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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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Why I’ve not yet bought a Nintendo Switch

Posted in botch, gaming, nintendo by commorancy on April 13, 2017

I’m usually all over every new Nintendo system by making sure to pre-order it the first moment it’s available. This time was different. Let’s Explore.

Tablet Gaming

Let’s start with the obvious. The primary reason I didn’t purchase a Nintendo Switch is, let’s face it, it’s a tablet. Thanks to Apple’s very aggressive obsolescence of iPads, I now have at least 4 iPad tablets in my house. One that I’m currently using and 3 others that are older models. I also have a Samsung Galaxy Tab S 8.4 and an NVIDIA Shield for gaming … along with an Amazon Fire of some sort that I almost never use. I also have a PS Vita which is tablet-like.

So, let’s just say, I already have enough tablets floating in my house, most of which never get turned on. Buying yet another tablet, even if from Nintendo, that tablet must offer something so compelling it’s a no-brainer. So far, the Nintendo Switch tablet doesn’t have anything compelling to offer. When I buy a computer of any variety, I need to know that it will provide a useful benefit. For example, Android and iOS tablets are at least useful for browsing, email and various other apps (including games) in addition to gaming. For being a general purpose device, Apple and Samsung have the tablet market sewn up.

Nintendo, on the other hand, is a newcomer in this area. Since Nintendo is first-and-foremost a gaming company, the Switch will almost assuredly be a dedicated gaming tablet with limited general purpose apps, if any. For example, I’m fairly certain we’ll see Netflix and a handful of other streaming apps, but that doesn’t necessarily make the Switch a compelling buy. All of my other tablets and devices support these same apps… more, in fact. Because of the lack of real general purpose apps (or indeed a general purpose operating system), it’s almost impossible to justify purchasing a Switch for non-gaming reasons.

Dedicated Gaming

This leaves dedicated gaming the sole means to justify a Nintendo Switch. Unfortunately, this side also leaves a lot to be desired. Just like the NVIDIA Shield, the battery life of the Nintendo Switch is atrocious (2-3 hours). Worse, like the Shield, you cannot play and charge at the same time. The battery of the Switch still runs down even when playing while plugged into the wall. You’ll get a better gaming experience buying an Xbox or PS4.

On top of the tablet’s design problems, there’s the game round up so far. The only really compelling title is Zelda: Breath of the Wild and even that game is available on the Wii U. This means that if you already have a Wii U, there’s no reason to buy a Switch. This was Nintendo’s primary mistake. The most exclusive and compelling title to force you buy into the Switch… and they make it available on the Wii U.

Wii U, 3DS and Gimmicks

At this point, the Wii U is arguably a dead platform. Nintendo’s newest platform, the Switch, is what I dub a tabsole. It’s not a console, it’s not a tablet. So, tabsole fits. Unfortunately, what should have been the exclusive game was inexplicably made available on the Wii U preventing a compelling reason to buy a Switch. The one and only one compelling reason to buy the Switch is if you truly want a portable faux-HD Zelda gaming experience. Today, 720p is at the very bottom end of an HD gaming experience. In fact, I’d really reclassify 720p as not even HD. HD really starts at 1080p and goes up from there. It’s just a matter of time before 4k gaming becomes the norm and people look back at 480p and 720p as archaic reminders of formats past.

For Nintendo to introduce a 720p gaming experience today shows just how far behind Nintendo is technologically. Nintendo has never been known to push gaming boundaries by including high res display technologies, like on Apple’s tablets. Instead, Nintendo’s boundary pushing has been by adding more-or-less gimmicks to their consoles… like the addition of dual screens to the Nintendo DS, adding no-glasses 3D technology into the Nintendo 3DS, creating the Wiimotes for the Wii or adding the two screens to the Wii U through the combination bulky controller + tablet. Nintendo’s gaming claim-to-fame has never been about pushing technical boundaries, it’s always been pushing gimmicks and fads. While these gimmicks may have worked for some games, most of these gimmicks have limited useful value and end up rarely used.

I find that I rarely ever use the 3D technology built into the 3DS. The added head tracking made the 3D even worse, rather than better. Sadly, most 3DS games being created today rarely ever enable 3D even if the slider has 3D enabled. Even the game developers don’t see the 3D as something useful on the 3DS. Same goes for the gamepad on the Wii U. Few developers ever properly used the two screens on the Wii U. Most times, the screen on the gamepad was relegated to being a map. That’s a perfectly good use for that screen as it’s rarely needed, but when it is needed, it’s right there without having to open up a new screen. On the Wii, the Wiimotes were cumbersome to use and twitchy. Because of their twitchy nature, it made using the Wiimotes for any type of precision almost impossible. For example, Red Steel required using the Wiimote as a sniper and moving the Wiimote in and out as if to zoom. Because of the twitchy and unpredictable nature of the Wiimote technology, it was almost impossible to aim and zoom properly. This forced the game to become a challenge, but not in an intended way.

For each of these technologies that Nintendo has employed, they are not there to advance gaming, but to add a new gimmicky fad that quickly wears off. This gimmicky nature extends yet again into the Switch with its Joy-Cons and the dock.

Tablet Computers and Gaming

A tablet is old-hat at this point and isn’t really a gimmick. I mean, it is kind of a gimmick, but it has at least found a place in societal norms. A tablet offers easy and fast access to search Google or read an email. That’s what’s great about a tablet. It’s good for quick access to information using apps on-the-go. The downside to a tablet is its screen size. It’s bigger than a phone, but still just small enough to cause eye strain. For this reason, a tablet is not really the best for trying to read large amounts of text.

However, for gaming where it’s a visual medium, a tablet sized screen is probably a great size. In fact, I know that it’s a great size for certain types of games. Though, I’d still rather game on a 55″ TV rather than on an 8″ tablet screen. I mean, certain puzzle style games work great on an 8″ tablet when all of the icons and buttons are large and easily readable. It’s only when a game developer is trying to jam a bunch of small indicators and info onto a tablet sized screen does the gaming start to break down. Tablets are good for large touchable buttons with large readable icons. Tablets are not good for 8 point fonts and tiny pixel-sized health bars… design those for 55″ TV displays.

Additionally, games are designed for long duration usage. Tablets are intended for quick bursts of use, limited by small batteries and Eye Strain City. By their very different natures, tablets and games really aren’t a good pairing. That Nintendo thought it would be a good idea to pair the two shows just how out of touch Nintendo is with current technology concepts.

Launch Titles

Unfortunately, the few launch titles released with the Switch is yet another problem. While Zelda: BotW is the most compelling title, it’s not exclusive to the Switch. Meaning, I can play this game on the Wii U without even buying a Switch. That means I need to look to the other Switch games to see if those can justify a Switch purchase. Here’s the list:

  • 1-2-Switch
  • Just Dance 2017
  • Skylanders: Imaginators
  • I am Setsuna
  • Snipperclips
  • Shovel Knight: Treasure Trove
  • Shovel Knight: Specter of Torment
  • Fast RMX

Should I buy a Switch for any of the other launch titles?

