Gaming trials, tribulations, observations, and revelations

25Apr Linked: Thoughts on difficulty settings

http://www.bit-tech.net/blog/2010/04/22/thoughts-on-difficulty-settings/

Some fairly interesting commentary on variability in video game difficulty settings.  I would agree that Half-Life did have some strangeness to its level of difficulty (as I recall, I finally found the balance that I liked by using console codes to specify the exact percentages of damage that my weapons and enemy weapons would do). Personally, so long as you have enough granularity in difficulty settings that people can play the game (through to completion) in whatever mode they want, from easy to challenging, then the game is doing something right.

It’s worth reading the entire article, and the accompanying comment thread, but I especially liked this comment, posted by bit-tech member Bauul:

I used to be one for going at it on hardest possible settings, but over time and with age, I now almost always play it on easy.

Why? Because every time I have to redo a section, that’s a bit of fun gone. Every time I get frustrated and find a part difficult, that’s a bit of stress I tried to avoid by picking up the game in the first place. I know the challenge often can be the fun, but I like to build up to that challenge. If I find a game too difficult too early on, I simply won’t play it any more.

I think this is a good explanation of why I tend to take the same path: I want to have fun with games, and struggling with them takes away from their stated purpose of providing the player with an enjoyable time.

21Mar Linked: Article on game difficulty

The Difficulty of Difficulty

It’s a very good article, which outlines many of the different types of frustrating difficulty that people encounter in games, and it makes a good point about the difficulty of a game needing to feel fair to the player.  I would add to that the notion that the difficulty should feel fair for the level that the player selects – a player who wants an easy gaming experience shouldn’t be blindsided with a sudden spike in unfair difficulty, while a more hardcore player should be able to select the level of challenge they want, even if that level is intentionally giving the game’s AI an “unfair” advantage because they want a truly daunting challenge.

I would also add that challenge plays different roles in different types of games, and as such, can be far more frustrating in certain types of games than others.  For example, in a role-playing shooter such as Borderlands, some challenge is good to intensify the battles, and if it does get too intense, you can usually level up until it’s more manageable.  So, even with increased difficulty, the frustration that it causes is relatively low.  On the other hand, take a game like GTA4 – based significantly on exploration and sandbox gameplay, but with much of the area to explore locked down until you jump through a number of progressively difficult hoops, and if you get stuck on the difficulty, it denies you the ability to freely explore, one of the game’s major selling points.  To sum up, difficulty can have a place, and can make some games more intense and enjoyable – but only if that difficulty doesn’t lead to game-ending frustration, and only if that difficulty doesn’t penalize players by holding the enjoyable parts of the game hostage.

28Feb Linked: Interesting article on game reviews and “game-ness”

The most compelling case should be for game-ness

An excellent article, especially in the last two paragraphs.  Overall, I think I agree with most of the points in the article, especially the notion that games should be considered an experience in their own right, rather than having to specifically measure up to already-established art forms.  And while I’ve certainly done the traditional “review” style in the past, I can definitely see the point of evaluating a game based on what it’s like to actually play it, not how all of its different elements can be broken down into a strict numeric score.  In that sense, as much as I do occasionally rely on Metacritic for at-a-glance game ratings, I do appreciate reading reviews by sites such as RPS, where the goal is to explain the experience of playing rather than simply assigning a grade.  While my own reviews do usually have a specific focus, I hope that they also take this into account, that it’s a description not just of what the game is, but what makes it compelling (or not) to play.

17Feb Ubisoft DRM: How not to treat your customers

RPS pretty much says what needs to be said:

You Maniacs!

Perhaps the biggest, most frustrating flaw a game can have is when it doesn’t allow you to actually play it.  Regardless of the price, I would never purchase a game using Ubisoft’s amazingly draconian new DRM scheme (lose your internet connection, get booted out of the game and lose your current progress).  If you’re looking to buy an Ubisoft game, for any platform, I would encourage you to think about whether you want to be supporting a company that has such contempt for the paying customers that keep it in business.

30Jan Mass Effect 2: First Look

(Alternate Title: EA is Incompetent, which, unsurprisingly, is already registered as as a username for the Cerberus Network)

After enjoying Mass Effect 1 immensely, I went out and purchased Mass Effect 2.† One initial play session later, here are some of my first thoughts on the game, and how it is to play.

-Not wanting to wait the 15GB download over my less-than-ideal internet connection, I picked this one up on disk.† The install went smoothly, and perhaps unsurprisingly, the dialogue archive was one of the largest files.† Activation seems to be serial code on install and disc check thereafter – hardly draconian copy protection.† From what I’ve heard, the digital download copy protection on this one isn’t too bad either.

-Firing up the game, I hit the first snag – EA wanted me to log in to my account to connect to the Cerberus network, download DLC, etc.† Unsurprisingly, my EA account did not log in.† This is unsurprising because my EA account has never logged in properly on the first try to any EA game that required it.† Usually, resetting my password fixes it, but this time, even that doesnít budge the game.† My credentials log in just fine on EAís own website, but the exact same credentials will not log in using the game.† As of my first play session, I was not able to log into this part of the game.† Luckily, it is not necessary to play the base game, and so is primarily an inconvenience – were the case otherwise, I would consider that a rather critical flaw.

-The Cerberus Network, as it is, seems to be primarily a news feed, rather than an in-game delivery portal – to actually download any of the DLC, at least as far as I could tell, you are taken to the Bioware Social webpage, outside of the game.† Of course, this site doesn’t synchronize your login well with EA’s site, either, meaning that even getting to a download page for the “included” DLC was a two-hour ordeal including multiple EA accounts and password resets.† The Cerberus Network is hardly a gaming innovation, and is most decidedly not ready for prime time.

-Importing ME1 characters works more or less flawlessly, up to and including my original Shepardís distinctive mug.† All the other info imports just fine, and having a solid save file gives a decent amount of initial bonuses, including some initial skill points and a decent amount of resources to pick up some of the starting equipment.

