Sinister Soups Serving Musings On Game Development and Play

11Mar/101

Final Fantasy XIII: A Love Letter

Dearest Final Fantasy 13,

I had heard the rumors, slandering you on the internet. They called you a disappointment, they said you were linear and shallow, and that you shame your family's good name.

Do not listen to them, sweet Final Fantasy 13, you are a masterwork of Creation. Your beauty knows no bounds; no game on this earth has finer cutscene assets, masterfully integrated with your sleek gameplay.

And you are more than just your luscious pixels, my love. They complain that you are linear, that they cannot explore you freely, like the perverted spelunkers that they are. But what of it? Why must you open yourself up to their awkward groping of your world?

You are a storyteller. You weave epic yarns that lesser games cannot appreciate or imitate, and you can damn well tell them however you choose. By tightly controlling where our hands may wander, you lead us on a well-paced journey, with a non-linear narrative structure that tickles our minds and pulls at our heartstrings.

So you have no useless towns or ubiquitous NPCs to quip about how times are tough; you don't need them to immerse us in your world. For that you give us people, a cast of characters more well-defined than we have ever seen from your disapproving ancestors. It is your soul, it is your empathy for a group of characters brought together, for once, under believable circumstances, their interpersonal conflicts realistic and on display, that attracts me to you so.

And to say that you are shallow, that you offer us too little to do together, this is just picky, worthless whining. Know that I'm glad of your honesty, my love, you needn't play mini-games with me, nor waste my time by hiding collectible garbage for me to seek out if I wish to win your heart. You offer me deep character customization, and a frenetic, exciting, and yet deeply strategic battle system.

When we play at combat, you and I, the experience is more intense and pleasurable than they can fathom. You are so smart, my dear, you always know the best commands for our little group, so long as we have learned an enemy's weaknesses. I can rest easy leaving to you what specific actions the team will take, and though you are not selfish, and you will let me decide for myself if I so desire, I would rather focus on the high-level strategy so that our cooperation becomes a lithe dance of death and destruction.

They may say you play yourself, and in their lurid fantasies perhaps you do, but you and I know better, my love. We know that if I leave you to handle the group's commands, I can focus on the best way to stagger our foes, leaving them weakened and defenseless to our joint assault. We know that with you handing out orders, I can pay attention to how the battle unfolds without being overwhelmed, and I can shift the entire party's combat roles at a moment's notice to respond to changes in the tactical situation.

Do not let them break your beautiful spirit, my lovely game. You may be different, you may not be what they expected, but you are still a lovely soul, on both the inside and the out.

I love you Final Fantasy 13, and I wouldn't change our time together for the world.

Devotedly yours,
Chris Ciupka

Filed under: Games 1 Comment
10Mar/100

More Civ 5 Info Emerges

Looks like with GDC in full swing, Civilization 5 previews are starting to show up.

There isn't a lot of info yet, but what little I've seen sounds interesting, with the biggest change being that only one unit is now allowed per tile, meaning no giant stacks of units moving across the map. This also means that you should be able to set up a unified front more easily to stop the enemy from getting through.

Here's one pretty good article talking about the changes revealed so far.

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8Mar/100

How To Ruin A Perfectly Good Game

I'm a big Battlefield fan, in fact, the Battlefield series is probably my favorite series of first-person shooters. I've always preferred them to other offerings due to their huge open outdoor levels, large-scale engagements, vehicles, and squad dynamics.

There hasn't been a decent PC entry in the series for a while, or at least, the last one I played was Battlefield 2142. So I was pretty excited about the newest game, Battlefield Bad Company 2, which not only has the features of earlier PC Battlefield games, but also adds destructible buildings to the mix. I preordered it, played the beta a bit, and started playing the real deal with some friends last week.

It's a damn fun game. The core shooter mechanics are solid, there are a great number of weapons and gadgets to unlock for each of the four classes, and the squad gameplay is more satisfying than ever, particularly since you can now spawn on any of your squadmates after you die.

Unfortunately, as fun as the actual game is, absolutely everything surrounding the game experience is completely horrible. The number of bugs and outright broken features I have encountered while trying to play this game is mind-boggling.

Below is a non-exhaustive list of the worst offenders.

The Server Browser

The server browser is terrible. Every time I open it, it takes forever to actually populate with games, although I can cancel the updating process to get a partial list more quickly. Attempting to use any of the filters to find a server to my liking (such as filtering for servers with Seattle in the name, or ones that are neither full nor empty) causes the list to immediately go blank and never recover unless I refresh the whole thing again.

It doesn't help that the server history and favorites features are broken. My history tab shows five servers I played on a week ago, and no matter how many new servers I go to, they never end up in history anymore.

The favorites tab is useless because my History is broken, so I can't favorite servers from there, and for some insane reason you can't favorite a server while you are playing on it, so the only way I could favorite a server would be to find it in the browser (which I can't filter) and favorite there before ever playing on it.

