Starhawk

The game I’ve been working on as a designer for the last couple of years was announced last night; the game is Starhawk. The official site is at www.starhawkthegame.com and there are some good screen shots and videos there.

Basically, though, we have a giant transforming robot. And here are some more screen shots for good measure:

Games of 2010

In years past, I would have dedicated an entire entry to each of the games that I liked the most over the span of a year, but I know I don’t have the time (nor particular love of that format) to do that this year. My favorite games of 2010, then, will instead be talked about in a long, rambly, largely unorganized list. I wish I could write entire entries about some of these games (and I may still at some point), but that’s unlikely to happen. So, for now, my favorite games of 2010:

Jump to: Vanquish :: Bayonetta :: Dragon Quest IX :: Halo: Reach :: Cladun :: ZHP :: Gravity Hook HD :: Metal Gear Solid: Peacewalker :: Lost Planet 2 :: Other

Vanquish
As a result of reading too much pre-release hype about Vanquish, I went into the game expecting a ridiculous, over-the-top, shoot-em-up-styled third-person shooter where speed, accuracy, and weapon choice were all that mattered. Upon playing the game for the first time, though, I was disappointed to discover how much of a role cover played in the game. I died a dozen or so times in my play-through of the first chapter of a game due to continually attempting to play the game more like The Club than, say, Uncharted or Gears of War. There were always moments where I was enable to enact the shmup-styled projectile absurdity that I went into the game hoping for, though, and that made the first half of my play-through of Vanquish more than enjoyable enough for me.

It wasn’t until I hit the 75% mark of the campaign that I realized how I was supposed to be playing Vanquish. It’s not a cover shooter, it’s a cover-to-cover shooter. If I was ever picking off an abundance of enemies in any given encounter from one single piece of cover, then I was, basically, playing the game wrong. The role of cover in Vanquish is solely to cool down your overheat bar (which is what your power slide, melee, and “bullet time” is based on) before you do another slide through the encounter space taking as many enemies as you can with you. And with this play style mindset, Vanquish is one of the most superb shooters I’ve played.

Much like the Halo series, Vanquish is also one of those games where playing on the harder difficulties makes the game much, much more enjoyable (and challenging). The one systemic aspect of Vanquish which remains a mystery to me, however, is the option to piecemeal weapon upgrades by collecting a weapon pickup for a weapon you have full ammunition for (with this method, three weapon pickups equals one weapon upgrade pickup). This design choice makes the most efficient play-through of the game require players to avoid using the weapons they actually want to use until they have maxed out the upgrade path. What’s more, weapons lose an upgrade rank whenever players die — something which is avoidable if you quit to the main menu at the time of death rather than just reload a checkpoint. These are curious design choices which I have yet to figure out a decent explanation for.

My minor issues with the game aside, Vanquish remains a great game with solid mechanics, great gunplay, gorgeous environments and effects, and an appropriately campy and absurd story.

Bayonetta
I’ve written about Bayonetta in the past and, really, my love of the game has not changed since I wrote that piece. The two active weapons that you can set for Bayonetta allow players to customize the “feel” of combat to an extent that isn’t replicated in any other game in the genre I’ve played. That PlatinumGames manages the fluidity it does given the variety of weapons and moves that the game has continues to impress and amaze me. The combat and movement from encounter-to-encounter in Bayonetta just feels so good and it all has such a remarkable energy to it.

While Bayonetta‘s story is entertaining and thoroughly campy and while Bayonetta herself is one of the most thoroughly clever and original characters to enter the game industry in ages, the integration of this story with the actual gameplay remains my sole issue with the game as a whole. The game sits alongside the Metal Gear Solid series as a poster child for how not to convey a narrative in a video game. The cut scenes are frequent and, what’s more, they are all surprisingly lengthy. As much as I enjoyed the whole experience my first time through the game, my subsequent play-through of the game was almost ruined by the frequency of the interruptions amidst such a superb pace of play through any given level.

Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies
Generally, when I play a JRPG, I only care about playing the games that are systemically complex or incredibly confusing or are simply well-made strategy RPGs. I care nothing for story or dialogue trees or anything like that, so most of the recent Final Fantasy games, Lunar, Dragon Age (not a JRPG, but it’s so long and dull that it felt worth mentioning) and so on are all remarkably unappealing to me. Dragon Quest IX — hereby referred to solely as dqicks — is not a particularly deep game. dqicks is, however, an incredibly well-designed, simply and solidly presented, and an exceedingly well-written game in areas that most games simply ignore quality writing in. dqicks also does something that, for whatever reason, a lot of JRPGs seem to ignore: the value of “loot” and the enjoyable aspects of putting a lot of cool-looking shit on your digital dude/dudette doll.

dqicks is spartan JRPG game design done better than, I think, any game before it. No particular aspect of it is complex, but all of the individual parts that compose the game come together well. The hallmark Level-5 shine only adds to the experience and the US release of the game has a brilliant translation full of charming puns and alliteration whether the text is in a dialog text box, combat updates, or ability/spell names. None of this is to say that the game doesn’t have some rough edges, the occasional grind-requiring section, or anachronistic design elements (like the ability to “miss” a target when casting resurrection), but it is, by and large, a remarkably solid game.

It’s a strange thing to commend a game on, but one of the aspects of properties that I enjoyed the most about dqicks is how “portable” it felt. It’s one of only a few DS/PSP games I’ve played over the years where I could play for five minutes or two hours and the game would, generally, feel like it was accommodating to either time window.

Halo: Reach
This one is simple: it’s a “best of” Halo, Halo 3, and Halo: ODST. The campaign feels surprisingly fresh, the multiplayer is exceptional, the dual-wielding has been removed, and it all looks very pretty.

Cladun: This is an RPG!
Cladun is, at times, my favorite game of the year. It is after the times where I only play Cladun for a ten-fifteen minute game session that I think this is the case. I still like it if I play it for more than a ten-fifteen minute session, but the game loses something when played for longer durations. It’s a PSP game, though, so I consider this a positive feature of the game.

