Gaming trials, tribulations, observations, and revelations

05Dec Year-end Roundup

It’s been a while since I last wrote a round-up of indie and other curiosities I’ve come across during the year, and it is truly incredible how much the landscape has changed since I last wrote.  Since then, Kickstarter has truly come into its own, and a huge variety of games have used it to successfully crowdfund, many of which have either already released or are approaching solid beta and release candidates.  Steam Greenlight has seen hundreds of indie games come onto the platform, and its own semi-crowdfunding program, Early Access, has brought many of the same alpha-funding benefits of being able to follow dozens of games throughout a good portion of their development, and in some cases help shape them with your input.  Indie Royale has run several more alpha and indie-debut bundles, and the bundle scene has taken off to the point that I now have a truly ludicrous amount of games available.  As a result, there are probably more things I can talk about than I can reasonably get to, but here are a few updates on interesting things I’ve been interested in this year.

-First, some updates on the games I talked about previously.  Overgrowth is still under development, and its release date is still unknown.  I haven’t really touched it lately, but from what I’ve heard, it’s a lot of brilliant features and excellent animations still waiting for something to cohesively tie it together.  Minecraft is still huge, still occasionally updated, and still without a proper API.  I still visit it every once in a while.  Interstellar Marines did not, in fact, meet its demise, and has now been released on Steam Early Access in multiplayer-only form.  Proteus was fully released, and while I still think the concept has a ton of promise, the actual execution was a bit too sparse and limited to hold my interest.  A Valley Without Wind apparently disappointed its players greatly (I had some fun with it, but eventually grew tired of its repetitiveness), to the point that the developers actually created a sequel to address issues with the first one and gave it to all of the purchasers of the first game.  Starfarer was renamed to Starsector, and continues its slow but steady progress, although Escape Velocity it’s not.

-Speaking of Escape Velocity, I got EV:Nova running again on my Mac, which I’m very happy about, and I’ve continued to look into games that have at least a similar top-down spacefaring mechanic.  I’ve recently tried one of them, the somewhat odd Space Pirates and Zombies, which has a bit of the same feel in some parts, but is procedurally-generated and has much faster-paced combat.  There’s also Ring Runner: Flight of the Sages, which looks both quite strange and quite promising, although I admit I haven’t had a chance to play it yet.  About the closest I’ve found so far is the not-really-at-all-close ARPG-in-space Drox Operative, which has been one of my more heavily-played and heavily-frustrating games of the year (although, as with EV:Nova, it is eminently moddable, and I’ve been able to tweak it more towards the style of play I expected).  There’s also an interesting one called Transcendence, but again I’ve not had a chance to do anything but look at its intriguing webpage.

-Ah, yes, Kickstarter.  I haven’t really written a whole lot about it thus far, but now and then I’ve backed some games that I personally found interesting.  Knowing my interest in open-world sorts of games, it’s probably not a surprise that a lot of the games I’ve supported are around various aspects of that.  Interestingly enough, only one game I’ve supported so far has actually failed during development – a project called Cult:Awakening of the Old Ones.  Admittedly, I was more interested in the procedural world-generation code than the game itself, but there’s talk that the code will eventually be open-sourced for it.  Most of the other projects are indeed making progress.  Planet Explorers and 3089, both procedural open-world games, already have playable betas that are largely functional.  They are joined by Planetary Annihilation, which I supported due to my love of the Total Annihilation and Supreme Commander franchises, the block-based RTS Dysis acquired for similar reasons, and the colony-sim game Maia, based on my interest in similar management games back in the day.  I also supported a few other games based on various levels of nostalgia: from fond memories of playing Daytona USA in the arcades, I backed “the 90s arcade racer,” which has been making steady progress, and my love of side-scrolling, actually-good Sonic games led me to support Freedom Planet, which is also progressing.  And, of course, my adoration of the original Pro Pinball games led me to support the incredibly high-resolution resurrection of its tables (the first kickstarter failed, but the second one for a single table succeeded, and is now in development).

-Open world block-based games, both 2- and 3D, have also been exploding recently.  Terraria, a game that has the prime position as the go-to 2D block game for me (as Minecraft is for 3D), released a massive expansion that I’m almost afraid to dive back into.  In addition, it will soon see competition from the next big game in that genre, Starbound, which just went into the first beta stage this week.  It’s joined by Edge of Space and Asteria (and probably others) in that category, and while the latter have been hit and miss, Starbound promises to be almost as revolutionary as Terraria was when it first appeared.  In the 3D space, the long-awaited Cube World went into early release – I picked it up, and while the environments and characters are gorgeous, there’s not a whole lot of actual game in it yet.  Competing with it is the voxel-based game Vox, which has a little bit more to do, but on a somewhat more limited scale (as of my last play, the world size was fairly small and only a few quests were in).  In the more sci-fi category, there’s the aforementioned 3089 (robot combat on a procedural world with smooth terrain) and Planet Explorers (open-world exploration where you can build or import almost anything), along with the ambitiously-scoped but currently largely empty early-access version of Starforge.  There are also a ton of multiplayer-arena games in this category, like Ace of Spades or Guncraft, but they’re not that interesting to me and so I haven’t followed them that closely.

-There have been a gazillion bundles, to the point I almost don’t even know what games I have anymore.  That’s obviously a good thing in some respects – affordable games lowers the bar to entry and gets more people interested – but it also means I now have a library of hundreds of games, many of which I can barely remember how I acquired or what kind of gameplay they have.  Nevertheless, a few recent ones I’ve had a chance to dive into have been interesting.  The aforementioned Space Pirates and Zombies has a lot of promise but plays a bit on the slow side (I have a couple of hours in and just finished the tutorial).  Waking Mars was an interesting but also fairly glacial platformer that I had a hard time getting into beyond the initial play session.  Thunder Wolves, a helicopter-combat game with “easy” controls, is a surprisingly fun romp, helicoptering about, dodging missiles, and blowing the holy hell out of everything in sight.  Scribblenauts Unlimited is… weird, but can be quite fun when you come up with a particularly unique solution to one of the puzzles.  Paranautical Activity, a sort of cross between the original Quake and a roguelike, is by far my favorite roguelike of the year, although top-down shooter roguelike-like Nuclear Throne, now in early access, has a lot of promise (and hopefully an ever-so-slightly easier mode at some point!).  I played FTL, was complete rubbish at it, and stopped.

-The big-name games.  I picked up Far Cry 3 in a sale, and surprisingly it became one of my more-played games this year.  It’s not perfect, by any stretch of the imagination (and the developer who decided to make the main battles be awful QTE-filled pre-orchestrated nonsense seriously needs to be fired, as it took away from the story, was completely bogus, and gave you no satisfaction whatsoever, and the stupid stealth section, and ARRGHH why did you kill off the only interesting villain so freakin’ early!!!), but it was just open-world enough to put it squarely in my wheelhouse.  It held my interest for longer than the arguably much more artful Bioshock Infinite.  I didn’t finish either, but I remember my time in FC3 more fondly, as while Infinite’s world was quite impressive, the levels were linear and repetitive, and the combat feels like a step backward from the Bioshock series.  Other bundle-included big games included The Sims 3 (which I found incredibly boring), Battlefield 3 (played through the single-player campaign, found it to be largely tolerable, and afterwards concluded that developers who include quick-time events in their games should be subjected to increasing electric shocks while the person administering them yells loudly in their ear, “PRESS E TO MAKE IT STOP!!!”), and Medal of Honor (played through one level at the unimaginably awful, inappropriate, and unchangeable 55-degree field of view, decided I’d rather keep my dinner inside my stomach, and never touched it again).  The only (mostly) slam-dunk big-name game I played this year was Saints Row IV, which, while it began to drag a bit after a while, delivered pretty much everything I expected of it: open world, insane superhero navigation of said world, ludicrous weapons and vehicles, over-the-top everything.  I doubt it will keep me as gripped as more immersive, heavily moddable things like Fallout:New Vegas and Skyrim, but it’s up there among my most-played games this year (and if they do in fact release their promised modding support for it, it is entirely possible that SRIV might join that esteemed group, especially if someone manages to recreate Stilwater in the updated engine).

-Contraption Maker, the spiritual successor to The Incredible Machine (and built by the team that created the original), was released to early access this year.  Given that it was the absolute favorite game of my childhood, I can’t express how happy I am that even more people will now be exposed to one of the best 2D creation games ever.

