The First Worthwhile Move Game

February 3, 2011

When the PS3 released, one of the biggest problems were that there were so few games to take advantage of all that power.  It’s a stigma that followed the PS3 all the way into 2009, even in press reporting, even when the PS3 had more games and better exclusives than the Xbox.  You’d think that Sony learned a lesson from that: having hardware without games leads to frustration, and needs to stop.  With that lesson, we might have expected to see Sony release the Move controller with some truly good games.  Unfortunately, Sony continues to drop the ball with its customers.  In the many months since the Move controller has been out, we have seen NO interesting games!  Sports Champions, which seemed to get good reviews, is nothing more than a longish tech demo.

Well, the first good game for the Move is out — and it’s a Wii game!  I got Dead Space: Extraction for free with the PS3 edition of Dead Space 2.  And boy, it’s fun.  It’s always exciting to have a story-driven game that does something different.  And the Move controls here work really well.

With Killzone 3 coming with Move controls, it seems some exciting times are ahead.  But apart from shooters, everybody is asking for a Move Star Wars game.  What’s truly astounding is why Sony didn’t talk to LucasArts about this in time to get a good game around the time the Move was released.  Does Sony simply not want its platform to do well?  There simply seems to be a lack of due diligence at Sony this generation.


The Characteristics of BioWare RPGs

February 1, 2011

In December ’09, I uploaded this post detailing what I wanted from an RPG.  At that point, I hadn’t played or read much about Dragon Age: Origins.  Indeed, it had just released.  I bought DA:O sometime in 2010, and have started to play.  As I played, I realized that BioWare gets what I want from an RPG.  No grind, great story, and various other things I demanded in that post all made into DA:O.  It would’ve been like my dream game come true.

But.

There’s a but.  DA:O is not my dream game come true — calling it a nightmare would be going too far, but it’s far from pleasant.  Although DA:O solved many of the major problems I had with RPGs, it introduced so many problems that I consider it nearly unplayable.  In no particular order, these issues are:

  1. Muddy graphics.  You can actually make your character look good in DA:O, unlike in say ME2.  But the graphics are so fugly one wonders what this game is doing on current generation consoles.  Everything about the graphics screams low production values — almost as if the devs didn’t even care what the game looked like.
  2. Framerate hitches.  During fights, the framerate hitches kill you much more often than your enemies.  This is especially problematic since you often have 10 enemies or so, and can take 5 or more attacks in a second during fights.  The game freezing for half of that time often means you’re already dead by the time it unfreezes.
  3. Roll-of-dice fights.  The same fight is sometimes impossible and sometimes trivial based on what your enemies chose to do.  I think this is because the actions of your enemies are randomized; if they happen to act in concert, or if they happen to score a massive critical hit when you’ve got half your health (and wouldn’t normally die), you’re just out of luck.  In long fights this can play a major role.  It makes for good realism, but needs to be balanced better.
  4. Poor checkpointing.  I’m not sure what they can do to make things better, but I’d rather not have to repeat the tedious treasure collecting I did.  You’re supposed to save often, but humans are fallible.  They should include a time-based criterion — checkpoint every 5 min, for example — in addition to event or location based checkpointing.
  5. Fantastically long load-times.  I’m pretty sure more than 30% of play time is spent staring at load screens.  At particularly tough fights (where you die quickly), the load time can be up to 10 times as long as the fight time.  Maybe more.  Even traveling from one short section to another seems to subject you to these load times.  I accept it is much more difficult to do pre-loading in RPGs than in linear shooters, but no load time should be this long.  Even saving freezes the game for quite a while.
  6. Poor interface design.  The menus in this game seem designed to make you struggle to do common tasks instead of make it easier.  A common menu design principle is to minimize the number of button presses for common tasks — DA:O does not care about this.
  7. Waste time walking.  You often have to spend huge amounts of time walking through area after area, sometimes enduring load screens along the way, just to get from place A to place B, both of which you’ve visited before.  This is true even if these areas are on the map.  Once you’ve visited a place, the tedium of walking to it should be eliminated.  Long walks in ugly graphically deficient environs are no fun.  Make movement fast and efficient!!
  8. Minor annoyances.  There are too many to be listed in separate categories — for example, completely pointless rooms are a personal peeve of mine.

