18 December 2011

Review: Warhammer 40000: Space Marine (PC)

Because fuck orks.

You know, what with my previous post being a lot of agitation over console ports, and complaining about action-RPGs, it really looked like Space Marine should be just the kind of game that would get my undies in such a twist that... They'd be really twisty undies. I dunno, feel free to work in your own Shyamayalamayanayan joke.

Anyway, if you disregard two key words, by all means I should hate this game. Those key words are Relic and Warhammer. And guess what? I fucking loved it!

The game is perfect. It’s not literally perfect- there are insignificant flaws. Cutscene animations are weirdly slow, the antialiasing messes up in rare instances. The sound is buggy1. But those flaws- they don’t really matter. When the game is fun, who gives a fuck if cutscenes are clumsy? Not me.

What matters is, Space Marine is a great game. It’s fun to play, the mechanics are a great realization of the concept (be a Space Marine and brutalize Orks and other enemies of the Imperium!) and all the stylistic design decisions have been made just right. The engine, although I’m awful at recognizing these things, appears competently coded but it's probably nothing special compared to today's (or even two years ago’s) state of the art, but frankly who cares? Game graphics reached a saturation threshold around 2005 after which it is no longer possible to discern which engine is more or less photorealistic- they’re all far more capable than you perceive. It’s all about design and style now, and those were done correctly in Space Marine.

Inside an Imperial Guard bunker.
A good example of that, and one of my favorite things about Space Marine: The character size. Space Marines are supposed to be giants, one and a half times taller than the average man even without their enormous power armor (although lore isn’t very consistent). But so are Orks. Basically, you are a huge man fighting huge aliens- it’s tricky to convey this sense of “hugeness” when relative to your enemies, you are average-sized. Yet somehow, Relic managed to do it unbelievably well. I’m not sure if it’s the camera angle, the clever proportions of the scenery, the occasional tiny guardsman, the carefully sluggish looking but not really sluggish animations giving you a sense of momentum, or perhaps just the head-to-body proportion of your character, but you just spend every moment of the game very aware of the fact that you are a gigantic, almost monstrous hulk, battling other monstrous, enormous creatures. It all feels very epic and big.

The same goes for weapons and combat in general- there is again an extremely crucial balance to strike: You can’t make the game too hard and the player too wimpy, or you’ll feel like some clown in a suit rather than a Space Marine- who are supposed to be demigods on the battlefield, a few dozen capable of clearing planet-wide alien invasions. And on the other hand, if you make the player too powerful, the game will seem too easy and ultimately pointless. Again, somehow, and honestly I’m baffled how- this is the work of truly talented game designers, somehow it really manages to present you with a challenge while still making you feel like the immensely powerful, titanic super-soldier that Space Marines are supposed to be.

"Orks! Always more orks!"
The bolter isn’t just a wimpy machine gun -this is a weapon that shoots explosive shells the size of a man’s fist in rapid fire- it pauses just enough between automatic shots to feel like a weighty, immense weapon, and yet still fires sufficiently rapidly to seem absurdly overpowered compared to familiar real-world weapons. Even so, it is not overpowered- Orks take 2-3 hits to go down, but they recoil from the (just large and loud enough) explosion and blood spatters everywhere and once again, you never forget that the weapon is extremely powerful- it is only not obliterating everything in a single shot due to correspondingly great robustness of your opponents.

There are 4 melee and maybe 7-10 (depending on how you count) ranged weapons in the game, plus their upgrades. They all feel different. They are all equally effective and practical to use. I gravitated towards favoring certain ones, of course, but tried all of them and none was a pain to use.

And melee combat itself- this part is just incredible. I really can’t overstate just how well done it is. Everything is so smooth, the controls are working really well, and you really feel like you are in full control of your character. The enemies, as I said, are not made of paper, but they can’t hope to pose a threat on their own- it is the numbers that make the difference. And something I just loved about what Relic did: The numbers advantage is such that, you are not really having a hard time because ten times as many Orks deal ten times the damage and so on. It’s not a simple numbers thing. More enemies are simply more distracting. It makes for a more chaotic, mentally demanding battlefield where it is easy to screw up your combos, or misdirect your attacks. And when you get special enemies, like suicide bomber squigs, it gets even more fun: You have to focus on the small squigs which deal you no damage (unless they blow up in your face) while normal Orks all around you constantly attack and leech off your attention. It all feels tremendously enjoyable- the game constantly throwing you curve balls and weird new tactics, requiring you to think on your feet to deal with them.

Executing an ork.
The execute mechanic is another gem: With normal orks, you can use a stun attack, and then “execute” a stunned ork. This basically kills it in one hit, and shows a cute, gory animation of Captain Titus tearing the hapless enemy apart. One of them has you drop the ork to the ground with a fist, and then stomp on its head, exploding it into bloody chunks. The other thing you get is, it heals a lot of health. But the flipside is that during the animation, and when trying to stun, you are vulnerable. What’s more, if you try to stun a wounded enemy, you might kill him outright, not getting the execute health and ending up having wasted time maneuvering into a position to stun him.

And it gets better: Small enemies, like gretchins, are killed outright by execute, even without a stun. Large enemies, like nobs, have to be wrestled. Stunning them is a challenge in its own right, as you have to use a special combo, and then there is quicktime sequence where you struggle with the enemy to break his strength, and execute if you succeed. Now, I hate QTEs, but if there’s a single right way to do it, this is it.

