I had more or less adapted to the Wii U’s backwards controller, but I made a whole lot of stupid mistakes along the way just from this button placement issue alone.

Either the games need to support Xbox/PS3 alternative action placement compatibility or the Wii U needs to sell a controller that maps the buttons identically to the Xbox and PS3. I personally vote for a new controller as it doesn’t require game designers to do anything different. This button placement issue alone is a huge hurdle for the Wii U to overcome and one that is a needlessly stupid design when you’re trying to entice Xbox or PS3 gamers to your platform. I don’t want to relearn a new controller design just to play a game. Ergonomics is key in adoption and this is just one big Nintendo ergonomics design fail. For the Wii, that button placement was fine. For the Wii U, the controller needs to identically map to the PS3 and Xbox button/action layout to allow for easy and widespread adoption.

Death of the Wii U

Unfortunately, due to the above factors, Nintendo will struggle to keep this console afloat before it finally throws in the towel to the Xbox One and the PS4. Worse, the Wii U really doesn’t have a niche. It lost its fad group gaming image over a year ago when people stopped buying the Wii for that purpose. Those who did use it for that shoved it into a closet. The Wii U may have been somewhat positioned to become a hardcore system, but due to poor controller button placement, lack of quality developers producing hardcore titles, the Wii U’s silly user interface, Nintendo’s antiquated ‘family friendly’ attitudes and Nintendo itself placing silly requirements on titles to reduce violence and language as part of that antiquated attitude, the Wii U doesn’t really have a market. It just doesn’t appeal to the hardcore gamers. So what’s left? Zelda and Mario and that’s not enough to invest in the Wii U.

Just looking at the titles presently available for the Wii U, at least 85% of which were original launch titles (most of which were ported from other consoles).  In combination with the new fall console hardware releases plus hardcore titles for existing consoles that completely sidestep the Wii U, Wii U just cannot succeed without some kind of major miracle out of Nintendo.

I full well expect to hear an announcement from Nintendo dropping the Wii U, not unlike Sega’s announcement to pull the plug on the Dreamcast so early into its console life.

Bioshock Infinite: Or, why circular time paradoxes suck!

Posted in movies, storytelling, video game, video game design by commorancy on June 3, 2013

Note: If you haven’t yet played Bioshock Infinite yet, this article contains spoilers.  You should stop reading now! You have been warned.

Many people are awed and dumbfounded by the story within Bioshock Infinite. For some odd reason, people think this is a good thing and somehow even like and see it as some sort of thought provoking experience. Well, perhaps it is in some small way thought provoking, but not thought provoking in the right way. Let’s explore why Bioshock Infinite’s type of thought provoking experience is not a good thing and not something to be wanted or liked in storytelling.

Breaking the Rules

There’s something to be said for people who break the rules. Sometimes breaking the rules can lead to good consequences. Most times, it ends up in failure. Story and narrative creation rules have been in existence since the earliest fiction book was written. Yet, these rules have minimally changed throughout the years to keep stories satisfying and fresh. The rules for well written storytelling are already firmly established. Granted, the storyteller can take liberties if the diversion leads you back to something profound within the story. Basically, the idea behind storytelling is to keep the pace and momentum going and to flesh out characters who the reader can feel good about. Plot devices are used to keep the story on track, to know where that story is heading and what the end goal is for the characters. With the ultimate goal being to produce characters whose situations seem real and profound.  The characters are the crux that ground the story even if the rest of the world is fanciful.  Without this grounding, the story falls apart. With that said, every story has a beginning, a middle and an end. All three of these should be clearly defined so that what transpires along the way leads to a satisfying conclusion of the characters lives where the readers have invested their time.

Video Game Storytelling

With video games, the way to tell a story hasn’t substantially changed and not every video game company ‘gets’ it. Every entertainment experience today should become a cohesive character driven story to be successful. Within video games, there are two pieces to the story puzzle. The gameplay and the storytelling. Both are symbiotic relationships. One feeds off of the other. Neither should really become dominant in this mix. If the game falls too much into a storytelling role, it loses the interactivity needed to be a great video game. If the gameplay is all there is and the story only happens at the beginning and end, the story becomes an afterthought. Both have to work together to create the whole and to keep the player engaged in the game and the story. However, should one become more dominant than the other, the gameplay should win. It is a game after all.

Time Travel and Storytelling

Unfortunately, too many novice storytellers decide to use the extremely overused, trite and cliche device known as time travel and time anomalies to create and tell their story. Worse, without clearly reasoned ideas, time travel can easily make a story become an  Ex Deus Machina blunder. As it’s far too easily done wrong, time travel should be avoided in most stories as it really has no place in any quality storytelling experience. And, it’s usually not needed. For example, J.J. Abrams uses this device within the newest Star Trek film reboot. He, unfortunately, uses it to create an alternative universe where the original Star Trek crew don’t actually live. Instead, he creates a rebooted universe of his own choosing and design. His storytelling approach is to toss out the baby with the bathwater and start over on his own terms. Not only does this completely dismiss and insult Gene Roddenberry’s vision of Star Trek, it completely smacks of pretentiousness. J.J. Abrams apparently thinks he’s better than Gene Roddenberry and can somehow improve upon what Roddenberry has created. In fact, there is no need for this in the Star Trek universe. The original Star Trek universe works perfectly fine as it is for setting J.J. Abrams’ story.