  • Both Shovel Knights will be released on multiple platforms… No
  • Just Dance 2017 … on a tablet? Really? … No
  • Skylanders: Imaginators is already on multiple platforms … No
  • I am Setsuna is a JRPG available on other platforms … No
  • Snipperclips … ugh, definitely a NO!
  • Fast RMX is yet another vehicle racing game … No
  • 1-2-Switch is a throw-away party game … definitely No

Out of all of the above titles, there is not one single game that is compelling enough to invest in the Switch. In fact, far too many of the games are already available on other platforms. In other words, most of them are has-been ports. Ports are typically games that avid gamers are likely to have already played. You would definitely not buy new hardware just to play a game that you’ve already played.

Problematic Joy-Con Controllers

The general consensus is the Joy-Con controllers are a problem. Apparently, when used wirelessly, they frequently lose connectivity to the Switch making gaming a chore. There’s nothing worse than losing connectivity while playing a game. I would frequently encounter this same problem when using the PS3’s early controllers. I’d been in the middle of a heated battle only for the controller to drop its connection. I eventually had to invest in a Logitech controller with a dongle to solve that problem. I’m pretty sure the Switch has no other options other than attaching the Joy-Cons to the tablet and using them ‘wired’. This design problem is pretty much a show stopper for using the Switch when docked.

Multiplayer Gaming and Nintendo Transfers

Today, multiplayer gaming is a must have option for any new console. Unfortunately, Nintendo has been so far behind the times with this feature, I really have no idea if they can even rectify multiplayer gaming on the Switch. It seems that Nintendo is likely to require a monthly fee to join a ‘new network’ that may or may not offer proper multiplayer options, but we know how well Nintendo typically executes on these features. It will end up has some half-baked thing that barely works, just like Miiverse.

Plus, Nintendo has some really archaic ideas about how to manage portable devices. For example, the 3DS still requires transferring your data from one handheld to another upon replacement. If you happen to lose your device or if it breaks irreparably, you have to make a call to Nintendo support to have them authorize transfer of that data to your new device… an incredibly manual and time consuming step.

I really don’t relish the thought of spending an hour or two transferring data from my Wii U to my Switch. That’s just a ridiculous ask in this day and age. I understand why this may have existed in the past, but with Nintendo’s store, they can simply store your info there and let you download all your stuff to your new device. Having to backup and restore your data from one console to another manually is just insane. As the saying goes, “Ain’t nobody got time for that”.

Roping in Developers

Nintendo has had a severe problem enticing big game developers into their most recent platforms. The Wii U is a prime example. When the Wii U was released, a bunch of large developers like Ubisoft and Activision were on board with producing games. However, due to the lackluster launch of the Wii U and the less than stellar numbers sold, this led to these large developers jumping ship. This meant that Nintendo had to rely on using its own franchises to sell (or not sell) the Wii U. While Nintendo does have a few relatively strong franchises like Zelda, Mario, Wario, Luigi, Kirby, Yoshi, Super Smash Bros and Fire Emblem, it’s really hard for a single company to produce enough games in a year to keep people coming back, let alone sell even more consoles.

So, the full capabilities of the Wii U were never fully realized. Nintendo tried, but were unable to fully utilize the potential of the Wii U. On top of all of this, Nintendo really never did raise the bar of the Wii U beyond its introductory operating system. The carousel was a complete waste of screen space. On the 3DS, at least the upper screen was used to show what item you were working on. On the Wii U, it was always that stupid carousel with talk bubbles popping up from random Mii. It’s not like Mii’s were that compelling anyway. In fact, that whole carousel idea was Nintendo’s idea of multiplayer social interaction. I digress.

The point is, with as gun shy as most developers are with Nintendo these days, it’s almost assured that third party support for the Switch will be non-existent for the foreseeable future. This means that we’re not likely to see much in the way of big new titles. Though, some developer has promised to release Skyrim on the Switch by year end. I’m not entirely certain that that conversion is coming from Bethesda / Zenimax. It’s more likely that conversion project has been handed over to smaller studio for release on the Switch. This probably means bug-city, but more than that this game is already 6 years old. To bank on a 6 year old game ported to a console with lesser capabilities than a PS4 is almost insane to consider. If Nintendo thinks that Skyrim is likely to spur a whole lot of new Switch purchases, they might want to think again. Bethesda would have to ensure some brand new and exclusive Switch DLC before gamers would buy not only a brand new console, but also buy into a 6 year old game they’ve likely already played.

Overall

There isn’t one single compelling game (or reason) that justifies purchase of the Switch. In combination with Nintendo’s lack of general functionality that a tablet needs to offer to remain competitive in an already saturated tablet market, the Switch doesn’t even stand up to its competition. When docked, the Joy-Cons do not reliably work wirelessly. How multiplayer games will work is still up in the air. In effect, Nintendo has yet to give us a solid reason to buy into the Nintendo Switch.

Perhaps with a few more exclusive games titles and a solidly built and robust multiplayer gaming network, Nintendo can turn that tide and bring the must-buy factor up. For now, there’s just not enough compelling reasons to bring yet-another-tablet into my house… considering how many tablets I already own. I know I’m not alone in this situation. For all of the above reasons, the Switch is not on my list of must have gaming consoles.

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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

Elder Scrolls Online: What were they thinking?

Posted in botch, gaming, reviews by commorancy on May 12, 2014

Elder Scrolls Online[Updated: 8/30/2018 to cover Fallout 76]
[Previous update: 7/4/2014 to cover Cyrodiil and Craglorn]

I’m done playing the Elder Scrolls Online. What is it? It’s the newest installment to the Elder Scrolls video game series as a massive multiplayer online game (MMO). Though, my first question that comes to mind is, “What were they thinking?” This game is a huge step backwards for the Elder Scrolls Franchise in so many ways. I know a lot of players ‘like‘ the game (which is all subjective), but in this article we’ll try to understand why this game is not the caliber of a game that it should have been for an Elder Scrolls installment. Let’s explore.

Console Version — Delayed

The Elder Scrolls Online game was available on the PC first and eventually made its way to consoles such as the PS4 and the Xbox One. For the PC, the game was released on April 4th, 2014. For the consoles, the game had planned to release on June 15, 2015 . Zenimax originally announced a six month delay for the release of the console versions, but it took much longer. In lieu of that release, they have made an offer to let you play sooner. If you bought the PC version before the end of June, you were able to transfer your leveled character over to your console. This, of course, assumes everyone has a PC to play it on. Zenimax attempted to build a unified ESO universe where all players from all platforms are using the same world. It didn’t work. This explains the six month extension required to attempt a unified MMO across all platforms has never been attempted by any game developer to date. That Zenimax attempted this unified world was both ambitious and risky. It also meant trying to get Sony and Microsoft to allow this. It didn’t work. It was ultimately wasted time and effort.