-The game starts out mostly with extended cutscenes, but after a while, you are introduced to combat.† As always, I chose to play on ďcasualĒ difficulty, to see whether the combat is actually easy on this setting.† Long story short: your mother wonít be beating ME2 anytime soon.

ME2 is no Borderlands, and it wants you to play it more in the style of F.E.A.R., or Rainbow Six Vegas, or (shudder) Gears of War.† That is, combat is mostly all about popping out from behind cover, shooting a guy or two, getting back into cover to let your shields recharge, and doing that until all the bad guys in an area are down.† If, like me, you like charging into the fray, guns blazing, youíll soon find yourself ducking back out of necessity under a withering barrage of enemy fire.† Played cautiously, itís more survivable… but slower.

However, that being said, the intensity of combat is increased from ME1.† The enemies are also a bit more aggressive, rather than milling about as in the first game.† Healing is a bit streamlined – like most shooters these days, duck behind cover for a bit, and youíre all better, and medi-gels are exclusively used for reviving your team when they get beat down.† The shield display is much better, and you can tell quite clearly how much is left.† Of course, being a third-person shooter, zoom is limited, and thereís no really solid iron-sights mode for precision attacks – only the sniper rifle has a scope, and only a few classes can actually use it.

All that being said, the difficulty generally isnít too bad, unless an enemy is allowed to get up close – unless you take immediate action, youíll usually be cut apart by the time you can react to the enemyís presence.† Often, your teammates will be able to help with that, but get caught out alone, and youíre in trouble – this is what led to my first ďcritical mission failureĒ in one of the earlier missions (and yes, having your character shot to bits is a pretty critical failure).† Luckily, this is somewhat mitigated by being able to save in any non-combat situations, and an autosave feature quick enough to take me back only to the beginning of the battle, instead of earlier on in the level.† This means that even failing a section doesnít seem, at least at this point, to require significant backtracking.

-It should be noted that there are technically fewer weapons available, but each of the weapons is relatively unique, in that each has its own specific qualities (as opposed to ME1, where everything was just basic variations of stats, but for the most part looked and fired the same).† There are also additional weapons types to use, which makes things feel a bit fresher.† The weapons also pack some punch to them, and they feel less vague than in ME1.† Additionally, upgrades and different weapons are available on a tiered system, and thereís no more nightmarish inventory management that must be completed all the time.† Technically, this makes for less overall variation, but it takes away one of the tedious features of the original.

Of course, not all of the changes are necessarily as good.† Instead of unlimited ammo but with a cooldown and risk of overheating, someone decided that the best way to manage the heat was to create ejectable heat sinks to keep the heat away.† So, no more overheating…† but also no more unlimited ammo.† These weapons, apparently, canít fire without the heatsink clips, so all weapons have a fairly limited number of shots.† This will mean that you will run out of ammo for your favored weapon in a heated firefight, and will be stuck using a backup weapon.† This change is ridiculous, especially in light of the technology used in the first game, and makes combat a bit more frustrating (on the upside, though, ejecting the heatsinks does look pretty cool).

-Skills are also quite simplified, which is kind of a toss-up: less customization, but an easier-to-use system.† There are also fewer powers available, but those which are are usually a bit more potent than in the original, and certainly more varied.

-Oh, and the minigames.† The original minigame was decent, if a bit frustrating, but the new game has a trio of them.† Two are for hacking locks: one is basically a memory-type game with a countdown timer, the other is a game where you try to find identical images.† Both of them are tolerable, but not particularly fun, and they are at least generally solvable (unlike the pipe-shuffling abomination in the original Bioshock).† However, thereís also no using omnigel to get around them, so you have to do them every time, which can get tedious.† And speaking of tedious…† In the original, to collect resources, all you had to do was go to a planet and hit the ďsurveyĒ button, and you were done.† Now, all the surveying has to be done by hand, which means scanning your mouse over an entire globe, looking for elusive deposits with a stuttering graph.† While it can be fun for a while, this mechanism has the potential to get tedious quickly (and Iím talking fossil-unearthing in Spectrobes kind of tedious).

Finally, some random gameplay observations:

– All the graphics look good, maybe slightly better than the original, but not by much.
-The new Normandy has a better layout and is a bit more friendly to walk around, and the mapping functions work much better in the ďhubĒ areas (there are no maps in combat zones, only an objective marker, which is generally fine due to the fairly strict linearity of the missions – youíre rarely afforded the opportunity to walk very far off the beaten path).
-Commerce is also easier – the buying interface clearly outlines what each item does, and thereís basically no selling, a side effect of the limited inventory management.
-The codex is back, with way too much information, only this time itís written with much less attention to grammar, and narrated verbatim – youíd think the guy reading it would kinda catch on, but it doesnít seem to faze him.
-Thereís plenty of plot and dialogue again, and youíll quickly get tired of reading it all, especially if you try to exhaust all of the conversation options.
-You still canít bloody jump, the scourge of Bioware games, apparently, since time immemorial.
-Iím not sure if there are grenades any more, besides a grenade launcher, which makes cover combat even more of a pain, although I suppose heavy weapons are supposed to make up for this.† The ammo available for shotguns and sniper rifles is shamefully low, at least at the start.
-Loading times are quite reasonable, with decently animated interstitials.† A few airlock-style doors, but no more slow elevators.

Overall – quite a few improvements, combat is definitely more fluid and exciting, but there are also some things that I miss from the original, and a few gameplay mechanics that frustrate rather than improve gameplay.† So far, so good, and youíll end up playing far longer than you intend.

01Dec Guns, Guns, and more Guns: Borderlands Review

Now that Iíve completed one entire playthrough of the game, here are some additional thoughts on Borderlands.