I had all of these pegged as BioWare hallmarks.  But I’ve just started playing Mass Effect 2 (on the PS3, of course), and it seems many of these problems simply don’t exist in ME2.  The people are not ugly, but I can’t get female Shepard to actually look good.  But they’ve fixed almost every one of the problems.  The menu and interface design is especially worth mentioning — this game gives you the feeling that the button you want to press is immediately available whenever you need it!  The game still has roll-of-dice fights to some extent, but these seem to be better balanced with no simultaneous massive damage hits from multiple enemies.  The only time you waste time walking is within the ship.  Load times are not horrendous, and more importantly there are fewer of them.  Saving is quick, done entirely in the background, and doesn’t interfere with gameplay at all.

Checkpointing can occasionally be iffy. And I’ve read online that there are a great many framerate issues, though I’m yet to come across one in over 10 hours of gameplay.

And most amazingly, BioWare managed to make an Unreal Engine game look good.  Every other UE game I’ve played so far, without exception, has an unpleasant wet plastic visual aspect to it.  Bioshock and Batman: Arkham Asylum were, in my opinion, ugly games — though you could say their visuals were technically very proficient.  ME2 changes that for the first time.  (But make no mistake:  ME2 is good looking and has great visual design, but it isn’t even in the same ballpark as Uncharted 2, Killzone 2, or even the first Uncharted in terms of sheer graphical prowess.)

Here’s hoping the DA:O2 team learnt something from the ME2 team before working on their new game!


Darksiders Tiamat Rant

January 24, 2011

I’m trying to beat the Tiamat boss in Darksiders, and I just have to rant.

This boss is ridiculously hard to beat, but for all the wrong reasons.

  1. The biggest cause of your death is the poor camera!  The camera will automatically center itself so that War is visible, but Tiamat is not.  Thus, you cannot see whether and when Tiamat is getting ready to attack you!  Often, you can’t see where Tiamat is!  You can adjust the camera of course, but throughout this fight you’re fighting both Tiamat and the badly programmed camera.
  2. The second biggest cause of your death is the fact that the sticky bombs are nearly invisible.  They do not have a colour or glow that distinguishes them from the rest of Tiamat’s body.  It’s often impossible to tell whether the bomb even stuck to Tiamat!   Besides this, Tiamat’s other body parts can obscure bombs that are stuck to Tiamat.  Thus, even if you have several bombs on Tiamat, the lock-on control will not see them and will not lock onto them!  In any case, Darksiders’s enemy selection mechanism doesn’t work very well — sometimes it selects a nearby bomb rather than a flame even if the reticule is directly on the flame.  I’m guessing this is because it draws a line from War to infinity, and the nearby bomb is closer on this line, even though the reticule is centered on the flame.  Whatever the reason, the very few shots at Tiamat you get are even harder to take because of the sheer clumsiness of the controls.
  3. The fireballs that Tiamat throws at you are programmed in an entirely unfair way.  I’m not sure what it is, but I seem to take damage even when all I’m doing is watching for them and dashing to avoid them!  Either the game is detecting collision in some non-physical way, or the blast radius of the fireballs is much larger than the fireballs themselves, thus visually tricking you.  As if that weren’t enough, the audio cue is off too.  If you respond to the audio cue, you’ll dash too early and get hit!
  4. Finally, that video game programmer insanity — making you sit through a cutscene before you can start a fight — is present, though to a smaller extent.  It seems you can skip most of the cutscene, but the last bit will invariably play before you’re handed control, increasing the aggravation.

As you can tell, I’m really hating this game right now.


Woe is God of War III

January 14, 2011

This is a rant that I wrote many months ago, after playing God of War III.  I don’t usually buy games at release, but did so with GoW3.  I knew I was taking a big risk, since the body language of the devs in interviews etc. was very under-confident.  Unfortunately, GoW3 failed to deliver.

God of War lost its soul.  The makers of the latest in the series seem to have forgotten what Kratos stood for. The nuances have disappeared, leaving a hollow version.  The story-telling, variety, puzzles and sheer atmosphere have all suffered.