The only way for me to consistently find decent servers to play on is therefore the friends list, where you're supposed to be able to join the servers your friends are playing on.

Unfortunately, the friends list is buggy. When you attempt to add someone as a friend, chances are they either will never get the request, or they'll get it days later. Even after finally getting someone added, I've encountered a situation where even when my friends are online (and I can see they are in-game in Steam), the friends list says they are offline.

Thankfully, somehow, even though they are "offline" I can still join the server they are playing on. Go figure.

Voice Chat

I think voice chat was outright broken until recently, and now it sort of works, but the few times I tried to use it, people who tried to speak would break up so badly that I could only make out one out of every five or six words.

In a game where squad tactics are a big draw, this is a huge problem. I've taken to using the independent Steam voice chat when playing with friends, which means we can't communicate with any random people who might join our squad, and our overall effectiveness, and the fun of the game, are significantly reduced.

Crashes

The game crashes all the time for me. Sometimes it's a crash to desktop, without any warning or any repercussions, I'm just suddenly staring at my wallpaper, and forced to restart the game and hope the server my friends are playing on hasn't filled up. Other times, it will freeze, and leave me staring at a blank screen until I go to process manager and kill it.

It's such a shame that these fundamental issues make it so hard for me to join a decent game or keep playing once I do. Like I said, the game itself is a ton of fun, and even despite all the problems, I spent a good number of hours this weekend honing my rather poor shooter skills.

Bad Company 2 is a case study in how not to release a PC game, this kind of stuff is killer, turning off huge numbers of people who aren't as resilient as I am. Who cares how good your game is if a ton of people who paid for it can't even play it?

On top of that, a lot of this stuff is based around problems that should be solved by now. It's 2010, and the number of shooters that have managed to ship with working server browsers must be in the hundreds by now.

If EA and DICE couldn't fix these problems themselves, they shouldn't have tried, they could have gotten Steam integration into the game and let Valve solve their problems for them.

Filed under: Games No Comments
4Mar/101

Boarding Party: Part 2 of 2

Check out Part 1, to read about Pandemic, Chrononauts, and Dominion.

Race for the Galaxy

Race for the Galaxy is another competitive solitaire game, and if you've never played similar games like Puerto Rico or San Juan (as I hadn't when I first sat down to play it) you may find it incredibly confusing. The rules to Race for the Galaxy are not easy to figure out if you're not playing with someone who's played before, and while the instructions are thorough, something about the way they're written makes it really hard to piece together what you should be doing.

Ironically, once you figure it out, it's the simplest game on this list to set up, and not a very difficult game to play. It is deep however, deep and satisfying.

The basic idea of the game is to build a space empire. It's a 4x computer game like Master of Orion in card game form, allowing quick, fascinating rounds of empire building. All players draw their hands from a single deck, and proceed to settle planets, build developments, and trade resources.

Ingeniously, all these mechanics use the same cards: to settle a planet, you put down the card for that planet, and you pay for it by discarding a certain number of cards from your hand. Developments, which are like buildings, improvements, or technologies, are built in the same way, while any planets that produce resources for trade are simply marked by putting a card face down on top of them when they have produced a resource.

The game proceeds in rounds, divided into phases, during the Explore phase, you can draw cards to replenish your hand, during the Develop and Settle phases, you can build, and during the Consume and Produce phases you can exploit resources to get victory points, or to trade them for extra cards for your hand. What makes this interesting is that not every turn will have all these phases, each player must select a phase at the start of a turn, and only those phases which were selected will be played. Additionally, while all players will get to play those phases, only the player who selected it gets a special bonus during that phase.

That's pretty much the gist of it, but it gets complicated in that most cards that you have played and added to your empire have special abilities that you can use during specific phases. Therefore, you can pursue different strategies for victory by building the right things. You can attempt to win by settling worlds, conquering military worlds, or building an economy to crank out victory points.

The deck has specific ratios of different cards, so if you're hardcore about it you can learn about great synergies between different cards and play the odds, but even if you don't really know what you're doing, it can be fun to see what all the different cards have to offer.

Part of what makes the game so interesting is that because cards are the fundamental resource, every decision you make is meaningful. If you decide to place a powerful card, you will have to spend much of your hand to be able to do it, and you will lose out on whatever benefits might have been waiting there.

I haven't had a chance to play that much of the game yet, but I really liked what I saw when I did, and can't wait to get a few more sessions in. I'd recommend it to anyone interested in deep strategy in quick, bite-sized games, but try to find someone who's played it before to teach you your first game.

Arkham Horror

Arkham Horror comes in a large box filled to the brim with cards, tokens, dice, and a gorgeous map of the town of Arkham. It's a strongly themed cooperative game, set in the Lovecraftian 1920's, where a team of investigators try to uncover and stop an ancient evil from awakening and swallowing the world.

The pieces that come with it are wonderful: little decks of item cards, spell cards, skill cards; player character portraits and character sheets; monster squares, life and sanity and clue tokens; all of them look great and give you something to hang on to for dear life.

