Last week I lied a little. It is likely that there will be no more Mechanics articles in the future or, if there are some, they won’t be on the weekly basis that they have been lately. I do plan to continue writing a weekly article of sorts, but I don’t really want to limit the scope of topics to game mechanics as I’ve past up some interesting topics (interesting to me, at least) in order to fit the goals of the column type. One of my favorite ones, the Far Cry 2 one, wasn’t really even a valid entry in the series.
So, yeah, that’s done.
I did start my second play-through of Far Cry 2 recently, though, and that’s proving to be just as enjoyable as the first time through was.
Also of note: The Shield is now over and it was fantastic, Rambo and Hancock were pretty bad, Left 4 Dead is overrated, The Wire’s first episode was promising, Sacred 2 is mindless fun, Fallout 3 was okay, and Fable 2 was disappointing.
I just got another mission from the unnaturally quick-speaking warlord of the African UFL — one of two warring factions in Far Cry 2 — when one of my buddies gave me a call on my cell phone telling me to meet them if I wanted to make my mission take twice as long as it would if I simply followed orders at no real additional benefit to me. I guess I could just do it, though. I mean, my buddy Nasreen is, apparently, one of the only two women in all of Africa. It wouldn’t hurt to endear my playing character to her a bit more. It’s an awfully big safe house, after all.
Wait, why is my screen pulsing and turning yellow? Oh, it’s my Malaria. It’s flaring up. There’s an on-screen pill bottle that’s telling me I should press my left shoulder button. But, I’m also in the middle of driving through the jungle since that checkpoint I just cleared out before getting my new mission already is restocked with new people. Maybe they’re just meandering civilians? Probably not. They have guns. Do civilians in Africa have guns? All right, I’ll just slow down my truck and take my pills. Done. No more yellow screen. I’m also out of pills, but I just got them refilled after I delivered some transit papers to an African family hiding in a broom closet in a veterinary office (under control by the African Underground). Am I really out of pills or do I just need to deliver more transit papers? Africa has a strange exchange rate.
Malaria is probably contagious. I guess that rules out my chances with Nasreen. Maybe she’ll give me more conflict diamonds when I help her out in lieu of, well, anything else. I think I just hit a zebra while I was looking at my map; oh, and I just entered into range of the checkpoint. That’s okay, I’ll just drive away fast — my engine is smoking. They shot up my engine. I could run faster than my truck’s new top speed. Normally I’d be able to get out and repair the engine back into it’s racing shape, but considering that I have an assault truck with two angry African soldiers speeding towards me is probably out of the question. Normally, since I have a vehicle of my own and don’t really want to steal theirs, I’d just whip out of my high-grade rocket launcher — since I just payed thirty-five blood diamonds to get access to it since my old RPG was far too inaccurate — but that has a bit of a blow-back that would probably cause my smoking Jeep to burst into flames (killing me in the process). The assault truck is getting closer; I don’t have much in the way of cover around me and if I get ran over it’s game over. I got it: I’ll bring out my AR15 and try and pick off the driver, leaving the gunner out of range to do any serious damage. Got him. Now the gunner that is moving into the driver’s seat. Done and done.
Now my screen is pulsing red and the quickly-diminishing last notch of my life bar tells me I’m in the process of bleeding out. Unfortunately, I took far too much damage to just hit the left-shoulder button and inject myself (with what I assume/hope are mere painkillers) so now, instead, I see my player character look down at his leg — there’s an enormous bullet entry wound. That looks pretty rough, but it can be bandaged up. Wait. What. What is my character doing? Why does he have pliers? Is he — oh, okay. He just pulled the bullet out of his own wound. And I have my gun back, which means I guess I’m going to live. Why is there someone in front of me with a shotgun — oh, that wasn’t friendly. Ouch. Neither was that.
I guess I’m dead now. The screen is fading to black, so I’ll just load my last saved game; wait, the game faded back in and now I see my other friend Michelle (the only other woman in all of Africa). “Hold on, I’ll get you out of here” she says as she whips out her AK-47 and fires at some off-screen enemies (I assume she avenged my near-death by killing my almost-murderer). The screen is fading back to black. Was she too late? Oh, it’s fading back in. Michelle is dragging me somewhere. She is saving me, right? Fading back to black. And back to Michelle; “all right, patch yourself up” she tells me as she places a shiny, new Desert Eagle in my hands. I get up, inject myself with the last of my mysteriously-filled syrettes I carry around, and now I’m out for blood. Not mine this time. Why did I forget to stock up on syrettes when I was in town? Why?