It’s also worth noting that if you’re buy the Xbox One version, you will be required to buy an Xbox Live subscription ($59 for 12 months).  If you’re playing on a PS4, you don’t pay anything extra. The PC game formerly required a credit card to enroll in a subscription to unlock that included 30 days. As the game has aged, Bethesda has changed its policies. Also note that many players whose time has expired have lost the ability to play when their credit card declined for unknown reasons. On consoles, it’s free to play.

Console vs PC

After having played this game nearly to completion, I definitely had second thoughts about marrying the console release and the PC release players together. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I realize it’s a really bad idea and a recipe for disaster. Why is that?

Consider that it takes at most 2 months to complete the game and obtain veteran rank 1 (level 50). Yes, it’s a relatively short Elder Scrolls by comparison to previous installations. To obtain further veteran ranks, you simply have to grind, grind, grind. Most of this grinding is done by hanging around with groups of other people and doing laps. This means you’ll go from one battle to another (maybe 3 or 4 total) in a loop. This loop battling is, well, boring. It does level your player up, but it’s not really much fun after you’ve done it for a while.

If they had married the environments, it would mean that by the time the console players are eligible to get to Cyrodiil, all of the VR12 players will be picking off these ‘newbie’ console players one by one in PvP mode. It’s going to be quite a bit unfair to all of these new console players. In fact, I believe that it would be better at this time to completely isolate the console players into their own servers separately from the Mac/PC edition. Let the Mac/PC players continue in their own world but without the console players. It already is unfair when newbies try to even enter Cyrodiil if you try to play after the game had already existed for 2 months..

In fact, it would be a whole lot more fair to weed out the veteran ranked players from being able to see or interact with non-veterans.

Released too early?

The PC version? Yes, unfortunately. In fact, I played it on a quad core Mac mini (which has its own set of problems.. some related to the game, some not). That said, the game has lots of bugs, glitches and problems. Some quests have characters speaking German when the dialog printed to the screen is in English. There are times where parts of the environments don’t render correctly. The quests are sometimes haphazard and don’t appear to be in any way linked. Gaining skills and experience is random, though somewhat structured around these random quests. The game lag can get quite annoying at times. The script kiddies are already at it mining for gold, loot and experience.

Immersive Experience? Not quite.

In Skyrim, the environments had been working towards full interactivity and more realism. It wasn’t quite there yet, but you could pick up apples, heads of cabbage, weapons and armor. You could carry them around in your inventory, wear items or even move them around in the environment. It was a fully interactive and immersive experience. While some of this carried over to the Elder Scrolls Online (like crafting) far too many things didn’t (list below).

In Elder Scrolls Online, too much of that interactivity is missing. Sure there are containers to open, but you can’t kick the containers around, knock them over, break them, pick up apples or cabbages or weapons and move them around or even place things into the containers. In fact, far too much of the interactivity that was beginning to show in Skyrim was completely abandoned in the Elder Scrolls Online. So, what’s up with that?

Defiance

What does Defiance have to do with the Elder Scrolls Online? ESO seems to use the same MMO engine. Granted, Zenimax tailored the engine to its own purposes (within limits), but the underlying basics (things that cannot be easily changed) are still there. So, while this MMO engine provides relatively pretty environments, they’re static. You can’t do anything to the environments. The plants are fixed, the boxes are fixed, everything is fixed. There is nothing that the player can do to move anything around. The only thing that’s movable in the game is the player and a horse (and enemies).

One of the things I always enjoyed about Oblivion, and to a lesser degree in Skyrim, is that there are wandering enemies and friends. In fact, you don’t know which is which until you come upon them. One of the things I had been hoping for is a less ‘enemy’ based game.  Meaning, no one should be an enemy until you make them so. Which means, nothing should attack you until you pick a side or provoke them. Alas, not here.

Based on Zenimax’s questionable choice of choosing the same engine that Defiance uses, that leaves the Elder Scrolls Online with less than satisfying in-game play. In fact, for some of the same reasons I abandoned playing Defiance, I abandoned playing the Elder Scrolls Online.

Game Mechanics

While the combat mechanics are similar enough between ESO and Skyrim, they are also different because multiple network players can jump in and help. Though, as I said, in some dungeons, multiplayer is not possible.

On the flip side of that, though, the multiplayer experience is weak and uninspired. The whole running around without collision is way less than realistic. Network players don’t collide and simply walk through one another like ghosts. I’d prefer a much more realistic collision detection. I’d also like an experience where people can participate in commerce, like owning shops and running them at a fixed location. I would also like to see network players be able to create quests, dungeons and bosses. Yes, player created content should be clearly labeled and excludable via preferences. But, it should be part of the universe.

Voice acting and the like

I’m not terribly impressed by this installment of the Elder Scrolls series. In fact, the choice of Michael Gambon (or a very close soundalike) was not a good one. His lines are inconsistent even between the same dialog in the same paragraph of spoken dialog. It sounds amateur and rushed. This is something I would never have expected from Zenimax/Bethesda.

Graphics

It’s funny. This game looks great in some places, and really bad in others. The landscapes, for the most part look spectacular with the sun shining. In the dark, however, it’s just flat and dull. There’s almost no lighting in most places when there’s no sunshine. Interiors are dull and lifeless. The lighting model used in this engine is, at best, fair. Again, this is what you get when you buy into an off-the-shelf engine. Instead, I would have preferred them modify a Crytek engine which has about the most realistic lighting model I’ve ever seen in a game. Unfortunately, this game suffers from the lack of quality lighting in far too many places.

For example, armor on knights looks great when in direct light or in sunlight, but in the dark there’s nothing to make it look volumetric. It just looks flat and dull.

Multiplayer Gaming

Because this is an MMO game, there are plenty of network players. Unfortunately, much of the game is focused on single player questing. Sure, your comrades can join you in defeating some monsters, but there are also plenty of dungeons where this is not possible. This is the same as Defiance and this is the single reason I stopped playing Defiance. You can easily wander into an unbeatable boss dungeon and simply have to abandon that quest leaving it unfinished. If that quest is part of a chain of quests, that whole quest-line is also dead. This is entirely frustrating and I won’t deal with games that do this.

More than this, the single most frustrating thing is that people leave their characters logged in all of the time and clutter up the environment. You’ll find hordes of network players hanging around banks, clothing creation tables, armor creation tables and other similar workbenches. Sometimes there are so many people that you can’t even get to the table to use it. Sure, you can walk through the players, but if you can’t get visible view of the table with the camera, you can’t target the table to work on it.

