Thursday, November 13, 2008

Left 4 Dead? I'm going to find myself a witch!

This is the last post from my old blog just new posts after this.

Been enjoying the Left 4 Dead demo quite a bit. So much so that I really feel like waiting for the full game before I devote more free time to it.

I won't bother going into details of the gameplay, but what strikes me about the latest valve offering is the amount of love spent on the aesthetics, from control to visuals. Their blog goes into some of the visual touches I had only experienced, let alone analysed. The contrast black and white visuals of being almost dead followed by the flash of crisp colour after popping some pain pills really enhances that sense of a pick-me-up. I think my fave dramatic effect has to be the lament of the choir invisible when you're waiting to be rescued. All the sound effects cut out and you're left with a silent movie of you and your companions being mobbed as they run for their little lives. Just epic.

Controls are worth mentioning too, particularly after my disappointment with Bioshock. While they are no different to playing Team Fortress 2, your choices seem more obvious and immediate. Primary for most things, pistols to compensate for primary weaknesses (accuracy, or rate of fire), grenade for barrier or lure, etc. For some reason though I keep pressing H to bring up my health pack, only to see the server window. Weird and frustrating (trying to fix my bad habit rather than change my bindings, but I really have no idea where I picked this up from).

My two concerns for L4D before playing were that the levels would be too linear and the bot AI would make single player a waste of time. I was right on both accounts but my reaction was not as negative as I expected. Firstly the levels are pretty much as straight as an arrow, with no real alternative routes (in the first two levels in the demo that is). I was expecting the city to feel more freeform with a choice of safe houses and things, but instead it's really a gauntlet (more on this later :P ) to the finishing line. Yes it winds a bit and there are natural barriers that you can use in alternate ways, from alternate sides etc. but narrow none-the-less. Now I thought this would be a problem, and initially I was disappointed to be proved right, but actually the linear level design just highlights how effective the Director is at adding replayability. You learn the levels fast but reacting to all circumstances is pretty challenging. That said there are a finite number of tricks up the director's sleeves and once ready for them it does threaten to get repetitive. Good thing your sense of satisfaction just rises a notch when you can deal with the hordes more effectively.

Second the AI bots for single player (and multi without a full compliment) are actually better than most human players at the moment. This was a surprise till I realised they know just what to do in each situation (EDIT: they just don't, really the bots have let me down so much, I'm starting to wish they responded to voice commands), reacting with computer efficiency which is understandably fast. Of course they don't always do everything right but then who would (EDIT: heh). The trouble with this surprise for me was that as long as I played reasonably well I could best single player in Expert mode, simply because the bots were so good. Bit of a shame, but then that's one of the reasons that multiplayer is just fantastic.

I do want to mention difficulty level, since I brought it up twice now. All the previews I read went on and on about how hard normal mode was. Now again I'm experiencing just the first two levels but it was surprisingly easy on normal, even with 3 other players. We got to the end without sweating much, the time we did see a tank meant no deaths etc. I was sad by this. Ramping the difficulty up to advanced posed more of a challenge and deaths started to occur with alarming frequency. Then the joy of dying started to appear. All the ways you can be taken out, the mad situations the boss zombies create as hordes swamp you, the atmosphere is just so right. And putting the difficulty up also made it feel like a real achievement to get to the end. Nothing felt quite so good as getting to the end of expert mode alive, hobbling through the door with just one remaining team mate. It took significantly more practice to finish expert with all of us alive, and every attempt was just as fun as the one where we survived. Really dying hasn't been so fun in a long time.

This brings me to my most amusing evening with the demo so far. Not the experimenting with the split screen that caused my vista to go to a blue screen of death and do a crash dump, no that was just horrible and simply unbelievable. No the most amusing thing was joining an expert game with some TF2 buddies. I arrived to have a shotgun to the face and watched dumbstruck as the remaining team took each other out. The last man standing then leaped into the zombie horde shouting 'I'm going to find myself a witch!'. He got to the second subway train before being devoured by an truly epic hoard of zombies. At the respawn things went all John Woo in the safe room, the winner finishing off those on the floor before facing off the zombies, only to be taking from their grasp by a waiting smoker. This must have happened a few times, with each of us managing to have a go at a witch hunt. Then an odd thing started to happen. We formed temporary alliances, preferring to take the horde as a duo, helping up one team mate we thought least like likely to shoot us back. Bizarre and hilarious and so out of the spirit of the game it was truly liberating. It got a bit messing at the vote kick wars though :P As I sit recalling the fun I can only imagine how satisfying verses mode will be, when the griefing becomes part of the game and not just some adhoc experience that evolved from late night shenanigans.