Oh and, you also get an assault jet pack! You can’t always use it, but when you do, does it feel awesome. The first key press sends you slowly but steadily rising into the air with a trail of smoke and bright jet plume behind you. Then as you pause mid-air, you select a spot on the ground, and a second key press sends you shooting like a comet right into a group of enemies, killing some and scattering others. Remember how watching assault marines do the assault jumps was so awesome in Dawn of War? Well, this is that, squared.

Praise the Machine Spirit!
I also have to say just how Warhammer-y this game feels: The universe is realized wonderfully. Shots glance off your ridiculously good armor. Guardsmen salute and kneel to you in awed deference, calling you “My Lords”. They shoot Orks with their flashlights, ten of their lasguns barely bringing down one. The buildings feel wonderfully gothic, both due to the size and high ceilings as well as small details like “gothic-y” looking lantern-shaped safety lights on elevators, and carvings resembling cathedral windows on enormous artillery shells the size of a tank. The Orks yell the standard “brutish enemy” taunts, but they are WH40k Orks- occasionally you hear a lovely “Shoot me again!” and remember that these guys don’t just like winning fights, they like getting killed, too. And this is really why a Warhammer game is special- the universe is just so wonderfully bizarre in its gory violence porn. Space Marine is an excellent demonstration of that idea.

There are things about the game which I think could be better- There could be flamers and rocket launchers, terminator armor, more execute animations, more enemies, but really, it’s just perfect as it is, not to mention being yet more proof that Relic knows exactly what they are doing when it comes to making games. If you like Warhammer, you will love this game, and if you don’t, you will after playing it. The only thing is the horrible, game breaking sound stutter bug, which I have thankfully been able to fix. It’s really quite unfortunate, because doubtless there will be people discouraged from playing this great game because of it.

Score: 5/5

1Possible solution for the sound bug:
So basically, you know what this is when you see it. Whenever there is a lot going on, such as many enemies on screen, sound begins to stutter, you get static, voiceovers repeat and echo, and the game lags, even if your framerate is quite high.

From what I saw on forums, this happens because the game has poor audio code, and when your video card is doing a lot of work it can overload the processor, which breaks audio. Normally it should be coded with this possibility in mind, and the sound code should handle the issue gracefully- in most other games it does. For some reason Relic coders appear to have messed up here.

Now the usual first step is, close unnecessary background processes (which probably won’t matter on a modern computer) and check if any driver updates are available, especially for your sound and video card (which were probably already automatically updated by Windows, and probably will not fix the issue). This didn’t fix the problem for me, but some people claim it worked for them, so it’s worth a try.

Since fundamentally, the issue is the CPU not running the sound code fast enough (although it shouldn’t have to do this much work for sound in the first place), you could solve the problem by going out and buying an i7. Some people claim it worked. I didn’t try, and eventually the game ran fine with my modest triple-core, non-overclocked Athlon II 345.

What did work for me was lowering the sound quality. For this you go into Sound in Control Panel, then the Playback Devices tab, then select Speakers (or whatever else you use) and click Properties. You’ll get a new window, and under Advanced should be a drop down for quality, saying something like “16 bit, 44100 Hz”. You want this as low as possible. Again, for me the lowest setting was 16 bit/44 Khz, so I used that, and it solved the issue. I still get very rare, momentary, singular sound distortions, but they are negligible.

Note that by the time I tried this, I had installed new (2010 or 2011) audio drivers from Realtek’s website (Gigabyte's site actually had updated drivers for my motherboard/sound combo too, despite windows claiming otherwise). My motherboard has on-board audio, as most people nowadays probably do, and there was another audio driver by Gigabyte that I had been using, which showed up as being from 2009 and up to date according to Windows. So it may be the case that you need to update your driver AND drop the sound quality, but I already told you to update your drivers, didn’t I?

08 December 2011

Skyrim: Useless Skills

Just in case anyone is curious, here's a few important points about skills to keep in mind when planning out a build:
  • Weapons have roughly the same DPS, the difference is speed/damage per swing. Because there are per-hit effects which become important later, you want to go with the fastest: Swords. Also, if you are using a broken tactic like run to enemy, hit, run back before he can hit you, a fast weapon helps. By the way, daggers are even faster, but not all one handed weapon perks apply to them. (But daggers do use one-handed weapons)
  • Sneak is broken. Yes, you can sneak around stationary enemies. However, once you take that first shot, hiding is ridiculously difficult, so sneak contributes little. Also, a lot of enemies pop-up behind you or attack you due to a script or whatever, so you get no chance to sneak. Bosses, being the strongest enemies and the target where sneak attacks would be most useful, can't usually be sneak attacked because of the level design (an arena where the boss makes an entrance by charging you). The only exception is if your sneak is 100: Then you get the hide in plain sight perk- it's a bit buggy and you can abuse it by sneaking right in front of an enemy, which will force him to be unaware of you for a second (which is what the perk does) and then you can sneak attack him before he "sees" you again.
  • Alchemy is fun, but ultimately not worth the training or the higher level mobs you will get due to extra levels- all you need to make is health and maybe mana potions, both are very easy. Enchanting is fun but you can get magic items easily anyway. Smithing is, again, fun and lucrative, and I'm not sure if you can get dragon armor (best in the game) without it, but for other things it's not hard to find powerful items anyway.
  • Speech is useless. Persuade/intimidate attempts are rare, do not have interesting dialogue paths, and the rewards you get are shit. Speech itself affects your merchant prices, but even with 100 speech you still get ripped off (they sell at double price and buy at half) and with crap speech it's not that bad (sell at triple buy at third) so yeah. Money is very easy to get in this game, anyhow.
  • Pickpocket is pointless, you can simply quicksave and quickload until you get the item. There is also a bug where having too high a pickpocket score can make you success go from say 13% to 0%.
  • Lockpicking is useless. Lockpicks are common, cheap and light. The minigame is very easy, even for hard locks. There are very few doors you actually have to pick.
Basically all you need is a weapon skill, an armor skill, and the relevant magic skills. If you enjoy crafting, get crafting, but only after level 20-30 or monsters will become impossibly hard.

