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.