Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The "X" Factor

Gears of War 2 is here right on schedule for November, but I don't think gamers could be more surprised.

While the original Gears of War was fun it's hard to say it was a well designed game. It played like it was made by a bunch of developers who were much more adjusted to making multiplayer games. The solo campaign was an excuse to throw a bunch of AI with a few gun types around for the player to work their way through. But somehow Epic has managed to move away from this model completely.

So how did they do this? Well it all comes down to variables. While Gears of War 2's core gameplay has strict rules the boundaries to which you use them are constantly being pushed throughout the entire experience. Standard combat now has excellent enemy variety, meaning adaptation is the key to overcoming the odds. You need to prioritize threat levels of enemies constantly based on proximity, new enemies entering the battlefield mid-combat, what cover you have, their relative location to you, and if they're making a push to flank you. These are all variables, and because of this the core combat never feels like a repeat. It helps that the number of ways you have to deal with these situations has been expanded. Movable temporary cover comes in the forms of downed enemies and shields you take from fallen enemies, and the weapon variety has created new ways for combat to actively evolve. Acid grenades force you out if you ever just bunker down in one spot, mortars need to be watched as they go up in the sky that push you laterally or towards indoor areas, and the additions to one-hit-kill/headshot weapons create a greater tension out of cover.

But Epic didn't stop there. They constantly play with how even normal combat works throughout the game, asking players to use their skills in imaginative ways. When the game plunks you down in dark areas you can benefit from using your gun's muzzle flashes to illuminate your enemies. If you find yourself becoming frustrated by the mixture of traps and fast enemies in one section you can try leading the enemies through the traps. The set pieces in Gears of War 2 don't just look pretty, they change the course of how the game is played in short intervals.

Gears of War 2 has successfully escaped the "generic" stigma it picked up after the first game. The gameplay is a changing landscape throughout that manages to fit nicely within the confines outlined by the series. It's a brilliant single player experience that shooter fans won't have any trouble immersing themselves in this year.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Banjo-Kazooie Nuts & Bolts Demo Impressions

Talk about neglect.

Finally got to play the Banjo-Kazooie N&B demo today, and I just couldn't really get into it.

Showdown Town still had platforming objectives, but I felt like my ability to navigate the world on foot had been severely hampered, and I wasn't able to simply jump my way up buildings. Instead I had to climb up a pole and walk across a tight rope using what felt like a balancing mini-game.

It felt like an artificial means of progression in lieu of just having fun jumping around the world to explore it. I don't understand why I have a much more limited move set than previous titles.

It's seems like Rare is afraid of people not utilizing the vehicles so they didn't give them any platforming utility. But the vehicles just aren't as adept at moving through the world to collect things. Missing a note in a vehicle is rare but can completely break the players pace. They can't simply run right back at it after passing it by, instead they have to make a U-Turn, realign, and then continue on with whatever it was they were doing.

Vehicles end up feeling like arbitrary ways to make the missions more complicated than they really are. Banjo games always had unique missions, but now they seem like very boring, standard, and repetitive concepts like racing and pushing an object from point "X" to point "Y" that are dressed up to seem unique. Making things worse is that the missions felt separated from the actual world. Having to be pulled out of exploring the level to begin a mission ends up creating a divide, and the missions end up feeling like they were deliberately placed around the world rather than being a part of it.

The levels themselves are far too open for players to genuinely explore. One of the things that sort of stands out to me as proof of this is the mini-map displaying where missions are, and huge holograms of essential characters. This removes a sense of "what am I going to find in this section of the world" as well as making the game more about meeting silly time limits (a mistake in a game that's at its best when players are meandering about in a relaxed state) than needing to explore the level on your own terms.

When I first teleported into Banjoland I didn't know what to do, even after five minutes of messing around; and that's never a good position for the player to be in. Because the levels are designed around these big race and collecting missions the player isn't funneled as well between each new objective, and it's really a shame. I don't think the new direction particularly works well, especially considering that Rare isn't stepping up to the plate with the best vehicle mechanics by any means. Creating vehicles and taking them out into the world is interesting, but if what I'm doing with them isn't enjoyable than it isn't really worthwhile.