You'll need that. This game is brutal.

Pretty much every mechanic of Arkham horror is designed to make you feel like a person royally fucked. Every turn, a new portal opens in town, and monsters come pouring out. Closing a portal not only takes at least 3 turns, but requires a rare item or one of your resources (clue tokens) to seal permanently. On top of that, whenever a portal opens, other bad things usually happen, like an environmental change that makes certain checks unlucky, or a rumor, which gives you a certain number of turns to meet a condition and prevent something horrible from happening.

I've only had a chance to play it two-player, and I definitely don't recommend playing with so few people.

With only two, you have to focus pretty much all your time to closing portals, which means you don't have a lot of time to do any of the other fun things the game has to offer, and which you probably have to do if you want to be able to survive. Moving around the map, you can participate in unique encounters in every location, drawn from one of the location decks, which can net you money, items, allies, healing, or any number of other useful things.

They can also lead to a horrible death, but pretty much everything in this game can.

I have to say that despite playing with only two people (and subsequently having to... modify the rules a bit, especially since it was the first time either of us was playing), I had a lot of fun with Arkham Horror. It's a long, epic game, more like a contained RPG that doesn't need a GM than your typical board game. The attention to detail is simply fantastic, with great art and writing to get you in the mood.

I would recommend it to someone looking for a long, epic cooperative game, and with a group of at least 4-5 people willing to stay for the long haul. With the right group and the right attitude, this game will give you a suitable simulation of fighting for your life.

Filed under: Board Games, Games 1 Comment
1Mar/101

Boarding Party: Part 1 of 2

Complex European-style board games have become more common and more mainstream lately, with the best-known examples probably being Settlers of Catan and Ticket to Ride. Ironically, I haven't played either of these in person, although I do own the Xbox Live Arcade version of Catan, and have had quite a bit of fun with it.

A while back, Soren Johnson wrote a post rating some prominent games, and after reading it, I became curious to play some of them. Incidentally, a friend of mine also started showing an interest in board games, and so it happened that we picked up several different games last week, and having now tried them out I'd like to offer you my impressions.

In order to do all the games justice without making this too long to be enjoyable, I'm splitting this into two posts, the second of which will be up on Thursday.

Pandemic

Pandemic is a cooperative game where up to four players must work together to find the cure for four deadly viruses before they overwhelm the world. A cooperative game meshes well with my reasons for playing games, and the setup is certainly an intriguing one, so Pandemic was a game I was eager to try.

As Soren notes in his appraisal of the game, the theme fits very nicely with the mechanics, as you feel constantly overwhelmed and pressed for time to cure all the diseases before one of the many losing conditions is reached. Furthermore, I found the cooperative aspect very satisfying, discussing our options on each player's turn, and planning actions for the upcoming turns to be able to trade cards needed to cure a disease or to fly to a particularly overrun part of the world quickly.

Because outbreaks of the virus happen as a result of cards drawn from an infection deck, and all the cards drawn so far are reshuffled and placed on top of the infection deck periodically, you can predict where the virus will strike next, and try to plan your actions with the other players to minimize the damage. Planning correctly, and preventing a major outbreak is very satisfying, while a careless decision, or just plain bad luck can lead to a chain of outbreaks that quickly spirals out of control.

I would recommend Pandemic to anyone interested in a strong cooperative experience where working together brings rich rewards and failing to do so leads to the end of human civilization.

By the way, if you end up playing it, keep in mind that you don't need to actually wipe out the infections from all cities to win, and can instead just find all four cures while leaving some cities infected. When we started out we thought you had to wipe out all traces of the virus, and consequently spent too much time eradicating every trace of it to be able to win.

Chrononauts

Chrononauts is a time traveling card game, easy to set up and easier still to play. Each player is given an identity from an alternate universe (for instance, one where JFK was never assassinated and the Titanic never sank), as well a mission to collect three specific artifacts.

To win, a player must either have 10 cards in his hand, obtain and play all three artifacts from their mission card, or modify the timeline in such a way that it matches the alternate universe from his ID card. Players draw a card from the deck each turn, and can then play a card from their hand to either modify the timeline, patch prior changes to it, or do all sort of crazy things like swapping hands with another player, or looking ahead in time (searching the deck for a specific card to put into their hand).

The game is interesting primarily because of the many different time-travel themed abilities that you can perform with the various cards, but it doesn't hold up very well with just two people, like we were playing it, because any time a player changes the timeline or does something else sneaky, you immediately know that he is doing something towards one of his winning conditions, and so the game becomes a fairly simple back-and-forth.

I think that with three or four players, Chrononauts would get to be a pretty crazy game of constantly-shifting history, and I believe the game supports up to seven, so if you have a decently-sized group of people to play with I recommend giving it a go.

Dominion

I am very impressed with Dominion's core mechanic, it takes a card game like Magic: The Gathering, and makes the deck-building aspect a part of the game, rather than something you do as part of the setup. Each player starts with the same deck of 10 cards, draws five of them each turn, and can then spend treasure cards from his hand, which are worth different values of coins, to buy other cards to put in his deck.