I’m sure there’s something or other I’ve missed in this roundup, but I think that just about covers my experience in gaming this year.  Well, that and pinball, which I’ve already covered in detail previously, and my occasional console involvement (I have a 3DS with a whopping 5 games for it: cartridges for Animal Crossing: New Leaf and Mario Kart 7, and a trio of Zen Pinball collections from the online shop, and it mainly gets play when I need a quick break or am waiting for an appointment/in line/on transit, etc.).  All in all, it hasn’t necessarily been a banner year for computer gaming, but what it lacks in depth it makes up for in the sheer breadth of development, and the large crop of promising small-studio and crowdfunded games that are fast appearing on the horizon.

10Nov The State of Computerized Pinball

While I haven’t talked about it much here, one of my favorite types of computer game is the pinball simulation.  Pinball is the sort of game that can be competitive without being discouraging, ruthless yet fun to master, and the sort of thing you can play as a quick break between working on other things.  It’s hard to put into words exactly what enthralls me so much about the genre, but the the spectacle of each table coming to life, and the mastery that you feel when you finally conquer a table you’ve been attempting for ages, come together to make for one of my favorite types of gaming experiences.  There are plenty of games that attract my attention, but there are few others that create the feeling of being “in the zone,” completely immersed  and focused, so successfully.

I’ve been a fan of pinball for many years, ever since encountering the actual machines in the arcade as I was growing up, and then following the far more affordable simulations as they arrived on the computer (and the occasional sessions where I would hog a friend’s Genesis console just so I could play Sonic Spinball over and over again).  Of course, even back then, there weren’t a whole lot of pinball games on offer, but there were enough to have some fun with.  I still have fond memories of playing Loony Labyrinth on our family’s old Performa, saving up months’ worth of chore money to buy the original Ultra Pinball collection, and incessantly playing the demo version of Pro Pinball: Big Race USA on the PC in my school’s library (and then, years later when I had a gaming PC of my own, tracking down a CD copy of the full game in a store’s bargain-software bin, and being absolutely thrilled at the notion of being able to play it again).  It was a genre, though, that never really took off, and over the intervening years, when the gaming scene on the Mac all but collapsed, the only pinball games available were expensive, limited offerings from the Little Wing series.

However, within the past year or two, the scene for computerized pinball has blossomed dramatically.  In part, this has been due to the rise in mobile gaming: Pinball, with its relatively finite and self-contained game sessions, is a perfect match for gaming on the go.  As a result, a lot of companies jumped into that space, first forming pinball games on iOS and Android, and then porting the series to the desktop (via the Mac App Store for Apple computers, and primarily via Steam on the PC).  As a result, where pinball on the computer was once limited to a handful of hard-to-run older titles, and an (admittedly impressive) hobbyist underground making use of the somewhat dated Visual and Future Pinball programs, both the Mac and PC platforms now boast a wide range of modern and updated options.  I am beyond happy about this development, and I am heartened to see such a vibrant ecosystem and relative wealth of pinball tables that are now available.  In this article, I’ll touch on some of the major developments, and hopefully provide a decent introduction to the simulation of one of gaming’s beloved pastimes.

The Major Players

In the realm of computerized pinball, there are a variety of players, but two stand out from the rest in the breadth and detail of their simulations.

The first one is Pinball Arcade, produced by the long-running independent game developer Farsight Studios.  This title is by far the most prolific “actual simulator” currently available outside of the hobbyist arena, and it specializes in accurate recreations of actual, physical pinball tables.  So far, the title contains close to 40 individual tables, including some of my favorites, and a few that I’ve actually played in the arcades: everything from Pin-Bot and Medieval Madness to (with the help of Kickstarter) fully-licensed tables such as The Twilight Zone, Star Trek: TNG, and Terminator 2.  Starting out on the mobile side, the program has been on the Mac for a while, and just recently released on the PC with its full library of games.

The tables in Pinball Arcade have, by and large, usually been top-notch, although the program enclosing them has had its share of issues, partially due to integration with its online account functions and the requirement of third-party providers for the in-app purchase of the various tables (there were some serious issues with accounts and adding in tables that were rewards from the Kickstarter campaigns for quite some time, but they were eventually resolved).  The program itself underwent a major revamp a few months back, though, which improved its interface immensely and remedied a number of the program’s issues.  It is probably the most full-featured software available overall, with comprehensive table guides, a variety of options, and occasional competitive tournaments in addition to the usual online scoreboards.

The tables are a little expensive ($5 per pack, usually an older and a newer table bundled together, or around $70 to get everything by buying the available “season packs”), and if you’re a fan of the more modern tables as I am, you often have no choice but to purchase a pack with a table you aren’t as interested in to get the one you want.  That being said, I do think the selection of tables included is quite impressive overall, and they are certainly have the fastest and most reliable updates, putting out a pack of two tables roughly every month on all platforms.  They also offer “Pro” versions of some tables, with access to the operator menu and other bonuses, for an additional cost – certainly nice features to have, and I commend them for including them, but I don’t find myself using them often enough to justify the premium price.

Still, if you’re looking to play simulations of actual tables, they’re about the only game in town worth mentioning, and definitely worth checking out if you’re at all a fan of pinball.  It’s freely available across most platforms, so checking it out is easy – on the Mac and iOS versions, there’s a rotating table each month that you can play for free, and on the PC version you get a free version of Tales of the Arabian Nights (for now, at least).  The other tables can be demoed fully up to a score limit, and then need to be purchased to play further.

Zen Pinball (also known as Zen Pinball 2 on the Mac, and Pinball FX 2 on the PC), on the other hand, takes the notion of simulation in the opposite direction.  Instead of trying to accurately simulate physical tables, it takes a page from earlier programs like the Ultra Pinball series and creates table environments that could only exist in a virtual space, and go beyond the capabilities of physical machines with unusual playfields, animated characters, and more.  For example, on the Avengers pinball table (Zen Pinball has a lot of Marvel and Star Wars licensed tables in addition to its original ones), the playfield itself is based on the helicarrier from the movie, and the Epic Quest table features an animated knight, puppet theatre, and mini-RPG system with XP and level progression that carry over between play sessions.  It is also available ubiquitously on almost all platforms, although different platforms have a varying selection of tables (the iOS version has some additional Marvel and Star Wars tables available over the Mac version but is missing some of the originals, and there are several other originals that only appear in the PC version so far), meaning that you’ll need the Mac, PC, and mobile versions to access every single table available.  Each version has between one and two dozen tables available at this point, and new tables are released a few times a year, the latest release being 3 additional Star Wars-themed tables.

Pricing is about on par with similar programs, usually around $2 for original tables and $3 for licensed ones (it should be noted on the PC, though, that some tables are only available in multi-table packs).  In terms of the program itself, aside from some lags when acquiring tables (again, probably due to the third-party purchase processing), everything runs more or less smoothly, although there are a few less features and less-detailed tutorials than are available in Pinball Arcade.  The tables themselves, though, are top-notch, and are about as impressive as you can get in terms of spectacle and involvement – most tables feature a huge variety of modes and features, several multiball modes, and breakaway mini-games or even miniature auxiliary tables you can play on.  They generally tend to go beyond the capabilities of even the most modern tables, and as they’re not limited to conventional design, can do a variety of impressive things: everything from levitating pinballs to modes where the entire table turns upside down.  The graphics themselves are a little better than Pinball Arcade and about the best you can get (apart from some impressive recreations that I’ll talk about in a bit).  All in all, it’s about as impressive a spectacle as you can get in terms of pinball, and each table is as involved, if not more, than the most modern physical machines.

Beyond that, there are a few other major players, but most of them are only available on limited platforms.  OOO Gameprom produce a number of standalone and bundled pinball tables, mostly of the beyond-simulation variety, although they tend to be a little simpler and slower paced than the tables previously mentioned (although, it should be noted, they are also very nudge-friendly and have the ability to play one game over multiple sessions, allowing you to have quite a bit of fun with them and rack up generally ludicrous scores).  They are not, however, available on the PC as far as I know.