One of the other frustrating network player problems is that you’ll tend to find network players hovering around key quest giving NPCs trying to do the same thing you’re doing. The problem that falls out of this is trying to determine what character is actually the quest giver. Having hordes of people around something also gives away where that thing is. Also, it’s really stupid to hear a quest giver NPC saying something like “You’re the first person I’ve seen in ages.” Really? Like how many other network players are logged in right now playing this exact quest in this same dungeon? Stupid dialog such as this amazes me in a network multiplayer player game. Who at Zenimax didn’t get the memo that this is a network multiplayer game?

Which leads to one more problem… shared resources. Some items in the environment are basically ‘one player at a time’. That means if you find a Water Hyacinth and someone grabs it ahead of you, they get first dibs and it’s gone. This means you have to go find it somewhere else. This problem has happened far too many times during quests leading me off on scavenging tangents. In fact, a similar issue is when I’ve just started a quest and a minute later, the quest ends saying the quest is completed. I’m like, what the hell? Then I realize, someone else just finished that quest and it gave me the completion notice also. This is bad. You should always be required to finish whatever quests you start on your own unless that quest is explicitly labeled a multiplayer quest.

Cyrodiil

At the original time of writing this article, I hadn’t yet ventured into Cyrodiil. However, I now have. Unfortunately, the gameplay doesn’t get any better in Cyrodiil. In fact, it really takes a turn for the worst. While all of the non-Cyrodiil zones are standard questing and dungeon crawler types, Cyrodiil is the antithesis of what Elder Scrolls has always been.

Yes, Cyrodiil offers a huge map that encompasses all of the cities we’ve come to know from Oblivion, but instead of being thriving quest giving communities, it’s a barren landscape of forts and castles, few and far between. In between these military installations is a whole-lotta-nothin’. Really. There is nothing there. While there are quests that are placed onto your area quest map, the quests are all campaign related. Things like, taking over a fort, capture the Elder Scroll, etc etc.

ZeniMax degrades Cyrodiil into yet another version of Hasbro’s board game Risk, only in MMO video game format. I’d liken it to another game like Civilization, but it’s less like Civilization and more like Risk. There are 3 factions: Red, Yellow and Blue. Depending on which faction you join, you’re responsible for making sure your ‘team’ captures the most stuff during any campaign.. with the idea being to capture the entire game area, just like Risk.

No, I’m not avert to playing a game like Risk, it’s just that I’ve already played Risk many many many times over the years. Risk is not what the Elder Scrolls series should become. Yet, here we are. The Elder Scrolls games should always be about questing and dungeon crawling, first. There are so many better multiplayer ideas that could have been used on the Cyrodiil land, but unfortunately we get Risk instead. This Risk game is not bad for what it is, but it’s just not creative nor in keeping with what I would expect from an Elder Scrolls title. It’s also far less than impressive than what I would expect from Bethesda.

Castles and Rebuilding

The worst part of Cyrodiil’s Risk is its castles. The other teams can build catapults and other weapons to use against your castles. As the castles get bombarded, they break and fall down. If the castle falls down enough, the other team can capture it. To keep this from happening, all of the players must not only continually rebuild the castles, they must also use their own ‘money’ to rebuild it. If you want to rebuild a wall, you have to pay for it out of your own stash of money. No money? Can’t rebuild. Personally, I found this minutiae to be just too over the top and unnecessary.

Winning

Yes, while it’s important that your ‘team’ wins Cyrodiil during the campaign, there are a lot of sub-game types also embedded in the area like capture-the-flag and death-match all wrapped into this single area. It’s also worth noting that Cyrodiil is almost entirely PVP (Player vs Player). There is very little PVE (Player vs Environment) in Cyrodiil.

The problem with Cyrodiil is that it is far too sprawling with literally devoid of anything other than PVP gameplay. Seriously, this land is so big, trying to find enemy players in it can be as challenging as fighting the battles when you finally find them. The sore point when your player dies is that the spawn points are so few and far between, you’ll end up spending literally 10 minutes just trotting back to where you were on a horse simply to try that battle again. Because there are so few spawn points, it makes Cyrodiil a truly painful experience when battling. Definitely not a battle-friendly environment. This is a pretty huge fail on ZeniMax part. The spawn point is also entirely dependent on who kills you. If you’re killed by an environment NPC, then you spawn like you normally do. If you’re killed by another player, you’re forced to respawn at very selective spawn points owned by your faction… which could be on the other side of the map.

Worse, they’ve turned the Elder Scrolls themselves (the actual Elder Scrolls) into a game of capture-the-flag. Instead of being useful as scrolls, now they’re just tokens to carry around. It’s now the job of other teams to grab your team’s ‘Elder Scroll’ and take it back to their own land. It’s then your responsibility to go get that scroll and put it back into its home area. Yes, it’s degraded the Elder Scrolls into Capture The Flag. I mean, I don’t know how much more degrading it is to see the actual Elder Scrolls, which are supposed to be some of the most coveted and sacred of magical artifacts in Tamriel, treated like play toys.

If the Elder Scrolls themselves are such prized artifacts, why are they floating on an alter sitting out in the open under a dome? Shouldn’t they be in a library or underground protected? Who thought this would be a good idea?

On top of the derivative problems present in the Risk-like strategy aspect, it’s just far too sprawling to really make this area of any real value. The campaigns in Cyrodiil literally last 90 days. That’s 3 months. And it would take every bit that 3 months just to even try and take over the entirety of Cyrodiil. I guess if the only thing you’re trying to do is level your character up to Veteran Rank, then it’s worth it. Oh, and the only way to get Veteran Rank is to have taken part in Cyrodiil actively. Yes, that means rebuilding castles, as boring as that activity is.

Unfortunately, Cyrodill literally doesn’t thrill me. First, it trivializes the Elder Scrolls. Second, because the area is so sprawling with nothing else to do there but focus on taking buildings over, it’s really way outside of what I consider an Elder Scrolls game. I mean, the idea behind the battles is interesting. However, using a board game derivative to build your implementation is far less than impressive, Bethesda. It seems like the game developers just didn’t have any better ideas than ripping off the Risk board game.

Instead, I would have preferred to see several types of campaigns. Instead of 3 factions all working against one another (PVP), that they all work together towards a common goal… like taking the area back from the Daedra. I don’t mind PVP and I’m glad there’s an area here, but ZeniMax should at least offer up other methods of conquering Cyrodiil than simple-minded and derivative PVP gaming. If you really want to do PVP, I’d rather just have an arena somewhere. I mean, a small location with limited map sizes where gamers can simply go in and battle in an arena. In fact, Arena was one of the early Elder Scrolls titles. Why not offer an area as an homage to the earlier Arena battles? With multiplayer, it makes perfect sense. Yet, they give us the Risk-derived Cyrodiil. I continually find myself venturing back to the questing areas over being in Cyrodiil.  I find myself bored to tears after spending even 15 minutes in Cyrodiil. Just give me the standard quests and don’t force me to rely on Cyrodiil to advance my player character.

