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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.

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.

Mechanics 2: Choke and Capture Points

The Battle of Thermopylae is a battle in ancient history where the Greek forces led by King Leonidas used the pass of Thermopylae to funnel the Persian army, hundreds of thousands of troops deep, led by Xerxes into a small pass where 300 Spartans (and Thespians, Thebans, and Helots for a total of about 2300 troops) were able to inflict a great deal of Persian casualties vastly disproportionate to the number of Greeks over the course of several days. The battle represents a classical example of the strategic use of a geological choke point as a means of gaining a tactical advantage over a number of adversaries. Video games have relied on choke points and other points of interest, such as capturable points and flags, as an integral design mechanic and, as such, have served as the primary influence for a number of popular games and mods over the course of the last decade.

id Software’s Quake was a game which started the age of user modifications such as Threewave Capture the Flag (capture the flag! grappling hooks!) and Team Fortress (yes, that Team Fortress). Threewave’s level design popularized a very symmetric map design that forced a red and a blue team to compete using speed, power, and intricate knowledge of the maps that matches took place on. Team Fortress popularized the idea of having gamers choose from any number of “classes,” all of which had their own benefits and drawbacks, to play a violent capture the flag match across maps designed using the concept of player bases being connected to each other by a very deadly choke point where a good majority of the player-to-player battles took place on. The strangest aspect about both of these mods is not how their game types differed in some basic mechanics but, rather, how each was designed around the same mechanics: capturing another team’s flag in a level designed around a series of choke points (the flag room in each base and the middle of the map where the red and blue bases were connected).

Counter-Strike and Counter-Strike: Source serve as the best examples of a level design methodology which focuses on choke points and capture points (bomb sites) as a means of enforcing teamwork (three popular map layouts are below). When playing maps where planting and detonating a bomb are the focus there are is always the choice of one of two bomb sites where a bomb can be planted. There are, generally, two or three entry points for each bomb site and each of these entry points are typically narrow hallways or areas of very low visibility for those attempting to storm a bomb site. In order to succeed in a match, the terrorists have to be able to split up their team into a decoy squad and a bomb planting squad and convince the opposing team of counter-terrorists to take the decoy bait while the bomb planting squad can plant a bomb and setup their forces to defend all bomb site entry points. The other alternative, of course, is to have an entire team rush a single bomb site and hope to confuse the opposing team and kill them all but most maps in Counter-Strike are designed to give the bomb site defenders a tactical advantage in both visibility and cover. When terrorists invade a bomb site they are generally required to all pass through one hallway into a wide open map segment or antechamber which, by the nature of being less confined, gives the advantage to the defenders.

Where Counter-Strike influenced tactics using a series of confined rooms and hallways, the Battlefield series presented strategic and tactical options to its players on a vastly more open scale. Battlefield 1942, Battlefield: Vietnam, and Battlefield 2 all presented players with a very large toolkit of weaponry, vehicles, and air support as a means of dealing with the intricacies of a map that presented the indoor confines of miscellaneous structures, small towns, and, most often, the great outdoors with only terrain to shield a roving infantryman. The level designers at DICE, developers of the Battlefield series, created the maps of their games under the assumption that littering the landscape with a handful of capture point would be enough to create venues for battle amongst its online player base as each of the two opposing teams on a given map fight for dominance of every single one of a map’s capture points. With Battlefield, DICE took the wide-open gameplay of games like Tribes and, basically, changed the “capture the flag” gameplay style to be more of a “capture and hold a bunch of flags” that moved a team ticket counter in a tug-of-war fashion that, after a certain amount of time, awarded victory to the team who was frequently able to hold the most points. At the time of its release, the wide-open planes-against-tanks-against-jeeps-against-infantry gameplay of Battlefield was revolutionary and created these huge team-versus-team conflicts that lay vivid and powerful in the memories of the players lucky enough to play in a full server of friends.

It is from games like Counter-Strike and Battlefield, along with historical battles like that of Thermopylae, that we see more games being released over the last couple of years that put an increased focus on points and the tactical situation in which they are placed in. All of Company of Heroes’ maps, like the one below, are designed around a number of resource points that are used to collect resources passively while the game occurs. The stars on the map are capture points that are the primary item of importance in a game; similar to the capture points in Battlefield, these points in Company of Heroes determine the rate at which a team’s ticket counter ticks down to zero — the first team to hit zero loses. Almost any battle in Company of Heroes revolves around these points and their location on the map reflects their importance; they are typically placed on or near very tactical locations on a map such as a bridge in the middle or on an island-like landmass that can only be accessed through bridges.