While Borderlands is, to a certain extent, an open-world game, it is much less so than more traditional ďstreamingĒ open-world games, for example Fallout 3 or Oblivion.† The game is broken up into various zones, with various tasks to complete in each – newer zones usually only unlock as you complete missions that advance the main storyline.† While there are a handful of missions that go back to earlier areas, once youíve completed the missions in the area, there is usually little incentive to return – the enemies by then are too low-level to give you much in the way of benefits, and there is nothing else to achieve.† So, in a sense, the game is open-world in the sense that you can do tasks and visit arenas in the order that you want, but on the whole, the progression is mostly linear.† Of course, as the game is based less on exploration and much more on the arenas of combat created throughout the levels, this isnít entirely a bad thing, but if exploration is more your thing, youíd probably be much better served by choosing a more traditional RPG (I hear Dragon Age is bloody huge, but Iíve been playing too much Borderlands to even consider it – and, of course, if you’d rather just have more story and less guns, Fallout 3 is a good, if slower-paced, choice).

The art style of the game is certainly interesting, and the hand-drawn textures and colorful atmosphere serve as welcome respite from the usual drab color schemes of most downtrodden or post-apocalyptic worlds.† The character designs are all right, and some of the enemies are quite well-done – one particular enemy, the Badass Skag, continues to both awe and terrify me whenever I come across it.† Admittedly, some of the textures arenít as nice up close, but the simpler style works better than the usual ďrealisticĒ textures that degrade far more on close examination.† Also, certain sections can look a bit on the drab side – oh, hey, hereís some more generic canyons – but given how often youíre dragged into combat while moving about, thereís not a lot of time to stop and comment on the scenery.

While the world is colorful, and full of intense battles, the ambience leaves a bit to be desired.† Sure, the world is populated by people, but aside from a few charismatic characters, the only real NPCs who are present at all are the enemies themselves.† The other characters are more or less welded to whatever spot theyíre initially standing on, and most rarely move, meaning that a lot of them are indistinguishable from the scenery – and, honestly, from each other.† I can think of perhaps a half-dozen unique characters in the game that you donít end up shooting in the head.† Of course, being part of the background, none of the non-enemy NPCs take particular notice of you – most barely have any lines, their missives instead listed as static text in a quest-completion window.† (And speaking of the voices, the character voices are generally okay, but sparsely used – Roland is probably the best, sounding like a gung-ho soldier type, Brick sounds sufficiently angry, and Mordecai pleasantly sarcastic; Lilithís voice, to put it politely, is distinctly unpleasant to listen to.)†† Theyíre also wholly non-interactive – if they donít have a quest for you, trying to interact with them spits out a canned line of dialogue at best.† Other than that, theyíre like a piece of scenery – attempting to loot (i.e. pickpocket) or shoot them has no effect whatsoever.† This is particularly disappointing because, later on in the game, youíll definitely feel like shooting at least one of them in the face repeatedly – but more on that later.

The quests themselves, as they are, are pretty unremarkable, and require little thought – essentially, theyíre simply bait to get you fight hordes of enemies in various arenas and dungeons set up throughout the game, with reward object X either at the end of the arena, scattered along the way, or dropped by the areaís respective boss.† Given that the combat is really the meat of the game, with little else to do beyond it, the quests serve the purpose of vaguely advancing the story and getting you into one fight or another, but thatís about it.† Skill trees, levels, and loot management aside, this game really is FPS first, with a side order of RPG-lite.† If RPG elements are more your thing, again, Iíd have to recommend something like Fallout 3 over this (or any other RPG with decent guns, if any recent ones exist) – but if you like shooting things in the head first and foremost, with some RPG added to spice things up a little, you wonít be disappointed.

Honestly, the gunplay – and guns – are where the most fun is.† Vehicle combat is okay, if unimaginative – you get two samey weapons, and most of the time, you can just run over anything you can see on screen for easy XP.† Outside of that, though, the combat is intense, the weapons are generally fun to use, and the AI is smart enough to give you a bit of a challenge, especially in the later levels.† When youíre in combat, making use of everything you have at your disposal to win, itís easy to lose track of time, and when youíre not in combat, you usually wish you were.† When youíre wandering around a ďsafeĒ town, with nothing much to do, youíll want to spend as little time as you can resupplying and getting new quests so you can get back into the fray.

Of course, the battle is pretty much all about the guns.† While each character has a special skill that they can deploy, the various guns in the game are the main event.† While itís true that the procedural system can generate all sorts of interesting stuff, many of the guns seem quite similar, with little besides stats to distinguish between them (although this is somewhat ameliorated by the time you get into the later levels).† In fact, in many ways, the system is similar to Mass Effect, but with seven standard weapon types instead of four.† Admittedly, it does go a bit beyond that, but there are only so many base models of weapons, with the occasional cosmetic change and difference in color scheme.† Additionally, instead of being able to add various mods to different weapons, as in Mass Effect, each weapon comes pre-equipped with various features, and so it all depends on what is randomly generated for you.† Most of the common guns in Borderlands are quite similar, albeit with a bit more variation than Mass Effect (which had about two weapon models for each type, and a bunch of color palatte shifts) – different scopes and other design bits, but still, overall may of the models look quite similar.† The real difference is that, unlike in Mass Effect, the stats actually have an impact on how the weapons perform, and you’ll definitely be able to tell the difference between using a mediocre weapon and a high-quality one.† Rarer weapons also have much more in the way of unique qualities and elemental effects, and some – usually recovered from various bosses – have some rather unique shots and capabilities (and, now that the game is patched, you can actually see each weapon’s full collection of characteristics without having to edit config files).

While having some variation is nice, though, the quest is generally to find the best guns you can, and stick with them until something better comes along.† This means that, despite all the variation in weapons, most of the stuff you pick up is going to be used as little more than a chunk of cash that takes up a slot in your inventory until you get to a vending machine to sell it off (thankfully, the game doesnít bother with any bartering nonsense – the price you see on a loot item is the price you collect, which makes selecting which loot to haul back much easier).† Really, weapons are everywhere – in vending machines at first, mostly, sometimes in crates, but also frequently dropped by enemies as the game progresses.† Sorting through it all can often be overwhelming, especially due to the randomness of the stats – sometimes, Iíe come across a ďcommonĒ (white or green class) weapon that works far better in practical use than a super-rare purple or orange one.