The first problem is that the designers just decided to pack the game as chock-full of brutality and rage as they could.  Previous games had reason to the madness, which made it interesting.  Not this one.

The story is also affected.  Previously, there some reason, however vague, to how you fell into Hades.  Here you blunder into one place, there’s maybe 5 seconds of something going on, then you’re blasted into Hades and before you even realize it you’re looking in wonder (supposedly) at things in Hades.  It’s just way too abrupt and it’s no way to tell a story.  And this pervades the whole game.  There’s no rhyme or reason for anything.  The designers wanted to insert a fight.  How do they do it?  They just inserted a disembodied voice that pronounces, “to proceed you must now fight” and then the fight begins.  It’s literally that bad.  The wonderful storytelling of the first two parts is gone.

The dialogue is much worse this time around.  It’s surprising because the dialogue in the first two games was fantastic.  This is especially true of the biblical-style dialogue delivered by disembodied voices, gods or titans.  Both the words and the delivery are real wannabe stuff, meant to be imposing but just sounding silly.

The graphics are eye-popping, but also uneven.  Even if textures are high res, it seems what the eye really notices is differences in texture quality, not  normatively defined levels of texture quality.  GoW3 makes a cardinal mistake here:  they sometimes put low-res and super hi-res textures right next to each other!  So, although in some areas you can see some incredibly detailed texture+dynamic lighting combination, there are others where you’re taken aback at the lo-res texture sitting right next to the beautifully hi-res one.  One example of such a low-res texture is the initial fight on Gaia, where the grass texture below Kratos’ feet is almost PS2 quality.

The animation.  Most modern games include simple but effective touches, like when a character runs up against a wall, their legs stop moving and they wait until they can move again.  Not so with Kratos: he’ll stand and keep running in place.  Not that this matters much by itself, but it’s one of a series of touches that you expect from a next-gen title.  It just gives a feeling of a general lack of next-gen polish.  There are other such things.  The insistence on finish an animation before allowing the player to control Kratos might be a combat design choice, but it feels outdated.  This isn’t how we usually play this generation.  Similarly, when you press R1 to read a message of some sort, the game pauses for about 3-5 seconds before you get a X prompt that lets you move on.  This might not seem very long, but sometimes it happens right before a tough fight.  It can get pretty aggravating to wait that long every single time you restart the fight.

One of the things that gave the game its characteristic atmosphere in the first two installments was a mediterranean feel.  Hades in the first two installments was unique, sui generis.  Here it’s got Gothic elements.  To me, this makes it worse and detracts from what it should be.  Darksiders is Gothic.  Devil May Cry is Gothic.  God of War is not Gothic.

In the previous GoW games, you were part of something bigger a huge proportion of the time spent in the game.  You were running around inside a gigantic environmental puzzle.  In GoW2, for example, it was the Colossus in the beginning.  In GoW1, it was Pandora’s Temple.  Fighting, climbing, running down corridors and scaffolding and marbled halls, you always knew that you were part of something really big.  You were trying to solve something.  This element is also gone from GoW3.  Just now, I swam underwater for no reason.  I jumped into the water.  Dived, swam, climbed out, then dived into the next segment and swam some more, opened an underwater gate, swam some more.  I did all of this without any reason for doing so.  There was no immediate puzzle, but it was also not part of a bigger puzzle.  I was required to jump through a few trivially easy, pointless hoops just for the sake of it.  Nothing in previous games was pointless.  It degrades the game.

What about intricacy of design?  Think of the circles of Pandora’s Temple.  Think of the Strings of Fate level.  The spinning crankshafts in Hades.  Each of these was finished with a certain level of innovation and creativity that is simply lacking in GoW3.

And where are the puzzles?  1 & 2 had wonderful level-sized puzzles, and puzzles within puzzles, like a fractal in a game.  GoW 3 has nothing.

Finally, let’s get to the fighting itself.  I played GoW1 & 2 years ago, but I can still vividly remember many of the set-piece fights in those games.  Each fight had something unique to it, not just in gameplay but also in the ambience, backstory and the characters in the fight.  The fights in GoW3 were bigger, more graphically stunning.  But they were simply not as memorable.  The fight against Poseidon, for example, was actually quite boring.  It can’t hold a candle to any of the bosses in 1 & 2.