Following this I feel I've had my fill of the demo, my fill only because I've had a taste of the full game and I want the whole menu, not just this cheeky starter. I can afford to be hungry a little longer before the real banquet begins.

Safe journey


PS: I mentioned gauntlet earlier and it reminded me of what I was thinking about this co-op experience. It's just like Gauntlet! Four players, working against a horde of monsters, sometimes bosses, trying to get from point A to point B, covering each others backs, searching for treasure (i.e. achievements or weapons/grenades etc). Of course this is gauntlet in the age of the FPS and internet multiplayer options. Fast, slick, adrenalin fuelled gauntlet but gauntlet non-the-less. I know that Left 4 Dead is so much more than this aging classic, a magnificent evolution. Thank you Valve for this truly great gaming experience, I can wait to see what the delights you have lined up for the full version.

Grumblings continue...

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Sweet sweet level design

I couldn't leave a blog on gaming experiences without without a mention of how wonderful the Half Life 2 mod Minerva is. I'm not joking when I say it felt like a better game than HL2 or the episodes. The level design is just fantastic and the lack of gravity gun or vehicle just oozes the feel of an old school FPS, and doing so exceptionally well. The pace of play is just great too, I just felt sucked in and spat out. Thank you Adam Forster. Loved it.

Also, I finished HL2: Episode 2 the other day. It was better than Episode 1 and more dramatic than HL2. I'm not a believer in spoilers so this was more of the same, with more plot and a citrus squeeze of emotion. Again it was set-piece orientated but dealt with the linking of them well. While I was not driven to purchase Episode 1 after HL2 I am definitely considering Episode 3 as a future purchase.

However, that next privileged slot goes to Left 4 Dead. Damn it's looking better all the time. Roll on November (+X months for Valve readiness).

Safe Journey,


EDIT: Since this post Adam Forster has been employed by the wondrous Valve, gratz my good man, thoroughly deserved.

Grumblings continue...

Warcraft: Know your enemy

This is a personal response to World of Warcraft (WoW) and the risk of addiction it poses.

Addiction, loosely the need to pursue a behaviour despite the detriment to the self and/or others, is not generally a positive thing. However, its precursor, the ability to focus on a task whilst ignoring distractions, is a necessary tool for learning, development and often success. For any activity there is the risk of a simple interest becoming a consuming addiction. 'Good' business involves cultivating interests to become addictive but, much like a successful parasite, the aim is not to kill the host, only drain it. When a product is dangerous it becomes good business to limit exposure to reduce mortality (with little thought to morbidity). Cigarettes, alcohol, even chocolate, bear warnings that only serve to mitigate abuse not stop it. Games are no different. My aim in this blog is to pin down some of the main features of WoW that make it addictive. Sun Tzu as usual has good advice on this front:

It is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles; if you do not know your enemies but do know yourself, you will win one and lose one; if you do not know your enemies nor yourself, you will be imperiled in every single battle.

Unfortunately I cant help you with yourself but I'll give the enemy a thorough going over.

1. It's accessible. WoW is not difficult to get hold of. You can download the whole game and try it for free (the first one's always free) and, relative to many other current games, it's inexpensive to buy. Luckily the impatient among you have extra protection as the download and/or latest patches can often take 1-2 days to install successfully. There is of course more. Because your account is stored on a separate server you can access it from any machine with the game installed and an internet connection. The evil of this is twofold. Not only does this give 'wowers' the convenience of playing without being linked to a dedicated machine but it can also turn many 'wowers' who travel (those not so afflicted the see no need of course) into viral vectors of the game. It becomes all to easy when visiting friends or family to crack under the desire to continue the adventure by a surreptitious install or the 'look at this' premise. Then once the game is sitting there it could easily make others curious because...