And when something works, you use it, especially in the class of weapons youíre particularly proficient in.† Despite having picked up hundreds of weapons across my first playthrough (as soldier), I could accurately describe the game as ďA Tale of Three Rifles.Ē† Or, I suppose, really a tale of three Cobras – a class of accurate, scoped, hard-hitting, fast-firing rifle that more than gets the job done.† The first, an Air Cobra, was powerful enough to get me most of the way through the Dahl Headlands, only to be replaced by an even better Blast Cobra, which added some explosive damage to the mix.† Then, by level 25, a vending machine pulled up the War Cobra, a non-elemental but high-damage weapon, which I used pretty much singlehandedly to beat the final boss of the game, much later, at level 36, and a gun that still has a permanent place in my active equipment well into my second playthrough – simply because, since that time, nothing has come along that does a better job against absolutely everything.† Sure, there were plenty of other guns that were somewhat useful – later on, I got a static sniper rifle able to quickly put heavily shielded enemies out of their mercy, and a corrosive revolver that, with one shot against any non-badass crimson lance soldier, would virtually guarantee their demise a few seconds later.† While those, and others, were fun to play around with and added some much-needed variety, they were all quite secondary, and Iím convinced that I probably would have been able to beat everything in the game, from level 25 onward, with just that one single rifle and the action skill.† And while that rifle was great, it would have been nice if the game had actually given me some weapons that were capable enough to give it a run for its money.† Having different weapons and effects for different enemies sounds like a good idea to add some tactical complexity, but it becomes less compelling when some other weapon can easily replace all of them in terms of effectiveness, especially across that span of time.† Thatís not to say that I donít love that rifle – and Iíd probably kick and scream if you tried to pry it away from my character.† I guess what Iím trying to get at is, randomization or not, you ought to be able to get cool new ďthe best evarĒ weapons on a regular basis as the game progresses.† The fact that there was one awesome rifle at a fairly middling level, and nothing nearly as good after that, seems to be a weakness.† A million different gun combinations is all well and good, but when 99% of those combos yield guns that arenít all that effective or fun to play, that number loses a lot of its punch.† Add into that the notion that most guns are not nearly unique, but rather variations on a theme, and out of all those combinations, youíre desperately looking for the proverbial needle in the haystack that stands out at all from the crowd of near-identical weapons.† (I should note that on playthroughs with other characters, I was able to get a variety of effective weaponry, but there is a consistent pattern of being unable to find accurate, high-damage combat rifles, and when that’s your character’s specialty, it does get a bit frustrating.† Go for a different specialty, though, such as Mordecai’s Sniper and Pistol proficiencies, and all of a sudden you’ve got a veritable feast of effective options – but others, such as the selection of launchers for Brick, are decidedly less useful.)

Again, that being said…† even with a lot of sameness, by and large, most of the weapons are fun to play around with.† Admittedly, the early shotguns, submachineguns, and slow-firing pistols are a bit on the lackluster side, but most of the later weapons are quite fun to use.† The revolvers provide plenty of power, as do most of the assault rifles, and the rocket launchers make quite a boom (although the area effect seems dodgy – a low wall can offer complete protection from enemy rockets, and unless you’re aiming directly for an enemy’s feet, even a shot that’s a bit off provides next to no splash damage).† The sniper rifles are a bit on the variable side, with the clip-fed, faster-firing ones generally turning out to be much more useful (the lag between shots on the slower rifles can quickly become aggravating, something that frustrates on the slower-firing shotguns as well).† Some of the repeater pistols, even later on, can be fairly lackluster, although the TMP-style guns are quite fun and serve as a generally effective backup or alternative to your SMG.† The elemental effects also add quite a bit, especially on the slower-firing weapons, as the continuous effect of a successful hit can make up for the slower firing rate, or allow a charging enemy to effectively take itself down before it reaches you, giving you a precious opportunity to reload.† All in all, variation aside, most of the guns feel like they pack a punch, which is an important thing to have in an FPS-centric game.

So, overall, the combat is quite good, and gets better – and tougher – towards the end of the game.† The plot, on the other hand…† needs some work.† Let me just say, at this point, the next part is going to be full of spoilers, so if you donít want to see them , you might want to skip this part.

The plot, in summary:† Youíre on this planet, Pandora, in order to track down this thing called the Vault, which has all sorts of cool alien weapons and awesome stuff inside it – or so everyone says.† As you go along, an incredibly shrill, incredibly annoying holographic lady shows up on your HUD to tell you a bunch of annoying nonsense that doesnít tell you anything more useful than whatís already present in the text for the various quests.† So, you go around, doing various random stuff that, nevertheless, moves you steadily forward towards the vault.† Then there are a bunch of plot twists, the bandits give up but a bunch of soldiers come in to claim the vault, and the last levels become quite linear as you fight both the soldiers and alien vault guardians in a slow, grinding process that eventually leads towards the vault.

(As an aside:† along with the normal weaponry present in the game, there are also supposedly Eridian weapons, which are from the various alien defenders.† Up to now, Iíve found just one of these, in the hands of a human level boss.† Youíd think that, as you fight the alien guardians, theyíd drop some more of these cool weapons, but think again – despite shooting at you with them, when theyíre killed, most often they drop nothing at all, or when they do, they drop ultra-common regular weapons like assault rifles!† How does that make any sense at all?† Iíve seen a few more on subsequent playthroughs, but theyíre far more rare than they perhaps ought to be, especially given that the main plot of the game is supposedly all about finding them.)

