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Friday, February 26, 2010

First Person Evolution

I've been playing first person shooters since ... well, there have been first person shooters. Possibly even before, depending on how you define the concept versus the coined genre (I once coded a 3D maze program that was in the back of a computer magazine).

OK, I'm old. Let's move on.

Doom inspired more than a few clones, and Quake practically created the concept of similar games being called a Whatever killer. Quake killer, Half-Life killer, Halo killer (this trend in the media may have died with Haze ... or at least it should have). During this generation, most of the feature changes were similar across titles: level design and weapon design. Duke at least gave us a funny character, which was a step up from the generic marine.

Eventually we got better controls, better AI, a horde of graphical improvements so technical that you'd need a degree in Carmackology to grasp, and well, more improvements to level and weapon design. Valve gave us scripted sequences, and various developers have tacked on new multiplayer modes. Eventually, someone added vehicles.

But for a moment - let's look at what is the same. In Borderlands, I shoot barrels to explode around enemies. I did that in Doom. The zombies in Doom dropped ammo when they were killed ... as did the necromorphs of Dead Space. Bioshock 2 is a landscape devoid of life but full of crates. The E2M2 level of Doom was a crate maze.

Before the crate maze? Lots of barrels. Let's dwell for a moment on the fact that Halo was revolutionary simply because you could only carry two guns. Crazy! And yet it helped give the game immersion, slimmer control requirements and added mechanics about weapon balance. And sure, there have been peaks and valleys of innovation. Deus Ex was earth-shatteringly brilliant, giving us a branching narrative, RPG-like stats and inventory control and a richly interactive world.

And then we had Deus Ex II.

Clearly I'm being intentionally myopic here. Dead Space may have had old school ammo drops and weapon control - but it also had a HUD-less design and really well done third/first person hybrid perspective. Bioshock 2 was not only carrying on traditional design concepts from Deus Ex and System Shock (two of the best shooters ever made), but introduced a highly original world concept and exceptional production design. These aren't things to scoff at, and I haven't even gotten to games like Thief or Mirror's Edge which challenge the very concept of "first person" and "shooter" being a strict relationship.

But this isn't about giving the love, it's about nudging an aging genre that a few pushes in a few directions won't suffice for the future. Borderlands and Bioshock 2 represent the outskirts of acceptablity to me now. I'd like to pose a few challenges to the genre.

Continue to mash with other genres
Some of the most notable examples in FPS gaming have relied on blending in action adventure (like branching narratives) and RPG elements (like upgradeable characters). Even MAG, which is in its heart a straight up military shooter, tracks skill points you can use to enhance your solider.

Great, but the genre could do more. id's upcoming Rage well bring in racing elements. There have been various attempts to bring RTS style action - but I actually think many of these have somewhat failed. The basic mechanics of the shooter have been done, and done, and done again. When I was modding Unreal, I had planned out a partial conversion which would have a static map with specific resources needing control, upgradeable characters (with a dynamic list of team members). It was actually supposed to be a mix of Unreal and X-Com. Like so many projects, I never finished it - only had a core pieces of working code. But that was for UT2004 - so I know the technology is there, it's just that nobody is designing it.

Drop the cliches
I was half-tempted to call these out individually, but let's lump them together: barrels, crates, unrealistic inventory drops, ghostly women whispering in your...

Actually, wait. I'm calling this one out for a moment. I think Halo started the trend, but I'm not entirely sure ... but I'm pretty certain not every game needs an attractive, spectral, female voice commanding the player. That most shooter games rely on messages being broadcasted directly to the player's ear is bad enough, but the majority of them being computerized/ghostly/holographic women brings it close to a bad Monty Python joke.

But continuing on: unrealistic inventory control, "find that key" style map control, monster closets, trap rooms, uberweapons ... need I go on? I'll give Bioshock 2 credit ... it riffs off many of these cliches so effortlessly they don't feel annoying, but not every shooter will be Bioshock 2. Games like GoldenEye and Halo made what were in actuality small mechanical changes to the core gameplay of the shooter, but in doing so have become classics in their own right.

Open worlds, sandbox gameplay
There needs to be a better distinction between the concept of open world design and sandbox gameplay - as shooters could do with a dose of both. Open world simply means a non-linear layout, where you aren't forced to wander in between point A and B to progress through the game. Sandbox gameplay means the player isn't required to do a specific task to progress, but can devise their own solution to the problem. Bioshock 2 dipped into the latter, allowing the player to setup their own style of defense for the Little Sisters (or not defend them at all). But again, this is a toe in the water. This was another subject myself and some fellow modders used to toy with. Once concept I never got down was "Unreal City", where all the games took place on the same map, and players would choose objectives from job boards ... including opposing objectives (so you might be tasked to kill player A, while I'm tasked with keeping them alive).

More Social Multiplayer
I frequently avoid online games because I find so many random people online to be total asshats. Whether it's the guy playing his guitar over his mic, or the one complaining endless about how unfair the game is, to griefers and PKers, to the racists and the children ... there's a good subsection of the online population I'd rather not associate with.