Another major player in the mobile space is A.S.K. Homework, the developers behind the older PC pinball title Dream Pinball, with the Age of Pinballs and Art of Pinball apps, as well as some simulations of older European pinball manufacturers.  I’m not a huge fan of them, though, as while you can get quite a lot of tables inexpensively, they don’t tend to have as many interactive features, play more slowly than most, and have a physics model and flipper interaction that I find uncomfortable and not very “live.”  They also tend to be very in-your-face with various in-app purchases (buy extra balls per game!  or different-looking flippers!  or a bonus center pin! etc.).  Again, though, as far as I’m aware they’re only available on iOS and maybe Android.

There’s also Nena Innovations, which puts out a handful of tables with rather dodgy graphics and even dodgier physics, but which can be quite fun if you can get into them (and their recent collaboration with another developer, Revenge of the Rob-o-Bot, is a significant step forward in appearance and design, albeit with some still-questionable physics and some aggravating table-design choices).

There are a few smaller developers in the Mac space with a game or two apiece, and some others in the mobile space, but there isn’t a whole lot that stands out: Pin Tiki Ball on the Mac App Store is a pretty decent, full-3D entry, and PinballCraft is an interesting mobile game that lets you design your own abstract-looking pinball games for others to play. There’s also, of course, the venerable Little Wing pinball series on the Mac, with titles such as Tristan and Crystal Caliburn ported to iOS, and a small selection of tables available to play on modern Macs.  However, with a combination of outdated technology and a ludicrous “sale” price of $20 per table, this producer of some true Mac pinball classics sadly doesn’t have much more to offer at this point.

On the PC side, there are a handful of other things on steam, including the unfortunately solo entry in the SlamIt Pinball series, Big Score, and an older Worms-themed pinball game (and, to my delight, a sort of virtual-console version of the original Sonic Spinball).  However, in addition to Steam, there’s another important player in pinball, although for the moment largely exclusive to the PC side…

Return of the Classics

For several years, and before branching out into a more general game store, gog.com (short for, at the time at least, Good Old Games) made its living porting and updating older games from the DOS and early Windows days to play on modern PCs.  As part of that process, some of the more important pinball games from earlier years, once playable only through major hacks or emulation or otherwise lost to time, were brought forth into a modern state that’s playable on current windows PCs.

Probably the most notable of the restored games is the Pro Pinball trilogy of Timeshock, Big Race USA, and Fantastic Journey.  Despite being considerably dated, their graphics still hold up quite well, and they are still some of the most fun, full-featured, and well-simulated tables available today.  Although not simulations of actual tables, they are designed as such, taking on the form of modern, solid-state tables with a huge variety of modes, challenges, and activities, including multiple multiball modes, and I believe the first simulated tables to come with a full operator’s menu.  Even now, they are considered to be the “best of the best,” and they’ve been my favorites for many, many years, so I am very pleased that they’re once again available on modern machines.  Even better, a new game developer (Barnstorm Games) containing some of the original Pro Pinball developers is working on new, modern recreations of the original tables in full 3D, and potentially new tables in the series – the recreation of Timeshock was successfully kickstarted and is slated for release by the end of 2013, and from initial screenshots and demos looks to be perhaps the most impressive computer pinball simulation yet.

Also of note, although considerably lower-fidelity, is the generically titled “Pinball Gold Pack,” which actually contains all the original games in the Pinball Dreams/Fantasies/Mania/Illusions series.  If you were on a computer in the 1990s, you may have fond recollections of at least some of these tables, and while the presentation is dated and the physics are outlandish, there’s still quite a lot of fun to be had, and the different packs illustrate the evolution of computer pinball throughout its early years.

There are a few other packs available as well, although I have mixed feelings about them.  There’s a repackaging of Balls of Steel, an apparently seminal simulation that I somehow missed back in the day, and has a 2D approach similar to Pinball Dreams.  However, I find the physics to be more weird rather than fun sometimes, and while the tables are full-featured, I don’t generally find them as compelling as the ones in the Pinball Dreams pack.  There’s also Pure Pinball 2, with fairly impressive graphics but anemic flippers and weird physics that make many of the table shots all but inaccessible.  There’s also Dream Pinball, one of A.S.K. Homework’s earlier games, which features a half-dozen 3D tables and is a decent amount of fun, although the table modes are a bit unclear and the overall gameplay is a bit slow, disorganized, and pales in comparison to any of the Pro Pinball tables.

And that, in a nutshell, is a summary of the pinball options currently available.  Much to my surprise, it’s about the best time ever to play pinball simulations on the computer, on either a Mac, PC, or tablet.  With the possible exception of some of LittleWing’s earlier works, most of the historical games are once again available, and along with the modern simulation options, there’s a wealth of possibilities for those looking for an introduction into the world of pinball.  While the fate of physical machines is fairly grim, with the continued closure of arcades and the shuttering of all but one manufacturer, the world of computerized pinball could hardly look brighter.

07Aug Why I stopped playing Borderlands 2

Interestingly enough, postmortems are not something you often see in the gaming press.  Unless you count nostalgic flashbacks written years or decades after a game’s release, the coverage that games mostly receive are previews based on demo code, or reviews based on a quick and (maybe) complete playthrough of a game.  That, for the most part, is true of the reviews that I have posted here as well, and only a few of them are based on hours or days spent immersed in the world of a game.  One thing that I haven’t seen anywhere, though, is a review of why a once-enjoyed game ended up relegated to the pile of ones that haven’t been touched in ages.  Sadly, though, this is the case for Borderlands 2.

While it’s true that many games have in fact ended up there, I chose B2 for this review for a couple of reasons.  The first one is because I purchased the game based on my experience with its predecessor, which, while having a handful of flaws, was a game that I found sufficiently enjoyable to to play through (the main game, at least) multiple times.  While I perhaps should have taken note of some of the less desirable turns the game took in some of the later DLC, I had very high expectations for the sequel, as it promised to be everything the original game was, but more and better: bigger environments!  more awesome weapons!  better everything!  However, in attempting to deliver all that, it missed out on other things that were arguably more important, and which leads me to my second reason.  While there are many games that I have played through to my satisfaction, set aside, and occasionally fire up again to enjoy their memorable experiences, Borderlands 2 received one playthrough, a couple halfhearted attempts at others, and then sat untouched as I tried to expunge the bitter taste in my mouth that the game left me with.

There are certainly things that I could point to as to why this happened, and I’ll get into those in a moment, but the overall issue is that while the game took a small step forward in visual fidelity, and a large step forward in terms of sheer amounts of content, it was unfortunately accompanied by a large step backwards in the core gameplay mechanics – i.e. the things that actually set the game apart from its peers and makes it a fun and interesting experience to play.  By stripping away many of the fun mechanics that gave the first game its strengths, and substituting ones that were different but ultimately not all that interesting, I was left with a game that was far more of a chore than a joy to play.

It is also important to note that a good number of the changes appear to have been made to focus the game’s core gameplay more towards co-op than single-player, something that I think was a fundamental blunder.  The reason it was such a blunder is this: co-op gameplay, as a mode of play, is the hardest to actually arrange.  Individual play, of course, is the easiest, and adversarial play in most shooters is nearly as much so, usually a couple of extra clicks and a couple of minutes away.  Co-op play, on the other hand, requires getting one or more of your friends to actually buy the game, coordinate a time to play, and to only play with you and at exactly the same rate (due to the fact that there is no “sidekicking” mechanic in the game, if any one player levels up too much in regards to the other the co-op gameplay has problems).  The alternative, doing a sort of almost MMO-style drop-in-drop-out co-op with random people online, is equally as flawed due to the same broken mechanics that were present in the first game: specifically, the free-for-all loot distribution for the weapon and item drops that are essentially the game’s lifeblood.  While a proper MMO that does random grouping has various “fair” ways of distributing loot, such as round-robin, “need or greed,” or similar weighted or unweighted schemes, having every battle turn into a mad scramble with strangers for the one good drop provides a massive disincentive for this style of co-op play.

And, if co-op with strangers is a disaster, and it’s a futile cause to get your friends to play when they’ve rushed through it on launch and have long since moved on, you’re left with the option of single play.  That’s something which, in most games, I’m completely fine with.  The problem is, Borderlands 2 is so heavily tuned for co-op play, with essentially no real tuning in the other direction if you’re playing on your own, that the gameplay turns rapidly into an awful mess.