I think Sony Santa Monica struggled so much to make this game a graphical masterpiece that every other aspect suffered.


Why the PS3 Move is exciting

March 23, 2010

There’s a small bit of excitement about the PS3 Move motion controller.  People say it’s not as interesting as Microsoft’s Natal, but game devs and users seem excited about its precision.  It will be interesting to see all the ways in which Move gets used in games.  The hack and slash genre should see some benefits, for sure.

But I think it’s also exciting for a reason that one of the Sony execs (I forget which) mentioned: consoles have thus far lacked pointer functionality.  There are games that are made for the PC, like a variety of strategy games, that are never made for consoles mainly because PCs have an accurate mouse pointer, and consoles lack such a pointer.  I hope the Move means some great pointer based strategy games can be released for the PS3.

I for one would love to play Age of Empires on the PS3 — a pipe dream, I know, because Age of Empires is a Microsoft product.  However, in spite of my dislike for Microsoft these days, I think Age of Empires is one of the greatest games ever made.   So hopefully, we will see a lot of strategy games that were not previously possible being made for the PS3!


Poor Bioshock 2 sales

March 17, 2010

Here’s an interesting article from PC World magazine:

http://www.pcworld.com/article/191385/bioshock_2_cleans_up_xbox_360_overtakes_wii_in_february_game_sales.html

There’s the usual misleading headline (the PS3 actually outsold the 360 worldwide in Feb and has been for several months running; the article only focused on the US but neglected to mention that in the headline).  But the interesting thing about this article is that Bioshock 2 X360 sales are MUCH higher than Bioshock 2 PS3 sales. Almost 4 times the sales on the X360, compared to the PS3.  What could the reason be?

It’s my feeling that people are buying Bioshock 2 based on how much they loved the original Bioshock.  If there are a lot of Bioshock fans on a console, Bioshock 2 will sell well too.  This is a common pattern in videogames; franchise fans tend to be more numerous on one console or another: RE5, FFXIII are other examples.

When it was first released on the X360, there was a general paucity of quality games for this generation of consoles.  Also, the PS3 had not yet hit its stride with even the first Uncharted yet to be released.  So in comparison to everything else that was available at that time, Bioshock was a fantastic game.  The fact that it was exclusive made it all the more attractive to X360 owners.  (This is a standard feature of games on any console this generation.)  Thus began a love story between X360 fans and the Bioshock series.

Fast forward to late 2008, more than a year later, when Bioshock was released for the PS3.  By then, several real high-quality games had been released into the market, and PS3 exclusives like Uncharted had set the bar for both storytelling and production values really, really high.  When Bioshock was released for the PS3, it was a middling-good game.  Fun, but not exceptional.  The graphics were quite poor relatively.  Many better games were available.  So the PS3 crowd didn’t fawn over it or get starry-eyed about it.  So, by releasing it much later on the PS3, studio 2K shot themselves in the foot.  They could have had a second fanbase by releasing it simultaneously on the PS3, but they missed the train and there are few PS3 fans.

There are other reasons too.  Coming off a year-long game famine in 2009, where X360 fans had far fewer good games to play than PS3 fans, the pent-up hunger might be feeding sales to some extent.  2010 has had a good start for X360 owners, with ME2.  OTOH, PS3 owners had a glut of great games in 2009, and are already experiencing another similar flood in 2010.  In March, for example, PS3 owners have 3 huge games: Heavy Rain, FFXIII and GoW 3.  With limited amounts of money in each gamer’s hand, this means we should expect sales for each game to be lower on the PS3 due to all the within-console competition.

Having said all that, it is unfortunate that Bioshock 2 had lower sales.  This may turn out to be a problem: hopefully 2K don’t get the feeling it’s not worthwhile developing on the PS3!


The Real Apocalyps3

March 12, 2010

There is a tide in the affairs of men.
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.
Brutus to Cassius, Julius Caesar Act 4, scene 3, 218–224

A.k.a, strike with the iron is hot, when the moment is right etc. Why is there a dearth of PS3s in this, the biggest month in Sony gaming history? Maybe the biggest month in gaming history — with Heavy Rain, FFXIII and GoW III? Sony are trying their best to lose this race!


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