But hey, it's there and it might as well be tapped. Recently shooters have trended towards better and better coop play - which is excellent. Also, better squad mechanics are starting to arise, also excellent. But what about truly complicated social interactions? Deathmatch mechanics have pushed towards this at times - but why can't I have a nemesis? Or a sidekick? Roles in shooters are an all or nothing deal.

Another mod concept: One player, unknown to the rest of the server, was a killer. They had enhanced abilities. But, they could could easily be overwhelmed in numbers - so that one player would score for kills, but the rest would score more if they could keep a majority of the people alive before killing the killer. It was a little bit werewolf, little bit The Thing.

Now I know the issue - for more role related play, people need to know their roles. A classic gametype which has gone the way of the dodo is a VP mode where one player was an unarmed VP and the rest of the team had to ferry them forward. Which was an awesome gametype, unless the guy being VP was a moron or simply had never played before. Then it lasted about ten seconds.

Hey, I didn't say it would be easy - that's why it's a challenge. Considering we live in an age where most players don't even crack open

Or even off the game field: better player marketplaces, lobbies, hubs. Sony Home is a moving towards failed experiment area, but doesn't mean it isn't an interesting idea.

Interface with more than a trigger
In many military shooters right now, there is the magic wrench/buffer/sparkle gun/hypo which magically repairs vehicles or people. While this mechanically fits easily with the rest of the game (especially the healing), it does make me want for more. id showed with Doom III that shooters can have richer interfaces (though that was more designed for mouse users, true...) - and yet for the most part we're left with just pointing and pulling the trigger.

Obviously single player could benefit the most out of this, and we've seen this in some instances with the Bioshock and Thief series, for example.

Another point is deeper interactions with the player and the player's inventory itself. Since Deus Ex, there has been a stripping down of this - simpler RPG elements with fewer options. In Deus Ex I could fiddle with my assault rifle until it was a semi-automatic sniper rifle. In Bioshock 2, I can tack a bigger barrel on another barrel, and that is about that.

OK, I think that's enough ranting for the moment. I gotta go find a cat playing a piano to rebalance the internets now.

For Friday: Bo Peep Bo Peep

Via Topless Robot, who refers to it as possibly the worst pop song ever written.

You can hate me later. Or now, your choice.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

TV Watch: Lost, The Lighthouse

There's this scene in a relatively bad Buffy episode where Xander notes how funny it is that nobody ever noticed a Transylvanian castle in the middle of Sunnydale before. It was good humor and hung a lantern, so to speak, on how the show continually added locations to an otherwise vanilla California suburb.

In The Lighthouse, Jack wonders out loud how it is that nobody noticed a tall stone building before. Hurley responds with a rather deadpan, "Maybe we weren't looking for it."

Like Buffy, Lost has continually added new locations and for the most part has used the jungle foilage as a rationale for characters stumbling onto them. What I can't tell is if Hurley's response is the direct opposite of the intent in Buffy - not to dismiss the oddness by giving it a bit of recognition, but to specifically call it out. The island has been home to a lot of oddy placed things, some with potential explanations (genetically altered polar bears to survive the tropical climate) and some without (Kate's horse). Did people not see The Lighthouse because they just weren't looking, or was it actually not there because they just weren't looking?

The episode also pointedly reminded us of two important season one plot points - that Jack's dad wasn't in the coffin, and the corpses Adam & Eve. Hurley brings up the fan theory that Adam & Eve are, in fact, Losties ... which could be simply a fan nod or near confirmation. Either way, it's good to know the writers haven't forgotten about these points.

The end result of the episode seems to be a line in the sand and opposing teams. Anti-Jacob has Sawyer, Claire and possibly Jin and/or Sayid. Jacob has Jack and Hurley. The Temple is stuck in the middle, though Jacob doesn't seem capable of defending it any more (possibly because of his being dead and all). Winner seems to get control of the island, and hence be a protector or He Who Runneth Amoks (assumingly).

All in all I though this was a pretty good episode, but I do have one point of order I can't quite figure out (I know, how weird for this show). Claire disappears after seeing Christian Shepherd and leaves Aaron behind. She isn't seen again until she appears mysteriously in Jacob's Cabin, and hence we can't be sure if that was her or an apparition. Now she's CFL following SmokeLocke around, knowing that it is SmokeLocke ( or at least not Locke ). She thinks The Others have Aaron and threatens to kill Kate if she is the one who took her.

But - let's track that backwards. If Claire is in the company of SmokeLocke, then does that mean Christian's appearances signify SmokeLocke? And if Aaron was left behind after Claire followed him - why does she think The Others have Aaron?

I bring this up as an example of when Lost fans might have to take a deep breath and realize - that probably isn't going to get sorted out. It's chaff in a long and complicated storyline with a lot of noise in the signal. I'll be happy if the final explanation even keeps the Smoke Monster / dead people sightings marginally consistent.