Faction Lands

When you begin the Elder Scrolls Online, you will become part of a faction such as the Daggerfall Covenant, the Ebonheart Pact or the Aldmeri Dominion. Depending on which faction you end up in, certain parts of Tamriel will open and others remain locked. However, once you complete Cyrodiil as a veteran, you will be able to go through all of the rest of the closed lands. Personally, I think this is rather stupid. If, as a designer, you’re going to create a world with many lands, let all players go through all of the lands. Don’t selectively exclude gamers based on a faction. This is stupid. Of course, we can create and level up other player characters who end up on those other factions, but that’s means you have to manage 3 players all leveling up together. This is something I don’t want to do. I play a game no more than once, never three times.

Craglorn

After having recently reached Veteran Rank 1 (VR) — AKA Level 50, I was ‘invited’ to be transported to Craglorn (the recently released Veteran Rank area). Don’t expect Craglorn to be like any other land you’ve visited. Oh, no no no. Zenimax has once again changed the rules of the game. When you reach VR1, you might think you’re now reasonably strong. Again, no no no. Reaching Craglorn is like starting ESO all over again at Level 1 with no armor or weapons. In Craglorn, ALL of the enemies and I mean ALL of them are VR 11 or higher. Oh, but there’s one more change to this area. ALL of the enemies in Craglorn swarm. There is no way to get a single enemy alone to grind and rank up. Nope. If you hit one enemy, at least 4, 5 or more VR11 enemies come charging at you. Think about this for about 30 seconds and you’ll realize the problem… I’ll wait….

So, having thought through the problem, you quickly realize there is absolutely no place to grind here. None. The only way to grind here is to group with others and grind together. Even then, grouping VR1s together probably won’t be that successful. Effectively, you cannot quest solo in Craglorn until you’ve reached at least VR 12. Worse, the first quest given in the area has you fighting VR11 bosses… which are, in fact, VR20-somethings. Even worse then that, it takes killing a shit ton of enemies just to move the VR experience bar even a nudge. So, yeah. It’s unlikely a VR1 character is going to step into this area and win at anything let alone rank up fast. Expect to spend some gold on new VR ranked weapons before entering this area.

Craglorn is probably one of the worst ZeniMax fails around the entire ESO game. Though, I have to admit that ripping off the board game Risk is right up there with Craglorn’s design. But, setting your character up as VR1 in a primarily VR11 area is just simply insane. Again I must ask, “What were they thinking?” This is not challenging. It’s just an exercise in frustration. I’d have to say that Craglorn is probably game designing at its worst. Every other gaming area, they’ve had general enemies no more than 1-2 ranks higher than where you are. But, throwing a VR1 ranked character into a VR11 territory is just stupid.

About the only thing I have found to do is loot treasure in this area and join in on some world battles whenever I can find them. This way I can at least try to rank my character up very slowly. But, finding world battles around the area is fairly difficult because there aren’t that many people here questing and world battles are few. Even dolmens aren’t in Craglorn. Oh, there are dolmen’s marked, but they don’t work like the regular dolmens. Again, Zenimax changed the way this area works. Inconsistent to say the least.

Craglorn is really designed for grinding, pure and simple. If you go in there, expect to grind, grind, grind.

Gameplay Differences

Let’s understand some of what I consider broken between the Elder Scrolls Online compared to Skyrim. Some of you might like some of the changes listed below, but I preferred where Skyrim was heading. That is, moving towards making everything interactive and more like our reality with real physics. Taking a step back in gaming is never a good idea. Here’s my list (note this is not comprehensive):

ESO: Horses appear out of thin air and disappear into thin air
SKY: Horses are stabled, must be found, can die

ESO: Horse animation is stilted and cartoony
SKY: Horse animation looks at least more realistic than ESO

ESO: Containers are fixed and contain gold 1 max or food (not necessary)
SKY: Containers can contain jewels, gold > 20 or potions.

ESO: Food is unnecessary because magicka, health and stamina regenerate almost immediately after combat ends
SKY: Food is necessary until you get armor or enchantments that increase health regeneration which is typically very slow.

ESO: Objects are fixed and cannot be moved
SKY: Objects are movable in the environment: Apples, weapons, ingredients, etc

ESO: Defeating an enemy yields 1 gold and possibly a glyph or quest item (rarely armor and never armor the NPC was wearing)
SKY: Defeating an enemy yields gold sometimes and whatever armor and weapons they had. Their armor and weapons can be stripped.

ESO: Bows automatically come equipped with arrows. The bow holds the damage.
SKY: Bows and arrows are separate and have separate damage levels. Couldn’t craft arrows. They were always found.

ESO: Unknown if you can own a house
SKY: You can not only own houses, with Hearthfire you could build one from scratch.

ESO: 60 max slots for items and every item (including each ingredient) requires 1 slot (excluding some quest items). If you run out of slots, you have to use the bank which gives you only 60 more. Then you have to buy more with gold.
SKY: Expandable slots for items and unlimited items can be stored in containers in owned houses. Granted, houses cost at minimum 5000g, but once you buy a house the storage space is unlimited. You could get more slots by finding the Horse stone, scrolls, casting a spell or by wearing enchanted items (which can be found or created).

ESO: Soul Gems are very very scarce. Basically only available from sellers.
SKY: Soul Gems are easy to find. Specifically, they are usually found in dungeons with mages or necromancers.

ESO: Once in battle mode, there’s no way to sneak. The game simply won’t let you. If you do manage to hide in battle mode, the game takes you out of battle mode as though you had run away. The enemy’s health resets requiring you to start the battle over from the beginning. This includes bosses.
SKY: Once in battle mode, if you hide behind a rock or container you can usually hide. If you crouch and hide in battle mode, the game does not reset the enemy’s health unless they have regenerative capabilities or you leave the area.

ESO: An arrow’s range is a 5-6 feet. If you’re out of range, an arrow does nothing.
SKY: An arrow’s range is at least 50-100 feet. If you can see the enemy and you can aim, you can hit them.

ESO: If you’re in sneak and attack an enemy, you’re immediately taken out of sneak and the enemy knows exactly where you are and begins attacking you. The best you get is 1 sneak attack.
SKY: If you’re in sneak and attack an enemy, the enemy will come search for you, but you can move and avoid being found. You can continue to sneak attack as long as you remain undetected.

ESO: Equipping a new weapon is cumbersome.
SKY: Equipping a new weapon is through the weapon wheel (as long as it’s set up in advance).

ESO: Entering a menu to switch weapons or consume a potion doesn’t pause the action. Enemies continue to attack while trying to switch weapons or consume potions. You need to have them on hot keys.
SKY: Entering a menu during battle pauses the battle to allow switching or consumption of a potion.