The reason for Cladun‘s excellence in short bursts is that it’s a game made, primarily, for those condensed windows of gameplay. Any given level can take anywhere from thirty seconds to three minutes to complete, and a particularly lengthy level may take upwards of eight-ten minutes (though such instances are rare). The Cladun gameplay cycle is this:

  1. Choose which character you want to use.
  2. Update that character’s equipment.
  3. Update that character’s magic circle layout.
  4. Start a level and play through it fairly quickly in a Diablo-ish, action/RPG-ish manner.
  5. Finish the level, see which of the characters in the magic circle leveled up, and repeat as desired.

The “magic circle” is the primary factor in character development and customization and it is filled with a combination of other characters and various upgrade/customization elements. All characters that you place in a magic circle receives experience from a play-through of a level and, in practice, they basically act like shields around your active character that suck up damage on your front, rear, and sides. Once a given character (or pair of characters) in the magic circle dies, your main character becomes vulnerable to attacks from that side and when the main character runs out of health, he dies. What’s generally worse, though, is that when a character in the magic circle dies while playing through a level, you lose access to any upgrades that were dependent on that character’s mana pool. This could mean that your skills cost more to use, that you move slower, take more damage, and so on. It’s a remarkably clever — if a bit complicated and overwhelming at first — system.

Basically, Cladun is one of the most numerically-governed games I’ve ever played and, for this reason, I like it a lot. It also helps that the actual game systems and control response for the action/RPG dungeon gameplay are solid as well.

ZHP: Unlosing Ranger vs. Darkdeath Evilman
ZHP is a Rogue-like from the same studio that makes the Disgaea series; this should be enough of a description to convey what kind of tone, style, and feel the game has, I think. Beyond that, though, ZHP is the best Rogue-like I’ve ever played. It maintains the “if you die in a dungeon you lose all of your stuff” convention that most Rogue-like games adhere to, but what it changes is that there is a persistent character level and dungeons are not infinite. Every storyline beat has a lengthy dungeon that players go deeper and deeper into, but at some point that chapter of the narrative ends (at either a staircase or a boss battle) and the player goes back to the home base with all of the items/equipment that were found and any levels that were gained on that trip are added to the total character level.

The total character level allows persistent stat growth, but it’s on a much smaller scale than per-dungeon level growth. So, while dying is still a setback, it’s not the “screw everything” setback that these sorts of games generally elicit. And aside from this means of character development, ZHP also has the “shadowgram,” which is a grid-based representation of the character’s body that you can fill with items and boosters that all take their power from a different power source (one on the head, one on the torso, one on each earm, and one on each leg). And, to be honest, I still have yet to fully figure out how the shadowgram works and what allows me to sometimes place upgrades and be completely unable to place upgrades at other times.

In some ways, ZHP is a very similar game to Cladun, just with different goals and focuses. There are still an absurd amount of ways to customize your character, but now you’re focusing exclusively on one character and the goal is to make him as persistently powerful as possible through the “slow burn” total level-ups, statistical modifications to the character’s body in the shadowgram, and continuing to gather more and more powerful item. ZHP is, unlike Cladun, a game which is very easy to sink hours and hours of gameplay into in any given session. Since playing both games, I’ve come to think of them as companion pieces; one which excels in short-bursts and one which excels for long-sessions. This summation is somewhat unfair to ZHP, though, as it works just as well in short gameplay sessions as it does in long ones, it’s just hard to ever stop playing it after a few minutes.

If no one else has figured it out by now, I have an extreme amount of love for games which have a lot of numbers. And speaking of games with a lot of numbers…

Metal Gear Solid: Peacewalker
Peacewalker is a dreamy, portable combination of traditional Metal Gear Solid games, X-COM, and Monster Hunter minus the endlessly long cut scenes that the Metal Gear Solid series is generally known for. If this one-line description doesn’t sound like the best game ever then, well, I don’t know what does. Peacewalker is not the best game ever, but it is excellent.

What really struck me about Peacewalker was the approach that Kojima Productions took to making the Metal Gear Solid series work on a portable platform in ways that I don’t think Portable Ops succeeded in doing. Most of the missions in the game take no more than eight-ten minutes to complete and there is a surprising amount of variety in the type of missions that you can undertake. Some of the the missions are solo-friendly, others are designed more for co-op experiences, but most of the missions are somewhere in the middle. It’s all so very similar to the way that Monster Hunter is structured and this absolutely works in the Peacewalker‘s favor. Well, most of it anyway. Peacewalker has moments — almost all of which are related to boss battles — where the difficulty of the game and the amount of time a mission takes to complete seem to absolutely skyrocket before settling back down into the excellent groove where most of the game resides. This is not true of all boss battles, but the ones that it is true of are enough to drag the whole experience down a bit. That said, some of the boss vehicles are superbly designed and the ability to acquire them for your own private army is a nice touch.

The critical design change that Kojima Productions adopted for Peacewalker that manages to make the game far, far better than it would have been purely on its own merits in a more traditional Metal Gear Solid structure is the way that the Outer Heaven hub and in-mission gameplay work together. By knocking out (instead of killing) enemies you can choose to send them to Outer Heaven at which point they will join your ranks. Every enemy that joins your ranks has a particular set of skills and, depending on what a given soldier excels in, you can send that soldier to be a soldier, chef, researcher, medical worker, or mechanic. Soldiers can form mini-armies that you send out on missions for additional items/experience/”money”, chefs bolster the Outer Heaven food supply to support everyone, researchers allow you to developer new items and weapons, medical workers fix up injured soldiers, and mechanics can repair your personal Metal Gear (which I have yet to be able to use) or any vehicles that you acquired from boss battles. It’s an incredibly fun little metagame that serves as the backbone of the entire game. Also: numbers. Lots of numbers. I love it so much.

Gravity Hook HD
Even more so than Osmos and Canabalt, Gravity Hook HD is, in my mind, the benchmark for how to make a game for the iPhone. Any given session of the game is short enough to fit into the kind of downtime I’d have if I’m already pulling out my iPhone and the level of interaction it requires of me is perfect for what I’d want to be playing on my phone in public. It’s actually a surprisingly difficult game to get used to at first — and I remember telling people that the flash game felt better for the first few days I was trying to play Gravity Hook HD (the flash game is also unlockable, as I later found out) — but once that initial learning curve has been passed, it’s just a solid game that I always can rely on for being a quick shot of enjoyment.