The best weapon is sword. The best spell schools are destruction and alteration (+ to armor spells like oakflesh). Illusion is nice because it has invisibility and light spells, but they are not useful in combat. Restoration is nice for healing, but those spells are too expensive and you will not have mana left for offense, or really anything besides occasional bursts of healing. Conjuration has bound weapons, which are nice, but the summons require obscene amounts of mana.

So yeah. Keep in mind that I'm far from finishing the game.

05 December 2011

Review: Skyrim (PC) - Style and difficulty


My other post dealt with things about Skyrim that are bad as a consequence of it being a console port, but there are things about Skyrim that bother me besides those.

Gray on gray, all day

I really don't like Skyrim. The setting, not the game. It's gray as fuck. Everything is gray to begin with- the terrain is either white snow, gray rock, bluish-grayish water reflecting a perpetually overcast white sky, or dun grass. The mountains are all grey and white. The cities I visited all seem to be made of gray stones and grayish brown wood, except Riften, which is just completely brown. The people are dressed in gray furs and gray armors. The barrows are gray. The forts are gray. The caves are gray.

It's just difficult to convey how soul-crushingly desaturated the game is. I could show you screenshots, but it really wouldn't get across the experience of seeing a million different scenes and landscapes, all drawn with dust on rock tablets. I wonder if it's possible to come up with a rendering algorithm that performs better for very sparse palettes... Maybe at least you could squeeze some extra FPS out of this nonsense that way.

I don't know why they did this. I mean, perhaps the landscape being gray is realistic. I'm not even gonna go into the silliness of ultra-realistic graphics in a game that has gypsy anthropomorphic cats killing dragons by literally yelling flames and lightning at them (yeah, the game isn't all bad). But did the trees have to be gray? Did everyone's skin have to look like cadavers in a fluorescent-lit morgue, even by torchlight? I haven't invested the time into making a Skyrim/real life tundra photograph comparison yet, but I have this uncomfortable suspicion that Skyrim will actually turn out to be less saturated!

But like I said, it's not about realism. You know how on some days, rain clouds just cover the sky and make everything look so glum that you take one look outside and immediately regret ever getting out of bed that day? That's what playing Skyrim feels like! I thought games were supposed to make you feel happy, not suicidal.

Useless Skills

On a more serious note, Skyrim shares this leveling mechanic that TES games have, where instead of leveling by killing things, you level by increasing your skills, which in turn increase through use. Enemies scale according to your level. It's a lovely system- except the way it works in Skyrim can be quite troublesome.

With my first character, what fights I had before coming to Whiterun, the first big hub city, were extremely easy (as I complained in my previous Skyrim post). As a result, I decided to improve my crafting and thievery skills a lot, and got to level 15 or so with crap combat skills. Big mistake. When I finally started to work on clearing the various nearby dungeons, encounters became extremely difficult unless I chugged potions by the dozen.

I eventually made a new character and actively tried to get to about level 15 without improving any non-combat skills, and it's a fairly easy game so far. I do occasionally die, but often due to the interface and controls more than anything else. Anyway, leveling is largely determined by your highest skills, so I should be able to safely get my "useless" crafting skills and what not to catch up now.

The thing I don't like is, it really doesn't make much sense for non-combat skills to be treated as equivalent to combat skills, especially when the game is mostly about combat. You basically end up with a game where, unless you jump through various hoops, you are penalized for not focusing on a combat related skill. This isn't exclusive to the TES leveling system- games where you get XP from killing enemies, and distribute points at each level-up, also do this: They force you to choose between skills which open up certain optional gameplay elements like crafting or extra quests through persuasion, and being effective in combat.

Balance-wise, this is nonsense. I suspect the idea of valuing non-combat skills as much as combat skills came from the same place most RPG conventions came from- pen and paper RPGs. When you are playing DnD, having a high Diplomacy score is just as useful as having a high melee attack bonus (although even DnD sees it fit to separate combat and non-combat skills, actually). This is because there is no limit on the actions you can take- when you are attacked by bandits, trying to fast talk your way out of the situation doesn't suddenly require the GM to produce 10 time as much code for this 5 minute encounter. When you need to kill a dragon in DnD, you can realistically attempt to talk a local company of mercenaries into helping you, and not have to deal with the clumsy problem of having 150 allies fighting on your side and responding to your commands in a first person RPG.

