Friday, 20 January 2012

Too many players on the field: Nuclear Dawn and Brink

Nuclear Dawn and population drop
Nuclear Dawn's main problem is a saturated market. It's a game that really has no glaring flaws, but it stands in too large a crowd to hope and draw our attention. It is a class based team-multiplayer, like Team Fortress, Brink, Enemy Territory, Killing Floor, Day of Defeat and countless other games who compete for our attention in the genre. Its unique feature is the role of Commander- in which you view the battle-field from above, building and directing the other players similarly to an RTS. Unfortunately, unless you are playing said commander, there is little to distinguish the FPS gameplay from its competitors. And so, a month after the discount that drove me to buy Nuclear Dawn, the server list got much shorter as the number of players continues to dwindle. Being rather a good game, there's really not a lot one can say about it. Unlike a similar victim, Brink.

The strange case of Brink
Brink is a weird creature. It suffered from a shaky start due to early technical difficulties and lukewarm reviews. And in a few short months it quickly offered free weekends on Steam along with heftier and heftier discounts. When it came out in May, its price was about the 40 dollars range, I picked it on early December for little more than 6 dollars.
Brink had some good ideas; few of them were executed properly. The parkhor style movement became almost irrelevant due to maps that didn't take advantage of it, first person perspective that does not compliment it and a very traditional "heavy" movement control. All of which combined into a feeling you are driving a man shaped truck rather than controlling a person. Another idea that became a hindrance is the attempt to smooth out the server logging process. You do not choose a server, but instead just choose to play online- the game populates the server with human players and bots by itself. But when fewer and fewer players were actively playing, you found yourself playing with bots more often than not. And the way the system is set meant that you don't know whether you were looking at a bot or a player until you played for a while and notice the lack of chatter or the AI patterns.
The customization of character is another idea that was executed badly. You are able to choose a basic face out of about ten options (All men, of course) and have almost no option to customize them beyond hair style and a few scars. Which means you will look at the same faces over and over. Clothing is where real customization options are abound. So much so, that you will find yourself relaying on color to identify members of your team from your enemies, rather than on the clothes themselves. Unfortunately there are more than a few color options which allow you to have a character colored in such a way that it easy to mistake her for a member of the opposite team.
Brink tries to distinguish itself from other games with a more caricature inspired visual style, but that too has backfired as people compare it to Team Fortress 2 similarly exaggerated art style. There is also a story outlining the game but the cutscenes are too verbose to pay attention to in online game, yet to anemic to draw your attention when playing alone.
It almost seems that Brink managed to bring every one of its features into a delicate equilibrium where they are both too strong and too weak at the same time. It is a game that shows a lot of effort was put into it, yet somehow turned every advantage it had into a disadvantage. The movement system made it both cumbersome and unnatural, instead of fast and flowing as intended. The server system made it alienating instead of enhancing emergence. Customization turned out to be a hindrance rather than an asset. And the plot revealed itself to be too intrusive to be ignored and too flimsy to drive the game. It is by no means a bad game, but one that cannot be considered good either.

Equal measures of failure
Despite being very different games, both Brink and Nuclear Dawn ultimately suffer the most from lack of players. They are competing with cheaper games and less complicated games over a pool of players too small to populate them all. And they cannot serve the few players who will play them loyally with servers half empty. The dedicated multiplayer first person shooter genre has become too saturated for games like Nuclear Dawn to shine through, and defiantly too tough for games like Brink to survive.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Prototype: Crisis of identity