Okay, so you do all of that, and you fight your way to the Vault, where the leader of the soldiers, dick that she is, laughs at you and uses the key to unlock the vault. (I mean, seriously, she can hold you at bay with two Lance soldiers?† By that point, you can pretty much empty an entire base full of them without breaking a sweat…)† The bloody thing finally opens, and what is revealed?† Cool technology?† Big, shiny weapons?† Nope – one giant angry tentacle blob that quickly offs all the soldiers and turns into the final boss.† Honestly, the thing is more like a shmup boss than anything else – the basic idea is to run around like mad, dodging all its attacks, while pumping hundreds of bullets into the thing until it dies.† Now that itís dead… big, shiny weapons, right?† Nope – even though itís the final boss, all it drops is a bunch of ammo, a bit of cash, and some super-common weapons.† And, of course, the holographic crazy lady shows up for one final screw-you moment, filling you in on the fact that her whole deal was to con you with promises of loot, just to get you over to the vault in order to ensure that the bicentennial horror was defeated – obviously, the hundreds of other soldiers and vault guardians lurking about werenít nearly enough to take care of it.† So, deflated, robbed of any decent end-game reward, you slink back to the scientist who helped you out earlier to give her the now-worthless key to the Vault.† And what does she give you?† Something cool?† Some penultimate weapon as a reward for beating the game?† Nope – she just pays you some cash in order to ďbuy your silenceĒ and blows you off.† So, needless to say, she got to say hello to one high-caliber corrosive revolver round.† Then three more.† Then, most of a clip from a submachinegun.† Of course, since sheís yet another non-interactive NPC, she just stood there, showing absolutely no reaction as acid and explosions sparked across her body.† I would have gotten more reaction if Iíd shot one of the ubiquitous explosive barrels.† Even in this last, futile act of revenge against the plot, I was denied.† Finally, I headed back to the Middle of Nowhere (oddly, my favorite location in the game) and quit – there was, literally, nothing else to do.

Of course, soon after that, I began my second playthrough, which really is quite a different beast than the original game.† Right out of the gate, youíre facing high-level enemies – on a supposedly easy early mission, to go and collect some stolen food from some low-level skaggs, I was suddenly facing a huge, badass-style one that could breathe fire – along with a regular badass one and a half-dozen others.† Needless to say, it was one heck of a fight.† The second playthrough also gives you even more new weapons, and some of them are pretty powerful – even so, I think Iíll hold onto that rifle.

I suppose I should also talk about the multiplayer, but honestly, there isnít very much to say – Iíve never actually been able to play with my friends, because I canít connect to them.† Some are on console, which apparently canít play with the PC version, and I canít seem to figure out how to connect with PC players either.† Iíll certainly give it another try – but so far, all I can say about multiplayer is that itís a jumbled, confusing mess that doesnít get the job done.

So, overall, despite all my complaints, I still think that Borderlands is quite the awesome game, and Iíve logged many tens of hours with it since its release.† Is it the best game ever?† Probably not… but then again, Iím not sure if any game Iíve ever played could live up to that.† It has its strengths and weaknesses, but what it does focus on, it does remarkably well.† If youíre looking for an immersive storyline and expansive environment, there are other games out there that better fit the bill.† But if you like guns, lots of guns, and using them on a whole lot of angry things, itís hard to get much better than this.

12Nov Borderlands: Initial Impressions, Difficulty, and Playability

Iím at a bit of a loss trying to figure out how best to describe Borderlands.† Thereís a certain part of me that wants to say that the game is as addictive as some street drugs and leave it at that.† However, being that I try to write about difficulty and accessibility in games, I suppose Iíll start out from that standpoint, and see if I can keep from gushing about how bloody awesome the game is.

To start out, there are no preset difficulty levels, and while Iím usually reluctant to say this, in the case of Borderlands, it doesnít turn out to be a problem.† Pretty much everything in the game, including your character, has a level – things above your level are very tough to take on, while those a bit below your level are incredibly easy (one or two hits with any weapon and theyíre finished).† In true RPG fashion, if something seems too tough at one point, you can simply level up until you do so much damage that taking it down is a breeze – boring, but effective.

Admittedly, this mechanism only works to an extent – some of the ďbossĒ creatures are tough to take down even if youíre at a much higher level, and some, at first glance, look bloody impossible.† However, with a bit of consideration, even these tough foes can usually be taken down.

One foe, for instance, is inside a vehicle arena, with a one-way ramp, in a vehicle far superior to yours – taking him on, vehicle to vehicle, is a sure route to a quick respawn (although, to its credit, the game puts the respawn point right next to the arena, so you can easily jump back in).† Time after time, I tried to take him on in a vehicle battle, and failed.† And then, I realized that he was still cruising around the arena, waiting for me to jump back in – but I didnít really have to engage him the way the game wanted me too.† Instead, I stood next to the barrier – on foot – easily dodging his now long-range attacks while picking away at him with a sniper rifle until he was defeated.

That, of course, is only one example – in many of the boss fights, the game encourages trying to take on the battle in whatever way you like, and if your first approach doesnít work, you can usually find one that does before the fight spirals into the realm of frustration.† And because the penalty for dying is fairly light (a bit less cash to spend on new toys, and maybe a bit of travel time), you can experiment without too much damage.† The ďwoundedĒ system is also fairly useful, as when your health goes to zero, you donít respawn immediately – you have a chance for a little while to take down an enemy, which restores some of your health and allows you to fight on.† As many of the boss fights also feature regular enemies in the arena, there are often sufficient targets to allow you to get back into the game, with enough health to be able to get behind cover, restore yourself, and get back into the battle.† Finally, there is usually a save point before most of the big battles, as well as an opportunity to replenish health and ammo, so you are rarely thrust into the most difficult battles unprepared.

The result was that, so long as I leveled my character and only took on missions when they were at normal difficulty or below, there were very few fights where I was completely frustrated, and it usually only took a few respawns before finding a suitable strategy for victory.† My main playthrough has been using the Soldier character, as I like the ability to engage the enemy at medium range and play fairly defensively.† Itís possible that the other characters are a bit more difficult to play, but all of them have features that seem to help them survive, at least when sufficiently leveled.