Making "wimpy" skills like persuasion, pickpocket, sneak, knowledge, and so on effective alternatives to combat exponentially increases the code you need to write, but it makes no difference for PnP games where you make everything up on the spot anyway. The way these skills are balanced for PnP play is simply not applicable to software RPGs. It is perfectly viable for me to train nothing but two-handed fighting and beat the game like that. But the very idea of beating Skyrim with 100 speech and nothing else is hilariously impossible. In fact, speech barely makes a difference in how easy the game is- there are obviously side quests where it is relevant, but the advantages are trivial. You can almost never avoid fighting tough bosses with speech, for example. And yet, increasing either skill will result in equally powerful enemies.

More practically, suppose one character has 100 in two-handed fighting and heavy armor, and whatever score he started with in all other skills. Now, suppose another one which is the same, except he also trained speech to 100. The second character will get much more difficult encounters than the first. Why? He is no more powerful than the first, because you can't persuade hostiles in this game. He will have slightly more money, because of better merchant prices, and those few extra coins from using persuade to ask for a better reward after the occasional quest. It won't really be that much money though, and money is almost always trivial to acquire in Skyrim, even without using exploits and cheap tricks.

So why even bother with Speech, if it's so useless? Well, because it opens up fun dialogue options sometimes, and if you're that type, it lets you play an eloquent or tactless character and have the world react to that, even if in an ultimately useless, purely cosmetic way. With the crafting skills it's the same- oh sure making the best armor early on would give you an advantage, but then you could just as easily steal or buy good armor. It's doing nothing for balance, but it is effectively forcing me to ignore the many different crafting ingredients and recipes it has.

I don't understand the logic behind this. Why punish me for not ignoring half of the game's features? If you didn't want me to craft, you could have saved yourselves some time and not added crafting at all, devs.

The solution is obviously very simple. Supporting skills should be weighted, and shouldn't contribute to leveling as much. Morrowind already had a system that while not perfect, worked wonderfully- if you think a skill is useless you would leave it as a misc skill, and it would not contribute to your level progress

The same for perks- combat and non-combat perks should really be bought with points from separate pools. The whole idea of competition between content and ease of play is probably coming from the same kind of thinking that brings us gems like "now finish the game using nothing except the shitty starting weapon for a bonus level!" Why is it that I have to prove myself worthy to have something I already bloody paid for? Fuck off, game. If I want a tougher challenge, I'll just up your difficulty slider!

Rubber-band difficulty

I don't like, this rubber-band business in general, either. Fundamentally, it's like running on a treadmill- no matter how much faster you run, you will still be in the same place, so why bother running at all?

It has been said that RPGs are basically games about making numbers increase. To be more precise, there should also be many numbers, and each should require distinct, bizarrely unique methods to increase. If you can come up with subtle, complicated inter-relationships between different numbers, even better! This is what makes up the heart of a fun RPG (though perhaps not, mind, an action-RPG).

Usually, these numbers are measured relative to the game world. "It used to take me 5 hits to kill a diseased goblin scout, but after leveling and getting better gear, I can kill the same goblin scout in 2 hits!" That's why these things are fun- it's the sense of progress as you successfully navigate the game's mathematical labyrinth. But when the game is designed so that it always generates a goblin with enough health for 3 of your hits, you've just taken away the thing that made it fun!

Perhaps you are thinking, "but that's stupid! If not for level scaling, you'd keep running into dungeons which are too hard for you, or too easy!". Well, for one, this happens anyway. As I said, if you decide to try some fun but useless skills like speech, pickpocket or alchemy all dungeons will be too hard, and if you make a boring barbarian axe swinger robot all of them will be too easy.

But even if we disregard that, what is the problem, exactly? So you walk in a dungeon and get your ass kicked. You just run away, do some other stuff until your skills and equipment are better, and then return for revenge. Hell, with an open-world, non-linear game like Skyrim this really works- there are so many quests that you wouldn't ever have to just grind random encounters. I mean, doing that is fun! It actually feels like you're accomplishing something, what's more, you get the nice feeling of "getting back" at the game for that "unfair" dungeon it gave you. It also naturally divides the world into areas which are associated with different stages of the game. Consequently, more of your choices matter- now doing quests in a bad order can make your life quite difficult (and short).

Note that, I said quests, not cities. It seems a lot of games without rubber-band difficulty get that wrong- they make some cities just generally higher level than others. Of course, when you have the super-power empire's capital patrolled by level 5 guards in wooden armor because you start there, while the rebel camp that supposedly stands no chance has level 80 guys with game breaking items strolling around, things get a bit silly... But whoever said all the high level areas must be geographically clustered?

I mean, it's okay if there's a level-50 dungeon right next to the starting town. I'll go in there once, get killed, and resolve to come back much later to see what's inside. Since dungeons have icons on the map anyway, you could give them a color based on how far above or below your level they are, to save the player some tedious bookkeeping. Honestly, it seems to me like that would be a much more interesting, fun game. In fact, not everything is scaled- giants and mammoths for instance have a fairly high minimum level, and after accidentally getting roughed up by a giant at some point I can't wait until I'm powerful enough to take on them. That kind of thing is fun, its dramatic, it makes for a nice adventure- and perplexingly, in Skyrim it's the exception and not the norm.

04 December 2011

Review: Skyrim (PC) - Why console ports suck

Let me say again, to be clear: I don't like console games, and Skyrim is a console game. I don't like a lot about Skyrim, and most of my gripes have to do with it being a console game (although a few big ones don't), so a lot of this post will be me complaining about console ports.