Treasure that is spent buying cards doesn't go away though, it just goes back into the deck, which is shuffled every time it gets too small to draw the next turn's hand of five cards. This means that you are buying more valuable treasure cards to in turn buy more expensive action cards, which you can play before the buy phase of your turn for all manner of interesting effects. As your deck gets bigger and bigger, your ability to anticipate what hand you will be dealt decreases, since you still only draw five cards each turn (unless you play action cards that let you draw more).

The entire game is based on the idea of building your deck, and it follows the competitive solitaire model where each player is playing for himself, not directly affecting the other players most of the time (though there are action cards that hinder your foe's ability to play out his turn how he might like, or make him throw cards out of his deck). To win, players must buy land cards like Provinces which give Victory Points that are added up at the end of the game, but each land card is a tradeoff, since it's an essentially useless card in your deck and the good ones cost a lot of coins to buy.

The final piece of Dominion that makes it so interesting is that the action cards available for sale differ from game to game. There are 20-something different types of action cards, and only 10 are used in any single game of Dominion, which means that no two games will play out exactly the same way, and not all games support the same strategies. For instance, it's entirely possible that the available action cards will not include any that let you draw extra cards in a turn, which would greatly change the whole dynamic of the game.

I would recommend Dominion to pretty much anyone. It's not particularly difficult to learn, it's easy to play, and it has some really cool mechanics that will tickle your brain as you try to come up with the best strategies suited to the circumstances of that game session.

Come back Thursday for Part 2 of this post, where I will discuss Race for the Galaxy and Arkham Horror.

Filed under: Board Games, Games 1 Comment
25Feb/100

Re-RPGing Mass Effect 2

This should be my last post about ME2, I feel like I've said most of what I have to say about it at this point, but I did want to share my thoughts on some aspects of the game that I feel Bioware simplified too much.

The one thing I would bring back from the original Mass Effect is the inventory system. Mass Effect 2 essentially doesn't have an inventory, and instead periodically awards you pieces of armor for different body parts, and a very limited number of new weapons that are pretty much just obvious replacements for your starting guns.

While customizing your armor is neat, it takes away the unique aspects of different suits of armor, instead having each little piece give a small bonus to HP, or Shields, or Biotic Damage. It also takes away armor classes, which means that no matter what character class you play, you'll always have pretty similar protection, rather than the light, medium, or heavy protection afforded by different armors in the first game.

Loot is an important part of the character improvement you expect in an RPG, and if done right, it doesn't have to be the mess it was in the original game.

Less Is More

A revised inventory system should avoid duplicates. In the original game, you would end up with 10 Phoenix IV armors, for instance, or 20 Toxic Rounds VI weapons mods. I would bring back armor, weapons, and weapon mods as items, but I would only let you get one of each type.

If you acquired, say, the Phoenix Light Armor Mark I, you would never find another such suit, nor would you find Phoenix Light Armor Mark II or any other upgrades. Instead, these would literally be upgrades, so that if you really liked the sort of stats that the Phoenix Light Armor emphasized, you would find schematics to upgrade it to Mark II, Mark III, etc.

In this way, you wouldn't end up with a crowded inventory, because each type of item would only take up one slot, but each item could also have cool unique properties that would make you want to upgrade it if it was your tool of choice. Maybe the Phoenix Light Armor can bring you back from the brink of death one time in a firefight (via magical biotic adrenaline or whatever), and has an especially good biotic defense. If that appeals to you, you would devote your resources to upgrading that model, and maybe let other models you have access to fall behind, at least until you get more resources or more upgrade schematics for those items.

The same would be true of weapons and weapon mods, you would only have one such item in your inventory, but that would just represent the fact that you can outfit your team with those items, not that you only have one instance of it. This way, you could still outfit multiple weapons with the same (upgraded) weapon mod, and give your team members upgraded weapons and armor (though more on this in a minute).

The key to this, of course, is that the game must have a wide variety of interesting armors, weapons, and mods for you to find. Bioware completely ignored this aspect in Mass Effect 2, maybe giving you one piece of mediocre "loot" per story mission, and not having enough variety in weapons that you would ever want to use the starting shotgun once you got the tier 2 version.

Instead, give us unique shotguns with stats that matter, whether that's firing rate, accuracy, knockback... look at Borderlands, there is a game that randomly generates weapons that feel fresh and unique without just being obvious linear upgrades.

Mass Effect 2 already allows you to upgrade things like overall shotgun damage, so instead, let us upgrade individual weapons and armor, so that we can customize our offense and defense how we choose, using whatever unique items we prefer.

The Party Problem

There is one aspect to this design that I am ambivalent about: whether you should be able to equip your teammates, like you could in the original game, or if you should only be able to impact it a little, like in the sequel.

On the one hand, equipping your party in the cool items you have found can be satisfying, and it lets you customize their performance. On the other, it also makes for a lot of unfun micromanagement.