In J.J. Abrams’ Trek, the only true Star Trek original crew was the aging Spock who somehow accidentally stumbled through a time hole into J.J. Abrams’ fabricated new time paradoxical Star Trek universe. After you realize this, you’ll understand just how horrible the new Star Trek film really is. The events that took place in J.J. Abrams’ Trek movie don’t exist in the universe that Gene Roddenberry created. This also means that you’ve wasted 2 hours of your life watching a contrived useless film.

Bioshock Infinite is a video game who’s designers decided to use time travel and alternative dimensions (string theory) to explain the story. The only thing the writers successfully accomplish is to produce an incomprehensible mess of a story with characters we ultimately don’t really care about. Some players saw the story as thought provoking. The only thing that Infinite accomplishes, if you begin to think on the story, is unravel its own story and you’re left with questions like, “Did it really even happen?” or “Is he alive or dead?” or “Is the story really over?”. Questions that, if you really want satisfying closure to a story as a writer, you don’t want people asking. These are not the kinds of questions that should be left over at the end of your story. These are the kinds of questions that lead people to critique the story as being trite, cliche and poorly written. You want people to value the story and cherish and like the story. You want them liking and asking questions about the characters, what happened to them after, where the story might go from here. You don’t want to leave your story open to ‘Infinite’ possibilities where the story leads effectively nowhere and there are so many of the same characters that you can’t even wrap your head around it. In storytelling, infinite choice is the same as no choice. Meaning, if there is no way to tell what happened, that’s the same as saying that it didn’t happen. Which then means that playing the game is pointless.

Time Travel and Time Paradoxes

Time travel is a concept that we do not know if it’s possible. It’s all theory and conjecture at this point. It could become a reality in the future, but we’re not there yet. Telling fanciful stories about time travel and multiple universes may seem like something good, but most times isn’t. The single biggest problem with using time travel and string theory in storytelling is the circular time paradox. That is, a situation that would lead the viewer to logically conclude just how the story came to exist if changing a small piece caused the creation (or unraveling) of the situation in the first place. As a concrete example, in the film Terminator 2, Skynet effectively creates itself. That is, a Skynet robot from the future is sent back in time to kill the then kid, John Connor. Yet, it fails and is destroyed. Its robotic brain technology chip is recovered by Cyberdyne Systems. Cyberdyne Systems employees then reverse engineers the chip which, through technology breakthroughs as a result of that chip then causes the creation of the technology that leads to the birth of those exact robots and the Skynet computer. Effectively, the technology creates itself. Because of this circular time paradox, this makes stories like Terminator 2 unwieldy, unsatisfying and poorly written. Technology simply cannot create itself and stories should never be written that even hint at that. Humans should always have a hand in that creation of something or the logic of the whole story falls apart.

Likewise, Bioshock Infinite creates a time paradox where the death of Booker unravels the game’s entire reason to exist. Why would you, as a writer, intentionally negate the reason for your story’s existence? Basically, you’ve just told your readers, this story sucked and it didn’t really happen. Or in the case of a video game, the designers are saying, “Yes, we understand you’ve invested hours and hours playing this video game, but really, the story and game just didn’t happen.”

Bioshock Infinite

Oh, this game seems like it tries to keep itself on track in the beginning, but fails because its writers and the story simply get more and more lost with every new time hole (tear) that Elizabeth creates. The writers eventually can’t keep up with the time paradoxes and begin ignoring them entirely in hopes that the player will too. Unfortunately, I can’t overlook this issue. It’s one of my pet peeves within stories. While I don’t plan on keeping score of exactly how many time paradoxes take place over the course of the game, the one that matters is at the very end of the game.

If Booker and Comstock are one and the same person, and Booker kills himself as a child, Columbia can’t come to exist and neither can Elizabeth. Of course, what happens is that multiple Elizabeths drown Booker in a mock baptism which also negates the entire Comstock Columbia story. Which means, Booker would never come to visit Columbia and Elizabeth would never have been stuck in the tower. Who’s to say Anna/Elizabeth would have even been born? Yet, self-preservation and survival is the strongest human instinct that humans have. Why would Elizabeth knowingly do away with her own existence by killing her own father or even allow that to happen? That’s just not logical or rational from a character self-preservation perspective. Worse, because Irrational’s designers postulate the possibility of ‘Infinite’ realities with infinite Elizabeths, Comstocks, and Bookers, there never could be complete destruction of any one of those characters or of every infinite possible version of that story. Worse, thinking thorough the possibility of infinite stories, how do we even know that the story we played is even the one that matters in the Grand Scheme? Likely there is a universe where Booker doesn’t become Comstock and Elizabeth and Booker have a normal happy family relationship and live happily ever after along with her mother.