By the way, it's not like Skyrim is awful. I don't hate everything about it (obviously, any game that shares lore with Morrowind already gets points from the start, as does any RPG with lots of skills that are improved by using them). But there really isn't anything non-trivial so far that I really like, so I'll defer on talking about the things I like until I'm done with the game (I'm not sure yet if I'll have the willpower and/or time to even finish the main quest). So, this post will mostly be me complaining.

Console vs. PC
As I said, I don't like console games. It's not a very fundamental dislike. If you think about it, what is the basic difference between a PC and console? You could get from the former to the latter in two steps: First, make the hardware monolithic, non-customizable, proprietary, and so on (incidentally, this essentially produces a Mac). Then, gut the OS to make it capable of only playing games. You have pretty much made a console, except because we started with a PC, it's still displaying things on a monitor and you still use a keyboard and mouse for input.

That's not a big deal, because input/output method is independent from the platform: You could hook up a mouse and keyboard to a console, and you could use a TV and gamepad (with no mouse or keybaord) to -albeit clumsily- control your garden variety Windows PC. Of course, in practice nobody seems to do these things, and this is the crux of my issue with console games, but before I get to that: There is nothing really wrong so far. If anything, monolithic hardware and a minimal OS dedicated to games are good, because they make coding games easier, although there's the issues of compatibility... But none of this really influences game design. And it's obvious that console games are different than PC games in certain key ways.

That difference in game design stems from the difference in traditional input/output setups. As I said, PCs, or rather PC users, tend to use monitors and keyboards while console users go with gamepads and TVs. It doesn't have to be this way, as far as I know it's not terribly difficult to use a keyboard with a console and vice versa. However, for some reason, nobody does.

With the PC, of course, it's stupid to use a gamepad instead of a keyboard unless you are playing a game, and even then, it makes sense only for some games. Some people already do use their TV as a monitor (I have) and a lot simply don't have a TV and use their monitor to watch TV stuff.

With consoles, there really is no reason to not use a monitor and keyboard/mouse. There is no reason for this not to be standard- except most console games are made for playing with a gamepad, but that's really only because it's the standard. I guess historically, consoles came about because back in the day, you couldn't expect people to buy computers for playing games on them. Now, the price difference is no longer there.

Note that for the most part, a console's I/O scheme is a subset of a PC's. If you try, you *could* devise a hypothetical game which uses the buttons and analog sticks of a gamepad in such a way that you simply can't play it with a keyboard and mouse- but such games are almost non-existent. For instance, console game like to assign movement to the stick, and you can control walk/run speed with how much you push it, but in most games you never want to and almost never need to run at anything but the maximum speed. It's not that you can't make a game where sometimes you want to walk slowly- it's just that seemingly nobody does. The one exception is detailed flight and racing sims: things like fine steering adjustments often do matter, and they are impossible on a keyboard and clumsy with a mouse while an analog stick does work quite well, except people who play those seems to get specialized controllers anyway, even on consoles.

Notably, you just can't make an FPS game on a console- anything that involves pointing at things on the screen a lot is torture without a mouse. Yes, people try anyway, and I think the attempts suck and will be doomed to suck until the console market gets used to the idea of using mice and keyboards. Yes, you "could" make a PC-style shooter on a console, meant to be played with a mouse, but it won't sell well because most console users won't want to buy or use a mouse just for your game.
Notice that it's harder to make a console RTS: Not only do you need to convince users to buy and use a mouse, but you also need them to sit close enough to the TV to see the small units and interface elements. The mouse, by the way, isn't just for selecting units- any game with many complicated menus will be difficult to handle without a mouse and keyboard.

To solidify the point, observe that in terms of design, it's trivial to port a console game: You do have to deal with different APIs and such under the hood, but you have to change almost nothing about how the game is played- just remap the controls to a keyboard and bind the camera to the mouse. Whereas porting a PC game to the console, especially a "real" PC game which heavily uses the mouse and keyboard to their full potential, would be a ridiculously difficult task. Moreover, there is no genre of console games which does not exist on the PC- some, like platformers, aren't as numerous, but you certainly can't say no notable PC platformer exists in the same way that you can say no notable console strategy game exists.

Complexity ceiling
Hopefully, I've made clear the following: There are kinds of games which can realistically (as in, more than 3 people will actually buy and play them) be made on a PC, and kinds of games which can realistically be made on a console. Practically all of the former can be ported to the PC, although not all developers choose to do so, while there is a distinct class of PC games that cannot be ported to consoles. Note that I'm saying kind- most console action RPGs aren't ported, for instance, that doesn't mean they can't be, as those few that are ported clearly demonstrate.

As I said earlier, I don't like console games. That's not because they're bad games- sure, many suck, just as many PC games suck. It just so happens that even "good" console games are so rarely interesting to me. Now, not every game I like tends to be complex, but most are. And complex games, along with FPSs, are just those kinds which go into the "wouldn't work on a console" category.

Furthermore, with an RPG like a TES game, there's really two aspects of appeal: The lore and the complicated complicated mechanics. And when you have the added constraint of making a game that would work on consoles, too, inevitably some things go. You just can't have a million attributes- it would generate a large amount of data. Displaying copious information is something a PC setup can deal with, but with a console you need the text to be large and legible from a distance, so there is a very finite amount of text, and therefore information, you can display. The same goes for things like interface icons and elements in general- they must be large and visually distinct to avoid confusion.

Or rather, now that I think of it, I don't see why you can't have lots of small text in console games. I've never found it particularly impractical to view lots of text/symbols on a TV, from a distance. But it seems that developers at least believe that console game interfaces should be as simple as possible.