I should have been paying more attention while I was taking the drive to my destination, as this isn’t any old checkpoint; this one seems to have about ten or eleven mercenaries spread across a small plot of land. And they already know I’m here, so that makes any stealth kills nigh-impossible. But, I do see a way to take out about six guys with a single action. Three of the mercenaries are standing near a large ammunition dump; if I hit that with a rocket then the immediate explosion should kill at least one guy, but that will also cause the ammunition canisters do explode and every single round of ammo contained within to go crazy and start firing in a every direction which, hopefully, will take out the other two guys. The other thing the explosion should do is set fire to the nearby trees and grassy areas which, ideally, will engulf another two mercenaries (and hopefully, that will spread far enough to kill one more mercenary).
That plan ended up working for all but the fire-spreading. Which I “aided” by throwing a molotov cocktail at the desired patch of grass and trees. At this point, I still have full health, but I also have to deal with another four mercenaries. From my well-covered spot (a big rock), I was able to pick off one enemy but, by this point, the other three were well within range to kill me swiftly. As I started frantically firing at one of the trio my assault rifle jams up — in the heat of taking a new mission and figuring out if I could somehow woo Nasreen or Michelle I forgot to make a trip to the armory to replace my rifle and pistol. My rifle is rusted to hell at this point; I’m actually pretty lucky that it just jammed and didn’t, essentially, disintegrate. At this point I’m madly mashing the X button (reload/fix jam), fix the jam, and then fire another few shots at my assailants. Then the gun disintegrates. At least I have my shiny silver Desert Eagle that Michelle gave me, though. A few seconds later and I’m free and clear. I only have two of my six health bars, but I’m not bleeding out.
And this is what Far Cry 2 is about. There are complaints about the amount of driving, the incredibly quick enemy respawns for checkpoints (never when you’re in the area, at least), and the lack of civilians that populate the country (strange given the story is about them), but Far Cry 2 goes beyond such petty issues. It’s one of the first games I’ve ever played that really embodies the concept of emergent game design (or progressive game design). It’s an open-world game that, although only partially “open” in terms of its narrative progression, does everything it can to keep players confined to the game world. There is only one time where the game camera doesn’t function as the player character’s eyes and that is when a player “sleeps” in a safe house and the player is treated to a time-lapse view of the outside world as the amount of daylight changes.
The primary result of placing the player so firmly in the game world is that every player action has a sense of gravitas attached to it. It’s a feeling that pervades the single-player portion of the game so strongly that the first I jumped into multi-player I felt oddly confused. Missions near the end make players wonder if what they’re doing has any semblance of “right” to it whatsoever; the mission may get the player closer to his/her objective, but what’s the cost attached to the player’s action? It’s a shame that the player is locked into a limited number of actions when given a mission; there has never been a game I wanted to have more narrative choices in than this one.
I still can’t believe I accidentally hit a zebra.
I hate them.
This quote comes from one of the only, if not the only (aside from Half-Life 2’s Alyx Vance), video game companion that never becomes annoying or troublesome to gamers. One of the most recurring problems in any video game is that of trying to create a companion in a video game that can tag along with a player character’s exploits throughout a game in a fashion that is not only realistic but, more to the point, doesn’t require constant babysitting to avoid the common video game companion pitfalls of getting stuck, going the wrong way, or committing suicide in one of any number of possible ways depending on the hazards that fill a game world. It’s an understandably difficult game mechanic to have in that, especially in an intimate single-player game experience, to have an AI intelligent enough to act predictably “human” in the same way that the person controlling the main character would act.
This quote is arguably the most memorable thing that players will experience in all of Lionhead’s recently-released Fable 2. It doesn’t come from farting to impress women to the point of marrying you. It doesn’t come from the manual or various cinematics. It certainly doesn’t come from the wooden and awkwardly-presented narrative cutscenes. No, the above quote comes from — and I’m sure this is a surprise — the only dog known to the world of Fable 2: the player’s dog that can change names as often as it changes collars (no, really). The little furry fella attaches himself to the player’s character from an early point in the game and, from then on out, is by his side throughout a majority of the rest of the game. The dog is not the interface but, instead, a helper to the main character; he will point out treasure chests, dig spots, and he will help in combat from time-to-time.