Lost Planet 2
I’m firmly convinced that Lost Planet 2 is the most underrated AAA game of the year. It’s a true co-op game that almost requires you to have two-four players playing to get the most out of at least a handful of the missions throughout the game but, hell, I enjoyed the game a great deal playing it as a strictly single-player affair. It’s a solid third-person shooter with, yet again, a Monster Hunter flair to the whole game. It’s not particularly well-presented and has one of the worst interfaces I’ve seen in any game this year, but if you can get past that whole thing, Lost Planet 2 is a strange, varied arcade shooter with a fair amount of character customization possible as you get random pick-ups from giant enemies.

The slot machine is the devil, though, pure and simple. As you play through Lost Planet 2 you’ll acquire enough credits to be able to purchase a spin of the slot machine and, every time, you’ll get something new, but what you really want is a new weapon. And the game taunts you as the weapon icon scrolls by and, instead, you get a new Street Fighter IV-like “title” to attach to your personal license plate-like construct.

And it’s great.

Other
There were some other games I played this year that I can’t quite fully argue their excellence to others or even myself, but that I still find noteworthy. I also wanted a section to briefly mention games that didn’t originally come out in 2010 (or that I did not play until this year).

The first and best examples of this are Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days and Alpha Protocol. I’ve already written about Kane & Lynch 2, but I still feel it’s a series which has a lot of potential. If nothing else, the visual style and atmosphere of Kane & Lynch 2 alone are worth playing through the game for (but it’s also a pretty okay third-person cover shooter as well). Alpha Protocol has an amazing dialogue system and a host of decent ideas all of which are executed at a mediocre level. That said, Alpha Protocol is closer to the kind of action/RPG that I keep hoping Bioware will make some day; it’s interesting, works at times, and provides a lot of dialogue and gameplay choices that are actually interesting instead of the throwaway shooter segments and ridiculous paragon/renegade system of Mass Effect 2.

I also tremendously enjoyed aspects of Battlefield: Bad Company 2 (and, more recently, Battlefield: Bad Company 2: Vietnam). The single-player component of Bad Compnay 2, as I wrote about earlier this year, is a thoroughly disappointed change in design from the original Bad Company. Instead of a uniquely-Battlefield approach to a single-player mission (taking place in large, wide-open, mini-sandboxes), Bad Company 2 chose to move in a more heavily scripted, prescriptive Call of Duty-like mission design. It’s an experience which is saved solely by the excellent core systems which make the game up. The multiplayer of both Bad Company 2 and Bad Company 2: Vietnam is, however, absolutely superb. And the select button “spotting” mechanic which automatically marks a target for everyone on your team (or sets a squad order, depending on the context) is an incredibly clever feature.

I never got a chance to play Persona 3 when it was out Playstation 2, but with the reworked release of the game on PSP earlier this year I got my chance to play it. And, as everyone already knows, it’s great. It’s systemically deep, it’s got catchy music, the writing and universe is superb, and it’s simply a very well-made, unique, polished JRPG.

Some of my systemically favorite games that I played this year, though, all came from a Japanese studio called Sting Entertainment; specifically, Knights in the Nightmare, Riviera: The Promised Land, and Yggdra Union: We’ll Never Fight Alone. Each of these games is unlike any other game I’ve played before and they’re all remarkably well-designed considering how different they are from one another. Knights in the Nightmare is a SRPG combined with a bullet hell shmup. Yggdra Union is an SRPG card-based game where you have a variety of characters on a grid and you can only attack once per turn. Riviera is an item-based SRPG whose closest resemblance is Ogre Battle in terms of its combat flow, but with a character customization/development scheme based entirely on mastery of individual (and limited-use) items. I haven’t really played any of these games enough to do a proper write-up on them yet, but that will happen some day.

And that’s 2010.

Inaccuracy and Stakes in Kane & Lynch 2

Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days, much like Kane & Lynch, is a remarkable and flawed game.

The first half of Dog Days is a linear third-person shooter which treats its levels as a living space within which the player is constantly moving and adjusting his position as-necessary for reasons of additional cover, vantage point, or ammunition. The first two are nothing new for a current generation shooter; cover has been done to death by many a game. What’s fantastic, though, is how Dog Days works to recreate a big movie shootout: massive inaccuracy on both sides of an engagement and characters who are frequently changing up their weaponry entirely (not just reloading). Ammunition is not just a number on the HUD which is constantly non-zero but, rather, an actual resource which must be managed within an engagement as players burn through missed round after missed round. The firefights during these early segments of the game are more about bullets going everywhere than they ever are about the aim-adjust-headshot shooter loop.

It’s easy to see how players could be frustrated by this system: some of the core shooters in the FPS genre have always been about allowing those with the talent and skill and hand-eye coordination to dominate the playing field with accurate weapons (namely competitive shooters like Quake 3 and Unreal Tournament). And even the introduction of aim spread by more tactical shooters, and the more inaccurate aiming system of cover-shooters like Uncharted and Gears of War still provide a fair amount of aim control in one firing mode or another. Regardless of the actual scheme employed, the end result of shooters seems to come down to a single core tenet: provide players with a reasonable semblance of aim control and the ability to predictably (and reliably) take down several similarly-typed enemies. If variation is to be introduced into the system, it needs to come in the form of a different enemy, not a different tool.

Starting Dog Days, players are given the choice between varying types of sub-machineguns and pistols, neither of which have much stopping power nor accuracy. Every encounter in the introductory levels of the game becomes a two-sided round of whack-a-mole with one side popping up, draining a clip, then going back into cover to reload, and the other side then taking his chance. Eventually one side will get the hits necessary to take down the other side. And, given an infinite supply of ammunition, these encounters would look hilarious to all involved (especially given the extraordinary documentary-style camera/effects the game is presented with). There is no infinite supply of ammunition, though, so while an encounter initially starts with each side comically popping in-and-out of cover, the need for either more ammunition or a new weapon quickly takes center-stage and requires the player to venture out of his safe zone into the more treacherous “no man’s land” space in the middle of an encounter area. Cover is dodgier, vantage points are less obviously advantageous, and, worse still, the player doesn’t have an abundance of life to live through any sustained enemy fire. This system works incredibly well for Dog Days.