Worse, what does any of the Infinite story have to do with Rapture? Yes, we got to see Rapture through one of Elizabeth’s doors, but the only relationship between Bioshock Infinite and the other Bioshock games is strictly in that short visit to Rapture. Nothing in this multiverse story has anything whatever to do with explaining Rapture (other than being just another alternative reality). It doesn’t explain splicers, big daddys, little sisters, big sisters or anything else to do with what transpires on Rapture. In other words, the writers of Infinite fail in two ways:

  • They fail to give us a story from Infinite that ultimately makes any sense in the end
  • They fail to explain the creation of Rapture or of those people who end up on Rapture

They even fail at explaining how Columbia comes to exist. If the multiple Elizabeths are successful at drowning Booker, Comstock can’t come to exist and neither can Columbia. That means that the entire story in Bioshock Infinite doesn’t even happen. Which, unfortunately, leads to a circular time paradox. Such circular time paradoxes should always be avoided when writing time travel and string theory stories. Why? Because they leave the viewer with the question, “What was the point in that?” and provide a less than satisfying ending. It’s also not the question you want your viewers left asking after it’s all over. You want them to be thinking about the story and how they like the characters along the way. If the characters are all completely toss-worthy, as in Infinite, then it’s all pointless. You don’t want the viewer fixated on how the story even came to exist because that then turns the viewers to realize just how bad the story is and how worthless the characters are. Further, as an author, why would you ever intentionally write your entire story and characters out of existence via a time paradox? Is your story really that unimportant to you and your readers?

It’s the same reason you never write a story that ends up with the main character waking up from a dream at the end. Stories that end up as one big dream sequence are completely unsatisfying.  Viewers think, “Why did I waste my time watching that?” It’s definitely the wrong thing to pull from a story. Time travel stories with circular time paradoxes are just as equally unsatisfying for the same reason as waking up from a dream sequence. In fact, these two plot devices are born from the same mold and should never be used unless there is a very good reason to break that rule. This is especially true if primary storyline’s time paradox negates the whole reason to even tell the story because the characters never existed. So far, I’ve not read one recent book, seen a recent movie or played a recent game that had a story that could successfully navigate time travel or multiverses as plot device.

The closest any recent filmmakers have ever come to making time travel actually work without producing circular time paradoxes is Robert Zemeckis’ Back to the Future series and Alfonso Cuaron’s adaptation of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban with its Time Turner sequences. Both stories are carefully crafted to avoid circular time paradoxes. In Prisoner of Azkaban, the Time Turner sequence isn’t used as the main story driving device. Instead, it is used in a noble way to save Buckbeak from death, which allowes the film to have a very satisfying closure. Zemeckis’ Back to the Future films do use time travel as the main plot device. However, these films’ stories are also very carefully crafted to avoid time paradoxes and leave each film with very satisfying conclusions. So, you ultimately care about the characters and ignore the silly time travel plot device. I would also include that the original H.G. Wells’ Time Machine movie is probably the most successful at navigating time travel as a device within a story without creating a circular time paradox while still providing engaging likeable characters along the way.

Overused plot devices

Time travel use as a plot device, while extremely popular, is mostly carelessly used. It has been used in such popular franchises as Lost, Stargate, Star Trek (series and movies), Terminator and is now being used in video games like Bioshock Infinite. Writers need to be extremely judicious with their use of this plot device. Time travel should only be used in a way that advances the story forward, but never in a way that becomes the story itself (as in Bioshock Infinite). Unfortunately, Irrational’s writers just don’t understand how to properly use this plot device within the story context and they use it incorrectly. It should never be used in the way it is used in Infinite. Instead, Columbia could have been shown to exist for other reasons than because of infinite realities.

At the end of Bioshock Infinite, it’s quite clear that the time travel piece is poorly conceived. It ends up making the main character appear as if he is having a psychotic episode rather than actively part of multiple dimensions and realities. I full well expected to see Booker wake up in a mental facility (on Rapture) with nurse Elizabeth administering sedatives to him. At least that storyline would have dismissed the time paradoxes as unreal events and showed us that Booker is just a mental patient among many. This is what is needed to ground the story and tie in the Bioshock Rapture story experience to the Bioshock Infinite story experience full-circle. Yes, that ending would have invalidated Columbia as a non-event, but the writers already did a good job of that in Infinite. Yes, I realize I’m advocating explaining off Infinite as a dream sequence (which is generally to be avoided). Because the Infinite writers already negated their own story, that mental hospital ending would at least start to explain how Rapture came to exist in the state it is in when we played the original Bioshock which is still a far better ending than negating your entire story. At this point, the Infinite story is just a jumbled disarray of ideas that didn’t congeal and that basically made the entire Columbia story a complete time wasting experience.  We don’t care about Comstock and now we don’t know what to think about Booker. Anna/Elizabeth ends up simply being a facilitating plot device, but we really don’t feel for her plight at all during or after the story.  At the end, she ends up a pawn (as is everyone else including Booker and Comstock). In fact, because of the time paradox story negation, we really don’t care about any of the characters.

As an FYI to future writers, ending your story with infinite universe possibilities and infinite versions of your story’s main characters is the worst possible ending for a story if you want your characters to be remembered. Because you as an author should value your story’s existence above all else, negating your characters and story with a time paradox simply sucks. If you don’t value your story, why should we?

Game Review: Defiance MMO on Xbox

Posted in video game, video game design, video gaming by commorancy on April 29, 2013

Defiance While I really want to like Trion’s Defiance on the Xbox 360 and in some ways I do like it, it also has some highly annoying design ideas, features, levels and quirks. Before I begin, you need to know that Defiance is an online multiplayer game only and requires a subscription to Xbox Live Gold. Don’t buy this game unless you plan to buy or already have a subscription to Xbox Live (which, of course, requires broadband Internet access). Additionally, this game is completely dependent on Trion’s servers being continually available. If Trion’s servers go down (and they do regularly), you cannot play the game AT ALL. Anyway, grab a cup of coffee and let’s get going.