This trend becomes apparent when you start looking at the characters’ abilities.  Before, my favorite characters to play were Brick and Lilith, because a combination of their powers and decent gear meant that I could play the game continuously without having to spend a lot of time cowering or running away, blasting through like a proper shooter.  Playing with Brick was a ton of fun: run in screaming and blast away, and when your health and shields finally run low, punch the power button and keep charging, punching enemies to pieces while your health restores instead of retreating and boringly retracing your steps.  Or, with Lilith, fading into a phased world for a breather while sneaking around your foes, to burst forth in their midst in a fiery explosion of shotgun-fueled vengeance.  Were both of those abilities a bit overpowered once they were enhanced?  Sure, maybe a little.  Did they make it so that by the end of the first playthrough, and most of the second, actually dying was an incredibly rare occurrence?  Yes, perhaps.  But was it incredibly fun to play?  You bet it was!

In B2, however, there are no such abilities.  The “Lilith” in the new game gets to phase out certain creatures to lessen the threat – a power that is heavily tuned for co-op – but without any method of recovering while staying in the fight.  The new “Brick” in the game is the gunzerker, with the supposedly impressive ability to dial-wield two weapons at a time while in a frenzy… but only from the hip, with awful accuracy that meant it was only useful in close proximity to an enemy.  Unlike with Brick, though, the health regen and damage reduction are frail and last only seconds, which means that using the ability in any serious fight means that it usually fails long before its duration as you phase into “last man standing” mode.  That mode was, at least somewhat, an interesting mechanic in the first game, but here it is mostly useless: given that there is no accuracy at all in this mode, and the enemies either immediately hide behind cover upon seeing it or have far too much health to whittle down, you might as well just give up and respawn (often a good distance away).  Oh, but wait – why would you actually try to do that?  Surely it makes more sense for one of your teammates to just revive you, right?  Oh, right, you’re playing single-player.  Sorry, you’re screwed.

Seriously, staying alive in single-player is a phenomenal challenge.  Enemies are often swarming all around you in enclosed areas, making cowering behind a turret an exercise in futility (and negating yet another power).  There are certain enemies that had weapons that will literally one-hit-kill you, making certain areas an exercise in insane frustration (and this was doing the area at the proper par level).  There are many missions that involve waves of enemies that were never intended to be dealt with by one player, where literally losing just by running out of ammo is a very real possibility.  And while it’s true that dying in the game isn’t heavily penalized, it does mean repeating certain sections ad infinitum, which is both phenomenally boring and frustrating.  Compare this to the original, where I can only think of one mission at the start that required a frustrating number of attempts.  Overall, the enemies are more vicious and numerous, and your character is more frail – maybe not a problem in co-op, but it means that the single-player has insane difficulty spikes.  This isn’t helped along much by the fact that you can’t kludge through any build weakness or limp ability with decent gear – while a panacea shield can go a long way towards making any class work in the original, there’s no such thing in the sequel, and many other shields are weakened considerably – not only are extra-capacity shields agonizingly slow to recharge, they also actually cut your health, significantly negating their benefits and making you even more frail.  In fact, there are some character classes and ability sets that either do not regenerate health upon ability use, or lock it away far down in the skill tree.  This, combined with the fact that most shields fail within the first few seconds of combat, mean that your character will die, a lot, all the time, and you will have to replay boring encounters, all the time.  As I said before, maybe this works in co-op, but in single-player, it’s agonizing.  (Oh yeah, and you can’t even sacrifice a precious inventory slot to carry around a health-pack anymore – i.e. even more pointless deaths.)

However, speaking of items, that brings me to the most serious flaw in the game, and the one that probably tipped the scales for me towards never wanting to pick up this game again.  First, though, let me make one thing clear: this game, above all, is about the loot.  Take that away, and it’s an okay shooter with boring MMO-esque fetchquests.  The loot, in fact, is one of the main selling points of the game apart from the semi-open world: the possibility of coming across a huge variety of awesome weapons, letting you blast apart the enemies with efficiency and style, is the promise on the box.  Heck, what’s the main splash-quote for the game on steam?  Something along the lines of “this is the grand, loot-filled adventure you’ve been waiting for.”

Except it’s not.  Let me put this into perspective: By the end of the first playthrough of the original game, I had a lot, and I mean a lot, of cool weapons.  I had a good half-dozen or so orange weapons, the rarest category in the game, including a submachinegun firing absolutely devastating elemental ammunition with speed and accuracy, a sniper rifle whose shots detonated in huge explosions of fire, and powerful, quick-reloading revolvers that hit with fire and acid and constantly regenerated ammo.  Heck, one of the guaranteed mission rewards was a pistol that fired as fast as a submachinegun with incredible accuracy, never used ammo, and never needed reloading.  The rest of my inventory was filled with purples and blues, and rounded out by a few green weapons (still rarer than the default) that had particularly good random stats.  The weapons might not have been quite as varied as those in B2, but they were all slick, fun to fire, and impressive – by the end of the game, it felt like I was playing with some serious stuff.

Contrast that with what I ended up with at the end of B2: One, just one, impressively awesome orange weapon, with a shot that was awesome but rather limited in usefulness given the way it ate rare sniper ammo.  Maybe a half-dozen purples and blues, and maybe a half-dozen greens, if that.  The rest was white, common, and while the game does in fact make common weapons slightly more useful, they’re still pretty lame and un-fun to use.  (Oh, and by the way, several of those were weapons that only dropped as the result of the final boss fight of the game.)

So, you might ask, why is that?  Well, several reasons.  One, there is essentially no farming that can be done in the game.  There are just about no leveled crates in the game, and those that are are a long and violent trek away from any travel hub.  Well, okay; I know that there are mixed minds about farming to get cool gear, but in a single-player game, I don’t much care – I just want to have fun blasting cool weapons.  In the original, though, even if you didn’t do that, there were still plenty of opportunities for awesome gear: vending machines offered impressive items as specials if you were careful with your money, and various monsters and elites had a chance to drop all sorts of cool stuff (heck, one single run through Old Haven could net you a bonanza of high-level, impressive elemental equipment).  In the new game, though, good luck.  Vending machines usually have only common stuff, and most enemies drop nothing, and I mean nothing at all – you’re lucky to even get a common drop from anything short of a miniboss, and sometimes not even then (the game also, annoyingly, does away with the mechanic of enemies often dropping the high-quality items they have equipped – in the original, if you are pinned down by a goon with an awesome weapon you at least have the expectation that once you finally take him down, the weapon will be yours, but sadly in the sequel this never happens).  And the crates you do find after fighting through a long and brutal area?  You’ll be lucky to even find a solitary green piece of equipment.  The solution, of course: play in co-op, where the enemies are tougher but drop better, shinier weapons.  Which you will never see because the strangers you’re playing with run over and take them all because you decided to engage with a ranged weapon and can’t get over to the loot fast enough.

So, sure, the guns are varied in style and operation, but as the vast majority of the ones you’ll find are awful crap, and you won’t want to use them.  Except… you’ll have to.  Unlike the first game, where some weapons I found at the end of the first playthrough were fun and useful most of the way through the second, the sequel has dramatically different scaling on weapons, health, and damage.  This means that gear is no longer useful throughout the course of much of a playthrough – rather, it will be so weak as to be useless within five or ten levels, if that.  This means that the tiny, tiny amount of cool guns that you find, unless they are incredibly rare and beyond overpowered, will be useless in a matter of maps – and so will that one shield you found that’s finally decent.  This means that, in practice, you are constantly on a quest to find gear that will allow you to survive, which means using the few drops that you get that are basically rubbish, with lousy accuracy and slow reload times, but the only things with the damage output to actually take down an enemy at your new level before it mops the floor with you.  Let me reiterate: this is a game about loot, loot is its main selling point, and not only does the game dole out that look with distressing paucity, it takes the scant few pieces of cool gear that you do come across and makes you chuck after you’ve played for a few more hours.  In short, this is a game that completely and utterly fails in the core mechanic and the one selling point that sets it apart from other games.

Okay, so it’s got a kind of fun story, and some interesting dialogue, and the character of Handsome Jack is fun – for the first playthrough.  Everything else, though, quickly becomes a chore, from the badly-tuned difficulty to the lack of the game’s primary currency and mode of engagement.  Admittedly, some of these things are already touched on in my initial review, but it is these things in particular that, as I played through the game, drove it more and more away from fun and over towards grinding agony.  Simply put, while I slogged through to get to the ending, after a time, the game just became un-fun: more cookie-cutter encounters with artificially-inflated difficulty, boss fights that were less fun and more boring battles of attrition, and a slog that wasn’t worth it at all for the complete lack of reward at the end of just about any of it.  They made a game that is (maybe) only fun to play in co-op, with a co-op mode so broken that it’s not worth it either.  In short, for all of its improvements, it was only worth a single playthrough to get the whole experience, and even then I was more just slogging through rather than having much in the way of fun towards the end.