Instead of consistently and cleverly mixing up this system for the mid-to-late sections of the game, Dog Days, instead, makes the same critical mistake that Kane & Lynch 1 did: raises the stakes. And while there are no invasions on a capitol building in Havana with a small and disposable revolutionary army in tow, there are still helicopter battles. This time there are helicopter battles over downtown Shanghai in the middle of the afternoon. And, for reasons which confuse me, a level that takes place in a giant warehouse as Kane and Lynch fight off soldiers or something. It’s all incredibly painful to play as the memories of the excellent first half of Dog Days reside in one’s head. And to make matters worse, not only are there far higher “stakes,” but there are ludicrously more enemies and the weapons the player has access to are far more accurate and predictable and the game becomes solely a matter of: pop out, headshot, duck, pop out, headshot, duck, etc. Which works when the inner loop is a crisp and balanced set of systems, but that is a thing that Dog Days doesn’t have the benefit of.

Despite my issues with each individual game, I am still entirely of the mind that the Kane & Lynch series, now two games in, is an incredibly interesting and promising one which is severely overlooked. Dog Days‘ first three hours or so of gameplay was tremendously interesting and well-paced and I consider the game worth it for that alone. I just wish, like I have before, that the games would stop trying to top itself as players progress through them.

The Caged Destruction of Bad Company 2

Back when Battlefield: Bad Company 2 was in the early stages of its post-announcement period, the major feature of the sequel was “Destruction 2.0.” Which, really, is the kind of feature you’d find in a sequel to a game presumably utilizing Destruction 1.0. In an industry currently enthralled in the depths of iterative improvements on successful designs, I was expecting Bad Company 2 to just be more of what I dug about the original game, except now with its M rating I was also getting the in-world hit feedback (blood) that the Battlefield series has needed since its inception.

And, oh, how I dug Bad Company. The Battlefield franchise is one of my longest-running adorations in gaming. I, especially, sunk entirely too much time into Battlefield: Vietnam and Battlefield 2, but nothing that would compare to the amount of time I would spend playing Bad Company. I had a group of four or five friends, up to three of which would gather with me almost nightly for two-three straight months (an eternity in my attention span) and just jump online to play the same maps over and over. We developed an entire metagame out of Bad Company‘s “dog tag” feature, which awarded a player the dog tag of any victim killed with by a knife. We would hold comparisons at the end of a round based on which of us had acquired the dog tag with the most ludicrous name. And it’s Xbox Live, so the names were ever-so-reliable in their inanity.

The hook of the Bad Company ‘spinoff’ is two-fold: destruction and the “complete package” shooter (and, as it turned out, completely amazing audio). Destruction was always the selling point of Bad Company as a product. The ability to wreck the structural landscape made for a dynamic infantry combat experience that most games that claim “destruction” almost all thoroughly fail in delivering. This feature, combined with the ‘new’ (for the Battlefield franchise) Rush game mode which focused player attention on objective choke points, created a chaotic multiplayer pace filled with the kind of moments that make friends tell stories to one another the next day. If a target puts an obstacle in between you and him, the solution was almost always to switch to the grenade launcher attachment (which a number of guns had) and just blast away his safety net and kapow him in the face with a subsequent bullet. BC’s paramount feature was not the destruction, but the inevitability of vulnerability.

The quality of Bad Company‘s single-player component was not a selling point, but rather its existence in the greater whole of the game that was Battlefield: Bad Company. It was DICE’s first real attempt at making a full-on console shooter; a fleshed out single-player campaign combined with the franchise’s trademark multiplayer with a streamlined and improved approach to persistent rankings/stats and unlocks that started with Battlefield 2 and Battlefield 2142. As with any first attempt, the single-player was not on par with what the gaming public at the time wanted: the Call of Duty experience. BC treated its single-player in a way which befit the game’s design: lengthy, wide-open missions on suitably expansive maps. Players were given objectives and told to go get those objectives done, but the path and means players took to accomplish these objectives was left unspecified. If the player died, he was simply respawned at the last checkpoint while the battle waged on in his absence (there was no resetting of the game state). The narrative, too, was an appropriate level of camp in the modern war setting involving the search for gold amidst a building war between the United States and Russia. At one point in the game, one of the characters does a happy dance as he frolicks down a hill into an enemy encampment saying “There’s gold in them thar’ hills” (there actually was).

BC’s appropriately unique handling of its campaign was not as high-intensity and filled with the “holy shit” moments that the Call of Duty games have always thrived in. BC’s campaign was also filled with encounters that sometimes fizzled due to a poor player handling/approach of them as well as by a not insignificant amount of down-time between objectives. These are all qualities of the series that any Battlefield player knows well, though, and is part of the series’ charm (in my mind). The combination of intense, dynamic, unpredictable firefights with the exploration, traversal time, and the approach of a major encounter are hallmarks of the Battlefield experience. As such, BC’s single-player was not perfect, but who the hell cares.

DICE, apparently.

Bad Company 2 relishes in just how not-Modern Warfare, specifically Modern Warfare 2, it is. The characters take enjoyment in the occasional direct joke at MW2, promotional materials outside the game actively mock various parts of Infinity Ward/Activision’s promotional materials for MW2, and so on. The problem here is not that DICE is not allowed to make fun of Modern Warfare or any other shooter because, well, that’s hilarious for everyone. The problem is that the Bad Company 2 campaign is, ludically, little more than a Call of Duty knock-off.

The most notable difference between the campaigns of BC and BC2 are the absence of the open maps and the large enemy bases with variable approaches (with few exceptions). In their place, we have narrow corridors with very defined paths and easily-identifiable trigger bounds to advance the mission and spawn the enemies in the next area. When a player dies, now, he must restart the game from the last checkpoint in a game world that is similarly restarted (unlike BC’s persistent state). It’s a very faithful recreation of the style of design that overfloweth the bounds of the first-person shooter genre, and a disappointing change to the promising, if flawed, structure of the first game’s campaign.