Though, what the dog adds to Fable 2 is not really related to his gameplay functionality. Such a large part of the game is based around a concept of community; the player aims to either impress or strike fear into the randomly-named denizens of the various towns and, at some point, get married and impregnate (or get pregnant) to some of them. The player interacts with the game’s townspeople by a little expression-based minigame where a particular expression is chosen from a radial menu (dancing, flexing, farting, etc.) and then “held” via a semicircular bar with a constantly-moving indicator that needs to be released at just the right time for a maximum impression value that affects every townsperson in the immediate vicinity. This gameplay mechanic makes for some entertaining situations from time to time but not only is it very gamey but it is also an incredibly unnatural and bizarre way to interact with people who spit out their limited amount of voice acted lines.
And so the onus of player/game emotional connections falls upon the canine of Fable 2 and, throughout the entirety of the game, he succeeds. The dog’s interactions with NPCs ends up being far more realistic and understandable for every human gamer controlling Fable 2’s “hero” and, meanwhile, it is the player’s connection to the dog that grows with every new situation that the player/dog combo comes up against. When a player enters a cave the dog may start acting timid and frightened and move at a slower speed to the point where the oft-oblivious player may wonder where his dog is; upon looking back, there is the normally-friendly and perky puppy face now cowering near the ground while his legs shake as he trots slowly towards the player. If the person playing the game isn’t heartless, he can use a dog treat expression to throw a treat to the dog as if to say “It’s all okay buddy” and the dog will perk back up and stick by your side through the dungeon. The dog can also get hurt in combat and will whimper with every step he takes until he received a “Dog Elixir” which sound, roughly, as sad as it is to see.
The importance of the dog to the player becomes clear at three key spots throughout the game; one of which is early on and occurs a bit too soon to really have much of any emotional resonance with the player, but there is one event midgame that plays out after the player character has been absent from the world for a good chunk of time. Once a narrative sequence has played out in its normal filled-with-awkward-pauses fashion, a character says “Oh, and there’s someone who has been wanting to see you” and the dog, which now greatly reflects the player character’s alignment (bad dog ends up like a hyena and a good one like a golden retriever), comes bounding up a bridge and jumps up at you for a doggy hug. One of the NPCs involved in the sequence goes on to point out that the dog came to this spot in the game world once every week while the player was absent in anticipation for his return. It’s a throwaway line in terms of the main story arc but it is, without a doubt, one of the most potent lines in the game. Next to “Ruff, Ruff!”
Functionally, Fable 2’s dog is a negligible piece of design that had his most useful features seemingly shoehorned into the experience to justify the dog’s existence as anything but window-dressing, but as an enjoyable and completely harmless companion for the player as he makes his way through the duration of the game the dog is an absolutely superb feature of the game. The dog takes nothing away from a theoretical dog-less Fable 2 game experience but it adds a layer of natural interactions and human/animal companionship that, really, is unmatched by anything else in Fable 2.
With the development of Fallout 3, Bethesda Softworks faced a dilemma: they had to make a first-person RPG engine that was typically used for high-fantasy RPG/adventure games handle the intensity, gore, and statistical probability of the gunplay in Black Isle’s cult-legend Fallout and Fallout 2 in such a way as to not annoy either first-person shooter gamers, fans of the Fallout games, and long-time patrons of the games in The Elder Scrolls series.
The problem with mixing a first-person shooter with a role-playing game is that they are, basically, as diametrically opposed as two genres can get. The cornerstone of an FPS is in the feel of its gunplay and player movement; the questions players subconsciously ask themselves while playing are: how does shooting feel? How accurate are the weapons and are the bullet spray, recoil, and weapon damage consistent with what a player would expect from the weapon? Is weapon behavior relatively reliable? Are the player’s skills in targeting his own or is the game modifying them to an unexpected degree? A first-person shooter places the gamer at the helm of the game; the more a player feels like he/she is in charge of his in-game avatar, the better. With this preconception at the forefront of the game experience, players enter into a game world with expected grounded in their reality and expect somewhat realistic or reliable behavior. Shooters that have unrealistically-behaving real-world weapons will seem immediately “off” to any gamer whether he has real-life weapon experience or not; a shotgun which behaves like a sniper rifle will seem strange to anyone while a sniper rifle that has a large box of possible inaccuracy around a gamer’s targeting reticule will be a source of future gamer rage-quitting.