Frankly, it’s a shame that a sequel with so much promise, building on a game with so much potential, can’t actually stand up to the test of being played due to a plethora of stupid decisions regarding the core gameplay.  In fact, it almost certainly cost them; while I bought every single DLC pack for the original game, individually at full price or close to it, they got my day-one purchase on this game on the merit of its potential, and then nothing else… well, nothing else besides my determination not to make a day-one purchase on the inevitable sequel because of how short this one fell over the test of time.  And it really is a shame, because this is the type of game I should, rightly, love and look forward to replaying endlessly: a huge open world, limitless combinations of weapons and items, tons of classes and abilities and ways to come at the game.  The problem is, if the open world is not really all that open, the cool items promised by the first game never show up (and when they do are quickly taken from you), and the abilities are nerfed to the point where all combat becomes a frustrating pile of failure, the game simply will not withstand the test of time.

In conclusion, while I don’t normally agree with Penny Arcade’s assessment of anything, their branding of Borderlands 2 as an “arrow-comparison engine and a mediocre shooter bolted onto a medieval quest system” isn’t one that, after hours of play, that I can exactly disagree with.  How I wish it were not the case, as I found the first game to be brilliant fun, but the sequel simply took everything that felt awesome in the first game and diluted it so much that it fell away to reveal only the basics of the game underneath… which are, sadly, middling and uninspired shooting and near-pointless quests that are really only tolerable to get through once.

06Mar (For Shame) City

Back when I was in high school, I first played Sim City 2000 on our family’s first real computer.  It was a revelation in gaming that quickly became an obsession.  To date, it is still one of my most-played games.  Since then, I have generally followed the series, and spent quite a lot of time playing (and modding, and enjoying the music of) Sim City 4.  So, when it was announced that there was going to be a new SimCity game, building on the promise of SC4, I thought that it would be a game that I would purchase without question on release.

Sadly, this was not the case.

I would like to sum up my feelings with two related items.  First, an image, as first seen on RPS:

And then, a link:

Civitas

17Feb An excellent article on frustration in gaming

Found this in the Guardian, via RPS:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/gamesblog/2013/feb/14/frustration-in-game-design

It’s a fairly in-depth and comprehensive discussion about the role of frustration in gaming, including quotes from a number of prominent game designers.

I agree with many of its premises, including frustration as an inescapable and perhaps essential component of certain genres of games (a topic which I covered extensively in a previous post).  I certainly also agree with the idea that games which can have frustration also include alternate paths and outlets so that a particularly frustrating bottleneck cannot derail your enjoyment of much of a game (such as more linear games like some modern shooters).  I don’t agree, however, that the GTA games given in the example always do this well, as they are notorious for locking out huge portions of the game world behind a series of badly-checkpointed missions with arbitrary difficulty spikes – instead, I would point to Saints’ Row 2 and 3, which allow for generally complete game exploration at any time and missions are generally only necessary to advance the narrative and provide occasional bonuses.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t spend much time on an issue that I think is even more relevant with frustration: what it means in an industry that is competing for an ever-dwindling slice of entertainment time.  If indeed most gamers are those in their 20s and 30s at this point, then it means that between work, family obligations, continuing education, and a whole host of other things, leisure time is limited, and needs to be managed to allow for the most entertainment possible within that time.  While it’s true that books and movies can be bad, they have a fixed consumption time; put compulsive frustration into a game, and it can eat far more time than necessary, while providing you with a diminishing return on pleasure in exchange for that time.  Again, as I mentioned before, this is contingent very much on the game type: while I’m generally okay with playing pinball for long enough to enjoy the experience, whether I get to an endgame mode or not, replaying and failing the same awful mission in a shooter that prevents me from playing the rest of the game is frustration without reward.  As a result, my purchasing decisions have definitely changed – if I see that a game has issues with that sort of bad frustration, I probably won’t even touch it on sale.  Instead, I find that I spend my gaming time far more on open-world games with a multitude of options, and the ability to make my own fun for a while if I don’t want to tackle a particularly vexing mission.  The point here is that in today’s gaming landscape, hardcore gamers who are willing to jump on any challenge are probably a dwindling slice of the pie, and that for a game developer, it is very important to consider whether the elements of frustration in your game are enhancing or harming the overall experience.

Or, simply heed the warning, in this quote from the article by Mike Bithell, developer of the game Thomas Was Alone:

“… Players are pretty tuned into spotting when the frustration is through bad design rather than challenging gameplay, and it’s a very quick way to lose someone. I’d always aim for accessible complexity and challenge, rather than deliberately setting out to frustrate.”

14Oct Borderlands 2: An Uneasy Balance

I’m not quite sure how to properly express how I feel about Borderlands 2.  I had a considerable amount of praise for the first game in the series, and so Borderlands 2, when it was announced, automatically became one of the very few games I considered buying at full price this year.  This is something I generally do only if I can be reasonably assured that I will get a considerable amount of play time and enjoyment out of a game, as otherwise I am usually content to wait for a sale on AAA-priced games (last year’s exceptions, Skyrim and Saints Row 3, both more than delivered on their purchase price for me).  If you’re measuring simply by time spent in the game, Borderlands 2 certainly delivers: I’ve spent well over 30 hours in the game so far, spread across a couple of different playthroughs, and have yet to reach the final boss in either.

Getting into the gameplay, though, things are…  considerably different than the previous game.  If you take the expansion packs for the original into account, the difference is somewhat more evolutionary, as certain aspects of the game seem to follow on more from the gameplay in the Knox expansion (most notably the humor, more tightly-packed combat environments, and the more frenetic pace of combat).  The new game certainly has a number of improvements and optimizations for the PC (including better netcode and a much-needed field-of-view setting).  However, I’m not entirely certain that the core gameplay itself is necessarily improved: rather, it’s different, in occasionally frustrating ways.

As this site is primarily focused on difficulty, frustration, and accessibility, I’ll cover that first.  Simply put: this game is much more difficult than the original, although I do have to qualify that.  Like the original, the player levels up with experience, and the enemies also have levels – fight one a few levels lower, and your weapons can destroy them easily, but fight one a few levels higher, and they can one-shot your character while your weapons can barely scratch them.  Because of this, you can in effect set your own difficulty levels: jump ahead with the main questline, and you’ll have a very tough fight on your hands, but if instead you do zones multiple times and grind through every side mission, the main missions (which also usually contain the toughest fights) can become significantly easier.

That being said, though, the actual gameplay itself is generally tougher.  In the original, while there were some rushing enemies, most were quite happy to hunker down behind cover, which generally allowed you to duck behind cover yourself and regenerate your health and shields.  In many cases battles turned into glorified shooting galleries, but it made for a somewhat more relaxed style of gameplay.  The enemies in B2, however, have considerably more AI, and they are usually constantly on the move, steadily advancing to flush you out of cover, throwing grenades more often, flanking you and firing at you from any break in your cover.  This means that you usually need to be on the move too, constantly engaging in combat, and constantly exposed to the risk of gunfire.
By itself, this new enemy behavior definitely adds some additional challenge to the game, but part of the challenge has nothing to do with combat changes, and everything to do with unnecessary changes to other aspects of the game, namely the methods by which one can recover health.  In the original, there were several ways to do this: some classes had special abilities that allowed for recovery, and for others there were various shield classes that also restored health over time.  Additionally, if you were willing to sacrifice a backpack slot, you could carry a health pack with you for an instant recovery.  The sequel, however, eliminates many of these methods.  As far as I can tell, there are no healing shields (or if they are, they’re exceedingly rare), and you can no longer carry health packs – you can only stumble over insta-health vials on occasion.  Furthermore, of the new classes, only the gunzerker has a special ability that immediately features health recovery.  While the mechromancer class does have a recovery option available early on (although it’s only available as DLC or for preorders, a gripe I’ll get to in a moment), most of the others don’t have a health recovery option available until many levels later.  Couple this with the fact that your shield (unless you luck out) will generally be much smaller than your health, absorbing only a few hits and usually taking several seconds under cover to recharge, and all of a sudden your character’s survival is very precarious, often hanging on with tiny bits of health and constantly needing to duck out of combat to let the shield recharge.  If the game featured the original style of combat, this might be a viable strategy for survival – however, with newly aggressive enemies advancing on your position from all sides, you can quickly be overwhelmed.  Taken together, these factors represent a significant spike in difficulty, and anyone used to the somewhat leisurely combat of the original may be unpleasantly surprised here.  Even if you were good at the original, be prepared for the sequel to mop the floor with you.  Unless you are incredibly good at FPS games, you should be prepared to die – a lot.  (And don’t even get me started with the tightly-enclosed areas with no cover, where enemies ambush you by spawning all around you at once – not fun at all.)