By switching to the rail-heavy (though not rail-exclusive) single-player progression style, it is disallowing players from fully engaging in the mayhem the destruction allows for. With the player always moving forward, he never has to worry about being trapped in a building with his back to cover that can get blown away by nearby enemies. He is never trapped up in a house with enemies attacking from all directions. He rarely has the opportunity to rush into a base and end up in a situation where his limited cover transforms into no cover whatsoever, and the exhilaration of barely surviving that scenario. What BC2 doesn’t seem to realize is why Call of Duty and its ilk employ that style. The Call of Duty games are notoriously carefully scripted. Infinity Ward (and Treyarch) aim for a very defined, specific sort of experience and they have customized their toolset and game to deliver that experience. This is something they do exceedingly well — better than anyone else in the industry right now. That said, as any Call of Duty game with a somewhat large map and a vehicle or two have proved, the game systems are not well-suited to much behind the incredibly fast-paced, intense infantry combat.

Battlefield does not have this problem; its wide-open, modal gameplay has defined the series since Battlefield 1942. Bad Company, especially, should have no feelings of inadequacy or doubt. Its general gameplay systems combined with the very well-handled destruction made for memorable, incredible, and continually enjoyable gameplay experiences in multiplayer. The overall dynamism and level of quality in the single-player portion of BC wasn’t to the level of its multiplayer, but it was DICE’s first real attempt at a full campaign. Rather than iterate on the original’s promise, though, Bad Company 2 takes the route of the games it mocks and the end result is a cage which limits the kind of dynamic gameplay that comes out of the Bad Company series’ trademark destruction.

Doubt

Because I have deep-seeded mental issues and sometimes am prone to crazy bouts of productivity, I made a new video game (click to play!):

Much like Balance, Doubt was done in under a week using Unity and an entirely particle-driven visual aesthetic. Since the last couple of games I’ve worked on (Magnetic Butterfly and Balance) were somewhat passive in their mechanics and heavily based on physics and movement, I wanted to do a game that allowed for somewhat more active play. I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for shooters (both to make and play), but I knew that I didn’t want to make a straight-up shooter. My goal with these week-long projects is to experiment and, along those lines, I wanted to try something slightly different. So was born the ring-based movement mechanism and the “sticky” bullets.

Something I felt worked very well with Balance, from the perspective of someone who knew everything about the game and the influences anyway, was the thematic and inspirational influences in the core gameplay and game flow. For me, Balance worked out as a means of telling a short story through gameplay. What I’m still not entirely sure about is what other people took from the game (if anything), so going on to the next project I wanted to try something a bit more commonly understood. Originally, I wanted to do something more holiday-themed (which is where this image came from), but nothing came out of my gameplay sketches. Then, for whatever reason, the concept of ‘doubt’ entered my head and everything else fell in place shortly thereafter.

My favorite aspect of Balance was the evolution of the game’s aesthetic and the effectiveness of the final result both as an atmospheric and purely visual quality of the game. The particle system-heavy visual style was something that was incredibly enjoyable for me to work on and mess around with and, on top of that, it was an incredibly quick way to get good results in the game (and tweaking them was even easier). Beyond all those points, though, it seems that the biggest benefit of this visual style is the “ink blot” approach to graphic style and design; it allows the game to have dynamic, readily identifiable components that create a very interpretive overall composition. Potentially, what I read from Balance and Doubt is completely different from what someone else may read from it despite so many common atmospheric elements. I’m planning on doing at least two or three more projects in the future which attempt to take the visual style further (and in somewhat different directions).

One thing which has always worked out incredibly well for me is constantly getting friends and colleagues to play-test early builds of the games I work on. Magnetic Butterfly would have been a far, far, far worse game if I didn’t constantly get people’s thoughts on player movement and interaction. Balance’s play-tests also led to a vastly improved movement design. Feedback to Doubt, though, led to two huge changes to the initial design. One of which is that in previous builds, player’s bullets would stick indefinitely to the pegs surrounding the cloud and then a player would have to “detonate” them with a separate interaction. The theory of this was that it would allow players to setup large combo chains which could yield big points and more damage to the doubt cloud. I could never figure out a good risk/reward for this system, though, and the additional button press felt awkward. When a colleague pointed this out, I had a partial epiphany that led to the player only shooting shots that, once stuck to a peg, were on a definite timer before their eventual explosion. Any further pegs that were stuck were dependent on the timer of that first bullet to get a real combo going. While still not entirely ideal (as there’s no reason not to be constantly shooting now), this was a definite step in the right direction for the game.

And, similar to Balance, all builds of Doubt up until the second to last one shared a common misstep (that I still failed to properly remedy): the full width of mechanics which make up the game are still largely non-apparent. Play-testers of Doubt were often confused as to what exactly was “good” to do and what was “bad.” Somewhat hackishly, my response to this was to add floating point notifiers that appeared on-screen whenever an action was executed which resulted in a change of score. Much to my surprise, this actually seems to have worked out pretty well.

Overall, Doubt was a fun project to work on, but I think Balance turned out much better. When I started Doubt, I didn’t have the same focus and clear intent as far as my gameplay and thematic goals when I started and, despite finding them eventually, I think that lack of clarity hurt. I also don’t feel that Doubt is all that deep or fun; there’s no real “strategy” to form. It’s very possible to just hold down left/right and the fire button and end up with a decent score. The one-button game with completely random potentially movement areas somehow required more attention and care to play than the one with full player agency. Still, it was a lot of fun to work on and the one-week limitation worked out well.

Also, thanks for all the feedback and support regarding Balance; it’s incredibly appreciated and all your awesome feedback has given me a lot of insight into what to do (and what to avoid) in the future. And let’s give a big high-five to Josh Sutphin for yet another set of rad music!

Awakened in Africa

I awake and find myself in an abandoned armory. All I can hear is the sound of a fly buzzing through the air. Occasionally, some other unidentifiable animals create a serene soundscape of yelps and caws in the background. Despite the complete lack of windows or portholes in the weapon dealer’s hut, I get the feeling that it’s sometime in the early morning.