DICE’s latest game is the undoubted culmination of a point-based game design where a map’s choke points double as its points of interest. Battlefield 1942/Vietnam/2 proved that players flock to the entire area surrounding a point of interest but if a map have six or seven capture points and sixty-four players (thirty-two per team) each point ends up attracting a fraction of a total player-base for a map and that, as a game design, ends up becoming a flaw in the overall experience. The progressive capture point format of Battlefield: Bad Company, where only two active points of interest are accessible by the entire player-base at a given time (and they’re relatively close to each other) allows a match to be a consistently focused experience where both teams are honing in on a set pair of objectives. Instead of thirty-forty players being required for a good game like in the old days of Battlefield 1942 and Battlefield: Vietnam, Bad Company provides a high level of intense combat even if games are limited to seven-eight players per team (maximum is twelve-versus-twelve). It’s worth noting that Bad Company executes this design while maintaining the relatively large map sizes that are a “trademark” of the Battlefield franchise; which goes to show that it’s possible to provide a very focused gameplay flow amidst a large game map with a well thought-out design.

Cubegasm’s First Dev Journal Entry

In lieu of actually doing any development tonight I, instead, chose to write a gaming article (still no Metal Gear Story; I’m still thinking about that) and then a particularly-lengthyGameDev .net Daily. Now, since I’ve given up hope of getting work done tonight and have accepted the idea that Battlefield: Bad Company will dominate my nights for the next few days, I’ll write about what I’m actually working on for the moment.

I’ve never worked on a project that had any sort of physics simulation occurring within it before; when I found out that Havok released their SDK that could be used by hobbyists and by any commercial product that retailed for less than $10, though, I retreated from my previous stay at HotelXNA and back into C/C++ Direct3D9 Land. I didn’t want to spend months writing a framework and a rendering engine, though, since I’m currently in the kind of mood where I want to put out a game every two-three months — atimespan which is variable based on game release dates, occasional social interests and obligations, and work schedules. It is a direct result of this mindset which led me to using OGRE. I spent a few days configuring my project, the engine (and all of the modules for it which I planned on using), andHavok in Visual Studio and then got about implementing a basic Havok simulation and rendering aesthetic worked out.

While doing these tests I had envisioned a bright, solid-colored color palette with a very minimalistic lighting scheme for the scene all with a slightHDR/Bloom glow attached. I had the Havok world and the cube objects all set up and working at the time the above screenshots were taken but, in movement, something felt wrong about the way they were interacting with the environment. I looked over all of the environment values that I had set and things looked alright. Then I realized that, when a cube-like entity hit a ground surface with a high restitution value from eighty meters above the surface that the chances of it rotating are, well, almost a certainty. And I wasn’t taking an entity’s orientation quaternion into account for the OGRE cube graphic whatsoever. So, yeah, fail. The right-most image in thefollowing trio shows that OGRE is having some difficulties maintaining high rendering speeds with all of the cube objects which, really, seems not so good. I’m either adding the entities/nodes to the scene in an unoptimized fashion or the debug rendering runtimes are extraordinarily slow. This is something I’m still playing with at the time of writing.

I got back to this codebase about a week and a half after the previous set of images was taken (Metal Gear Solid 4 needed some love and attention) and when I started up my project build I realized I didn’t really like the look things were taking. The aesthetic didn’t really match the one I had envisioned for my game so, this past weekend, I went about remedying that (with the most current image being the far right one):

And, now, I’m just cleaning up the codebase as it exists right now and thinking about what, specifically, I’m going to do for the game. My current idea right now is a sort of Fort Wars single-player game against the AI; each player has a structured composed entirely of cubes and each one is attempting to blow up the other person’s fort first to reveal a large target-like item in the center that, when exposed, must be hit a few times before it explodes and, then, ending the match. My idea is to make differing types of cubes that have a variety of effects once they are hit: some will give positive benefits to the player (increased damage radius, multiple launched projectiles per shot, etc.), some will give negative benefits, and some will simply be explosive that can take out a number of surrounding boxes at once. Whether this what I’ll actually do for the game is, at this point, completely up in the air. I’m going to code some initial mechanics and play around and see which seems like the most fun for me.

That is, of course, once I devote some time to Battlefield: Bad Company.

A Modest Editorial on Game Bugginess

Jump to: A Prologue (Battlefield 2) :: Battlefield 2142 :: The New Standard? :: A Pessimistic Conclusion

Alright this editorial is a sizeable one (Surprise!) which I can easily divide into two halves for the readers who are interested. The first two sections cover Battlefield 2 and its bastard child-spawn Battlefield 2142. These two games serve as a specific platform for me to launch into a lengthy discussion on a “State of the Industry” variety where I’ll delve into the recent plague of games which are thrown into stores for public consumption when, in all actuality, they should still be lying on the couch with their parents waiting for another batch of antibiotics — which is to say that they’re a flawed, buggy mess of entertainment software. Anyway, this whole article is designed to progress from a look back at last year’s biggest game, to a case study for the future, to the real point of my spiel, so it’s probably bestest to read it that way. If the idea of Battlefield 2 makes your soul weep, though, I’d suggest instantly jumping here.