Anyway, good episode.

New MAG Patch (v1.03)

Zipper is issuing a rather large patch to their online shooter MAG, here are some highlights:

  • Improved speed of weapon and gear swapping by approximately 500 milliseconds.

    I'm hoping this will be huzzah. I've been killed many times while juggling gear, annoyingly and especially switching to grenades.

  • Changed resuscitated player’s camera orientation to match the last camera direction used while incapacitated instead of the pre-harm camera.

    Nice. I've noticed this more recently, where I get revived and am facing an unexpected direction. Bad when the enemy is baring down on you.

  • Players no longer lose XP if a teammate is killed by an objective explosion caused by a charge they planted.

    Big, big freaking yay! Here. I doubt anyone was ever trying to grief that random guy running past a charge. I'm hoping (and have asked Zipper) this includes if you were a turret gunner, and someone gets killed when the turret explodes.

  • Respec Point requirements in Barracks have been changed from 3K, 5K, 10K, 17K, 26K, and 26K-Repeat to 1K, 2K, 3K, and 3K-Repeat.

    I'm not sure what they are now, but that almost sounds like a larger gap for respecs. If so: Boo. If not: - but it looks like cheaper respecs so ... yay! I still vote for a free respec off that bat, and the ability to more frequent respecs in general.

Now the really interesting stuff. They're rebalancing weapons. Check the link at the bottom for specifics - but short version is that you shouldn't be able to snipe with non-sniper rifles any more (remember when I said the LMG could do anything plus the tango, apparently not so much now), shotties and SMG are more fixed to medium range, from the hip recoil increased and the battle rifles and rockets launchers are made more effective.

Or short short version: weapons are going to behave more like one might originally expect. From the description, I give the whole range of updates a thumbs up ... and congrats to Zipper for doing it. But I wish them well in not having a subset of players who get really annoyed with the fact that they can't do everything with their LMG builds anymore. I kept a solid LMG build in hand myself, just because it is so versatile. Maybe the assault rifle will become the better middle ground now?

Full details over at the MAG Blog, and the patch is due out this Thursday.

Update: It's out, and it is good. Very solid balancing without feeling like nerfing. Weapons feel more "proper" now, the other tweaks make for a more solid experience. Thumbs up, Zipper.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Game Play: Bioshock 2

Personally, the Bioshock franchise is an odd measure of the change in my gaming habits. The first game was one of the last games I played on the PC, that my PC at the time could handle well and yet I still spent a lot of time trying to fiddle with the resolution on the damn thing to make sure I was getting the prettiest darn experience possible.

This game - I just popped it into the PlayStation 3 and moved on. Not only did getting the PC not occur to me, I don't even have a PC to play it on anymore. This isn't really meant to be yet another nudge at the PC market, just a footnote that whether the genre is dying or not, it's somewhat dead to me.

Anyway - the game itself. Bioshock 2 takes the player back to Rapture. If you haven't played the first one, you won't be totally lost ... but you will be missing out on a quite a bit of detail as the story of the second game builds heavily on the first. And once again, Bioshock 2 succeeds in storytelling to a point well past most shooter's benchmarks. There are very few non-interactive cut scenes, and far better character interaction than most games. This goes well past "hey, aren't you Gordon Freeman" to - "I just totally tried to kill you, what are you going to do about it?". While it's not exactly deep character development, it does allow players to literally go past the "glass wall", such as the ones Matt and I noted in our Dead Space conversation.

Mechanically speaking, the game is nearly identical to the first game, which is good - we're talking about a shooter with a rich heritage here and it shows. My favorite addition is the more free-form moments where you need to defend a little sister. Some of the fights got very dynamic and fluid, which is getting more and more rare in the shooter world, as the "virtual shooting gallery" has become more common. There are scenes which are clearly staged, but much of the world of Rapture feels organic and connected, not a series of artificial scenes stitched together.

Finally, I think the ending is much, much improved over the original. Oh sure, there are logical inconsistencies you can drive a truck through - but at least it felt like a consistent, coherent narrative ... and not a end animation tacked on to be done with it. This time I was careful to save every little sister ... so I don't know if the "harvest one, and you get the bad ending" rule is still in effect.

I have not tried the multiplayer yet, I'll give it a go this week and report later. The total game play was probably about 20 or so hours ... you can finish it in a week or so without too much trouble. The summation is what one would expect - if any game similar to Bioshock (Bioshock itself, System Shock, Deus Ex, etc.) has ever entertainted you, Bioshock 2 will not dissapoint. All in all, well recommended.

I will have an upcoming post, though, about how the shooter genre needs to evolve. This is a footnote on the genre, not on Bioshock 2, but in the same way this game book ends my PC gaming experience, I think it also bookends - along with many other titles like Modern Warfare 2, my welcome mat for some tired and true FPS concepts.

But, that's for another time.