ESO: Dying reduces durability of all equipped items.
SKY: Dying ends the game and you have to reload. Durability of items is determined by its use, not by player death.

ESO: Boss battles inside a dungeon trap you in the dungeon until the battle is done, you quit out of the game or you die. There is no way to flee an interior battle as exit doors aren’t usable.
SKY: You can always exit a dungeon even when in battle.. excluding certain bosses which lock you into an area (i.e., arena battles).

ESO: Swimming yields no skill improvement.
SKY: Swimming improves strength

ESO: Diving in water not possible.
SKY: Diving not only possible, but required to reach some quests.

ESO: Mouth movements with dialogue are simple open close like a puppet
SKY: Mouth movements with dialogue use mouth phoneme animation to seem like they’re actually talking

ESO: Sneaking costs stamina, does not level up
SKY: Sneaking levels up as you use it near enemies, costs no stamina

ESO: Repairing armor is at least 5x more costly in comparison with the gold you obtain. Repairing all items might be 200G-300G and you might have 500-800G or so.
SKY: Gold is plentiful and repairs are 10G or so per item. It might cost 200-300G for all items, but you probably have 2000-5000G

ESO: Bots and script kiddies => a side effect of multiple players
SKY: No bots => no online play

ESO: Some dungeons don’t allow network players in. You’re left alone to complete the boss which can be challenging because you cannot sneak or hide in battle. Basically, you need to be a mage or warrior for these dungeons. Rangers and Thieves won’t easily work.
SKY: N/A.. but you can use alternative tactics like sneaking and sneak attacks which are not available in ESO once battle starts.

ESO: Map is tiny (about a quarter of the screen) and looks like a cartoon.
SKY: Map is full screen, makes it much easier to find things.
Though neither have a search feature which would make finding places on the map a whole lot easier.

ESO: Custom waypoints not available on map
SKY: Custom way points possible

ESO: No stealing, no pickpocketing
SKY: An intrinsic part of every other ES game since at least Morrowind

ESO: Fast traveling costs gold (costs more as game progresses)
SKY: Fast traveling is free

ESO: Books cannot be taken or stored. Though, Lorebooks disappear after reading them and end up in a ‘library’ on your character.
SKY: Books can always be taken (unless it’s specifically stuck to an area).

ESO: Can’t sit in chairs
SKY: Could sit in any chair

ESO: Can’t kill any NPCs
SKY: Can’t kill some NPCs (critical characters, kids, etc), but can kill most.

ESO: Items cannot be dropped and picked up later. They can only be destroyed.
SKY: Items cannot be destroyed, but can be dropped or sold to free up slots.

ESO: Travel only to waypoints at any time. Traveling not from a waypoint costs gold. All territories are infested with large numbers of constantly spawning enemies. Dungeons are not always set to the player level and are frequently set higher to encourage network co-op, otherwise it can be impossible with a single player.
SKY: Travel to any city at any time. Occasional enemies can be easily avoided. Dungeons were set at or close to the level of the player making some levels too easy to play. Though, some dungeons aren’t.

Frequent Updates

While I do realize this is a multiplayer game, some of the updates can be especially big and have long download times. For example, some updates are as large as 8GB (nearly the same size as the full game). Download updates are frequent at intervals usually once a week. So, expect to wait to play while the updates are downloading and installing.

If they’re planning on this many updates this frequently, then the game should come with a background updater to automatically download updates during idle times.

Overall

The Elder Scrolls online is, at best, a mediocre game. The choice of the Defiance MMO engine to drive ESO leaves a lot to be desired. I was actually hoping Zenimax wouldn’t use that engine as there are many problems with it. While Zenimax was able to customize some pieces better than Defiance was able to, there are simply some pieces that still don’t fit with the concept of an Elder Scrolls game. In fact, using this engine is far and away a step backward for an Elder Scrolls technology advance. It’s unfortunate too because I was actually liking where Skyrim was heading. And, taking what Skyrim was to a Next Gen console would have made the next installment spectacular. Instead, with the Elder Scrolls Online, what we’re getting is not the next step, but a lateral move that’s about as compelling to play as Morrowind.

Though, at the time Morrowind released, it was very compelling. Today, Morrowind seems antiquated, as does the Elder Scrolls Online. Unfortunately, Zenimax tried using something off-the-shelf and the result is less than stellar. It’s unfortunate too, because I was just getting into the Elder Scrolls series. If this is what we can look forward to in Elder Scrolls games, Zenimax, you can count me out.

As for Cyrodiil, it is basically boring empty space with mostly nothing to do. There is effectively no standard questing in Cyrodiil. All quests are military quests such as grabbing the Elder Scroll and moving it somewhere else or spying. Unfortunately, Cyrodiil is basically such an uninspired area, I find myself bored often and frequently leaving to find quests in other lands. Unfortunately, at level 46, I find myself actually running out of standard quests and no way to get to the other unopened territories. So, I’m actually kind of stuck for more stuff to do in the Elder Scrolls Online.

In fact, what I’ve been doing as of late is just finding resources and putting them up for sale in guild stores. At least there’s pretty much a never ending supply of resources, except on Cyrodiil where, again, there’s literally nothing but a huge and a big game of Risk.

Fallout 76

This section has been added here to discuss Bethesda’s newest MMO, Fallout 76. It’s highly likely that Bethesda/Zenimax has simply taken the ESO engine and used it to build Fallout 76. I haven’t played or seen any play of Fallout 76, but I’m not holding out hope that FO76 will be substantially better than ESO.

I’m certainly hoping that they have abandoned the Risk board game PVP mode. It was totally unnecessary and out of character even for an Elder Scrolls game. It will definitely be out of character in a Fallout game.

I will have to reserve my judgement of Fallout 76 until its release later in 2018.

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Resident Evil 6: Complete disappointment

Posted in video game, video game design, video gaming by commorancy on October 6, 2012

As you may or may not know, I also like gaming.  Specifically, RPG and first and third person shooters.  Well, at least some first and third person shooters, anyway.  Whether I like it depends on how it’s done.  In this case Resident Evil 6 is not done well at all.

Resident Evil Franchise

Even though this game series has turned into a fairly hefty cash cow for both Milla Jovovich (and hubby) in the celluloid format, the games have been relatively uninspired for the last several years.  The last really good Resident Evil game was RE4 and that was years ago.  Well, I’m sad to say that Resident Evil 6 is a complete and total disappointment in the gaming department. Capcom just can’t figure this out.  For whatever reasons, the developers over at Capcom Japan just aren’t with the program.