2. It looks like a cartoon. The trouble is that WoW can be as fun to watch as it is to play. The graphics are flamboyant and detailed, the characters and their expressions are emotive, while the world can be equally appealing. This may put off some who crave a more realistic 'iron and blood' experience, but it seems the cartoon nature of the graphics widens appeal in general. Why this is true is open to debate. Perhaps it is easier to suspend disbelief in a cartoon environment or it may tap into certain populations (perhaps the younger and female players) who find it more satisfying for a game. Furthermore, despite the cartoon theme, there is often something 'cool looking' for most people, be it effects, abilities, gear, or the environment. If you don't believe it go and watch a friend and see if you don't feel the pull. If you don't the reason may well be that it looks complicated (so many bags, so many items and buttons) but what you don't know is...

3. It's simple to play. Once you've installed it (or had it installed), set up your account and logged in, the most difficult thing about getting entering your world is choosing your name. Sure you have choices of class, race and features but most first time players will go for looks first anyway. Then after a brief intro of your race your first objective is to work out how to talk to people and kill something. Those unfamiliar with the 'WASD' form of movement and game interfaces (which is incredibly usable by-the-way) may find this a bit tricky but the the hint system is very succinct, getting you familiar with anything new happening (including of moving). Things start light on abilities too, usually with 3 main ones (including attack) and one or two racial ones. Within minutes you'll be 'levelling up', which brings both the feeling and actuality of becoming more powerful. Quests get steadily more complicated to teach you to be creative with your class, while others get taught as you go. This trend continues till around lv10 (~3hrs of play) where you'll be heading to your race's capital city, effectively opening up your character class and the world proper. By level 20 (~8-12hrs of play) I'm expecting you to feel you have a good handle on everything the game offers. Time to get bored as you do one repetitive task to the next right? Unfortunately...

4. It's not that simple. There are complexities in WoW gameplay designed to keep players of every inclination interested. The character's abilities can be tuned by gear (the items you wear and use) which you have to adventure for and a finite number of talent points (which you attribute to your style of play to complement your current abilities). Then there are professions that allow you to gather and craft items to give more abilities. The challenge of improving your character, either in powers or looks also becomes more difficult as you level. Improving your skill with a character is also important, none moreso than in plaver vs. player (PvP) situations. Every 10 levels or so builds in new challenges to manage with your character. If that wasn't enough, reaching the level cap then puts you in the 'endgame' which offers a whole multitude of ways to keep improving with the bar pretty much as high as you want to set it. Depth a' plenty for most avid players. Once this finite content is done however the end should be in sight. Unfortunately...

5. It is endless. With an end you might be able to curb your enthusiasm. What Blizzard kindly do instead is keep adding to the game. Regular patches and hotfixes refine the interface, remove bugs, add seasonal events, put in new quests, new items, new dungeons, new areas, new or altered abilities. And it happens on almost a monthly basis. Surely this is a great thing? Well not for those trying to get closure it isn't. One of the big driving forces for any game is to get to an end, any end to sit back and go, look what I've done, look how I grow. Don't get me wrong, WoW has this in bucket loads. Every achievement in the game is goal based, and there is always some goal your haven't done. Cruelly, the balance of this is just right as well. Getting that item you've been playing for hours for is a closure. But then you want to head off and use it or find another item to complement it. And lets not forget the game expansions... so much extra content, you're never going to finish this one baby. The only real limit is...

6. You pay for it. Surely paying for something works against addiction? Well this is rarely true for anything perceived as good, regardless of it's value. In WoW's case, paying encourages some level of 'getting your money's worth' feeling. Of course you could just subscribe and forget about it but the very fact you pay for something usually encourages you to use it. Arguments in favour of subscription are based on promises of regular support, maintenance and on-going development of a persistent virtual world. Unfortunately even these ultimately result in you playing more often. So at this stumbling point lets say you decide you don't want to pay for it all the time, that should make it easier right? Well not really. Taking a break can be harder than subscribing and playing when you feel like it. First of all you have the end date of your paid use. This may result in playing harder to fit as much in as possible before the end. Second, Blizzard currently give no penalty for 'freezing' your account. Great, I've stopped playing for good but that option to return is always there, when you're ready, no pressure. Parental controls are just another manifestation of this. Worried parents restricting a kids WoW time are just going to nurture an urge to play. And if if they are not exploring the world, gamers have another aspect of play...