Disclaimer: Be careful buying used copies of Defiance. If Trion folds or they shut down the Defiance servers, the game disk will become a coaster. The game disk has no standalone content. The Defiance game relies 100% on Trion to operate the servers and stay in business. The business of gaming is fickle. If this game doesn’t last longer than a year in operation or the TV series is cancelled, don’t be surprised if you can’t play the game. If you are reading this review a year (or later) since it has been written, do some research before investing in a used copy of the game. 

What is an MMO?

MMO stands for massive mutiplayer online. Basically, it’s a multiplayer game. It isn’t really a single player campaign game. Basically, what Defiance is to 3D gaming, a MUSH is to text-based gaming. Basically, it’s a large map environment with a load of players from all over all playing the game together.

What’s good about Defiance?

Defiance is not your standard third-person 3D Campaign based shooter or even a standard 3D death match style multiplayer game. Defiance mixes both single player campaign with multiplayer coop seemlessly.  In fact, it’s really the first game I’ve played to do so. Granted, I have not played World of Warcraft, so this game may offer that level of play, also. Basically, you and your friends can join in and all defeat an enemy or boss together… at least, sometimes. Yes, there are missions where coop is not possible. It really is a pretty cool idea. The trouble is, the idea of it is pretty much where the coolness ends.  The way it’s designed could be way better.

What’s bad about Defiance?

It’s highly repetitive.  

As you’re driving around, you see a whole bunch of different missions on the roads.  But, you’ll see the same drive-by road side missions time and time again. These drive-by missions are distinctly different from those that appear on your map as an exclamation point in a diamond. Once you’ve played several of those drive by missions, you don’t really want to do it again… and again.. and again. It’s not cool. Also, it’s the same enemies over and over. So, even though it’s a new mission, it’s the same enemies with all of the same tactics.  Tactics, I might add, which can be highly boring after defeating them several times. It’s okay when you’re doing it for the first time. But, after you’ve played the same enemies and tactics about 5 times or more, it gets old really fast.

Leveling up is very s l o w.

As you level up, you get more and bigger weapons and perks. So, at least you do get stronger weapons as time progresses. But, expect that progression to go very s l o w l y. Don’t expect to get the biggest weapons really quick unless you play the game non-stop. However, even getting to Level 650 doesn’t seem much different than being at level 200 or even level 0 in terms of health or shield. You character still becomes incapacitated just easily. So, effectively all you are really getting out of leveling up is somewhat stronger weapons, maybe.

Boss Levels have no checkpoints

Single player boss levels have no save points during battle. If your character becomes incapacitated, you start the entire boss over from scratch just outside of the room.  In other words, you could lose up to 30 minutes of play time whittling the boss’ health down only for one missile to incapacitate you and you have to completely redo the whole thing again and again and again. This is entirely frustrating and time wasting. Basically, you are forced to play the boss level on the game designer’s terms, not yours. If you decide that you want to use stealth and sniper tactics, you can’t. The only strategy given is the one forced upon you by the designers… which usually entails running away from the enemy in hopes you can strike them with enough to kill them before they incapacitate you. It’s all trial and error and timing. There’s no strategy involved.

No way to change weapon load out quickly

Due to the frustrating menu system, you cannot change your weapon load out while in the middle of any battle, let alone a boss battle. Otherwise, you will be incapacitated. If you don’t load out correctly before going in, expect your character to die early and often.

Scrip and other currency types

Scrip is one type money in this game.  There are vendors that sell cars, weapons, weapon mods, shields and lock boxes.  Unfortunately, there are other forms of currency in this game which include bits, resources, reputation and keys.

  • Scrip is obtained by completing any mission or selling goods at vendors
  • Bits are obtained by buying them with Microsoft points (i.e., real money).
  • Resources are obtained by completing missions or by breaking down objects into resources
  • Keys are obtained by completing arkfalls and other missions
    • Unfortunately, there is a severe limit on how many keys you can hold (my limit is 75)
  • Reputation is obtained by completing multiplayer co-op missions (requires 4 players to participate)

Some items for purchase require a mixture of the above currencies to obtain that item from a vendor. So, some specialized weapons may require 200 reputation plus some Scrip to get that item. Getting that many reputation points requires participating in many 4 player coop missions.

Main Missions

The main missions consist of a story that seems to be leading someplace, but I’ve not yet figured out exactly where. Sure, your character is being ‘groomed’ for something big, but who knows really what. At a point early in the game, you meet a character that looks very similar to a Borg (and sounds like one, actually) named Nim Shondu. Later on, you have to kill him. Believe me, this boss level is nearly impossible to beat unless you come into it with the correct weapons dealing a high amount of damage combined with overcharge.  Even then, expect to spend loads of time with this room. There’s no hiding place in the room, so you can’t get away from his sword and special attacks or his EGO moves. He moves so fast that you can’t block his attacks. So, the best you can do is try to stay away from his attacks just long enough to kill him. Worse, you have to kill him 3 times. Good luck with that unless you are equipped correctly. Worse, you won’t know his tactics until you enter the room.  And, by then it’s too late to go find the right weapon let alone equip it. Even worse than all of this, the game still charges you an extraction fee each time you die and can’t self-revive. Truly, a poorly designed level

So far, this story has been about rag tag missions that seem to just open up more missions and more side missions. I don’t really see where the story is going at this point.  So, let’s hope the writers have a cohesive story arc in mind.