My main complaint, as always, is that there is not a save-anywhere system as you would find in most traditional FPS games.† However, Borderlands has a checkpoint system that is, for the most part, quite well thought out, with checkpoints clearly marked in the game (and the ability to travel instantly between many of them makes in-game travel significantly more convenient).† As a result, you donít generally tend to feel the pain that normally occurs with checkpoint saves, and itís actually a rare occasion when you wish for the ability.

So, from a playability standpoint, Borderlands seems quite solid – in single-player, at least.† I still have yet to convince multiplayer to actually work.† More on that, as well as much, much more of my general impressions about the game, once I wrap up the first playthrough.

10Sep From RPS: “Why Can’t I Skip Ahead in Games?”

There’s an excellent article on Rock, Paper, Shotgun today that makes the argument I’ve been stating for quite some time – namely, that once you purchase a game, you should be able to play all of it, and that all games should have some mechanism to do so:

Why can’t I… skip ahead in games?

16Aug Some additional thoughts (and anger) encompassing SFIV

Writing up the review of SFIV led me to examine a few additional thoughts I have regarding the game, and gaming in general.

First, I think itís worth spending a bit of time defining exactly what I mean when I refer to games primarily as entertainment.† For me, games, like movies and television, serve primarily as a ďdowntimeĒ activity.† Essentially, for me, theyíre something to do when youíre tired and worn out at the end of the day, something to use to relax and unwind, and to have a bit of fun in the process.† I simply canít fathom the notion that games should, as part of their design, involve much in the way of work.

Perhaps I am unusual in this regard, but I work for only two reasons: compensation, or, for myself, a tangible end result of my effort.† I have no problem putting in effort when there is something to show for it – a set of artistic photographs, a piece of digital music, an essay or story, or even an article like this.† However, even working on projects that I love carries a certain cost, in terms of energy and alertness.

Oddly enough, the most immediate example that comes to mind arises from the game Evil Genius.† As a bit of background, itís an unusual game where you maintain an evil base, and hire minions to protect it from secret agents.† Minions have various statistics – alertness, energy, focus, and so on – and as they work, all of these things drain, to the point where they can no longer function without having a method to replenish their reserves.† As a result, the game requires you to construct various locations – such as game rooms – for your minions to rest and recuperate.† Thatís how it often is for me, and I would imagine for most people – after a while of working on a project, I need a break – doing something stress-free like playing a game or watching some TV.† As a result, when I go to do something fun to relax a bit, and soon discover that itís a lot more like additional work than it is actually fun, I end up feeling frustrated that my relaxation was denied† by a game thatís less catharsis and more grind.

Now, I will be the first to admit that not all people share this attitude towards gaming.† For some, gaming is all about skill (and for a very select few, even a paying, competitive sport).† For others, games are chosen based on their ability to simulate a real-life experience or realistically portrayed historical event.† And for still others (and occasionally for me), gaming is all about the social experience, of playing with, and competing against, friends (and admittedly, playing SFIV with someone in the same room, and struggling with the same inane control scheme, might be far more enjoyable than the online brackets or the hugely frustrating single-player experience).† However, I think that for a lot of people, gaming is primarily about entertainment – about the fun, cathartic experience of losing yourself in a game world, and doing and experiencing (and killing) fun and interesting things that you generally would not be able to in real life.† In many ways, this view of games is an extension of the main reasons why many people enjoy TV and movies – it is a chance to experience a reality and perspective that is vastly different from your own, and with games, you get to improve the immersion even more with interactivity.† But with games, as with these other forms of entertainment, we want our catharsis to work in a positive manner – like Iíve said before, almost no one would watch a show where the main characters fight, and lose, the same futile battle over and over again, and why anyone thinks this would work better in a game is beyond me.

As a result, I donít exactly find it fun when a game advertises fun and becomes little more than work and frustration – hence my intense anger at SFIV.† It irks me to no end that I literally have to work, grinding away at frustrating battles and playing characters Iím less than interested in, simply so I can unlock various parts of the game that I ought to have access to from the moment I handed over my money.† Iíve done that argument to death, though, so I wonít go into it in more detail here, other than to state that the money used to purchase the game was obtained through hours of actual work – I shouldnít have to put in more hours of what sure seems like actual work after the fact just to be able to enjoy every aspect of the game.

Additionally, I have to talk a bit about the bizarre mode of input detection used by the game.† Now, I know that itís not simply because of some slowness on my part – after all, in pinball, I can manipulate the flippers in rapid succession and with quick precision, and Iím rarely behind on the draw at any game with quick reflexes.† And while I donít know the precise latency of my keyboard, I donít think thatís an issue, as I donít see the lag much in fast-paced games.† Rather, it seems that the input scheme is so picky that if I roll an analog stick even slightly beyond a quarter-turn, a special move suddenly becomes an unintentional jump – and even going back to the relative precision of the keyboard, you still have better luck doing a special combo simply by mashing the keys as fast as you can, rather than trying to deliberately hit them in the proper sequence.† And even when you do concentrate on the correct sequence, the game manages to read in wrong and throw a shoryuken instead of a hadoken, and when doing the wrong move at the wrong time can be the difference between victory and defeat, having such a vague control scheme seems to defeat the point of the game.† Would it be better with an X360 controller, rather than my aging Dual Shock or my keyboard?† Maybe…† but I shouldnít have to spend an additional amount just to play one game better, and if youíre going to port a game to the PC, you should make it reasonably playable with the standard input devices that are usually available.† If you have reviewers saying ďitís a fun game, but you really need to play it with an arcade stick,Ē chances are youíre doing it wrong.