In an attempt to determine what I’m supposed to be doing, I bring out my journal. According to its pages, I am tasked with going to a chemical dump and finding a recipe for Agent Yellow. According to my notes, Agent Yellow is a military-grade defoliant and the other faction, who I’m pretty sure was the source for my last mission, is sitting on a huge supply at this chemical dump. So that’s that then.

Putting my journal away, I open up my map to try and re-orient myself. I can only assume this is what amnesia feels like. My map says I’m at Mike’s Bar. I figure I’ll go to the actual bar and catch up with old friends. Opening the door back to the outside world, I see a big white supply truck parked right outside. It’s got an absolutely massive gun mounted atop it. I think this is mine. Even if it’s not. Also it’s the middle of the night. So much for intuition.

Every movement I take is confusing. Basic walking is simple enough. Jumping too. I’m clearly still in tune with what it takes to both aim and fire my gun as well. As I attempt to switch my weapon, though, I find myself throwing a grenade. A grenade right into the back of my supply truck. My old supply truck now, I guess. I keep trying to get my pistol out, failing miserably every time. One time I even noticed that I was crouching. Then it hit me and, by hit me, I mean I reached the end of the combinatorial line and only had a few impulses left which would get me what I wanted. Success. I have my silenced pistol in hand now as I walk to the bar.

Along the way I shoot a lawn chair.

When I enter the bar, I notice the fly that in the armory must have followed me in. An old guy at the bar looks at me, and leans on the bar in an apparent attempt to feign disinterest. He says “Here comes trouble” when I approach him and has a grin on his face. He seems incapable of saying anything else once we’re face-to-face, though, so I assume we had some awkward relationship in the past. A twenty-something at a nearby table asks me “What are you doing out here, man?” when I walk by. That’s apparently as far as he wants to take the conversation as well. A blonde guy near the door doesn’t even care for an introduction and just stands there, checking out the old guy at the bar. I feel the urge to break the ice between the two. This bar’s dead.

Leaving the bar I accidentally threw a Molotov Cocktail instead of switching back to my AK-47. It, unfortunately, landed on a blue jeep near the bar. I hope this was blondie’s. I notice that my white supply truck is still there in one piece; I get in, the engine turns over, and drive as quick as possible out of the growing fire by the jeep. Quickly opening my map, I see I’m only about a five minute drive out from the chemical dump. I put the map away and get going. Thirty seconds pass and I take the map back out because I’m lost. Oh. Okay. There. Got it. Map goes away again. Okay, fuck it. This thing stays out.

Is it wrong of me to wish this thing had a radio? The creaking I’m hearing from this bridge as I drive over it is somewhat terrifying.

My map says I’m near Cock Fights. That sounds awesome. Wait, what, why am I being shot at. Oh. There’s apparently a patrol near the Cock Fights. I suppose that makes sense. Keep the cocks in check. Feverishly, I put my already-damaged supply truck in reverse and go as far away as I ca–I hit a tree. I jump out of my truck (from the right door as apparently I hit something on the left side as well) and make a run for it oh god dammit I just threw another grenade. Amnesia is rough. Hiding behind a nearby rock, I wait for the sound of the voice of one of my assailants to get a bit closer… And, there. It took half a clip, but he’s down. I sit still for a few seconds and see one of his comrades running out to look at his downed body and, bam, he joins him. Well. He would if I could aim. Now that I have three of them shooting at me at once, I fall back a bit.

Unfortunately, I fell back too far. As I attempted to take out the other guards I managed to burn through both of the clips of ammunition for my AK-47. Swapping to my silenced pistol, I realize the futility of being an amnesiac who jumps right back into the fight as if however many months have passed won’t affect a thing. Crouching down to the ground, I move through the grass in a serpentine fashion just as I have been taught. I notice a two-door white car as I walk past and just as I make a mental note of its location, I see a slumped over body leaning against it. I don’t remember shooting this guy.

My screen turns red. How have I been shot? I’ve been all sneaky-like. Looking around, I see the body slumped against the car was not a dead body, but someone who had been injured and was taking cover. He holds his pistol weakly in the air as he lets a few more rounds off in the direction of my face. I’m hit once more. I throw a grenade — this time it’s intentional — and run for cover. Now he’s dead. Oh. The car. So is the car. Frick.

I know there’s at least one other guy still in the area. I have a mental count going. Plus I hear him talking to himself. I think I can sneak up on oh my god it’s a grenade and this time I didn’t throw it. And I’m still near the near-wreckage of this car. I run for cover, away from the guard, and scrape by with just a few injuries. I have the cat-like reflexes of a cat. A cat recovering from amnesia. I stick a syringe in myself to make the pain go away and then switch back to my weapon HOW MANY TIMES CAN I ACCIDENTALLY THROW A GRENADE. Or in this case another Molotov Cocktail. My bodily impulses need to get in check. Also my sneaking ground is now on fire. Time to take this fight to the guy who started it. And there he is. I drop my pistol’s entire magazine into his face. And… He’s still standing. I reload and fire off eight more rounds in rapid succession. Still standing. I say screw it and run up closer, aim for his head — because it’s personal at this point and because my pride can only take so many misses — and he goes down like a drunken narcoleptic.

Looking around, I lost my supply truck. The car I planned on taking is only a burned-out husk. My sneaking area is on fire. There are three dead bodies. I’m down a health syrette. And I have no ammo. There are also neither cocks nor cock fights occurring at this location.

Oh, this is apparently an ammunition-heavy outpost, though. So scratch that bit.

As I’m walking to the chemical dump, I notice my diamond finder 2000 blinking. I follow its signal to a nearby, thankfully abandoned, shack. I whip out my machete without lighting anything on fire, break down the door, and open the briefcase that I only hope isn’t some poor soul’s life savings. One measly diamond. So I’m sure if that was the case he just recently started saving. I’m providing him with an incentive to find a better stash, really. I slash a few more things with my machete because it restores some small amount of self-esteem given that I just blew up two cars and almost died at the hands of three poorly-trained guards. I also run in sprints and do neat little slides which make me think of fonder days.