Weapons and Shields, but no Armor

Unlike other military games which allow you to level up and find weapons, armor, shields and clothing modifiers, Defiance only offers shields and weapons, which isn’t really enough for this type of game.  Of the shields you can find, they are all weak. Basically, there are two types of shields you can find:

  1. A shield with a low threshold for damage (1000 points or less) and recovers fast (1-3 seconds)
  2. A shield with a high threshold for damage (1500 points or higher) and recovers very slowly (delay 7-9 seconds)

Some shields are augmented with other traits (like better protection from fire damage, your own weapon damage, biodamage, etc).  I’ve yet to find a shield that has offers a high threshold for damage and recovers quickly. There might be one in the game somewhere, but I’ve yet to see it or find it.  Even still, it only takes about two Dark Matter troops firing their weapons at you to completely wipe out your shield with about 5 shots and another 5 will wipe out your health and incapacitate you. Worse, you cannot augment shields with any mods at all, even though the game lets you mod weapons.

Arkfalls and Side Missions

There are basically three types of side missions. Random encounters, marked side missions and Arkfalls.

Random Encounters

Random encounters are basically roadside missions.  That is, you drive by and see something blocking the road.  It might be Raiders, 99ers, Dark Matter, Scrappers or Hellbugs.  That’s basically the list of enemies in the game.  So, it will be one of these enemies that pops out of a road side mission. In fact, it’s the only type of enemies that will pop out of any of the missions including Arkfalls.

Side Missions

These mission types are marked on your map with an exclamation point in a diamond shape. These give small amounts of scrip (money) and small amounts of experience points.  They usually ask you to locate and obtain something and sometimes drop it off.  It might ask you to plant explosives.  It might ask you to clear out a Hellbug nest or kill all of the Raiders in a camp.

Arkfalls

Other than multiplayer coop maps, these are the truly massively multiplayer exeperiences in this game. When an ‘ark’ falls and hits the ground, ark hunters swoop in and scour it for parts to be sold.  In the game, when an ark falls, it’s just a mechanism to create a huge Hellbug or Scrapper to kill.  Each Arkfall starts off small (destroying crystals in two or three waves) or killing the enemies in an area.  As the smaller arkfall crystals are destroyed, this leads up to the big boss arkfall. You might have to do two or three small arkfalls before the big boss appears. Once the boss appears, all of the online players congregate and use whatever weapons they have to whittle the health down of the boss until it’s destroyed.  At the end of the arkfall, a panel appears showing who did the most damage in an ordered list.

These usually give about 6500XP experience. So, if you want to gain experience and scrip fast, join arkfalls regularly. Also, do the main missions. These gain you a lot of scrip.

Incapacitation

This is one of the sore spots in this game and is poorly designed.  I understand what they were trying to achieve with this part of the game, but it just doesn’t really work. So, you’ve lost all your shield and your health is now drained.  Once this happens, you fall to the ground and become incapacitated. Sometimes you get two options (self-revive or extraction).  Self-revive is as it states, you revive in place and pick up right where you left off.  Extraction means you start over at the extraction point. Self-revive only becomes available after 5 minutes or so of playtime after the last self-revive was used.  So, if you fall quickly after a self-revive, you have to pay scrip to get extracted.

When you’re in the world, extraction is generally cool (other than you lose a percentage of your ‘Scrip’ for being extracted).. except when your closest extraction point happens to be halfway across the map.  I’ll discuss extraction points next. However, when you’re at the boss level in a dungeon, it’s not fine. In fact, it’s damn right annoying and frustrating.  Worse, when you’re on a boss level, the game doesn’t even give you the option of using self-revive. You are forced to defeat the boss in one complete perfectly executed go or you fail and start over. There’s no help, no reviving, no one there to help you revive.  In the case of the Borg, you’re have to completely kill him in one single go with the weapons you have in hand or you start the boss level over again.  Worse, if you abandon the mission, you have to completely replay the entire intro of the level over again to get back to the boss level inside the dungeon. That may involve 20 minutes of lead-up to get into the dungeon again.

But, if you didn’t enter the level equipped with the correct shield or weapon load out, don’t bother trying to do that in combat.  We’ll discuss weapon load outs shortly.

Extraction points

This game ‘binds’ your character to an extraction point that are post-like markers with a purple light (and an ammo dispenser near it). Once you get close to one of these markers, your character will become bound to it. If you extract, your character will end up back at one of these markers.  As you drive by the markers, your character will become bound to them.  Note, however, that these markers only appear on major roads. So, if you drive off-road all of the time or fast travel, you could leave yourself vulnerable to an extraction point that is a very long way away from where you presently are. So, if you’re doing an arkfall and you extract, you’re going to end up a very long way away from that arkfall and will have to spend the time to drive all the way back over there.

This is really one of the sore points of this game.  There should be twice as many extraction points as there are.  In fact, when an arkfall goes up, an extraction point should appear for the duration of the arkfall. So, if you have to extract, you end up somewhere close to the arkfall again. Better, if you’re in an arkfall, it should bind you to the arkfall until it’s done. Just extract me into the arkfall location where I previously was.  Why force me to drive a huge distance just to get back to it? Not very well thought out.