The second factor comes in when you consider that a game which has a large amount of information to display needs to provide effective ways to navigate and manipulate that information. Again, a gamepad is not very well suited to this task, and keyboards and mice have, for decades, proven to be ideally suited to it.

The Interface
To illustrate, I'd like to contrast the interfaces of Morrowind and Skyrim. Morrowind, of course, had a single "status" screen which showed the inventory, map, stats and spells, these have been split up into four items you get when you press Tab in Skyrim. For my purposes, I'll focus on Skyrim's inventory screen.

Morrowind status screen.

There's really a lot I like about Morrowind's UI, such as being able to move around the parts and what not. But the crucial part is this: It's just far more efficient. First, this whole thing pops up with one keystroke. Suppose you need to answer a basic question, such as "do I have a pickaxe?". One key, done. Maybe click and drag the scrollbar or click an inventory filter if you have a lot of stuff on you. In Skyrim, you need to press Tab, lose half a second to the cute fading animations, press up to select inventory, another animation, press left to get to the leftmost column, then press up or down a few times to select weapons, and then keep pressing up or down until you get to "P":

Skyrim inventory.

Now I realize this seems silly, but those few milliseconds of animation, and those few extra keystrokes really do matter: This is something you do thousands of times over the course of the game. It just cannot be tedious.

What's worse is, when the interface is annoying to use, as a player you try to avoid using it as much as possible. That means having only one weapon and/or spell, and switching as little as possible- so the least frustrating way to play the game also happens to be the most boringly simple cookie-cutter way, which I find tragic in a game which is noteworthy due to the potential it has for complexity. If I wanted to play a game where all I did was swing an axe at enemies from start to finish, I wouldn't play a TES game- I'd play hack and slash action RPG.

Ideally, for instance, I would play a versatile magic-using character. Whenever I am attacked, I would cast an armor buff, the appropriate elemental resistance buff for the enemy. Then I would soften up the enemy with an appropriate damage spell (fire for ice wraiths etc), maybe conjure a suitable creature, then cast an attack buff and finish the enemy with my weapon. Maybe I'd even cast a bound weapon spell! Then, if I run out of health, I would heal myself, or if it looks like I'm overwhelmed I'd cast invisibility or something similar and escape.

That would actually be fun! I would have a wide variety of choices (spells, potions and weapons) at my disposal, each suited to different tasks, and I would have to decide on the fly which ones are applicable to that situation. It would be a game that actually gives me something to think about. It was what Morrowind did, and that is why Morrowind was fun. Skyrim, annoyingly, gets the hard part right: It supplies you with the options (unlike many other RPGs which have tons of spells, weapons and what not, most of which are utterly useless). It supplies you with the variety of problems that have different solutions (even though most are ultimately "kill the enemies", the enemies must be killed in very different ways, which is again something most games like this forget about).

The problem is, actually doing the above in Skyrim is torture. Just the amount of time you would waste watching the animations would easily waste a minute per encounter, not to mention breaking the flow. The amount of scrolling through menus would be obscene. It's just not something you can really do- and on either point, I know, because I tried it! A few times, just for the heck of it, I did try to do the many spells approach. The interface aside, it was very enjoyable, and very effective. Unfortunately, it was just such a hassle that I can not do it on a regular basis, once every few minutes, in a game that is dozens of hours long. In the end, I just use the same fire spell on everyone unless I absolutely can't win without using other spells too, and even then there's the temptation of simply turning god mode on briefly just to avoid having to deal with the obnoxious interface to implement a tactic I know will work.

And yes, I know there is an inventory/magic key in Skyrim. I am already using it. Guess what, you still have to watch the animation! It's still not instantaneous like Morrowind's was! And, no, the favorites menu doesn't work either: First off, it shows a ridiculously small number of items, and you still have to scroll.

Now, just to convince you that this is a systemic issue, and not just the Skyrim devs being incompetent: Let's consider why the Morrowind interface is better. First off, it can display more spells, because they are in a smaller font. Scrolling is easier because you have a scroll bar. You can have several screens at once, because when navigating you don't have to go from "select weapon mode" to "select screen mode" and then select the spell screen, and then select the spell. You just click your mouse on whichever element of whichever screen you want. There is a reason why the mouse became so popular, guys.

By the way, I just wanted to mention the stats. Note look at how Morrowind displays them: The window is actually quite small (when I play Morrowind I usually close the useless map and make the other ones larger, not to mention that Morrowind supports resolutions higher than the 1024x768 pictured, with the same font and icon size). But anyway, you can still see all of the attributes, all three status bars with numbers (when drinking potions in Skyrim, you are told how many points it will heal, and are shown the appropriate status bar, but you don't see what the exact numbers of it are), all major and minor skills, and even some other skills. You can't see all skills, because Morrowind had a fuckload of skills, but this UI still shows you much more information than Skyrim's UI, and in a quarter of the screen space.

What's more, look at the inventories: One thing Morrowind can afford to do is show cryptic icons for everything which don't necessarily display all the information about the item. This works, because you can mouse over the icon to see what it means. If it's a common icon, over time you effortlessly come to memorize the meaning, and don't need to do that. Note another thing about Morrowind's UI that you cannot see: You could assign any items or spells you want to your number keys, which really helped things- you didn't even have to go into this screen. The combination of the mouse and no constraint on font or icon size is what makes the interface so much more useful- which is exactly what consoles cannot have, so long as the current prevalent idea about interfaces of console games persists.