7. You can play by not playing. Meta-gaming is what I'm talking about. The game content is huge, the complexity hidden behind interfaces is made as accessible as possible. However, if you want the most out of a game like that you need some help, help of those who've adventured before, a bit of wisdom to save you time. Sure you can ask someone in-game but most will be as clueless as you, or simply not want to waste time with a 'noob'. Thankfully the Information Age provides, in the form of searchable databases, guild websites, guides, maps and more. Players do so much outside of wow, and it's not even limited to working on stuff you can do in game. There is a huge amount of fan art, comics, machinma, cosplay; pretty much any interest can and has been catered for. The worst bit about this meta-gaming is that you can do it over lunch or when you're meant to be working, even daydreaming about what you'll do when you get back online counts. Of course every game that captures someone's interest involves some level of meta-gaming. We're also social creatures whose nature is to talk about things we are interested in, sitting in a forum or even me writing this is a form of meta-gaming. Not that I want to defend WoW on this point but it's not as bad as some of the others. For WoW the main reasons for meta-gaming are to plan what items or abilities you want to hunt down, perhaps discuss a boss encounter or arrange a guild event; you don't need to do it. Others games (I'm thinking EVE or even Urban Dead) often provide their greatest successes by meta-gaming and involve a lot of planning out of game to co-ordinate bursts of intense in-game action. That said, the level of meta-gaming in WoW merely continues to add to the risk of addiction.

These points about WoW raise one question for me, is WoW a bad thing? I've been dry of playing online for almost 3 months and still meta-game to a small extent, always planning to return. I play for the escapism, the fun of exploring and experiencing the game with so many others. But within that multifaceted joy is a draining game, one that will make continuous demands of the player. The risk of the game consuming someone's time to the extent that it their life is affected is very real, those jokes about loosing wives, jobs and homes are not far off the mark in some cases. When that happens however the game stops being fun and begins to become work.

My reaction to that is that I need a life to escape from in the first place. Not that my life is that bad, but games form a welcome relief from the current stresses of the world, not an excuse to ignore them. Finding that balance in most games is easy but Blizzard have made this difficult for all the reasons listed above. Despite that I honestly feel WoW is one of the best games I've ever played. However, anything that good, particularly this good, should be indulged in moderation. Trouble is there is very little way of successfully moderating yourself in WoW if you're having fun. Perhaps the best way to stop it is to burn out, or loose something that means more to you. So to all you still interested I write this as a warning really. The portal to a fantastic game awaits but you should know that it for what it is, a very entertaining enemy.

Safe Journey


Grumblings continue...

Friday, February 15, 2008

Dreamweb, Supportive Literature and the communication power of World of Warcraft

I've managed to pick up a copy of Dreamweb for a meagre 50p. Fantastic. While the game mechanics are clunky the atmosphere is mighty fine (owes a lot to blade runner and might as well be set in the same dystopia in most regards).

I'm only 5 areas into the game but it is set to be pretty fun (EDIT: and quite short). By far the best thing about the game is not the game but the 'reproduced' journal of the main character. Pretty high quality for 1994,all scribed in calligraphy pen and some 50 pages long. It documents Ryan's descent into madness as he comes to awareness of the Dreamweb. Nice.

You can download the game for free (it even works on vista) but the journal really harks back to the old days of gaming where the documents were all part of the experience. There is some discussion as to what use manuals are in the days of in-game tutorial and games like TF2 designed to be learnt as you play, but there is a lot to be said for supportive literature. Some of these colourful manuals used contain security codes, like the Sam and Max Crimestompers Coloring Book or the X-wing Starfighter pilots manual, but they would often try and create an atmosphere you could experience outside of the game, that you could read on the bus, at school/work, away from the computer. The Dreamweb journal covers no instructions and holds only mild clues to solving the main game but the story becomes a lot more viceral knowing what Ryan's been suffering before hand. Here's to more supportive literature I say.