I see an unmarked guard post near the Claes Products chemical dump that I momentarily contemplate seizing for the sake of cryptographical completeness. I then have a flashback about the rigorous battle I just completed and think better of it. Maybe some other time, I say. Well. A little look won’t hurt. I ascend a nearby hill and take out my spyglass and have a gander at the guard post. I see angry guy with gun. Two angry guys with guns. Three– oh, they have ammunition. I don’t need any of that. I mark that on my map and skidattle.

Except apparently I chose the one direction in which they have a sniper looking at. This can’t be a real thing right now. I run through the forest towards the chemical dump with my machete, in the hopes that this sniper has ADD. He doesn’t. He somehow has the only direct line of vision into this small little valley entrance to the chemical dump. I turn around, try to find him, and eventually see a small sliver of a man in the distance. Armed only with my silenced pistol, as I don’t want to alert the whole guard post to my location, I line up the shot and…

I die. This is an actual thing that’s happening. Oh. Wait. I’m not dead. I open my eyes and low and behold: a beautiful woman! She’s helping me! This is totally the best icebreaker. I’d talk but the only thing I can think to say is “Hey, I like your face” so I keep it in. She gets me to my feet, instructs me to check my wound, and fires off a few rounds at the sniper to give me some breathing room to do so. I like this lady. By the time I inject a syrette into my wound, she’s gone. And I make a mad sprint towards the chemical dump.

It’s a very wide-open space. Scoping out the terrain with my spyglass, my only real option is a sprint towards a nearby wood pile and then take out the only guard I can see quickly and quietly. Chances of success: slim.

I make the mad dash to the wood pile easily enough. I pull out my silenced pistol and creep a bit closer to the guard. He’s walking towards me, so I line up the shot. Holy crap I actually took him down. Go me. As I crawl towards the body to get some ammo, I discover that there was a second guard nearby whose clothes helped him blend in with a tree. I duck behind cover and hope he just thinks his friend is sleeping. He stood over the corpse a second too long and I took him out in one shot. I now assume that before I lost my memory I was pretty much the consummate badass. Crawling a bit closer to the big warehouse, I notice another guard who is almost completely invisible in the darkness. He was dispatched with as much ease as his two compatriots.

Moving forward, I crawl along the side of the building look for an entrance. I hear at least two guards chatting it up inside. I eventually find a small torn hole in the fencing which is just big enough for me to crawl through. It’s also right next to a giant explosive barrel. And a nearby guard. Fantastic. If I was a smart person, I would not do what I’m about to do. I take out the guard in the warehouse with my silenced pistol, hoping it doesn’t draw an abundance of attention in the next ten seconds. I slip into the warehouse prepared to be sighted by a group of guards and… nothing. I look up to the second floor railing and see nothing. I then hear a group of guards outside talking:

“Do you hear that?”
“Yeah, are they attacking?”
“I don’t think so. I think it’s just one guy.”
“I–”

I killed that guy.

His friend ran for cover, so I made my way to the back of the warehouse. Unfortunately, another guard discovered the corpse of the first guy that I dispatched in the area. Just as I turned around, he tossed a grenade my way. I run, evade the blast, switch to my AK-47, and empty a clip through the smoke. Unsurprisingly, I fail. I then see a muzzle blast from the enemy as the smoke clears, aim at it, burst fire, and kill him. I run up to the second-floor railing in the warehouse as three more enemies close in from me at the front entrance. I try to throw a grenade and realize, unfortunately, that they’re all gone for some strange reason. I see a crate filled with grenade supplies in the distance, though. I drop two magazines taking out two of the three enemies closing in on me. With only fourteen rounds remaining, I turn around to drop down to the ground and see, oh hey, I see a brief of diamonds. I grab it, because money is important, and then run out of the warehouse to a nearby hut (grabbing the grenade supply in the process).

I also find some ammunition and syrettes in the hut. And, uh, a folder? I grab it and I feel like my objective is complete. Now I just have to make it back to blondie at the bar who I now discover is the source of my mission. There’s a jeep nearby that somehow managed to make it through the skirmish that I grab and drive out in style. I hit a few trees and ran into a river, but I made it out of those A-OK. No problem. The engine is smoking but that’s a feature.

Since I took the same route back to the bar as I came, I knew to avoid the cock fights. I hug a nearby wall as I drive speeding by and WHAT WHY is my malaria striking now. Really? I take a quick pill and realize that not only is the cock fight guard post restacked with enemies, but they heard my not-so-incognito jeep. This time, though, I’m not screwing around. I man the mounted gun and just relieve the guards of their posts. Done and done. I do a quick repair job on my jeep’s engine and we’re good to go.

The rest of the drive back to the bar was surprisingly uneventful. When I walk into the bar, blondie says “The bitch is back” which I guess is a thing. He then promptly asks if I found “it.” I hand him the folder, and I guess his name is Paul, and he tells me “Holy crap this is great!” And that’s it. No diamonds or anything. My reputation increases, which is all well and good exept I can’t buy new weapons on reputation alone. Thanks a lot Paul. Dick. I knew you were no good. I should have gotten the old man to take you out. Why do you even want a recipe for Agent Yellow anyway? I should just kill you now. I won’t. But I should.

And because a simple mission for some blonde guy in a bar yields such interesting, dynamic gameplay that compels me to write about it in ways that I simply don’t for most games, Far Cry 2 is my Game of the Decade.

Trend-’naughts

I feel compelled to follow the trend of making “of the Decade” lists. So here are the trends in games over the decade. I had a hard time determining my own criteria for what I considered to be an important trend. I decided on the following: an important trend is a recurring adherence to and iteration on a mechanic, setting, and/or execution of design over the course of the decade in games which appeal to the critical body (reviewers and pure critics) and myself or gamers I consider to share similar gaming interests. I’m also going to limit myself to a two paragraph maximum per trend (other than the first one) because, if I did not, the discussion of each trend would span several disparate walls of text. These are in no particular order.