The gameplay is simply wonderful. It's a joy to get around the environment. Gliding from roof to roof, climbing building with ease or just running at parkhor style over cars and pedestrians. Various tools at your disposal allow you to cause seven times of mayhem. Not the least of them are the abilities to disguise yourself as enemy soldiers or hijack helicopters off the skies.
Like many other sand-box games, the city design is not distinctive enough. This is what Rockstar does well and all other developers seem to struggle with, designing a city that feels distinct. Like the cities in the first Assassin' Creed, the city feels very uniform and few buildings stand out from the others. The game does a good job, however, of showing the city succumbing to the infection. With the zombie-like infected praying on civilians and a red hue distinguishing the plagued areas of the city.
Playing it with a gamepad is almost a must since many of the more impressive maneuvers depend on holding three buttons at once, which is about as much as my keyboard could handle. Pulling these moves mid movement was almost impossible, leaving me stuck at one of the late levels of the game. A few months later with an X-box controller in hand, and maneuvers I previously had trouble to execute, were now done with relative ease. Thus, allowing me to pass the more troublesome spots in the storyline missions. And eventually finish the game.
The plot of Prototype is both a strength and a weakness. On the one hand it has a unique way of giving you the back-story. Alex Mercer, the game's protagonist absorbs the memories of people he kills. And so much of the back-story is told through these short condensed flashes of foreign memories. And as his own memory of the events leading up to the game's start are missing, he relays heavily on information he abducts from his enemies. The slow process of piecing together Alex's identity and the origin of the virus attacking the city manage to drive the plot more than the cutcscenes do.
But the plot is also the weakest part of Prototype. It focuses almost exclusively on Mercer's quest for identity. But Mercer, is not exactly very endearing with his mindless vendetta, amnesia and lack of regret over the atrocities he must cause as he absorbs innocent people. And worse, learning about that his actions led to the disaster that now threatens the lives of millions and that he is essentially an intelligent virus, further paints him in an unsympathetic light. In a way it is similar to Alan Moore's run of Swamp-Thing. Swamp Thing thought he was Alec Holland, a victim of a lab accident. When he discovers that he was never the human he thought he was, it's devastating because it comes with the realization that he can never become human again. This revelation forces the creature to come to term with what he is and has been all along and to reexamine his connections to other characters around him. Mercer on the other hand, is untouched by the revelation. He remains as emotionally detached, brooding character on the path of revenge who seeks to stop the virus infecting the city to ensure his own survival more than anything else.
The supporting cast could have been a good way to explore Mercer without imposing on the player too strong a characterization of the protagonist, but they serve very instrumental roles in the overall plot. Both enemies and allies have goals that are either vague or morally unclear and you find yourself following mission objectives without any conviction. Mercer himself seems just as indifferent to anything not directly related to his personal vendetta and consequently it's almost impossible to care for the people and events around you. The characters learned about through flashes of absorbed memories manage to strike an emotional cord from time to time when the characters we actually see on the screen fail. Every interaction carries the hint of a personal story that could be told about Mercer's relationships and the hints that he was more of a monster as a human being, but such moments never come. Too many times does Mercer is called to hinder his enemies' sincere attempts to purge the city of the plague but no one addresses the strong moral dilemmas these situations create. Indeed, many a time it feels as though the game is about to engage in relevant political and moral issues in the real world, only to veer away at the last minute.
A sequel to Prototype is on the horizon and while I'm confident that the gameplay will be at least as fun as the first, I'm hoping a lot was done to improve the story and character aspects of the game as well.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Supreme Commander one versus two

(Originally written on May 15, 2011)