In Mass Effect, I only used one team after a certain point, I never swapped out Liara or Wrex simply because unequipping the great stuff they were wearing and equipping it on someone else was too much of a hassle. Because you could only choose weapons for your companions in Mass Effect 2, however, and their armor never changed, I ended up using all sorts of different team makeups in the sequel, and I feel that this definitely added to my enjoyment of the game.

Being able to take whatever party members you like without having to worry about their equipment lets you have a lot more role-playing fun: bringing along characters you might want to learn about, or whose reactions you'd like to see to specific events.

I think that having the sort of inventory I described above, where you would only see one instance of a piece of armor, but could equip it to as many party members as you like, would make it so that you could still keep your whole roster's equipment up to date pretty easily, and so it wouldn't hurt to let you equip them.

Ultimately, though, I think this is the sort of thing that should come out in testing, and if it turned out to still stifle the ability to take any team you want, I wouldn't be opposed to just limiting the armor switching to your main character like Mass Effect 2 does.

Filed under: Game Design, Games No Comments
23Feb/100

Such Great Heights

Open world games have grown increasingly popular since Grand Theft Auto 3 was released. The huge, open city of that game, combined with a fully 3D perspective, really got people excited about the idea of go-anywhere, do-anything emergent gameplay. GTA 3 had missions, but they weren't really the point for most players, who instead spent their time wreaking havoc on the artificial populace of Liberty City.

Technology and time have marched on, and these days there are open world games of all sorts, not all confined to cities (though urban settings remain popular), the present day, or even our blue planet.

I'm a big fan of these sorts of games; I enjoy finding my own brand of fun within the confines of the world a game creates. I do have an annoyance with them, however, a pet peeve that makes me lose interest and often stop playing once it rears its ugly head.

The annoyance I speak of, is restriction on vertical freedom of movement.

Have fun getting down from there...

I don't know why, but when a game gives me an open world to explore, I demand to be able to explore every bit of it, and that includes the bits that are really, really high up. Nothing gives me a greater joy than being able to fly around and get on top of buildings, mountains, whatever precipitous projections the game can offer me.

Getting on top of things can be accomplished in many ways, depending on the game. In Assassin's Creed, I had a lot of fun climbing things, long after the game's core objectives lost my interest. In Crackdown, I never got tired of jumping my way up the sides of enormous skyscrapers.

Somehow, I want to be able to get on top of things, and then, I want to be able to jump off!

This is where many games fail me, however. Even a critically acclaimed game like GTA 4 lost my interest at one point, because while it let me steal helicopters and explore the airways of Liberty City, I would inevitably get stuck on top of some building, or jump out of my helicopter to cause a spectacular disaster, and I'd have no way to get down without dying.

There came a time, while I was playing GTA 4, where all I did was repeatedly steal choppers, cause mayhem, die, and steal more choppers. It was a lot of fun, but the constant return trips to steal more helicopters, and the constant deaths, eventually made me lose interest.

I couldn't understand why GTA 4 didn't have parachutes, or some other way to get down from heights safely. Even its predecessor, San Andreas, had included parachutes for intrepid daredevils such as myself, and it's worth noting that the DLC for GTA 4 did add them later on, but I didn't really have any desire to go back to the game and buy the DLC.

I think a parachute or a glider is the perfect companion in this sort of game. I love nothing more than to sail serenely over the landscape, surveying my stomping grounds from on high. A game that can give me vertical freedom, both in going up and getting down, is a game I can enjoy immensely, even if it has other flaws.

Now that's what I'm talking about!

Just Cause is a perfect example: a deeply flawed game, with boring core gameplay where you assault identical villages to liberate them, and iffy controls for driving and shooting.

And yet, I found a ton of fun to be had in Just Cause, because I could ignore all the missions and other distractions, and instead climb hills and mountains covered in lush jungle.

I could steal planes or helicopters and fly high into the sky. And above all, I could soar above the archipelago of the game on my parachute, snagging onto cars with my trusty grappling hook to stay in the air.

I wonder if I'm the only one who enjoys the freedom of open virtual air so much. What about you, gentle reader? Do you value vertical freedom in open world games? Are you ever frustrated by the limitations that games impose on you in the third dimension? Can you think of some games that are particularly good (or especially bad) about this?

Filed under: Gameplay, Games No Comments
18Feb/101

All I Have To Say Is… Civilization 5!

 

Civilization 5 exists! And it looks pretty!

I'm excited! So excited! Civilization 5 was announced today, with a release date of Fall 2010. I wasn't expecting to see a new Civilization game this year, since there haven't really been any rumors to that effect, so I guess they did a good job keeping it quiet.