At the other end of the gaming spectrum are the more measured and cerebral gaming experiences found in role-playing games. The genre is practically defined by its prolific character building design that has a player’s character(s) advance in level through experience points achieved in various battles. With every level, a character’s stats increase and this, in turn, makes him more powerful. The original Black Isle-developed Fallout games are no exception to this as all of the combat encounters in the games were handled as turn-based affairs steeped in a player’s allocation of action points.
These are, as can be expected, game designs that are inherently at odds with each other.
Bethesda managed it, though. Much to the chagrin of the world’s mutants, the death of super-mutants in Fallout 3 is handled in a way that is not only consistent with the original duo of games but manages to be a fun setpiece of Fallout 3 throughout the entirety of the game. The mechanic is introduced to denizens of Vault 101 as the Vault-Tech Assisted Targeting System (V.A.T.S.) and served as a time-independent targeting system to aid a player in blowing off specific enemy limbs (screenshots below). When the player is ready to shoot something a mere button is pressed and the game enters its targeting mode and the player can queue up body parts to shoot and once the sleection is finished the game goes into a stylized camera that depicts the macabre explosion of blood, organs, and limbs in slow-motion. Once the process is done the player is, most likely, out of action points to spend on V.A.T.S. targeting and is forced to rely on his skills as an FPS gamer to finish off remaining enemies or find cover until his action points have recharged enough to allow for more V.A.T.S. shots.
V.A.T.S. at times seems like little more than a compromise made for RPG-minded gamers to eliminate traditional skill-based first-person shooter mechanics (which would make Fallout 3 more shooter than RPG). It does give the player a seemingly unfair advantage in the game world; when I had the opportunity to use VATS on any enemy in the game, save for one boss-like encounter, I always had the upper hand and, what’s more, rarely took more than a shot or two while my character performed my V.A.T.S.-dictated actions. This mode of combat appears to give players a very high likelihood of both critical hits and, in some instances, a separate timeline than the one enemies were acting on when V.A.T.S. was used in combat as opposed to an entirely real-time encounter. It’s also a greatly more effective form of combat than choosing to avoid the use of V.A.T.S. throughout the entire game and rely on the game’s somewhat flawed implementation of traditional first-person shooter mechanics. Bethesda avoids the pitfalls of past hybrid games in that, for the most part, what a player points and shoots at with any decent gun in the game is reliably hit but the feedback the player receives for a successful hit is vastly inferior to the kind of feedback that V.A.T.S. provides with its slow-motion gory cinema of death.
The faults of the real-time combat in Fallout 3 really don’t matter. The blend of V.A.T.S and real-time shooting is what Fallout 3 seems made for and, when that path of play is chosen the game’s combat shines in a way that I never thought would be possible. In fact, the game positively revels in its existence as both a real-time shooter and pseudo-turn-based RPG game because, when played the way that Bethesda seems to encourage, Fallout 3 manages to feel like a Fallout game.
Interfaces of all sorts are one of the most game-specific features of any entertainment medium; there’s never an ammo counter on-screen when watching John McClane do Die Hard thing or a health indicator attached to Forrest Gump’s forehead in his movie — that would be ridiculous. Yet throughout the history of the gaming industry UIs or HUDs are featured in just about every game; it’s not a question of whether or not to have a HUD in a game so much as it’s a question of what kind of graphics should comprise the HUD, what should be featured on-screen, how big should the health bar be, or how translucent should the minimap be? A couple of games released this past month have realized: wait, what?