I don't think the game is bad, but it isn't particularly fun, and it's unfortunate that Rare's ideas don't seem to work as well as the design document.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Warhammer Online Open Beta Impressions

It’s not hard for MMORPG fans to be excited about the upcoming Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning. World of Warcraft is starting to become stagnant for many, gripped tightly by a pre-expansion lull. Other genre newcomers like Age of Conan and Pirates of the Burning Sea disappointed players and proved to be stop-gaps and minor distractions between other regular MMO play. WAR is the biggest contender facing Blizzard since WoW launched against Everquest 2, leaving players anticipating a big MMO that feels like a genuinely new experience.

Unfortunately WAR is a product severely hindered by World of Warcraft. In an attempt to beat WoW’s next expansion to stores WAR in its current Open Beta state feels incomplete and full of unrealized potential.

While WAR has long promised to change the PvP space, the game ultimately does not live up to its own acronym. Instead of realizing that balance was the main hindrance behind MMOs having valuable PvP the developers instead focused on integrating PvP throughout the leveling experience. It’s a great way to keep a competitive feeling among players even at low levels, and helps to alleviate the game revolving solely around the end game, but the game doesn’t elevate itself to a point different from any other MMOs.

PvP “strategy” devolves into players overwhelming enemies as a pack. If the pack you’re in is bigger than the pack they’re in, congratulations, you win. Making this even more painful is how drawn out WAR’s combat is. Battles decided from the outcome take place in slow motion before your eyes as you watch you continue to whittle your opponents bar down at a faster rate than he can to yours. There are no turning points in battles, and the only “strategy” is for the player who knows they’re bound to lose to retreat back to allies to outnumber you.

The combat itself feels beyond basic for certain classes. Black Orcs, for example, need to use certain moves to open up more powerful abilities. This leaves you using the same abilities in the same order for every battle over and over again hoping your opponent drops before you do. It creates an overwhelming sense of monotony. This is amplified in PvE content with so few enemy types. Enemies are either hardy enemies with low damage output or weak enemies with high damage output from a distance that settle for a decent melee damage output when you run up to them. Really, that’s about as exotic as it gets, and because of the deeply rooted “faction rivalries” in the game you can expect about 80% of the PvE enemies you fight to be the race your faction hates.

Public Quests are another example of a great idea gone completely wrong in Warhammer Online. They’re scripted events around the world that players contribute to as a group without having to commit, with immediate loot rewards for players who are most helpful in addition to Influence Rewards that can be earned by anyone. You get Influence Points for each monster you kill and objective you complete, with bigger rewards for the more difficult kills. Its good fun for awhile and it leads to the best rewards you’re able to obtain while leveling up.

It doesn’t take long however to notice that repetitive nature of Public Quests. For example, let’s say one PQ has players killing 125 dwarf soldiers before introducing a boss who is a dwarf with about ten times as much health as the dwarves you were just killing. You’re still trying to earn enough influence points to get the reward, but you’ve already been killing these same dwarves for half an hour, so you look around the zone to find another PQ. You walk for about two minutes before coming up on another PQ where players now have to kill 150 dwarf road workers before the ultimate dwarf road worker comes out and defends the realm.

While Public Quests are certain to initially wow players, they’re ultimately incredibly linear, repetitive, and unbalanced. Once again it comes back to players being able to overwhelm enemies with numbers to trump the time limit to progress to the next stage of the PQ. At low levels PQs serve as a substitute to other MMOs dungeons, and they really are unable to compete. Enemy types are unvaried and unimaginative, and instead of being split up by interesting and excited boss encounters throughout they force players to grind through all the trash before getting to a boss that feels like a bloated fight against a standard enemy.

Some tiers of zones don’t have anywhere near enough quests to assist you in leveling an adequate amount to progress on through the game, so players resort to constantly redoing public quests and PvP to help them gain experience. Races also have had crucial classes cut, leaving certain races to level through their zones without adequate class balance. One of the worst offenders of this is the tank class being cut from Dark Elves, meaning you’ll be hard pressed to have anyone around to tank boss mobs spawned from Public Quests.

WAR just feels rushed in so many aspects. Afraid to be crushed by a WoW expansion in the same way Vanguard was it is giving players full access to a beta when it releases September 18, 2008.