That being said, death is not a phenomenally huge problem in the game.  Die, and you’ll be resurrected at your last save point, minus a fraction of your in-game currency.  Given that you’re far more likely, it seems, to come across decent equipment from loot chests than you are at the in-game vending machines, the currency loss doesn’t have a hugely dramatic impact.  More annoying is the fact the the save points are often too few and far between, which means that a death can involve a minutes-long slog across a sizable map to get back to where you were, something that is decidedly less than fun.  Your experience, though, isn’t affected, and so you can, should you desire, keep throwing yourself at a difficult area, dying repeatedly, until you finally level up and/or loot better weapons, grinding the area down slowly (although I personally find this approach incredibly boring).

One distinct problem for some classes, though, beyond the health and shields issue, is one of ammo supply.  True, there are ammunition crates scattered liberally around, but the pickups from those only contain a small fraction of your supply, less than a clip’s worth for some types of guns.  This is compounded by several factors: a very small ammo reservoir to start off with, no guaranteed ability to buy upgrades (which can now only be bought with a separate “currency” that drops only rarely, and must be shared with other upgrades), and the fact that most of the harder-hitting weapons can now consume anywhere between 2-4 rounds per shot.  Taken together, you can easily get into a situation where you can run out of ammo for your primary weapons during a prolonged boss fight, leaving you with backup weapons that don’t suit your play style, or no weapons at all.  Some classes may have ways to regenerate ammo (the gunzerker, and possibly the commando), but for the others, you can be easily stuck.

Probably the worst situation involving this I’ve seen so far involves a boss fight against a constructor at the bloodshot ramparts.  While you have an opportunity to restore your ammo at the start of the map, you then have to fight your way through a ton of robots, with ammo appearing only sporadically.  Then, at the end of the map, there’s the boss fight, with no vending machine that allows you to reload before it, as there almost always was in the original.  You’re then placed up against a tough bot that’s constantly creating more robots, each of which take many shots to destroy, and the constructor itself features a tough shield that takes many round to whittle down even with the appropriate weapon.  You’re soon locked into a battle of attrition, and if you die during the battle, the constructor returns to full health – you, meanwhile, don’t resurrect with full ammo.  Eventually, you run out of ammo entirely and have to retreat from the area, one you can’t fast-travel back to…  meaning you have to redo the whole set of maps to get back to the area and take on the final boss again.  (Oddly enough, in my first playthrough, there was no option but to retreat as I was never able to take down the constructor’s shields before running out of ammo.  Playing through with another character, though, after a certain amount of time the constructor fled to another map entirely, one which did have an ammo vendor reasonably nearby, and where I was finally able to take it out after another monumentally frustrating battle).  Needless to say, the additional backtracking was immensely frustrating (along with the fact that going through the fortress on the second try saw a mid-boss being randomly handed a gun that just about obliterated my character in one hit, shields and all, which made it that much worse).  The thing is, as I mentioned earlier, the original game got it right, always giving you a chance to restock your ammo and heal up before a big boss fight.  Why the sequel doesn’t do this, I don’t know, but it’s the opposite of an improvement.

Another thing that seems to have changed a bit from the original is the distribution of loot.  It is true that there is somewhat more loot variety now, but the way you acquire it is much more frustrating.  For starters, it used to be the case that when you were fighting an enemy that had a really tough gun, or grenade mod, that it would often drop that weapon for you to use once you defeated it.  This, sadly, is no longer the case: many enemies will take you on with a randomly-assigned, fearsome weapon, and then go on to drop nothing at all (which was the case with the enemy from earlier: upon defeat, he dropped a little bit of ammo, no awesome railgun in sight).  This takes away from one of the fun aspects of the game: knowing that you could get decent rewards from defeating enemies, because you could see them in their hands.  Now, the rewards are completely random, and are usually few and far between: sometimes a badass enemy will drop something interesting, but for anything else, you’re lucky to even see a green drop: only occasionally will an enemy even drop a common shield or weapon, and mostly won’t drop much of anything at all.  Furthermore, rare items are now really rare: even in vending machine items of the day, you’ll be lucky to see anything green, and most items are near-worthless.  As in the original, “common” items, the lowest rarity tier, are almost completely useless, most not even worth picking up.  You will find the next tier of items, the green ones, on occasion, but the “rare” tiers above that really are rare: while in the first game I’d racked up several blue, purple and orange weapons, even now I have mostly green ones.  This is partially compensated for by the fact that green weapons can now actually be decent, instead of barely adequate as in the previous game.  Still, it’s not nearly as fun to play a loot-driven game when it’s a rare day that anything at all interesting shows up.

This is compounded by the fact that there are no longer any areas that you can “farm” for gear easily.  In the original game, there were several easily accessible loot chests scattered around, which you could visit to reliably get decent new equipment.  This is important because chests have randomly-generated gear, and if you’re playing a pistolero and get several chests full of shotguns, you need to be able to have chests you can get back to in order to try again and get what you need.  In the sequel, however, the chests are almost all at the end of extensive combat areas, and given the lowered enemy drops, there are no longer any places like Old Haven where you can reliably get new equipment through combat.  Add this together, and you can be stuck using crappy equipment for quite some time waiting for something good to drop.  (Oh, and for those of you who say “that’s how it’s supposed to be, play co-op to get better gear,” consider this: if I have to spend an evening working instead of playing, I’m all of a sudden too different in level to play with my friends, and doing matchmaking simply means that without a proper loot system, you have to fight with random strangers over every cool piece of gear… no thanks.  The game needs to be able to hold up under singleplayer too, and in this respect, it doesn’t.)

These loot issues also affect how the game is to play, from aesthetics to combat.  Admittedly, given the randomness of the game the loot you find can vary between playthroughs, but get stuck with the short end of the stick and you can be left struggling.  As in the previous game, accuracy is by far the most important statistic on any weapon, and most of the common weapons aren’t so hot at it, meaning you miss more shots, which means your ammunition drains without doing damage, and you’re stuck whittling down enemies as they charge you relentlessly.  Or, to put it another way: get crap loot, die constantly and gnash your teeth in frustration.  Add to this the fact that aside from the bandit weapons, the common items are generally boring to look at and boring to fire: compare a plasma caster, with a futuristic design, wild colors and metallic glints, to your average gray or beige SMG, which might not even have a scope.  Admittedly, even the more common weapons do have better designs and more variety than in the original, but it’s so rare to find anything interesting or game-changing that loot is rarely anything to look forward to.  And as far as the rarest weapons go?  So far, I’ve found about one per playthrough, and while that one has often been awesome, it’s far too rare to get a gun that actually does something particularly different that you look forward to using it over something else.  (This is compared to at least a half-dozen or so per playthrough in the original).

Actually, as far as easily accessible crates with rare weapons in them… well, I suppose that’s not quite accurate.  There is, in fact, a large, golden crate sitting in the middle of the primary town, which always gives out various types of rare weapons and items.  The catch?  It requires the expenditure of a special key every time you open it, a key that can’t be acquired through actually playing the game.  How do you get one?  Why, by preordering the game, of course! (Or, to be fair, signing up for Gearbox’s totally pointless and so far feature-free “social gaming” thing, but that’s not something that’s particularly obvious in-game).  This is what was on offer for those who pre-ordered the game, along with a handful of weapons that you’ll discard about a half-hour into the game, an item that barely increases the rare drops in the game, and a pretty decent fifth player class that was released several weeks after the game shipped.  Again, if you happened to buy the game at release date, at the exact same price, you would not have any of these things.  Would you still have a complete game in itself?  Technically, yes, but it’s still aggravating to go without parts of the game, or pay an additional fee for them later, simply because you didn’t want to plunk down cash sight-unseen.  Oh, and if you didn’t buy it through X specific retailer?  Then you didn’t get some extra arena thing.  There’s also a season pass for the expansion packs, and more DLC things beyond that, which I don’t mind so much, but this preorder nonsense is beyond ridiculous.