The absolute best game of this franchise is still, bar none, Resident Evil 4.  This game had all the makings of turning the franchise into a smash hit.  Unfortunately, the game developers decided to try something new with whole tag-along partner thing in RE5 which failed miserably, by the way.  That game was an unmitigated disaster.  It had no depth, the story was boring, the fights were stupid and the fact that you had to keep your partner alive in the middle of the fights was asinine.  There was no fun to be had with that game at all.

You’d think Capcom could have figured out that the reason Resident Evil 5 flopped so badly was that it was just so poorly done.  Yet, here we are with Resident Evil 6 bringing in much of the boring and silly storylines from 5 even though Leon is heading this chapter up.  It’s unfortunate, too.  This could have been such a great addition if Capcom had even minimally listened to its fanbase. No, they did their own thing again and assumed this is what we wanted in a game. They could not have been more wrong.

Seriously, Resident Evil 6 doesn’t even have a pause button!?!?  You can’t even pause the effing game.  I mean, seriously?  Why not?  Every other game on the planet has figured out how to pause, why is Resident Evil 6 the exception?  You can’t even step away to go take a pee without some zombies nailing you.  What fun is there in that?

Worse, when you restart the game, it takes you back almost an entire chapter just to begin again.  You can’t even start at the point where you left off.  Seriously, this is one extremely badly designed game.  On top of just these stupid design issues, the gameplay is sluggish, awkward and the collision detection is some of the worst I’ve seen in a game in a very long time.

No awards for this turd

As much as Capcom seems to think this is some award winning thing, it’s a festering piece of feces covered in flies. It has no redeeming value at all.  This game is so bad, it’ll be in the bargain bin in 60 days.  Less, I’d venture. If you really want this game, just wait about 30 days and pick it up on the cheap.  Even then, why waste your time with this dreadful game?  Go pick up Skyrim or Fallout 3 or Portal or some other much better game than this and spend some time with a quality game.  If you really love Resident Evil, pick up Resident Evil 4.  It’s still far far outshines anything Capcom has ever done to date in this series.  RE4 is, in fact, so far ahead of every other RE game that I can’t even fathom that Capcom had a hand in writing it.  In fact, they probably didn’t.

It’s unfortunate that Capcom doesn’t quite get the gaming landscape today. Resident Evil 6 had so much it could have been and the developers just squandered away that opportunity.  This is and will be the last Resident Evil game I buy from Capcom.  No more throwing good money after bad.  Capcom get with the program.  As they say, once bitten, twice shy.  No more Capcom titles in my house.

[UPDATE 2012-10-24: Thanks Riko]

Apparently you can pause the game, but only if you turn off multiplayer (?) features.  Note, however, that I didn’t ‘turn on’ any multiplayer features when I played.  I just played the game with however the campaign started.  If that enables multiplayer features, I didn’t know it.  Worse, I wasn’t playing multiplayer at all, however.  I was playing the game in as though it were a single person campaign. That this game apparently turns on multiplayer features even though you are not using it (and worse, blocking the pause feature) is just stupid game design.  I have to agree with Riko.  This game is one big turd named starting with an s and ending with a t.

Stars: 1/2 out of 5 (Capcom gets the 1/2 star for effort).

Video game designers stuck in a rut

Posted in video game, video game design, video gaming by commorancy on March 4, 2009

Video game consoles, such as the PS3, Wii and Xbox 360 (and even PC’s) have gotten more complex and provide impressive 3D capabilities and 5.1 sound.  Yet, video games have not.  There was a time many years ago when video game designers would take chances and create unique and unusual titles.  Games that challenge the mind and challenge the video gamer’s thought processes.  Games used to be fun to play.

In recent years…

Today, most games fall into a very small subset of genres: First/Third Person Shooter, Fighting, RPG, Simulation, Sports or Music (with a few lesser genres appearing occasionally).  While the innovation in the hardware continues to progress, the video game designers are not progressing.  Sure, it takes time to get actors into a studio to record tracks.  Sure, it takes time to build and rig up 3D models.  Sure, it takes time to motion capture realistic action to plug into those 3D models.  Yes, it takes time to program all of those complex algorithms to make it all work as a whole. I understand all of that.  But that’s the process, not the innovation.  These are the tools necessary to get the job done.  They are a means to an end and not the end in itself.

Design considerations

For whatever reason, big video game executives have it in their heads that the tried-and-true model sells a video game.  That may be true to some degree, but you can also wear-out-your-welcome with overused techniques.   In other words, when a game title sucks, the word spreads FAST in the video game community.  That can stop a video game’s sales dead.

When starting a new game project, the producer and creative staff need to decide whether or not they are planning on introducing something new and innovative.  First and third person shooters (FPS/TPS) have already been done and done and done and done again ad nauseam.  That’s not to say that yet another TPS or FPS can’t be successful.  It can.. IF there’s something compelling to the game… and that’s a big IF.

Sure, there are video gamers who will play anything they can get their hands on (known as video game fanatics).  But, as a game developer, you can’t rely on these gamers to carry your title to success.  These gamers do not necessarily make up the majority of the game buying public.  As far as myself, I am an much more discriminating buyer.  I simply won’t buy every title that comes along.  I pick and choose the titles based on the styles of games I know that I like to play.  For example, I do not buy turn-based games of any sort.  I don’t care if it’s based on dice rolls or card draws whether in a fighting, FPS or RPG game.  I won’t buy them because turn-based games get in the way of actual playing.  Turn-based games also tend to be antiquated.  I understand where turn-based play came from (i.e., board games).  But, it has no place in a 3D world based video game.

Again, choosing to add turn-based play into your game is your decision as a developer.  But, by doing so, you automatically exclude gamers who won’t buy turn-based games, like myself.  There are gamers who do enjoy turn-based games, but I don’t know of any gamers who won’t buy real-time play styles and buy only turn-based.  So, you automatically limit those who purchase your game to those who buy turn based.  But, by making your game real-time, you include a much bigger audience.

These are up-front design considerations that, as a developer and producer, you need to understand about gamer buying habits.  These are decisions that can directly affect the success of your video game title.

Previous innovations

In the early days of 3D console games (mid-80s through mid-90s), game developers were willing to try new and unusual things.  Of course, these were the days when 3D was limited to flat untextured surfaces.  We’ve come a long way in the graphics arena.  But, even as far as we’ve come in producing complex and unusual 3D worlds within the games, the play styles have become firmly stagnant.  For example, most First/Third person shooters today rely on a very linear story to get from point A to point B.  Driving the game along is an invisible path.  So, while the complex 3D world is wonderfully constructed, the character can only see the world from a limited vantage point.   The cameras are usually forced to be in one spot (near or behind the character).  The character is forced to traverse the world through a specific path with invisible boundaries.   So, exploration of the world is limited to what the game designer and story allow you to do.

This style of game is very confining.  It forces the gamer to play the game on the programmer’s terms rather than on the gamer’s terms.  Worse, when this play style is combined with checkpoint saves, health meters and other confining aspects, these games can easily become tedious and frustrating.  So, what a game developer may consider to be ‘challenging’, in reality becomes frustration.