The Skyrim interface, if you took out the stupid things like fade-ins, probably is as efficient as you can get, when you are constrained with a gamepad. That said, with a mouse and keyboard, as well as a close-by monitor, you can do a much, much better job. The interface isn't my only problem with Skyrim, as I said, but if the PC port's interface was designed specifically for the PC (what you can't see in the screenshots is the embarrassingly buggy mouse support, by the way), I would have probably loved this game despite the other shortcomings.

That's not to say Skyrim's interface design does not reveal some stupendously bad decisions: I won't list all of them, but most obviously, why is the favorites menu only in a tiny corner of the screen? Bringing it up pauses the game, you usually have much more things favorited than the 3 or 4 items it can display at a time, and laying things out in a 2D table would make navigtating much easier, even with a gamepad.

01 December 2011

Review: Bastion (PC)

It seems so often with indie games, especially "artsy" indie games, that there's this feeling I get that the developer(s) is/are very talented, but not talented game makers. It's probably a more comprehensive version of the "pretentious pixelated indie platformer #46382" complaint. People produce great art, great voice acting, great story and then they go and implement ridiculously generic gameplay and spoil it all.

Sometimes they do actually try to add a few trivially original elements. Of course, self-respecting games journalists tend to stretch that and make the game into God's gift to gamers, due to their indie bias (while the shills all produce incoherent rants and bust out the 4/10s). Mind, I don't disagree entirely with that- I do think that indie devs need all the help they can get. But bias is bias.

I'm not really claiming anyone is pretentious, by the way. Nor do I fail to appreciate the reasons for choosing a low-fi graphics style, especially when you don't have the means to make much better graphics. It's just that ultimately, games are about gameplay (in the same way movies are about telling a story- and yes I am aware that exceptions are possible with either). Think of it this way: If a game has shit story and/or shit graphics/sound/music (Tetris? Chess? Dwarf Fortress?) but the gameplay is solid, you will still love the hell out of it. But if a game is great in every aspect except gameplay, which is shit, you'll end up in this situation where you just endure the "game" part for the sake of watching the custcenes, listening to the dialogue, reading the story and so on (WH40k: Fire Warrior would be an example for me). It becomes a passive artistic work, like a film or book, except there's this annoying shitty gameplay part that interrupts your experience... And I always wonder, if you're gonna put in all that work and imagination into making a quality game, why not devote some of it into gameplay? And if you won't, then why make a game at all? Why not make a cartoon, or a comic book, or even a visual novel or something?

And although I've mostly talked about indie games, when you think about it, some (a lot?) big-name games are like this, too. To give just one example of many, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 had shit gameplay. I mean, it was pretty much MW1 with new graphics, and MW1 was kind of fun, but it was so similar that it really was like you were still playing MW1, so A) you could go and play MW1 and B) if you've had enough of MW1, MW2 is just a drag from the first second. The story was also absolute trash. But you gotta admit that the graphics were good. In some ways, you could even say revolutionary. And overall, having played MW2, I am left with this feeling of having played a crap game, but I know that some elements of it really are quite good, and it's just that the main element, the gameplay, happens to suck, and spoils everything else, and it's an awful waste, really.

To get back to Bastion...

So Bastion has lovely visuals. Really, the game is beautiful, visually. Sound-wise, too. The voice acting in particular, it's not just well executed... I mean, it's mostly narration, because the characters don't speak much, this being a game about a silent protagonist beating up monsters, but the way that narration is integrated into the game is really quite nice. In fact, the visual style, and the narration, are both worth playing the game for on their own, and they really were why I played it.

Oh, also, Bastion's "gimmick" is that landscape forms around you as you walk (there are other gimmicks but that one is immediately apparent). This is almost purely cosmetic, so I'll chalk that up to visuals, but it's sort of nice, too.

It's an action-RPG, you sequentially embark on isometric missions which are fairly linear monster bash-athons. You can level up, which slightly increases your health. You can spend points to buy upgrades for weapons. I'd say there's about 20 different weapons in all. All the while, the narrator produces exposition in a hilarious trying-too-hard-to-be-cool voice and tone. Just watch:

What sucks

And that's all the positive I'm gonna say about this game. Now, more complaining: First, the gameplay is bad. Controls are laggy and clumsy, and the game is all about reflexes, so it's very annoying when you go from fighting the mobs to fighting the controls. One notable offender is movement- the diagonal movement direction of your character, and the orientation of thin diagonal walkways is quite different. You have to constantly change direction while traveling diagonally, and yes you do fall. Another one is the cursor for aiming attacks- the attack lands a character's height below the cursor, and not at the cursor. This gets really annoying when shooting arrows at small, far away enemies, and it makes you miss. It doesn't even work, since not all enemies are the same height anyhow. I'm really baffled as to how anybody thought this was a good idea, especially in an isometric 2D game. When I click on a pixel, my guy should shoot that pixel, not the one 30 pixels below it! I know it sounds pedantic, but this is basically an action you do over and over throughout the game, many thousands of times.