I make no secret of the fact that Civilization 4 is one of my favorite games ever; in my opinion it took everything that the series had done up to that point and really distilled and refined the hell out of it:

  • It solidified the concepts of borders and culture, which had been added in Alpha Centauri and Civ 3, but hadn't been as fully integrated into the design as they should have been in those games.
  • It adopted and adapted Alpha Centauri's civic system, allowing greater and more satisfying customization of your society.
  • It even worked to resolve the problem of city spam in earlier games, where building tons of cities right next to each other was the optimal strategy, by making a smaller number of specialized cities the way to go, which is the way I had always wanted to play.
  • It had extensive modding support built in, which led to excellent fan modifications like the critically acclaimed Fall From Heaven II.
  • The design centered on a functional multiplayer from the very beginning, which ensured that it wasn't buggy and useless like it had been in some of the previous games.

Civilization 4 really is a gem, I still play it to this day, and play it online all the time with an old friend of mine.

With that in mind, I am really excited to hear about a new Civ game... but I'm also a little bit worried.

My primary concern is that the design of Civ 4 was spearheaded by Soren Johnson, whose blog you can see prominently linked to on the right there and whom I mention as a sort of inspiration of mine on my "about me" page. Soren Johnson no longer works for Firaxis however, he joined EA to work on Spore a few years back, and while I'm sure Firaxis has plenty of talented people, I would feel much more at ease about this new entry in the series if he were the mastermind behind it.

The only entry in the series since Civ 4, the console Civilization: Revolution, had some interesting ideas, but was also a much more simplified version of the game, and that was a game designed by Sid Meier himself! As far as I understand, Sid is now working on the Facebook "social networking" version of Civilization, so I assume some other promising designer is in charge of Civ 5. Whoever that is, I wish them luck, and hope they can pull off a really great followup to one of the greatest games ever.

Wild Speculation!

We don't really know much about the game at this point, the official site linked above doesn't really have any meaty details, and there are only three screenshots, though they look very pretty. However, I'm going to take the time to do some speculating on how the game will differ from Civ 4, based on those screenshots.

The biggest takeaway from the shots is definitely the fact that the game uses hexes instead of a square grid, a first for the Civ series! This may seem like a drastic change, but it really isn't; the previous game used a square grid, but since you could move freely on diagonals, it was really more of an octagonal grid in disguise.

From the screenshots, it looks like cities will still have a radius of two tiles that they can work, though now that will mean two hexes out, instead of the old "fat cross" setup of the previous games. I infer that that's how it will work from the city in the screenshot above, which seems to be working a forest hex south-east of the city center and one hex away from it.

Units look like they have a lot more soldiers in them, which might just be a stylistic decision to make them look more realistic, or they may be adapting the army mechanic from Civilization: Revolution, where you could merge several units of the same type to create a single army unit, combining all their strength together. If they did adapt the army mechanic, that would be a major change to how the PC game plays, and I'm not averse to it, since I thought that was one of the more interesting additions to the console version.

My last major takeaway from the screenshots is that there are still resources on the map (like horses and cows), and it looks like you can still claim them with an improvement like you could in Civ 4, so I'm hoping that goes largely unchanged from the last game. One thing I'm not clear on though is if you even can still build improvements, or if they've gone with the system from Revolution, where a square worked by a city looks like it's improved, but you can't actually build a farm on a hex, or a mine, or a windmill.

I really hope they haven't done away with improvements like they did in the console game. It may sound silly, but having a ton of improvements at my disposal, letting me modify my empire's territory as I see fit, was a key feature of earlier games for me. I loved developing my land and optimizing my cities to be as efficient as possible, more than even the diplomacy or war aspects. I was very pleased with the number of terrain improvements they added in Civ 4, somewhat reflecting the crazy terraforming possibilities in Alpha Centauri, like the borehole: a giant strip mine drilled down into the planet's crust.

So yes, it's really too early to tell exactly where they're going with this game, but we can see how wrong my speculation turns out to be in the months to come.

I really do hope they're not going the "massive simplification" route to make it more accessible, though. We PC gamers like our strategy titles to have plenty of juicy complexity, and it would be a shame if they failed to take the computer's strengths into account when making this game, and made it too much like the last console title.

Filed under: Game Design, Games 1 Comment
15Feb/102

Anecdotal Interface Fail

The original Mass Effect had massive interface issues. Pretty much every screen in that game had at least one glaring fatal flaw, something that these fantastic articles go into in-depth.

Mass Effect 2 fares better in this regard, though its complete lack of an inventory mitigates the need for UI significantly, which in turn makes it harder to screw up as royally as the first game.

Nonetheless, the game still managed at least one epic interface fail, and it's enough of a head scratcher that I felt obligated to share it here.

Mission Incomprehensible

One of Mass Effect 2's (mostly excellent) side missions involves stopping a couple of missiles from being launched, in order to save a colony.

Unfortunately, it turns out that you will only be able to stop one missile, and you must choose between saving the living area or the industrial area. If you save the living area, you will save thousands of lives, but they will need to be evacuated since the colony will no longer be able to sustain itself. If you save the industrial area, the colonists will die, but the colony will remain viable and can be resettled in no time.