Ubisoft Montreal’s Far Cry 2 is a game that takes great pride in its consistent usage of the first-person perspective to keep the player as immersed in the fictionalized portrayal of an African warzone. With a tap of the heal button the player’s in-game character will, if his health is low enough, look down at his body and find a bullet wound; if that’s the case, the animation continues by having the player character pry out the bullet with pliers or, in some cases, with his teeth. If the player’s wounds aren’t bad enough, a mere injection into the character’s forearm will do the trick. Yet, despite such animations the game still reverts to showing an ammo counter or health bar if the player’s health is in the process of increasing/decreasing (or alarmingly low), same with the ammo counter. Presumably, this is because Ubisoft Montreal could not figure out a way to properly convey this information in-game, but what they did figure out is how to convey locational information through an in-game map and GPS transmitter. When the Map button is pressed, the game’s player character will whip out a map and GPS transmitter (shown below) and the player is tasked with finding his location on the in-game map and swapping between various “zoom levels” (shown in-game as separate pieces of map paper) to determine his position and plot his course of action to an objective.
When I was playing Far Cry 2 last night, I realized that my malaria pill bottle was running on empty and I only had an unknown amount of time (not long) before my malaria would flare up again and I would be completely unable to calm the attack. To get more pills I had to get a mission for a certain game faction and complete it — the pills would be the reward for completion. Not only did I not start the mission yet but I was nowhere near the building where my contact for the mission was. I high-tailed it through the forest, attempting to bypass any checkpoints filled with hostile Africans. Once I found a Jeep, a car with no mounted machine gun, I realized that the only chance I had to not die in the middle of nowhere was to speed straight through the jungle to my contact without making any stops whatsoever. So, there I was, I had my map out trying to navigate the twists and turns of the road while simultaneously trying to find the best route to my contact. I sped through checkpoints, ran over a hostile or two, and adjusted my intended course all while balancing my focus on the road and the map that I had to take my eyes off of the road to accurately read. After a few minutes of this, I reached my contact and, as it turns out, the mission was a simple two-or-three kilometer jaunt to a veterinary clinic to deliver some passports. Malaria pills acquired.
EA Westwood’s action/horror game Dead Space proved to a number of people that more daring user interface design decisions could work almost flawlessly even when a player is put under the pressure of numerous tentacle-waving mutants running at him. With the exception of the main menu, credits, and the options screen (and, arguably, the in-game store), every screen and interface element in Dead Space exists within the game world. The player’s health bar is represented as a number of bars running along the player character’s spine, the stasis bar is represented as a semicircle grafted upon his suit, and the ammo counter on weapons is shown as a holographic screen that floats near the gun. When a player brings up his inventory the entirety of the screen appears as an in-world two-dimensional graphic plane filled with the necessary information; this screen rotates and floats with the characters movement (the same holds true for text logs). Audio logs appear as a small spectrogram that turns translucent when the player aims while still listening to the audiolog and follows the player’s movement. There is not a single interface element, other than the store, which pauses the game or requires the player to relinquish his controls.
The most remarkable aspect of Dead Space’s in-world interface is how the system reacts to a non-standard player location. There are a few instances in the game where the player character is “grabbed” by an enemy and the player is unable to move the character’s body. A player can still enter “aim mode” and see the reticule — it’s normal placement adjusted given the nonstandard location of the player character — and, although aiming is vastly more difficult given the stress of the situation and the unfamiliarity with the reticule changes, the player can still blow the tentacles off of monsters despite being handicapped. Dead Space’s UI allows for such a quick and drastic change forced upon the player which any other game would have had to deal with in more conventional ways inherent to a prototypical first-person or third-person shooter interface. The end result of the UI changes andthe short amount of time the player is given to react to the circumstances allows designers to, in a way, create a “quick-time event” in their game that doesn’t rely on cheesy, out-of-place timed button presses but, rather, actual player adjustment and decision-making.
Both Far Cry 2 and, to a far greater extent, Dead Space took some chances with their user interface design ideas in ways that most games never attempt. And, while the user interface innovations aren’t solely responsible for this, my personal experience with these two titles has me already claiming these games as two of the most immersive and intense game experiences of the year. Heads-up displays and user interfaces, in general, are such an unrealistic and occasionaly flow-breaking feature in games that it’s a strange phenomenon to have such well-designed games get released in such a close proximity. Typically, a game like Dead Space would have players pause the entire game world while a player would be fiddling with his inventory or trying to figure out where on the map he was and where he would need to go next. The removal of this laborious menu work results in a more cohesive game experience that allows a player to become more focused on the game world and less focused on the annoying lagtime in between loading a menu, finding what he wants, and exiting back out of the menu. In games like these, breaking a gamer’s flow is one of the least-desired outcomes of the game experience.