Okay, so I’ve just spent a couple thousand words largely slagging this game.  So, now that it’s dripping all kinds of purple goop off of it, let me tell you why I’ve spent 30+ hours with it so far, and will probably continue playing it for quite some time.  Despite all my grumblings and frustrations, the game is still fun: the gunplay itself, assuming you get ahold of some good weapons, is quite enjoyable, and the quests in general are more interesting than those of the previous game.  The areas of play are quite expansive (in some cases a little too expansive), and while there’s not a ton of variation, there are a lot of places to explore, and various secrets to find.  The humor is on the whole pretty decent, and the ambience is better – NPCs are still not particularly interactive, but they’re no longer rooted to the spot.  The classes themselves, at least the ones I’ve tried so far, are quite fun to play – the gunzerker is great for no-holds-barred shooting, and I’ve gotten enough weapons to put together a viable sniping mechromancer that I’ve had a good time with so far. (yes, I did admittedly get the pre-order stuff, but as I was going to preorder this about as soon as it was announced based on my experience with the previous game, I can’t say that the inducements had a major effect on my purchasing decision.  Still, I feel a bit guilty about it, and it doesn’t change my opinion that this kind of nonsense has to stop.)  Weapon-for-weapon, rarity aside, the weapons are generally more fun to use than their counterparts from the previous game: sniper rifles aren’t so insufferably wobbly, you can find more accurate pistols and SMGs, and there are some nice variants including minigun-style weapons, double-barreled sniper rifles, and an assault-rifle variant that rapid-fires grenades.  There are also some interesting “E-tech” guns, such as the spiker pistols, along with the mythical railguns and plasma casters that I have only encountered while using a key on that golden chest in Sanctuary (btw, preorder or not, there are ways to get at that chest if you want, although such things are beyond the scope of this article.  As an aside, though, it does seem strange to keep your coolest weapon designs hidden away where most players will seemingly never encounter them during the course of the game).  The enemies are also generally interesting, with a much wider variety of enemies than were present in the first game, alongside most of the old favorites (assuming you for some reason really, really liked skags and rakks a lot).

All together, it generally adds up to a fairly fun game, and there’s rarely a moment where you don’t have something to do.  If Gearbox had kept some of the things that worked well in the first game, instead of introducing mechanics that served to frustrate rather than do anything particularly interesting, I think this game would be a vast improvement over the already generally good original.  As it stands, balancing both the cool and frustrating parts together, there’s a fun and interesting game there overall, but I’d like it far better if I could complete more of my play sessions with a feeling of fun and accomplishment, rather than a sense of frustration and boring grinding to get around unpredictable spikes in difficulty, with game mechanic changes that only add to the problem.

19Apr A few words on Tribes Ascend

If you’re looking to find out information on the newly released F2PMMOFPS that is Tribes:Ascend, about the worst place to go is their official site, which provides the sum total of a download link and a 46-second gameplay video.  However, the video is telling in a certain respect – an awful lot of projectiles are fired, and very few are shown actually hitting anyone.

The game, which has been in beta for a while, recently released, and I just as recently gave it a spin.  Two things come immediately to mind: playing the game is reasonably fun, and if you’re used to playing most modern shooters you’ll most likely be absolutely rubbish at it.

The thing that sets Tribes apart from most games is the fact that it has a ridiculous amount of mobility, at least on the surface – while it is a multi-class game, each class has a jetpack, as well as friction-reducing boots that let you “ski” across any terrain, as long as it’s downhill or you have momentum.  Theoretically, you can chain these two abilities together for almost limitless movement across an entire map at ridiculous speeds.  In practice, I found that you’ll often lose momentum and run out of jetpack energy fairly quickly, leaving you trudging slowly towards the next peak to get some momentum again.

The other main difference is that unlike most gun-based FPS games, almost none of the projectiles are instantaneous.  The primary skirmish weapon of most classes, the bizarrely-named spinfusor, is kind of like those foam-disc shooters you might have had as a child, only with discs that explode on impact.  Or, put another way, the game is more akin to something like Quake 3 Arena, where the name of the game is jumping and hitting people with rockets, which are basically what the spinfusors are.  Even the gun-type weapons such as assault rifles have slow-moving bullets that most classes can outrun as they’re skiing around.

Now, consider the facts of the game together – slow-moving projectiles with some splash damage, combined with players constantly moving at high rates of speed relative to each other in three dimensions.  These factors add up to an FPS game where it’s a minor miracle to actually hit another player with your weapons.  Most of the time you’re moving along so fast, and so is everyone else, that you have mere moments to line up a shot – and the speed coupled with the slow-moving rounds means that your shot most likely hits where someone else was a second ago.  Essentially, you have to predict, instantaneously, where another player is going to be when your shot hits a second or two later.  On the one hand, I suppose it is interesting just how well people can intuitively react to this style of gameplay, where in the real world it would take a significant amount of complex physical equations to make the same determination that you’re making on the fly.  On the other hand, it’s a drastic recalculation from most any other shooter on the market, and unless you were a Quake expert back in the day, this game will present an unpleasant learning curve.

Another quibble I have is with the matchmaking system.  The system automatically dumps you into a game – as of yet, there are no real dedicated servers to choose from, so you don’t get to choose where to play.  You can select a game type, but you’ll end up on a random map with a random set of people.  Worse, there doesn’t seem to be any post-round auto-shuffling, which means that one of the two opposing teams tends to get stacked with better players, and once people notice which team has the undeniable upper hand, they all try to join that team, with the top players generally sticking with it as well.  This leads to the unfortunate situation where determining whether you will win a round in the game is based less on your own individual skill (unless you are one of those few people who top the leaderboards anyway), and more on whether you happen to luck into clicking fast enough to get on the team that wins the round over and over again.

However, the good news:  Since the game is free to play, you can download it and play three basic classes to your heart’s content, and there admittedly is something quite fun about zooming around the battlefield at breakneck speeds, even if you have my skill level in the game and are resigned to a staggeringly awful kill/death ratio and a basement position on the postgame rankings.  And, theoretically, you can even unlock most of the other classes and gear if you are stubborn enough to play for the amount of time necessary to rack up enough in-game points to purchase them.  Of course, you can also buy gold to speed up the process, but unless you’re actually good at the game, I can’t see any compelling reason to do so – if you can’t score hits with the basic gear, it’s not likely you’ll do any better with the optional unlocks.  Oddly enough, this is one of the few F2P games that I’ve seen thus far where you can enjoy a reasonable experience in the game completely for free, as what’s unlocked at the start gives you enough classes to choose one that best fits your playstyle.

So, if you’ve got a few gigs of disk space lying around, I can’t think of any reason not to try the game.  Just be aware that if your main FPS experience is playing Battlefield or TF2, it’s quite a jolting change.  You will miss, a lot.  You will die, a lot, especially if more than one person decides to gun for you at once.  But if you’re not particularly concerned about losing or being stuck on a team that gets stomped on repeatedly, there’s a fairly fun and reasonably grind-free (if you don’t care too much about unlocks) core of a solid, old-school shooting game amidst the frustrations and F2P trappings.

19Apr A Valley Without Wind: Some Late Beta First Impressions

A while back, I wrote about A Valley Without Wind, the latest title from Arcen Games available as a preorder, in one of my alpha-funding roundups.  In that earlier entry, I was unsure about the game, which at the time felt pretty rudimentary (although, while re-reading that entry, I also appeared to be against the idea of complexity, so perhaps I should explain:  Complexity is just fine, but the fact remains that complex problems are something I spend time dealing with for work and study, and for a game that I play during my free time, the last thing I want to do is spend it working on solving complex problems, as it is the opposite of the fun relaxation that I often seek in games.  And in reference to Arcen Games’ first entry, AI War, the complexity of its systems seem to make the average RTS game as complex as Pong in comparison).  Ranting aside, though, AVWW was definitely intriguing enough to pick up, although when I last examined the alpha version things were in a sufficient state of flux that the gameplay (and even basic stats) changed dramatically from one update to the next, making playing the game in that state rather confusing.