Clearly, one of these is the "Renegade" choice and the other the "Paragon," and you can safely assume that the choice you make will have some sort of impact in Mass Effect 3 (though if the "impact" of the first game's choices on Mass Effect 2 is any indication, then all you'll get is a strongly worded e-mail).

Regardless, it's a fun mission, and having to make a big decision at the end is cool; what's not cool is the UI they cooked up to let you make that decision.

Here's how it works: you're presented with a typical list of two different choices Save the Colony or Save the Factories. It's a typical list, where you can use the D-pad to highlight one choice or the other. When you highlight a choice, the text on the right changes to explain the choice more closely, just in case you're not sure which one to highlight in order to get your desired result.

So that's pretty easy right? What could go wrong?

So, I highlighted the Save the Colony option, and hit A to confirm it.

Imagine my surprise when the mission summary told me that I had chosen to save the factories, sacrificing thousands of colonists.

Since that hadn't been my intention, I replayed the mission just so I could look at that screen again and try to figure out what I'd done wrong. I beat the mission, got to the choice, and everything was exactly as I'd thought, I'd even highlighted the correct choice in the list.

And then I glanced down at the context-sensitive buttons at the bottom of the screen, which you would expect to say something like:

A. Confirm
B. Cancel

Instead, the button prompt says this:

A. Save the Factories
B. Save the Colony

In other words, that list, the one where you can highlight either Save the Factories or Save the Colony? Yeah, it serves no purpose, and in fact, if you highlight a choice and then hit A to confirm it, like you would anywhere else in the game, you will choose to kill the colonists every time.

Wow. Just... wow.

Clearly they had no idea how they wanted to present this choice, and someone probably decided to change it at the last minute, instead bungling the whole thing. This is why it pays to have someone actually design the UI, Bioware.

I'm just saying.

Filed under: Game Design, Games 2 Comments
11Feb/102

Mixed Bag of Mass

I finished Mass Effect 2 this past weekend, though I've been putting off this post since I have some pretty mixed feelings about it.

I should start by saying that Mass Effect 2 is likely a better game overall than the original Mass Effect. It has a much more satisfying combat system, far fewer egregious face-palm design decisions, and it's a bigger, longer, and more mature effort than the original.

Somehow, despite all these things, I don't think I enjoyed the experience as much as I did the original game (the second time I tried playing it, at least), so let's see if I can explain my feelings on the subject.

Spectres of War

When I first talked about Mass Effect, I mentioned that it compared very poorly to Gears of War, the other third-person shooter based on the Unreal Engine. Mass Effect 2 does not suffer from this problem, it is a very capable shooter, perhaps too capable seeing as many of the RPG elements have been "streamlined" away. However, shooting does feel good, the cover system is far more intuitive, and battles now consist of prolonged but exhilarating engagements where your team and your enemies effectively use cover to stay safe, unlike the first game where the poor AI would lead to chaos as enemies charged you head-on and allies stood around shooting walls.

Despite a much lower number of abilities for your characters to invest in, the combat often feels more tactically interesting than it did in the first game. Enemies can now have defenses on top of their ordinary health bars, extra bars of Armor, or Shields, or Biotic Barriers. Each of these must be stripped from enemies before their primary health bar, and enemies can have more than one defense.

The fact that many biotic powers won't work on an enemy with a specific defense, and all power and weapons are particularly good at stripping one or two types of defenses, means that there is a much greater incentive to use all the weapons and powers at your disposal, unlike the first game where once you maxed out a weapon or power of choice, there was little reason to use the others.

It helps that there are now far fewer abilities to actually spend your skill points on when you level. Each ally only has three abilities to invest in, and one special ability unlocked if you do their loyalty quest. Your Shepard also only has about four abilities from his or her class, and can be customized around mid-game by adding one extra ability: any of your allies' special abilities that you have already unlocked.

I actually think that pretty much all the changes to the combat system and character classes are good. The first game had too many abilities, some of which were useless, and the classes all had overlapping abilities that made them feel bland. Now each class and each companion feels more or less unique, with very few sharing the same abilities, and the abilities themselves feel like they improve more substantially and change as you put points into them. I think every class will play very differently in this game.

Loot-Lite

Although I feel that streamlining combat was probably a good move, I think Bioware went too far with it as far as inventory is concerned. One of the key parts of an RPG is getting awesome stuff for your characters: loot, in other words, and Mass Effect 2 doesn't really massage that "Yay! New loot!" part of the brain.

You can find pieces of armor for your Shepard to wear, which does lend a nice bit of customization, but the fact that the pieces aren't very different, both in looks and utility, and the fact that there are no class restrictions means that you'll probably find one arrangement that you kinda like, and use it for any character you create.

Weapons don't really do it either, there are only two types of most weapons (two types of pistol, two types of assault rifle, etc.) though shotguns and sniper rifles also let you specialize into a third special version partway through the game.

Anyway, I've got a whole 'nother post in my head where I detail how I would fix this for Mass Effect 3 without creating the kind of mess that the original game had, so stay tuned for that.