Oh, and speaking of reviewers…† I seriously have to wonder how Street Fighter IV manages to score a 91 – universal acclaim – while at the same time, users in forums across the net are screaming that they canít complete the single-player campaign, on the very easiest setting, with any character at all.† This brings to mind an important distinction – the people reviewing games, generally speaking, are the people who have so much experience gaming that they literally get a job playing and reviewing games.† However, being gaming experts themselves, what is easy for them may in fact be fiendishly difficult for an average, let alone casual, gamer.† This is why I usually adjust the scale myself – for those reviews saying a game is easy for newcomers, it usually means that itís going to at least be playable, and for those that even hint at a sharp difficulty curve, I immediately write those games off for only the most hardcore players (in the past, when cheat codes actually existed, I might have considered creating my own gameplay experience, but with more and more developers removing them, rather than hunting about for some cheat or trainer to make your game manageable, Iím simply not going to give you my money – sadly, an option I neglected to consider for SFIV).† Unfortunately, with so many reviewers clamoring about how SFIV was a decent game even for newcomers, I went along with the information.† In retrospect, I probably should have dug deeper, to the reviews that stated a full-blown arcade stick (at twice the price of the game) was essentially the only input device that would properly interface with the gameís control scheme.† The fact that many reviewers seemed to note this only in passing, and the fact that game reviewers saw fit to give a high score only to the version of the game with a specialized controller at three times the cost, seems to me to be a complete lack of editorial integrity.† If you are selling a game for a PC, sold as a game only with no additional hardware, and it fails to play acceptably on the PCís standard inputs, the game has a critical, game-breaking flaw, and to rate it into the realm of ďuniversal acclaimĒ practically borders on dishonesty.† Add to that reviews that largely gloss over the difficulty imbalance, and the relatively specious claim that a fighting-game neophyte can jump into the game and play it with any reasonably proficiency, and it makes me wonder how in the world game reviewers come up with the reviews that they do.† All I can say is this – maybe we need something on the order of a Consumer Reports for games, where gamers of all different levels go out and buy the game at retail (no exclusive/tweaked previews, free games, etc.), and then write up their actual experiences, with no punches pulled.† If the gaming press can give universal acclaim to a game as initially flawed as SFIV, then the game theyíre reviewing isnít the only think thatís broken.

In any case, Iíd better stop there before I get even angrier at this game than I already am.† I still intend to write up a nifty list entitled ďThe Top Ten other things to do with SFIV once you realize that itís impossible to beat the regular campaign,Ē but I just wanted to put forth some additional thoughts on the game, and its repercussions.

16Aug Street Fighter IV: A game thatís about as enjoyable as getting kicked repeatedly in the face (which, unsurprisingly, seems to be the gameís main tactical option)

I apologize for the additional rancour and vitriol in this piece, but even after giving it time, this game is still bugging me.

While I play a fairly decent variety of video games, from casual games to shooters, RTS to racing, I will admit that there are a number of genres that I have little to no experience with.† One of those genres is that of the traditional fighting game.

Admittedly, Iíve played a fair number of beat-íem-ups over the years – I have fond memories of playing the classic TMNT game in the arcade, as well as various Battletoads games on the SNES.† In fact, one of my favorite games of all time, Oni, generally falls into this genre.† However, thereís a distinct difference between these types of games, and the traditional, tournament-style one-on-one battles of the fighting game.† Of the few experience Iíve had with the latter, theyíve primarily degenerated into button-mashing competitions between equally unskilled players, or the occasional days at an arcade watching people far more skilled than I perform impressive combos and on-screen acrobatics.

So it is, perhaps, a bit unusual that I recently found myself in possession of the PC version of Street Fighter IV.† I suppose it had to do with simply getting just a tad bored with my usual fare (shooters, more shooters, with a small handful of RTS and racing games thrown in), and feeling some sort of gaming wanderlust.† In the past few weeks, Iíve been casting about for something different – trying my hand at Evil Genius, an unusual dungeon-keeping game, and playing around a bit with a demo of Bookworm Adventures (otherwise known as the most bizarre game of Boggle youíll ever play).† Finally, I latched onto a competently-done flash reproduction of the original Street Fighter II, obsessively hammering away for a couple of days.† Of course, I got beaten handily most of the time, but I kept on for a bit, my frustration tempered by the recollection that original fighting games were notoriously hard, and that I was actually doing reasonably well against a calculatingly evil AI (otherwise known as a blatantly cheating AI, but what can you do?)† While I finally got frustrated enough to leave it alone for a while, the experience peaked my curiosity about the current incarnation, which promised ďincreased accessibilityĒ and variable difficulty.† Figuring that this might mean I could have a half-decent time with the newer version, I decided to pick it up and see if it lived up to its considerably high review scores and user acclaim.

Four hours, two agonizingly pained wrists, and one thoroughly abused controller later, I can safely say this:† Donít believe the hype.† Maybe if youíre a gaming god, SFIV is a cakewalk for you.† For anyone else, though, be aware that the frustration levels will run high, especially if you want to do something as audacious as actually play through an entire game.

Initially, though, things looked pretty promising.† I started up the game, gawped at the gorgeous opening cinematic, then fired up the training room and beat up on some sparring partners with some visually impressive combos.† So far, so good.† Next up, I decided to try my hand at the arcade mode, and maybe unlock a new character to play around with.

At this point, of course, youíre easily reminded of one of the classic shortcomings of game accessibility – unlockable options, which can only be obtained through the completion of various game mores.† As Iíve discussed this particular aggravation at length before, I wonít go into it again, except to reflect on the sad realization that there are many elements of this game, a game that I paid for in full, that I will probably never have access to.

In any case, I strove onward, choosing to play through as Crimson Viper, a character I had had reasonable success with in the training room.† Once I went into the main mode, there were a number of configurable options, including the vaunted difficulty modes.† These, initially, seemed to be a good sign – while many games have an Easy difficulty level, and some even have a Very Easy mode, this game had even an easier mode beyond that.† Being a rank novice, I chose that mode, and with my trusty Logitech Dual Shock in hand, set about to take on my first opponent, Rufus.

And lost.