The mechanics are also kind of meh. There are some mildly interesting monster types, and some interesting weapons and map areas, but really nothing to write home about. The 20 weapons I mentioned earlier, pretty much fall into 4 classes of melee, accurate gun, shotgun and grenade launcher, and only melee and shotgun ever proved useful to me (the grenade launcher that you get for the final few missions is nice, but too late, and the other ones are impractical). Some aren't completely unoriginal, but none are really remarkable. There are a few optimal combinations, too, so there's not really any point in using most weapons, which contributes to the feeling of repetition.

Two more obnoxious things the game does with weapons: First, you take two weapons with you on a mission (and can only ever carry two at a time), and it has this habit of introducing a new weapon at the beginning of the mission, and then force you to use that weapon, even though it's worse than the one you originally picked and now have to drop, and it's sometimes a really bad idea for that mission (and the one you had to drop would work great!). Second, there are challenge missions where you basically have to use only one weapon, and do well for an upgrade. The upgrade is always for that weapon. If I've beaten the hammer challenge all the way, doesn't that prove I'm already really good with the hammer, game? Why are you improving my hammer? Why not make the hammer challenge upgrade the bow and vice versa? That would actually be useful when you get stuck due to not being good with a specific weapon that's needed on a mission.

The writing is... Well, the dialogue per se is written wonderfully. As I said, the narrator just really works, and the writer is clearly very, very talented, at writing dialogue, at least. It's really fun to beat a group of enemies and then hear the narrator dryly remark on how they didn't stand a chance in the first place because you're such an awesome motherfucker.

Unfortunately, the story that the narration tells is crap. The plot is an awful, dreary sequence of one cliche after another to the point where it is trivial to guess the next "twist". When a particularly nasty piece of plot corresponds to a long mission with a difficult part near the end, you end up playing it over and over and being forced to really pay attention to the silliness, too, so that doesn't help.

Besides the cliches, the plot also has a message/theme that it likes to shove in your face (hurr durr war is bad). And because the narrator, your primary source of exposition, happens to have such a ridiculously too-serious attitude, it becomes more annoying because you get the feeling of listening to some pompous person who takes his half-baked ideas too seriously. I actually liked the narrator, so I wish they made the plot either more personal and less about messages and themes, or more obviously satirical, or had done that message part in a more sophisticated manner.

Overall, the game was both very pleasant and tedious. Playing it was mostly tedious. Watching it and listening to it, that was very enjoyable. So unless you're all out of action-RPGs to play, and you absolutely HAVE to play another one, even a not very good one, it's a good reason to play the game, but otherwise just watch a playthrough. I'd like to say I liked the game, but it really was fraught with frustrations. Hopefully they can iron out the mechanical kinks in their future releases, because I really like the narration and the style.

Score: 4/5

Bias: Bumped up from 3, because indy game and art style tries to (and does) go above game standards.


About the story. First, the way things look by the last mission, Caelondia obviously was doing laps around the Ura in every conceivable way- they have whole intelligence stations, on their territory, operating undetected (they are so brazen as to make unrelated weapons tests there as well!), the military has beaten them before and is stronger now; economically they're also well ahead, having swindled them out of that invaluable mine... Why bother nuking and genociding them? Supposedly it's paranoia, but this is an almost Nazi-like obsession with what a subjugated nation could do at some point in the future.

No other big powers are mentioned (nor intevene), and presumably Caelondia has cores while Uras don't. So the Ura really are at Caelondia's mercy in every sense- it's like a space-age empire being afraid of some cavemen. At least with Nazi Germany, the country had suffered an enormous defeat and economic downturn. What was Caelondia's problem? Paranoia sounds like a really bad justification to me, especially when relations with the Ura have apparently been getting better every year.

And even if for some reason there was a plausible motivation for the genocide, why bother nuking them? You've beaten them in a war already! Just round them all up and stick them in concentration camps. Why risk an experimental doomsday weapon, which could, you know, backfire and screw you over, too (like it did!), being experimental, and should only be used in extreme all-or-nothing scenarios, you know, doomsday. Stupidity.

And why did the scientist agree to activate the machine, anyway? He could have just said he sabotaged it when they "force" him to activate it. Even if they shoot him for it, he's still no worse off- it's not like he still won't die if the machine is activated.

Oh, and, what's with this theme of the architect of a nuke trying to right his wrongs in the wake of the apocalypse his creation has wrought? Games do this all the time (I'm looking at you, Braid!), and it makes no fucking sense. I mean, in WWII did Oppenheimer or anyone else go to Hiroshima and try to rebuild it or something? No! At best they dabbled in political commentary. People just don't do it! If they had been that concerned, they would not create the catastrophe in the first place- make no mistake, the scientists on the Manhattan Project all knew just how destructive a weapon it was, and they all knew it would be used. It wasn't a matter of "Oh no, I never realized they would actually use this! On people!". People smart enough to build weapons of mass destruction tend not to be, you know, stupid.

What I did like was the exploration of the scenario where you can turn back time and bring everything back to how it was before. You know, on one hand, it "fixes" everything, but then if you just rewind everything then the same calamity will reoccur anyway (barring some non-deterministic funny business). Well, I say explore, but they didn't at all, really. They just mention it. But you still do get that evacuate/restore choice, and potentially it could prompt you to think about it, I guess, and really it's an interesting thing to think about.

Besides, either option sucks anyway. Restoration is just the same armageddon over and over again, forever, while evacuation is not only awful because apparently the (at least local) human population has been reduced to 3-4 people, but also because the potential restoration of two whole nations of people is apparently less important than some silly romance between one guy and one chick.