Other news. I'm back in WoW. This was unforeseen but most welcome due to the ability to communicate over 6000 miles to talk and play with loved ones! Is there nothing this game can't do.

Will have a WoW addiction post up soon.

Safe Journey

Solar out

Grumblings continue...

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Consider my Bio Shocked

This is an old post from my previous defunct blog. Back when Bioshock came out many moons ago I was as pumped as the next fan of System Shock 2. I played the demo and decided it had more than potential, although even at the time it felt a little linear, but the effects and story looked intriguing. What follows is my experience of Bioshock, a game I completed and promptly gave away....

My main gripe with Bioshock is that if feels dumb. The controls are all soft and simplified, the levels are simple with little deviation, the water effects were hardly used, the environmental interactions were severely limited and the the main character has no character.

Let me elaborate.

I played Bioshock on the PC, believing that the experience would be amplified by the increased functionality in graphical options as well as more precise control with a mouse and keyboard (vs. a console options and controller). Little did I expect that the game design was toward a console experience on the PC. Now I'm not a PC snob, I like my console games, but the platforms are different and have pros and cons. Bioshock practically forces you to use an Xbox 360 controller with your PC the minute you climb the steps to Rapture. I found myself raising the sensitivity of the mouse to its near maximum to get a 180deg turning circle without playing tennis with my mouse. That and some buttons can't be re-bound (I think a recent patch fixes this but it is too late to want to play it again) simply because it would mess up the in-game dialogue that works with set keys (or should I say buttons). If you play with a controller you need that reduced sensitivity for your tiny joystick and fewer buttons configurations for the limited input options. The question remains why punish PC users for a consoles limitations? The answer is either they made a deal to push the use of the Xbox controller for PC or they developed it on the Xbox and ported it to PC. Neither conclusion remedies the many hours I took wrestling with a limp mackerel.

I don't need to say much about the level design. Rail-roaded is the term I want to use. No exploration and no point returning to other parts of the 'persistent' city.

Lets talk about the environment and atmosphere. I played the demo. The effects were fantastic, water splashing everywhere, filling rooms, putting out fires, dripping and spraying from burst pipes. Suitably impressed I bought the game. Not once did I see another room fill with water or put out fires past the demo areas. In fact the further I went into the game the less environmental effects I saw. Then there was the whole fire/ice/electric business. A fairly sound in principle but once you've froze and smashed or shocked and smashed or burnt, chased, shocked and smashed, combat tends to get a bit samey. But lets put these elemental powers to work on the environment... Now you can melt ice, freeze mechanical stuff to hack longer or electrify water. Bored yet. You will be after the 150th time. There really was no subtly to the game. Sure you could combine your plasmid powers differently but what was the point? None I could gather, just so you could see a new effect. If you want a really interactive feeling environment just have a go of Half Life 2, at least the scenery is of some use to your combat strategy.

Lastly there was the character thing. The plot was ok, not brilliant, the secrets were hardly huge although would you kindly take note that it had one great plot point. My only problem was the character really had no motive or life of his own. I didn't care about his/my role in rapture at all. I wanted to find Ryan so he could explain himself, I wanted to catch up with Atlas at some point but I really felt no reason to do so from the characters perspective. The the whole sense of rail-roading I mentioned earlier just isn't explained well enough by who you are either (when you find out, and that is all the spoiler you get from me). If it was my job to explore, if I really was KGB or CIA then yes I could have felt some purpose but really I had no reason to be there, despite being told I did.

So there you go. I've gave my copy away in fair disgust really. I'm not interested in the new material unlocked by the patch and I'm definitely not interested by the 'promise' of an expansion to a city I never want to return to.

Go check out ZeroPunctuation's review I'm done here.

Safe Journey

Solar out

EDIT: Since I wrote this times have moved on, the DLC for Bioshock is out and Bioshock 2 on the way, which of course you'll know about. You may not have read however Pentadact's brilliant interpretation of how the game should be finished plot wise. Spoiler warning: Link

Grumblings continue...