Let’s rock.

A Prologue (Battlefield 2)
Once upon a time — which, for the sake of argument, I’ll postulate happened about a year ago — I wrote an editorial about this little game called Battlefield 2. A few weeks later, after a fairly large amount of comments (for this site, anyway), a hate-mail or two, and no patch to speak of was released by DICE, I was very near giving up on the game. Here was a AAA game title with more than a few trenches filled with nothing but solid tons of hype that was released in a buggier state than an Elder Scrolls game ( oh, no he didn’t) even after a pre-released demo was unleashed to the rabid Battlefield fans three weeks before the final game hit retail shelves all over our great nation. I did my part as a loyal customer, though, and just tried to overlook the game’s problems; I mean, the gameplay itself is definitely spectacular. The final nail in my Battlefield 2 Gaming Coffin, though, came when the first mini-patch was released which did very little to address a number of the issues of the game in the first place… And this ‘patch’ was so buggy that DICE required a rollback on all ranked game servers. And, let me tell you, that was it.

I gave the game another try a few months down the line after a new map, Wake Island 2007, was released in one of the patches (v1.2, I think). I actually had a really good time with the game, but my friends got me started back on World of Warcraft and shortly after that I went home for a while (56k… for the win?) and by the time I got back I was fairly addicted to WoW again. This is all to say that the lack of really getting into the game at the time had nothing to do with the title itself.

It’s the recent install which really got me back into the game with great vengeance. The patches that have been released for the game have done a whole lot in terms of overall game balance, fixed a lot of the stability issues with the game, and generally improved it for the better. The red label bug is still in the game (albeit to a lesser extent), which is… Odd, to say the least, but overall the game seems to be in good shape. The menu is still a tragedy akin to a train wreck of adorable, wide-eyed and bushy-tailed kittens, but the fact that it hasn’t received a major overhaul is simply a testament to a developer who has presumably decided that the game garnered so many awards and sales that it isn’t worth the effort.

Battlefield 2142
When Battlefield 2142 was first announced, I laughed. This wasn’t a mere snicker, mind you, but a full-body eruption of haughty laughter. I looked at the PC Gamer — yes, I subscribe to it, shut up — in my hands and scoffed at the cover exclaiming the announcement of DICE’s “new” shooter. Before reading about the game itself and without knowing its release date, premise, or absolutely anything about this drastic, bold, innovative original idea (*cough*) all I could think of was the bastard child of the brilliant Battlefield 1942: Battlefield: Vietnam. In what is a brilliant business move, DICE released a game that was little more than a full-priced mod for their critically acclaimed first game. I bought and played the game a couple weeks after its release and, honestly, that’s exactly what the game was: a mod to milk the cash-cow that is DICE’s namesake. And, from the looks of it, it appears to be déjà vu all over again.

In a recent news story a senior producer on Battlefield 2142 said that the game would be “A lot less buggy than Battlefield 2.” Apparently DICE has listened to fan criticisms about BF2 and now aims to achieve a very high-level of quality with the sequel. I read in PC Gamer when they were doing the initial coverage of the game that special attention would be paid to designing and programming the new menu interface for the game after the flurry of critical feedback about the positively abysmal menus that were on display in Battlefield 2. I’m far from being an expert on quality user-interface design (some may be surprised that UI design is a fairly large field of study/research), but I’m fairly certain that I could get a blind toddler drunk and have him find bugs and qualms during his testing of the BF2 UI.

The New Standard
The main thing I want to ponder is this new ‘trend’ that seems to becoming increasingly prevalent with retail games. Battlefield 2 isn’t some low-budget, indie developer effort. It’s a big-budget, triple-A sophomore effort (I believe Battlefield: Vietnam was done by a separate division of DICE) from a developer whose first game took in Game of the Year awards or some similar accolades from the gaming press. A while before Battlefield 2 was released, Electronic Arts even bought DICE, which should mean that the level of quality assurance, pre-release testing, and customer support from one of the largest publishers in the country would result in at least some level of polish to such a blockbuster title like BF2.