However, the game is now in a “late beta” stage, and while significant development is continuing (a new beta was released between my play session yesterday and my writing this article), the gameplay is much more stable and feature-complete.  Having heard this, and after updating the game to its latest version, I decided to start a new playthrough to see how things were shaping up.

So far, I’ve played through the new tutorial mission, as well as a nearby random area and one of the “boss tower” missions.  Overall, things are definitely looking more polished, especially as far as gameplay is concerned.

The thing that immediately stands out, at least from my usual perspective on game difficulty, is the considerable granularity that the game provides for difficulty settings.  When you first start a new game, you are provided with about a half-dozen different difficulty levels for both combat and platforming (the latter providing more assistance and negating fall damage on easier settings).  The game also provides both an easy start with the tutorial, a normal start, and an accelerated start for those who want to jump straight into the more difficult content.  As usual, I selected the easiest settings, which to my surprise felt almost too easy after my previous experience with the game, but provide a great starting point and mean that even very casual gamers can at least get started with the game and see how it works.  Additionally, the difficulty level can be re-set between missions if you want more or less of a challenge.

The tutorial mission is also very well-done for this type of game, and it carefully walks you through all of the major things you need to know without being too intrusive – there are a few pop-ups here and there with important information, but most of the tutorial is provided on cleverly snarky advice given on the tombstones of characters that have apparently run through, and failed, the mission before you.  It displays a surprisingly ready humor that the previous iterations had seemed to lack, and makes the game’s tone seem a bit less dark than it had previously (the game also has some interesting referential humor now and again as well, like the titles for the platforming difficulty levels based on how much desire you have to be the guy).  The tutorial also ensures that you enter the game proper with a decent amount of starting materials and a reasonably wide range of beginning spells, which were few and far between in earlier iterations.  As a result, your character starts out the game being reasonably capable of dealing with most situations.  Plus, the tutorial throws in a few interesting (but optional) boss fights, and is varied enough to keep things interesting, feeling like a real mission and exploration area from the game rather than a simplified tutorial zone, while ensuring that you have the equipment and knowledge to complete it easily.

Once I got out into the world proper and picked a zone for exploration, the game began to slow down a bit, and I noticed a couple of issues.  The terrain generation is a bit different from when I played it before, and is now considerably more extreme, meaning that most areas can only be successfully traversed by building platforms and stacking crates, and I found myself running dangerously low on supplies by the end of the first exploration area (although the home base area has some crates where you can replenish them to a basic level between missions).  The exploration was definitely more controlled, though, as there were only occasional enemies rather than the swarms present in the earlier version.

As far as actual exploration goes, the zones themselves don’t offer as much in the way of variety or immediate rewards as something like Terraria, and trudging through eight screens of mildly frustrating platforming and very similar environments, with only the occasional enemy encounter to break up the monotony, make it a bit difficult to stay interested.  However, at the end of the section was the first boss tower, which made things much more exciting.

The boss tower is truth in advertising – it’s a big tower, alternating platforming rooms filles with ladders, loot and enemies, interspersed with large, fairly complex arenas in which to fight one of the hulking, menacing boss characters (in this case, a supersized version of a skelebot, one of the basic enemies), of which there were three in total – beating the mission rewards you with a cache of resources, which allow you to build new and better spells (which are your primary mode of attack).

On that note, the basic mechanics of fighting haven’t changed all that much – mouse over an enemy, click or hit a hotkey to discharge a spell – but some of the surrounding systems have been much improved.  Instead of having to spend a ton of time poking around for health and mana potions, as each spell would quickly drain your mana gauge, mana now regenerates after a short delay, and defeated enemies leave behind a health “aura” that can help to replenish the damage you take.  Of course, having some other resources on hand just in case is handy as well (although, as the game states, it’s not a matter of if your character will die, but when – as the premise of the game is to take on the roles of multiple survivors all striving to build a better world and expand their community).

The game also improves the exploration somewhat.  Complex buildings and cave systems have clearer mapping that automatically highlights areas of interest so that you can get what you need and avoid exploring a ton of samey rooms in the hopes of finding anything at all (and the rooms now have some actual props, making the buildings feel at least somewhat less empty).  Additionally, most large areas have “warp gates” at multiple points that allow you to easily backtrack back to the region map without having to retrace your steps through the entire zone.

All in all, most things are improved, from the addition of more spells, powers, and “enchants” to improve your characters, to a clear system that highlights goals and needed equipment so that you always have something to do, and don’t feel completely lost in the game’s mechanics.  That’s not to say that the game lacks in complexity – after all, one of the menus features a “big honkin’ encyclopedia” of just about everything in the game, and as I’ve only played a few levels, I haven’t even touched the civilization-building aspects of the game, which offer a whole new level of gameplay on top of the basic platforming and combat.

About the only thing that hasn’t changed are the graphics and animations, which are still a bit on the “love it or hate it” side.  Personally, I think the look is okay, although most of the characters and enemies look like they could use at least a half-dozen more frames in what appear to be sprite-based animations, and as a result, some of the actions look a bit on the jerky side.  However, it doesn’t really affect the gameplay, so it’s more a matter of personal taste, and I think the environments do tend to do a good job of evoking the kind of ambiance the game is striving for – a bleak, mostly destroyed world that can still look vivid and interesting when it has a need to.

Overall, if you’re at all interested in exploring procedurally-generated worlds or want a decent metroidvania-style platformer, the game is definitely worth a look, and you don’t need to be an expert at jumping or throwing fireballs to jump into the game, as it’s accessible at just about all skill levels.  Given that these are first impressions, I can’t speak to how deep the gameplay eventually gets, but it’s certainly promising so far – and given the rapid pace of updates, will probably be even more polished soon.

Oh, and one other note: the game is still on sale for 1/3 off until its official release on April 23, and the game also has a fairly extensive demo that allows you to get a decent sense of whether the game clicks for you before you buy it.  And while it’s not perhaps a perfect game, my time with it so far has definitely been a worthwhile experience.

Edit:  Okay, okay, just one more note.  Like most indie games nowadays, it’s DRM-free, and available for both Mac and PC, which I’m certainly in favor of as I own both (although I have no idea if this would run on my fairly old laptop’s pathetic integrated graphics, but given the nature of the game it just well might).  However, as a result of being unfettered by encryption and DRM, if you’re willing to poke around in the file structure and do some audio converting/already have an Ogg Vorbis music player, the game (and even the demo) comes with a full copy of its soundtrack, which is actually quite good, especially if you like chiptune-inspired music as I do.

07Apr Administrivia: Comment Captchas

Just a quick note that due to a significant influx in the number of spam posts, I have added a captcha to the comments section.  I’ve set it up so that it should generally be readable without too much effort – if you have issues with one of the captcha images, just hit the refresh button a few times and it usually hits on a permutation that’s very readable in a few iterations.  Send me an email if it’s causing you too much grief and I’ll see about tweaking it some more.

29Mar What I’m Thinking About Now: Some Super-Quick Updates

Some things which I am finding interesting in the world of gaming, as of now:

-I came across the game Nitronic Rush recently (http://nitronic-rush.com/).  It’s a racing game with a very nice aesthetic and I hope to try it out tonight.  Also, it’s totally free, so why not download it?  Also free?  It’s entire 23-track soundtrack, which I have listened to, and it’s quite respectable techno.

-Also, found on a linked page to the first one: Solace (http://solacegame.com/).  From the site, it’s “an interactive aesthetic experience utilizing dynamic audio and bullet hell overtones to provide a unique perspective on the five stages of grief.”  Dunno quite how that translates into actual gameplay yet, but it sounds kinda interesting.  Also free.

-There’s a kickstarter-esque campaign going on for an interesting project called CraftStudio (http://www.indiegogo.com/CraftStudio?c=home).  It’s a sort of Minecraft-esque tool that allows you to visually assemble your own games from scratch.  This is something that should definitely happen, and I’m glad to seed that they’re already over halfway to their funding goal.  I’m definitely planning to contribute – $20 gets you the CraftStudio program and a full-length game created in the engine by the development team.

-”On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness,” one of the few good turn-based RPG games I’ve played (or even seen) recently for the PC, is on sale on Steam today – you get both episodes for the almost-free price of $1.50 each.  At that price, if you like JRPG-style game mechanics, it’s more than worth it (at the time of this writing, the deal was still good for roughly 16 hours).