Not Very Romantic

I don't like the way Bioware handled the transition from Mass Effect 1 to 2.

They tout how they load your choices from your Mass Effect save, and how your original decisions impact the sequel, but really, very few of those decisions matter at all. You'll meet some people you might not have killed, and you'll get e-mails from others, and dialogue will change appropriately based on what you did with the Council in the first game, but there is deliberately so little overlap between the casts and settings of these games, that those things never really feel significant.

This is particularly a shame as far as your allies from the first game are concerned. You'll see them again, sure, and you'll even get a couple into your party again, but if you had a romance in the first game, if you developed an attachment to whomever you got naked with in Mass Effect 1, you can rest assured that you'll be disappointed with who they have become in Mass Effect 2.

To make up for that, the game gives you a big cast of new allies to play with, and more of them are romanceable than ever before. Particularly, I found that you could have a relationship with quite a few of the aliens on your ship, which was interesting, if a little odd.

Don't get me wrong, I really like all the new characters introduced in this game, but it's still disappointing that you can't go be with your lover from the first game, and having new options is great and all, until you realize that once Mass Effect 3 comes around, you'll probably be seperated from them again, and forced to pick from yet another heroic harem.

Galactic Plastic Surgery

The universe has changed, and not necessarily for the better.

On the bright side it has, ironically, gotten darker. The world of Mass Effect 2 is not the naïve, idealistic universe of its predecessor, and the tone is reminiscent of the recent Battlestar Galactica remake. One new feature you won't find on the back of the box is swear words, which means that people in dire situations won't shy away from the casual "fuck" or "shit," and certain characters in particular are fond of expletive-ridden diatribes, which fits their personalities nicely.

I approve. That's how real people often express themselves, so it lends verisimilitude to the world.

On the not-so-bright side, I felt throughout that the transition from the first game's narrative to the second's was not smooth at all. The changes, additions, and revelations you encounter often felt jarring, and it never really felt like they'd planned for them when they wrote the first game. For example, in Mass Effect you encountered a xenophobic Human organization called Cerberus, and had to foil several of their plots and nasty experiments. In Mass Effect 2, not only do you find yourself working directly for Cerberus, but they try to retcon said experiments away as "rogue factions within Cerberus."

The fact that you work for Cerberus is actually brought about in a pretty convincing manner, and you do have the chance to treat them with hesitation and mistrust throughout the game, but the attempts to soften them up as an organization, to make it seem that maybe they were just mistunderstood really stuck out to me, and made me feel like Bioware didn't really know where they were going with this world.

An even more jarring example is the Collectors, the main antagonist race of the sequel. They were never mentioned in the first game, not even implied or foreshadowed, but in Mass Effect 2 there are some major revelations regarding these guys, the Reapers, and the Protheans, and while said revelations are interesting and potentially exciting, they never felt genuine because they came out of nowhere, and nothing in Mass Effect set them up.

These aren't the only examples either, a lot of the moments in Mass Effect 2 that should feel like big reveals, or epic twists, instead come off feeling contrived. I constantly felt like the writers' entire approach to the sequel consisted of "let's take something we established in the first game, and then say it was totally the opposite all along!" That sort of thing could work, if it had been foreshadowed properly in the first game, but since none of it was, it just ends up feeling like a cop out for shock value.

Final Thoughts

I had a strange experience with Mass Effect 2. As a game, it is far improved from its predecessor, but as a narrative and an overall experience, it largely left me cold after the first few hours.

In the original game, you were an agent of the Council, and it felt like the fates or not just humanity, but all the races, the Citadel, and all the civilized universe were at stake. The game had tons of memorable moments: from the many reveals about the Reapers towards the end, to really emotionally moving scenes with amazing orchestral scoring, like your induction into the Spectres or your speech to the crew of the Normandy when you first became its captain.

The end of the game was perhaps one of the most epic conclusions to a game ever: a massive assault on the Citadel, and fleets of ships from all the races fighting in space while you fight Saren in the Citadel Tower.

Nothing in Mass Effect 2 gave me the same feeling that those moments in Mass Effect did. While the game kept going on about the massive stakes, and how you were likely going on a suicide mission, it never felt genuine to me, and the ending didn't have nearly the same impact either.

Part of it might be that Mass Effect 2 tries to be a more personal game; it's all about Shepard, the Normandy, and your crew. There are no big fleet maneuvers, no real interactions with the Council, Alliance, or other authorities. For some reason though, it doesn't affect me the way the original did, and maybe that's just me, maybe Your Mileage May Vary.

Mass Effect 2 is also obviously the middle part of a trilogy, it tries to be a bridge between the original game and Mass Effect 3, so perhaps it's no wonder that the plot isn't ultimately as interesting and compelling as the original; second chapters tend to turn out that way. Hopefully Mass Effect 3 will bring some of that magic back, some of that epic feel of a galaxy united against a common threat, and in the meantime, Mass Effect 2 at least provides some seemingly substantial choices towards the end, that should make things interesting when you import your save into Mass Effect 3.

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