Weapon Load Outs from the Menu

The menu system in this game is also poorly designed. In most games like this, you would have a weapon wheel where you can assign your favorite weapons for easy access during active combat. Not in this game. You have to open a menu (which can take 10-20 seconds to completely draw), then you have to select the slot and dig through a scrolling list of weapons to place into the weapon slot (another 5-10 seconds).  The entire screen is completely covered with the menu so you cannot see any live actoin at all. Yet, everything remains live. There is no pause. So, your character is completely vulnerable while you diddle in the menu.

Bad bad BAD. This is one of the worst combat menu systems I’ve seen in a game like this. If you need access to weapons/grenades and shields easily and quickly, you NEED a selection wheel that pops up right inside the game over the top of the live gameplay. Sure, let us fill this wheel with our own weapons of choice, but after that, we can easily choose the weapon we want to use.  Instead, you have a completely cumbersome menu system that completely obscures live combat and that takes 30 seconds (or longer) to walk through. Even then, you can only get easy access to two weapons at a time.

The game offers alternative weapon load outs by pressing Y in the menu and will cycle through 3 different loadout presets, but even that isn’t fast enough to work. This game desperately needs a weapon wheel preset overlay.

Inventory and Menu

Menu System

The menu includes everything to manage your weapons, weapon features, and everything in your inventory. The menu system is really overloaded. Once you get into the menu, you have the base menu which is what appears when you press the start button.  But, there’s even another menu when you press the left trigger.  That pops up a wheel that contains more submenus to get to things like the Defiance Store, Social, Stats, etc.  Then there are the RB and LB sub menus of the main menu which cycles you through weapon modification, EGO powers, and more stats. Why they needed both the wheel menu and the RB menu system, I don’t know. It’s not intuitive and it’s confusing.

One thing, though, is that even with all of these menus, once you have created the look of your character, you’re stuck.  You can’t easily change that look if you don’t like it.  If it’s in the menu system somewhere, it’s well hidden. Suffice it to say that I’ve not found it.

Inventory

Inventory is severely limited.  When you first start out, you get something like 12 slots which you quickly fill. Note, anything you hold takes an inventory slot (shield, weapon or mod). I don’t understand why there’s even a limit in this game. But, it’s here and it severely limits what you can pick up. I’m forever destroying objects to be able to pick up something that’s fallen from an enemy. It’s highly frustrating and highly annoying to constantly have to destroy things to get new things.

Additionally, there is no lock box, locker or any kind of storage system for extra stuff. You constantly have to carry everything with you. You can’t offload your stuff into something you own (a house or a locker or any kind of personal offline storage). The closest you get is the ‘Claim Items’ in the Defiance Store. But, that only holds stuff that won’t fit into your inventory at the time that some quest tries to give it to you. You can’t place anything into the claims item area. It only takes overflow items so you don’t lose it.

No Armor, Only Shields (and they’re limited at that)

This game has no concept of armor.  Only shields.  Once your shields are drained, your health starts draining and then you become incapacitated. With any combat game, armor and armor rating should be a huge part of this game. Even at level 650, your character incapacitates as easily as a level 1 character. The shields you find just really do nothing.  Worse, you cannot modify shields by augmenting their protection levels. This game completely fails for character protection. There’s nothing you can do to help fortify your character’s health or protection. You’re completely at the mercy of the game to provide this protection which it does not do.

Multiplayer and Chat

Don’t bother to try and text chat in this world. The chat window is complete junk. The chat system in this game is never used by anyone because you simply can’t use it. To bring up the chat, you press the D-Pad to the right which opens a small menu, then you have to select the chat window which takes over the whole screen. Then you have to use the Xbox controller chat pad (if you have it) to enter your text. Otherwise, you’re limited to that horrible move-the-cursor-and-press-letters-thing (which is even worse).

If you do decide to chat in the Xbox version, get the controller chat pad. Even that is not enough to make this system work. Instead, grab a headset and plug that in. Voice chat is the only way to do this game. Even still, there aren’t that many people using that. So, what you end up with is most people doing their own things without discussions (except where clans are involved).

TV Show Defiance Tie-In

After the shows air, the game is supposed to change its play in-world to accommodate the changes to the series. So far, I’ve seen none of this. Granted, we’re only 2 episodes in as of this writing, still I see no changes in the world or in any of the missions. So, I’m still waiting for these changes to show. Personally, it looks like hype to me.

Audio and Graphics

The graphics are reasonably decent in most cases but there are a few brilliant places. Mostly, the graphics are average.  The lighting is adequate, but not spectacular. The surface textures are good, but could be better.  The graphics can be glitchy, especially where other online players are concerned.  Players disappear, jump from place to place or just don’t work correctly when other online players are doing their thing. The graphics are mostly smooth when it comes to your player, but it can be glitchy and jumpy at times even then.

The audio soundtrack works quite well. The audio voiceovers are mostly well done, but there are some bugs.  For example, EGO says ‘Shoot it in its hideous Moths’ (you know, those white things that fly around at night) when it specifically means the word Mouth (which is printed on the screen). Trion has not yet corrected this audio track. When dealing with side missions, EGO’s phrases are so generic they sometimes don’t make sense.  EGO also pops in at very inopportune times to say things. Sometimes, I wish she’d just shut up. Also, there are audio drop outs where EGO is supposed to chime in and doesn’t, but the audio volume lowers for up to 5 minutes until something else brings the volume back up. You also get these audio dropouts when entering and leaving buildings.