Unlike many other media, video games sequels tend to improve on the originals. Street Fighter 2 is more beloved then Street Fighter 1, Final Fantasy 1 is nearly forgotten while Final Fantasy 7 is a well-known classic and Warcraft 2 eclipses the first in almost every category. Of course there's exceptions to the rule. And while Supreme Commander 2 is not bad, it pales in comparable to the original.
The Devil in the Detail
On first glance the games don't look that much different and SC2 even seem to improve on the UI which was a bit cumbersome in SC1. But soon the game reveals that it shed the complexity and layers that made SC1 such a refreshing and unique game.
Like the original, you can convert dead units into resources, unlike the original everything else is off limits. SC1 lets you assimilate trees, neutral buildings and rocks, in SC2 these objects are untouchable obstacles. It's frustrating to see what in SC1 is a much needed emergency source of income, and discovering it's nothing but scenery now. The scale of maps is also much reduced. SC1's maps were huge, they were gigantic battlefields that had oceans rather then lakes and landmasses rather then island. SC2's maps are smaller by far and use those untouchable obstacles as boundaries.
Another seemingly small change is the base building mechanic. SC1 had a system in which placing buildings next to each other gave them maintenance bonuses. But building in tight clusters meant being vulnerable to attacks as destroyed buildings damage those around them. SC2 has none of that.
The economy is again, simplified. In SC1 balancing your economy and production was an art. In SC2 your units wont start building if they don't have the resources. In the original it was a dynamic mechanic that balanced attention with automation. SC2 just automates the whole process.
Technology tiers are replaced with a rather simplistic system of upgrades using automatically accumulated "Research Points" which are then invested in a research tree. Thus, instead of upgraded factories which produce improved units, the research tree strengthen existing units and unlocks new ones. While this method removes what was admittedly an overwhelming array of units , it also means that it's hard to know how powerful an opposing army is. Since the units are always the same and most upgrades have no visual identifier. The same goes for defenses, which are also much easier to set up. Shields do not drain energy as they did in SC1 and no building is upgradable.
Minor issues are the fact that there are less of those sophisticated interface shortcuts which allowed, for example, factories to copy building ques with a click of a button.
SC2 is much more simplified. Not to say that that makes it a bad game. But when complexity was so much of what made SC1 special, SC2 feels much more mundane.

A Thousand Miles from Mortal Sun
Putting aside the mechanical side, SC2 lost the unique atmosphere of SC1. Granted, SC1 owes most of its tone and theme to Total Annihilation. Both do a fine job of painting a conflict as endless as it is wasteful and as grand as it is futile. Armies locked in a war that has lost all purpose and doomed to destroy both sides. Having the option to reclaim lost units off the battlefield really cements that feeling of impotence futility, as is the awesome scale of the battles.
Your commander appears on the battlefield in a blinding flash in a center of a crater with scorched trees all around. As your base grows, natural artifacts such as rocks and trees are replaces with industrial buildings. SC2 misses these small undertones. The single player story is populated by characters that sound like they were transferred from Zone of the Enders or Tactics Ogre. And the atmosphere suffers because they don't feel like part of the setting.
In the first mission of SC1 the map expands and the battlefield continues to grow, creating a breathtaking sense of scale. SC2 doesn't manage to do the same, even sabotaging what little there is with missions in which obstacles block a quarter of the map. It feels almost claustrophobic at times.
Having the experimental units built unseen in a special factory pales against those gargantuan units in SC1 which you needed to build in the open, too big for any factory to contain. discovering your enemy building something that rivals half your base in space was a teeth gnashing sight. The simplified economy means that building these monstrosities is far from being the undertaking it was in SC1.
Supreme Commander 2 is not a bad game. But it is an unforgivable step backwards. The sequel abandons most of what made the original innovative and novel. It is much easier to pick-up and play but it lacks the charm and sophistication that made the first one of my favorite games. What SC2 did well, is remind me how amazing was the first. Replaying the original, it still manged to awe me graphically, even surpassing the sequel from time to time despite being more then a few years older. But seeing that blinding flash of nuclear impact swallows up a corner of the map as you watch your forces making their last move... There is no game that delivers such empowering moments as Supreme Commander does.