Social Play

No particular order, but it seems almost negligent to suggest that any trend in this list trumps the emergence and popularity of social gaming. And I’m not referring to anything that Zynga or Playfish are doing with Facebook games right now because their long-term relevance seems somewhat dubious. It would be absurd to not mention their existence given their popularity the time of writing. No, social gaming is embodied in games like LittleBigPlanet, Rock Band: Beatles, Halo, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, World of Warcraft, and so many others. So essential is social play to the modern gamer that there have been a slew of games such as Left 4 Dead and Army of Two which put a focus on playing with a partner or friends (at the expense of the solo experience). And, more than any other major technological or game design advent of the decade, no one deserves more credit for this trend than Microsoft for Xbox Live. They’re not the first to have the idea of a major social gaming platform, but their execution, especially at the time, was unmatched.

It’s fascinating to watch the evolution of long-running series as they adapt to the changing gaming climate (and the cultural/economical relevance of Generation Y). Started in 1996, Resident Evil has had seven major entries into long-running franchise over the years. When the series trademark gameplay started wearing a bit thin around the days of Code Veronica (2000) and Zero (2002), Capcom retaliated with the critical and commercial hit Resident Evil 4 (2005). Capcom’s next major release, however, despite there being no need to deviate from the core design of Resident Evil 4, was the cooperative-focused Resident Evil 5.

Given the absolute cultural domination of broadband internet and services like Facebook and Twitter, which promote an enthusiastic mindset of the sharing of daily minutiae, the elevation of games as an active, social bonding experience between people is hardly a surprise. World of Warcraft is the logical next step from playing Dungeons and Dragons or simply growing up on games like Final Fantasy. Why play alone when your best friend is also on Xbox Live playing the same game?

Enjoyable Realism

For a form of entertainment whose consumers commonly cite the benefit of the medium being a supreme “escape from reality,” the biggest games of the decade are fundamentally grounded in reality. The Sims, one of gaming’s biggest mainstream phenomenons, is a game where players manage the day-to-day operations and routines of humans called Sims. Games like Gran Turismo and Forza Motorsport popularized the simulation racer with absolute commercial and critical success. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare took its trademark gameplay to the modern day and put players into implausible but topical scenarios in our shared concept of the world we live in. Grand Theft Auto 4 brought gave us a New York City sandbox to drive, kill, and steal in. Sure, they’re power fantasies, but they’re incredibly successful power fantasies that don’t reach to the depths of science fiction or high fantasy for their subject matter.

This is the one trend that I don’t have a thorough understanding of and any explanation I make is reaching into unfamiliar sociological depths. If I had to guess, I’d say the Internet and modern communication has had such a profound impact on the modern gamer and game developers to the point where real life is ceaselessly interesting. The days of sole pen pals from other countries are gone; every day, any day, anyone with an Internet connection can look up factual information on other countries and cultures and talk to people from them. Why go to space when games like Far Cry 2 can portray the beautiful, harrowing reality of Africa? That’s not to undercut the role of fantasy and science fiction, as the success of Halo and Harry Potter are huge, but the tight-knit integration of these titles with our own concepts of reality still holds true.

Emergent Story-Telling

Something that most of Nintendo’s games and every sports game in history realized ages ago is that the story the player tells is always more enjoyable and interesting than the one that a designer or writer tells. This is something that Maxis realized and embraced with The Sims (and even moreso in its two sequels). Designing zany behaviors and allowing (and encouraging) players to experiment with zany situations for their Sims will yield the most amazing play experiences. And looking at some of the major successes in gaming over the last decade which are actually major AAA games in genres that typically rely heavily on static storylines, it looks like designers are starting to try and adopt an emergent narrative design.

Games like such as Left 4 Dead, Far Cry 2, and Portal all provide story layered on top of player-driven gameplay experiences. Left 4 Dead focuses on the interplay of very defined, well-written characters in a semi-random gameplay environment to flesh out the story of its game world as players engage with the game systems. Far Cry 2 provides a narrative impetus and little else as it lets its players loose into its world to achieve a given goal while the gameplay systems provide for a consistently dynamic and unpredictable experience. And Portal, while not actually having any emergent story-telling mechanics, has an entertaining antagonist provide the atmosphere for gameplay in a short game progression which ends up feeling far more free and dynamic than it actually is. None of these games are overly heavy-handed in the way they tell their story: once they give the player control of a character, they let the player define the experience. This is one strategy that Nintendo seems to have known all along.

Musical Play

We late-teens and twenty-somethings like music. A lot of us like video games too. Almost no one realized this quite like the partnership of Red Octane and Harmonix when they released Guitar Hero in 2005. Harmonix aced the utilization of plastic instruments as a medium into the cultural collective’s dream of being a rock star like no one before. It was popular and it worked well. When Neversoft took over the reigns with the forgettable Guitar Hero 3, though, Harmonix took their thought train to the next level: we like music and music is a shared experience. Harmonix realized that video games, like nothing else in the world — not even alcohol — has the power to bring four adult males together into a single room to pound on plastic instruments and sing “Don’t Step Believin’” at the top of their lungs. Alcohol is still nice, though.

I said almost earlier because, to me, no one realized the sublime combination of music and video games like Tetsuya Mizuguchi and the crew at Q Entertainment with 2001-2002′s Rez. A game which took some traditional ideas of what games were (reflex-dependent and progressive) and put that experience inside a digital soundscape unlike any other. The game provided a static musical track as a base line and every gameplay interaction layered ever-fitting audio cues on top of that to create what is still, in my mind, the ultimate music game.

Reward

Nothing keeps a game sticky like the Skinnerian model of reward smoothly integrated into game design. Let’s just set aside our thoughts about ethics for a moment.

I mentioned earlier that Microsoft was ahead of the game, so to speak, with the design of Xbox Live for the Xbox 360. One such way was the addition of persistent per-game achievements for every user. The advent of Xbox Live achievements introduced operant conditioning into the mainstream gamer’s expectation set for current generation games. And, as to be expected from such a form of reward, achievements took on a life of their own with every platform catering to seeming to cater to the commonly understood “core” gamer (Xbox 360, Playstation 3, Steam) adopting some form of the mechanic. “Achievement whoring” is a commonly used and understood term in the lexicon of a current generation gamer and is likely to continue being so in the future. Even World of Warcraft, already the video gaming analog to a slot machine (putting aside virtual slot machines for sake of the comparison), added achievements to its arguably ethical list of ways to keep people playing.