Overall

Defiance on the Xbox 360 is fun to a point, but is a bit too clumsy and has too many quirks and problems.  After you’ve played it for about a day, it gets old and repetitive really fast. The terrain is small and there’s really very little to do other than arkfalls which also become repetitive and boring. The menu system is cumbersome and annoying. The inventory system is overblown and convoluted, but doesn’t hold nearly enough. There are no long term storage lockers, so you have to destroy items frequently. The lack of a weapon menu wheel severely hampers the combat playability in Defiance. The lack of checkpoints makes playing the game a chore in places, especially boss levels.

I’m giving this game 4.5 stars out of 10.  It needed a whole lot more careful design treatment with playability testing and didn’t get it.

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Gaming Innovation: The Dark Age of Gaming?

Posted in botch, drought, entertainment, video game, video game design, video gaming by commorancy on January 27, 2013

I’m a relatively hard core gamer.  I’ve played video games for ages and have owned nearly every console ever made.  I say nearly every console, but there are some I’ve chosen not to own.  Specifically, the Vectrex, the Neo Geo and the Atari Jaguar, just to name a few.  Basically, lesser consoles that really didn’t go anywhere.  I digress.

Necessity is the mother of invention

Entertainment is a huge business.  With music, movies, books and theater, it was inevitable that when electronic technology was invented, someone would find a way to use it for entertainment value.  Enter Nolan Bushnell who created the first commercially sold arcade video game.  Albeit, not the first coin operated video game.  Needless to say, after that the race was on.  Magnavox was the first to the home market with their Magnavox Odyssey console without sound and which included a game similar to the later Atari Pong.

These early video games sparked a revolution in home electronic entertainment that leads us up to video games we play today.  From the widescreen hardcore franchises such as Call of Duty, Halo, Assassin’s Creed, Grand Theft Auto, Zelda and Need for Speed to the massively online multiplayer systems of World of Warcraft to the small screen games like Farmville and Angry Birds.  We have tons of options for entertaining ourselves with video games.  All of these games are massive leaps ahead of Pong, Space Invaders, Defender and Battle Zone of years long past.

Waxing Nostalgic

I look fondly on these past video games for a lot of reasons.  They were inventive and different.  The developers were always trying to find a new way to bring their idea to that small 4:3 arcade screen.  And ‘wow’ us they did with such inventive titles as Gauntlet, Paperboy, Battle Zone, Marble Madness, Joust, Sinistar, Dig Dug and even Donkey Kong.  Simplistic games, yes, but challenging, unique and different.  These were games that really defied categorization other than being ‘level based’, but just about every game today has levels. These spurred our imagination and let us meld into that video game world for a short time and then move to another one with a completely different concept.  To take our minds off of whatever it was we were doing.  Yes, these were all arcade games, but they were inventive, unique and different.  In fact, during the arcade heyday, it was rare to find games copying each other.

Lack of Inventiveness

Gone are those unique inventive days where you could walk into an arcade and find something new, original and unique to play. Today, it’s all about the almighty buck.  Well, 60 of them actually.  It’s less about producing something inventive and more about producing something developers think kids will buy.  Developers have lost their inventive edge.

Today, games are categorized into genres:

  • First Person Shooter (FPS)
  • Third Person Shooter (TPS)
  • Rail Shooter
  • Sports: Hockey, Football, Basketball, Snowboarding, Skateboarding, Surfing, Hunting/Fishing
  • Online Multiplayer (MMO)
  • Campaign based
  • Button Masher (aka Fighting)
  • Real Time Simulation (RTS)
  • Music
  • 2D side scroller
  • Role Playing
  • Open World (the most rare type of games)
  • Simulation

There are rarely any games today that break or even attempt to break these molds.  Occasionally, something comes along that tries to think different like Naughty Bear, Traxxpad or Rez.  Or, games that try to combine genres like Grand Theft Auto (mission based with free roaming) in a unique way.  But, these games are so few that you might not even see one per year.

Talent Drought?

I’m beginning to wonder what’s going on with developers.  Are they really so adamant that the above genres is all there is?  Have we lost our ability to invent new things?  Are we moving into a new self-inflicted Dark Age?  I’m not talking about not having entertainment, no.  I’m talking about that we as a society have become so jaded, that we won’t accept any new ideas in games? Personally, I want to see more Pongs, Defenders and Marble Madnesses.  Not specifically these games, but the idea that these games represent.  That is, something new, unique and different.

Take Portal and Portal 2, for instance.  These are a completely unique and different take on the first person shooter. This game has also become a commercial success in its own right.  It’s a mostly non-violent game built on a relatively unique story, puzzles and lots of humor.  The game itself involves challenging puzzles.  These games are from Gabe Newell’s Valve.  I’ve always found that Valve’s games tend to involve more unique ideas and less trying to fit molds.  Valve, unfortunately, is mostly the odd-man-out.  The development cycles are extremely long for games from Valve.  It might take 5 years to release the next installment.  But, I’m willing to wait 5 years to get a unique game experience that’s unlike anything else I’ve ever played.

Unfortunately, most game developers today just want to make the next quick buck instead of putting out award winning high quality unique gaming experiences.  This leaves the gaming market fairly high, dry and devoid of unique games.