A shot of new innovation

The video game development world needs is to open is collective eyes.  Don’t rely on the tried-and-true.  Don’t relay on formulas.  Don’t assume that because a previous game worked that your next game will also work.  What works is what video gamers like.  What doesn’t work is what video gamers don’t like.  The video game community is very vocal, so listen to your audience and learn.  Most of all, try new things… and by that I don’t mean tweaking an existing formula.  I mean, take a risk.  Try something new.  Let gamers explore the world.  Produce worlds that are open and complete.  Let gamers build things.  Let gamers take the game to whole new levels.  Build in construction sets to allow gamers to create things you have never thought of.  Build in ways to save the constructions to web sites and allow gamers to monetize the things they’ve built.

These are innovations that lead to progress.  These are innovations that instill addictiveness into the game.  These are innovations that keep your game alive for years to come.  You only need to look at the popularity of Second Life, World of Warcraft and even the Elder Scrolls series to understand that an unlimited world with construction kits allow gamers to take the game into directions you’ve never even thought of.

Most games play through in only a few weeks (sometimes less than 1 week).  The gamer buys it, plays it through and then trades it in never to touch it again.  This is effectively a movie rental.  So, once the gamers have had their fill, the game is effectively dead.  This style of game does not provide your company with a continued stream of revenue from that title.  Only titles that have open ends, that offer expansion packs, and that allow gamers to construct things on their own are the games that keep a title alive for years rather than a few weeks.

 That may require a slightly bigger cash outlay in the beginning (to support a title that has a longer lifespan), but if done correctly, should also provide much more income for that game company.  This is why titles like Fallout 3, Oblivion: Elder Scrolls IV and World of Warcraft are talked about months (and even years) after the game’s initial release.  But, forgettable games like Fracture, Too Human or even Force Unleashed have no extra play value after the game ends.

Gaming elements incorrectly used

In too many game designs, programming elements are used incorrectly to ‘challenge’ the gamer.  Game challenges should come in the form of story elements, puzzles, clues and riddles.  Game challenge elements should not involve game saving, turn-based play, checkpoints, character deaths, camera movement, controller button sequences, or anything dealing with the real-world physicality of the gaming system.  In other words, challenges should not be tied to something outside of the video game or outside of the story.  So, as a designer.. you should always ask yourself:  Does this challenge progress the game story forward?  If the answer is no, the challenge is a failure.  If yes, then the story becomes better by the challenge.

Button Sequences

For example, requiring the gamer to respond to a sequence of button presses in a very specific real-world time limit is not challenging.  This is frustrating.  This means the gamer needs to trial-and-error this section until they can make it through the timed sequence of buttons.  This is a failed and incorrectly used ‘challenge’ event.  This section does not challenge.  Instead, this sequence requires the gamer to ‘get through’ that section.  Note that ‘getting through’ is not a positive gaming aspect.  Worse, if this game section comes in a FPS game, but only occasionally (only to fight a boss), this is also incorrectly used.  If this play style is used regularly and consistently throughout the game, then the gamer knows that it’s coming.  If it’s used only at certain undisclosed points rarely, then the gamer has to fumble to realize what’s going on when there is no warning.

Death Sequences

Another common, but also incorrectly used gaming element is the character death sequence.  For some reason, recent games have promoted the use of character deaths as part of the challenge element.  So, there are sections of some games where the designers specifically designed the level so the gamer has to ‘die’ his way through the level.  These trial and error sequences, again, are incorrectly used and do not aid in moving the story or the game forward.  These also tend to promote deaths as a way to solve problems.  This is not appropriate.

Games should always promote the positive aspects of life and not promote death as a means to an end.  Worse, games like Too Human take the death sequence to an extreme and make the gamer wait through an excruciatingly long cinematic each time the character dies.  This, again, is an inappropriate use of a gaming element.  The game should be designed for the GAMER and not for the game designer.  Long death sequences such as what’s in Too Human overly emphasizes death.  This is, again, not appropriate.

Health Meters

Health meters are another common gaming element that are incorrectly used, or lack thereof.  Every game that allows the character to ‘die’ needs to have a visible health meter.  Games that use the Unreal engine do not have this.  Instead, when your character takes enough ‘damage’, the screen will become red with a halo.  The problem with this system (and this is also why its incorrectly used) is that the gamer doesn’t know how far from ‘death’ the character is.  This is not a challenge.  This is annoying and frustrating.  This leaves the gamer wondering just how much health they have. 

Game Saves

Again, story elements move the game forward.  Having the gamer stop and reload a game takes the gamer OUT of the game and forces them to restart from some arbitrary point.  Checkpoint games are particularly bad about this.  When checkpoints are the only way to save a game, this means the gamer must waste their real-world time through trial-and-error gaming.  This means, the user must wait through character deaths and then the subsequent reload of the level to restart at the checkpoint.  Again, this is not a challenge… it’s simply a waste of time.   When levels are designed such that the gamer’s character will die at least once to get through the level, the level has failed.  This forces a reload of a previous save.  This element, again, is misued as a challenge element.  Taking the gamer out of the game by forcing a reload ruins the game experience and disrupts the story you, as a developer, worked so hard to make cohesive.

Future of Gaming

Even as game developers are now stuck in the genre rut, they do have the power to break out of it.  They do have the means to produce games with more compelling and addictive content.  Instead of using old formulas that used to work, designers need to look for new ways to innovate,  monetize and bring video gamers into their game worlds and keep them there.  Games shouldn’t be viewed as a short term point A to B entity.  Games need to move to open ended and free exploration worlds.  Worlds that let the gamer play on the gamer’s terms.  Sure, there can be story elements that tie the game together like Fallout 3 and Oblivion.   In fact, I’d expect that.  But, these game threads should start and end inside the game as quests.  You can play them when you want to and you can leave them hanging if you don’t want to complete it.

Game elements like checkpoints, saves and button sequences need to be rethought.   Some of these elements can be successfully used, like checkpoints if implemented thoughtfully.  However, allowing the gamer to save anywhere lets the gamer save and start at their leisure.  But, that manual save process leaves it up to the gamer to remember to save.   For this reason, checkpoints when combined with save-anywhere is the best alternative when gaming.  After all, the game was supposed to be produced for the gamer.

Designers, creators and developers need to challenge the notion of what is a video game.  They need to use the 3D worlds in creative NEW ways.  Let the users explore the worlds on their terms, not on some dictated path and story.   Designers need to take a page from Bethesda’s book on free-roaming RPGs and expand on this.  Closed ended, path based games have limited playability and definitely no replay value.  Monetarily, developers need to understand that open ended construction based games let gamers take ownership of the game and make it their own.  Closed, narrow pathed games do not.

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