This is just one of many examples of a recent downgrade in release quality that the gaming industry has seen over the period of the last couple of years. A certain deluge of bugs has always been expected in a few titles: The Elder Scrolls series, the Bioware games, and most MMORPGs… Though if there are any prevalent bugs in the latter, then you open the floodgates to thousands upon thousands of customers screaming “But we pay more than your average gamer! We demand complete satisfaction! Quit giving Shaman access to keyboards!,” but I digress. The point is that gamers seem to be relatively okay with large, epic games having their fair share of bugs.

A conversation with a developer friend of mine led to him making the statement that the more complex a game is, the more bug it should be ‘allowed’ upon the day of its release. It’s a very simplistic approach to the topic, but just think about it: a game like Battlefield 2 is a first-person online shooter with only the most meager of single-player offerings. Over the course of the game’s development DICE, most likely, spent the early period designing and programming the engine and toolset which they could eventually craft the game from. Once that aspect of development was over, the work on the actual game could begin… And the thing that gets me about Battlefield 2, is that it had no tabula rasa to call its own; DICE started with a very well-defined, and tried-and-tested gameplay base which they were building the sequel off of.

Anyhoo, the game gets to a workable state, goes through testing and balancing, features get added and removed, and the process is repeated until the day the game is released. This is the general kind of development schedule that most games go through (which is to say all but some of the rarities which have special stories to tell in a post-mortem). Therefore, with that in mind, why should a multiplayer-centric game like Battlefield 2 be allowed such a release-day mess when it’s being done by a time proven developer and a massive publisher like EA when some other developers can craft a bug-free, polished, complex single-player game along with a significant multiplayer offering all for the same title. To stay with the FPS example, Monolith did an excellent job on both the single- and multiplayer fronts of F.E.A.R.. Firaxis did the same with the incredibly complex Civilization 4 (though, in all fairness, the single/multiplayer in the game is fairly similar…); the only release-day problems as far as I’m concerned were all to do with the game’s copy protection.

Currently I’m playing Titan Quest which is an action/RPG in the same vein as Diablo 2 which has had a decent amount of hype built around it. It’s the first title from a developer with a great pedigree. And, currently, I’m never sure whether I’ll be able to play the game for two minutes or two hours before it ‘randomly’ crashes to the desktop. Iron Lore has a patch coming on July 5th for the game, which is fairly speedy considering the amount of things the fix is planned to include, but there really is no excuse I can think of to have a game in this state on release. Using the complexity/bug correlation, this title really has no right to have as many problems as it does. While all RPGs are definitely difficult things to develop, Titan Quest isn’t even in the same realm of complex action/RPG title like Neverwinter Nights. A game of a similar caliber to Titan Quest would be last summer’s Dungeon Siege 2 which was released with polish (even if it wasn’t the prettiest girl at the hack-and-slash prom) and very few bugs to speak of.

Complexity aside, I can’t say that every game I’ve played lately suffers from a lengthy list of problems. They don’t; however, the list is in the minority of games with near game-breaking release day problems. In my good graces are: Galactic Civilizations 2, Rise of Legends (though I hear the multiplayer has a lot of issues), and Red Orchestra. So let’s have a big round of applause for releasing… Working software.

A Pessimistic Conclusion
I guess the reason that I wrote this was a combination of my instinctual need to follow my traditional bitching pattern with summer editorials. There is a decent amount of truth in the verbose writings above, but that doesn’t really amount to much in the grand scheme of the game industry. The truth of the matter is that as games become increasingly more popular they also become increasingly more costly and complex the amount of things that need to be considered as developers and their publishers approach release day is, in a word, overwhelming.

The real question I have, though, is whether the true quality of a game-gone-gold rests with the developers, the publishers, or a combination of both. It’s difficult to pin the blame on either in particular due to the fact that not all publishers are solely responsible for testing and not all developers can be faulted if the publisher is expected to give the game extensive testing and does a poor job… But I think there’s definitely a relationship to be found in the state certain publishers release their games in. As an example, Microsoft Game Studio (Age of Empires 3, Dungeon Siege 2, and Rise of Legends for a few examples) consistently released high-quality games for both consoles and PCs that I can very rarely find any fault with. The same can be said of Blizzard, who I believe does a majority of their extensive game testing in-house. And, for a developer/publisher who I’m personally endeared towards, Stardock has some of the greatest game support of the industry. Meanwhile, titles published by EA Games can either by fantastically polished with spectacular production value or, you know, not so much. And then you have the fuzzy area of a studio like Valve whose games are incredibly well-produced, but whose games also have a tendency to be a complete mess for the first week or two after release.

All in all, this is a matter which will probably grow worse with time. The most important thing I can think of, though, is that the developers who still feel the urge to release well-polished, well-tested games are the ones that really deserve to have their names shouting from the rooftops in the best barbaric yawp that gamers can muster. The English major in me had to find some outlet; all apologies.