What’s left are the Batman Arkhams of the world which always inevitably come down to being a button masher after everything is said and done.  Yes, they wrap the Batman games around a seemingly open world, but when it comes down to the final boss, it’s just another glorified fighting game.  I don’t want yet another reason to get carpal tunnel.  I want to have a unique gaming experience.  I want to be challenged not by how fast I mash my thumb against a button, but how I can think strategically.  How I can take down the final enemy on my own terms, not on the video game designer’s terms.

Inventiveness Reignited

Basically, give me open worlds to roam.  Give me tools to use in that world.  Let me level up as I gain experience in the world.  Give me stores where I can buy things.  Let me even buy the stores themselves.  Let me earn money to spend.  But don’t force me into a final boss sequence that requires me to follow a script.  If you’re going to give me an open world, give it to me all the way.  Let me make my own final boss choices.  Let me decide how to deal with the final boss on my own terms.  Give me the tools to deal with him or her as I see fit.  If you provide cages and I choose to lock the boss in a cage and send that cage off to a prison, that’s my ending choice.  If I choose to have a final button masher battle, my choice. If I choose a strategic battle systematically wiping out all of the boss’s advantages, my choice. If I choose to befriend them and go off with them into the sunset, my choice.  Open world means open world and all that goes with that.

Choice is what we have in life.  Taking that away in video games and forcing a contrived outcome during the final moments is just not inventive.  It’s trite.  It’s cliche.  It’s frustrating.  We’ve spent hours getting to that point only to find out that the final battle is basically a complete waste of time.  That the ending is ‘stupid’.

No, simply provide the gaming tools.  That’s all the game needs to do.  Let the gamer choose the final outcome entirely.  Sure, you can tie in some befitting movie ending dialog sequence, that’s fine.  But, how I choose to end my game should be my choice, not some game developer’s choice who was sitting in a room miles away and months ago making that decision.  Let me make my own decisions, my own choices which result in my own outcomes.  I realize that games need to have some form of rules, so there are limits to what can be provided.  But, within those limits, let me choose how to use them all.  Don’t rope me into a small area, don’t take away all of my advantages that I earned, don’t throw 40 men at me and expect me to button mash them all out of existence in a few minutes.  Again, I don’t need aching joints and to inflame the median nerve running down my hand.  Give me strategic options.  Let me utilize the tools I’ve spent hours obtaining through the game to my own full strategic advantage.  Giving me all of those tools and then taking them all away only to force a 40 man fight is worthless, frustrating and not at all inventive.

Even Better Ideas?

Better, give me games that break FPS/TPS molds.  Give me games where the idea is completely unique.  There are many ways to devise video games in 3D worlds that don’t involve the tired FPS mold.  I want new unique games.  Games that involve strategic thinking, unique environments, unique character traits (super powers of my choice).  As an example, how about a superhero role playing game?  Let me choose my character’s traits, history, powers, good vs evil, etc.  Let me choose the outcomes that unfolds.  Let me write my own story and outcomes?

How about a game within a game?  The gamer becomes a gamer within the game and who gets lost in that video game world only to work his/her way back out?  There are lots of cool story ideas.  It’s the stories here that matter, the gaming aspect is just the tool to get it there.

Basically, we need inventive new unique gaming experiences that do not presently exist.  I want to see games that are today as inventive as Pong was back in its day.  Games that inspire gamers to think, rather than blindly mash buttons.  I like thinking and strategy games within an action framework.  Not so much puzzles as in pulling ropes to open doors, but even more unique then that.  Let’s get some new ideas flowing into the gaming world.  It’s definitely time.

Where are all the games?

Unfortunately, there is a major game drought today.  We have many many consoles today: PS3, Xbox, PS Vita, Wii U and even the iPad, yet we’re firmly stuck playing the ‘AA’ titles which are neither inventive nor unique.  In fact, most of them are rehashes of rehashes.  Things that we’ve both played before and will likely play again.  I don’t want to play games I’ve already played.  I want to play new unique games.  Games that I look at and think, “Wow, this is cool.  I’ve never played something like that”.  I don’t want to get to the end only to find out that I’m trapped in the ever-so-familiar button masher.  I want strategic choices to the outcomes.  Games should actually reward players for the most unique ways to end the game.

Even though we have only just ended out 2012 and there were many titles released at the end of 2012, not many of them were truly imaginative titles.  Yes, there were highlights in some games, but most of them are far too often been-there-done-that experiences.

Even though EA, Atari, Capcom and the other big gaming companies are out there working to produce new games, they’re just not providing quality original games.  They’re providing, at best, copies of previously released and rehashed game ideas.  Nearly every one of those big game company games is boring within the first day of play.  It’s too easy to get stuck into a firm set of rules that force the player into silly and frustrating game play.  If the bosses end up being simple button mashers only to provide the same enemies wave after wave, what makes development companies think that this is what gamers really want?  After a while it just becomes mindless, monontonous and boring.  The point to entertainment is to entertain.  There is nothing entertaining about tedium, frustration and boredom.  It’s no wonder I see a lot of gamers posting ‘I’m bored’ on forums even when they own games like Call of Duty.  Yes, they are boring.

I suggest that by bringing back inventiveness, uniqueness and originality in games, a whole lot more people will become interested in games and we will become, once again, entertained.

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