Now, keep in mind that even in the original Street Fighter II, which has the single difficulty setting of Painfully Annoying, I can usually get through the first few matches before I stumble.† In SFIV, with a difficulty level thatís supposed to be the easiest of the easy, I handily got my ass handed to me by the very first opponent, despite my best efforts.† Say what you will about my skills, but…† this seems to me to be a critical flaw in the game development process.† As I noted elsewhere, for a game to be accessible, easy needs to mean easy – and on SFIVís most basic, kindergarten-level easy mode, I should reasonably expect to be able to hand the game controller to my mom, have her press various things at random, and still emerge victorious.

One of the gameís critical flaws, in my mind, is that it is almost impossible to pull off any sort of special move while using a controllerís analog stick, or even the d-pad, for control.† Even so, most of the combos are stick-rotation followed by a button press, so they should be easy, right?† Unfortunately, whatever move-recognition the game engine employs has such strict tolerances that even a split-second delay of any element, or the slightest over-rotation of the stick, mean that your chances of completing a combo have about chance odds of success even in training, and far less than that in an actual battle.† As a result, my initial battle left me repeatedly attempting, and failing, my entire roster of special moves, while the ďsuper-easyĒ AI mopped the floor with me.† In fact, I only triumphed on my third attempt through, simply by virtue of cornering my opponent, and then eschewing any cool and fun special moves in favor of simply kicking him in the head repeatedly until he fell over.† Not exactly the epitome of an exciting fighting-game experience.

Still, I gamely fought on, kicking opponent after opponent in the head repeatedly until I got to the final boss, Seth.† While the other characters did seem to get the message a bit about ďweíre set on super-easy mode, letís at least give our opponent a fighting chance to repeatedly kick us in the head,Ē Seth apparently didnít get the memo at all.† The result, sadly, is an incomprehensibly comprehensive thrashing, using just about every cheap move in the book, and each of my many re-attempts lasted for perhaps 30 seconds before the inevitable K.O. flashed onto the screen.

I was just about ready to throw in the towel then, but I decided to instead give up on the controller idea, despite the reviewerís claims that such was a necessity, and just go for some straight-up keyboard play – maybe itís a bit more awkward, but it had served me faithfully in SFII.† And, in fact, the keyboard play was a bit better, in that special moves actually seemed to want to happen when you made them.† Of course, the recognition was less than stellar even then, but it was better.† This meant that I had some special moves available, but once again, it pretty much came down to lightning-punching people over and over again until they fell down, as any other course of action seemed to let them walk all over me.† However, even the mighty Seth fell to the master technique of repeatedly spamming a special move repeatedly in a boring, if effective fashion, and I was finally able to add an additional fighter to my list.

Of course, it should be known that the only apparent way to beat Seth, the evil bastard of bosses, is this one chain of attacks by this one character – try anything else, with anyone else, and youíre going to be rather unpleasantly surprised.

Also, another annoyance is the lack of a save feature for any of these types of games – if youíre sick of wailing away futilely at the final boss and decide to quit and do something else, youíll have to do all the previous fights over again when you start back up.

Additionally, each time Seth cleans your clock, you canít just jump immediately back into battle and try again.† You have to watch Sethís victory animation all over again, wait for the continue screen to pop up, select continue, select your character from the selection screen once again, and wait again as the locale ďVSĒ screen goes through its own somewhat slow animation.† Then, after that, thereís Sethís (mercifully skippable) intro animation, and finally, at long last, you can take another stab at him, and fail miserably once again, in preparation for even more sitting through the same boring screens.† As an experiment, try this as a drinking game: drink as much beer as you can for the duration of all the various non-gameplay screens between bouts with Seth – I can pretty much guarantee that youíll be under the table after only a handful of go-rounds with him.
So, amazingly, Street Fighter IV manages to cover a good number of of the various ďdeadly sinsĒ of frustrating and inaccessible game design: difficult-to-achieve unlockable content, complete lack of reasonable save points, difficulty levels skewed to the point of being considered a programming error that almost breaks the game, an aggravating boss thatís nearly impossible to defeat regardless of level, and a cumbersome delay each time you want to re-attempt a failed level.† Thatís really quite an impressive achievement for a game with a combined 93 Metacritic score.† Yes, the game is very pretty-looking and has some cool features, but it boggles my mind how a game thatís this broken can garner so much critical acclaim.† Add to that the various console-port annoyances, and that years-old Street Fighter II, or even a replay of Oni, is looking better all the time.

In the gameís defense, it is very visually appealing to look at – and while I would prefer more variety in background scenes, all of them are quite decently-rendered and very colorful.† The battle effects and animations are quite well-done as well, and I canít complain about the sound.† But all the flash graphics in the world canít substitute for a solid and consistent gameplay experience, and what SFIV delivers is anything but.† If the controls were fixed to allow moves to be performed reliably, and the difficulty levels balanced in an actually sensible way, this game would have a lot of promise, but as it is now, my enjoyment is heavily tempered by serious feelings of aggravation over the gameís myriad issues with playability.† Sadly, there are few PC games in this genre, so if you are looking to satisfy your desire for a fighting game to stand apart from the glut of FPS/TPS/RTS out there, your choices are SFIV, or… well, aside from emulators, thatís pretty much all I can think of in recent gaming history.

So, in summation, if youíve been playing fighting games all your life and donít mind a controller-breaking challenge now and again, SFIV should be right up your alley.† However, if youíre the kind of person who reads this blog and is after a fun accessible game, you might want to keep looking.† Or, if youíre desperate, set up some versus fights and give yourself a healthy handicap for some decent, if unlock-irrelevant, face-punching action, but be prepared to accept the fact that for anyone with anything less than a truly superb skillset (and perhaps an expensive, arcade-style controller to boot), a good portion of the gameís contents will be regrettably out of your reach.† And for a game youíre paying good money for, it ought to be inexcusable.† Iíve already paid my money, but you might want to consider voting with your wallet and choosing a game, almost any other game, thatís a bit more forgiving in terms of letting you actually play it.