Playing Bioshock 2: Choosing the impossible

(Originally written on April 15, 2011)
I Finished Bioshock 2, it took me 14.6 hours.
It's disappointing. Not bad, certainly. The gameplay is fine, in some ways it improves on the original. Guarding the sisters while they extract Adam is a good way to encourage players to use plasmids in creative ways. It's a shame that there aren't more interesting gameplay scenarios, but really it's a pretty solid experience.
The big problem is the plot and the characters.
It's really a very straight forward story. Lamb doesn't have the charm of Ryan as a villain and her motivations remains vague and unestablished. She is pretty much a mad-man with a mad scheme that must be stopped. Ryan was a tragic character- a man who escaped tyrants only to become one himself. Lamb experienced tragedy, but it seems it did not changed her personality or goals in the least. There's no real place to sympathize with her or her motives. In my previous note I described her as a leader of a communistic cult in Rapture, but I think now this was too generous a description. Aside from her ambition to annihilate the Ego, she has no ideology to speak of. Her cult seems to be a manipulative ruse to ally people with her. And even so their beliefs never evolve beyond the few catchphrases and one-liners adorning the walls. If there was something more complex here, its lost.
Lamb's book "Unity and Metamorphosis" is everywhere but the player never has a clue what it's about. The few characters who reveal their reason for alliance with Lamb are doing so for personal reasons rather then any adherence to faith or ideology.
The other characters don't far much better. Tenenbaum has no role in the story beyond a single appearance and Sinclare is a ruthless capitalist who guides you sympathetically. Frankly, he is the only character with any dept. Elenore remains a maiden in distress and your own identity is thrown at you without warning or impact.
Its not an easy task to try and tell a compelling story in the world of Rapture without retreading old ground or departing from it altogether. And although it is clear that Bioshock 2 mad quite an effort to expand on the original without rehearsing it, it failed in creating something that can stand on the same ground. Bioshock 1 had some interesting things to say about objectivism, choices and the role of a player in video games. Bioshock 2 has nothing interesting to say, although it tries very hard to pretend that it does.

Playing Bioshock 2: Rupture in Rapture

(Originally written on April 14, 2011)
I'm a little more then six hours into Bioshock 2, and I'm trying to verbalize why it doesn't work as well as Bioshock 1. That is not to say I don't enjoy it, but I find my self playing it in small chunks rather then feeling myself absorbed into the experience. Which was the way I played the first Bioshock, eager to discover more about the world and the characters around me.
Technical Deficiencies
First there's "Games for Windows Live" a system as cumbersome as its name. It means that it tells you about updates after you started the game, forcing you to quit, update and launch the game again. It means that you cannot save or load until you are logged in. The logging takes about ten seconds once you reached the main menu and god-forbid if you try to navigate the menu before it has logged you in. For in that case you are directed back to the main menu.
A second and perhaps more annoying problem is that B2 is an obvious port. While thankfully it doesn't refer you to the buttons on the X-Box controller, the default key settings are far from ideal. The real problem however is the fact that there is no Quick Save. Every time I wish to save, I must go the the menu and do it manually. Even more annoying is when I die. Since I disabled the Vita-Chambers (as an option through the gameplay settings), death means you have to reload. This would not be a problem save that the moment you die, you cannot activate the menu and the game throws you back to the main menu once the death animation had run its course. Which also means you have to endure the longer loading time of a save compared to the loading time while in the level.
Underwater Atmosphere
I remember Bioshock 1 so clearly. Swimming up to the watchtower among burning debris, seeing Atlas' family sink in their Bathysphere, the epic moments of Man and Slave and even little moments like turning around to face a splicer in the dentistry or seeing the remains of a 1959 party. B2 has yet to make such as impact, aside from the opening movie.
There's a lot more fighting in B2 and a lot less time to soak in the place you are fighting in. There's a lot more characters actually active in the plot but they feel a bit to one-dimensional. Lamb is a cold manipulator who seeks to establish a communist cult-like society in Rapture. Tenenbaum who made some chilling remarks in B1 is presented as totally altruistic. Sinclare fills a role similar to Fontain from B1, that of a morally scrupulous capitalist.
The audio diaries are not as memorable as in B1. They give you the plot and the character's history in a pretty straight forward way. They do a good job at outlining the character's ideologies and rivalries but they lack the charm that accompanied B1's diaries. There was a diary I remember clearly from B1 about a plumber describing the job he did on a toilet for Ryan and how it got him to Rapture. The diary gave you a look into Ryan's ideology, his life before Rapture, the men he brought here and how Objectivism is supposed to work. But as the game progressed and you discover more about Rapture, you also understand how such simple hard working man were trapped in the system and why they sided with Fontain.
B2 gives you the barest characterization for side characters and rambling speeches for the main characters that sound a little too heavy handed with their message.
Theme and Ideology
Again, this is how things look six hours in. B1 was interesting. Objectivism is not an ideology one encounters regularly and B1 did a good job of presenting its merits and flaws. But B2 seems to be about Communism. And really, is there anything left to say about it? I think most everyone is familiar with the ideological merits and flaws of Communism, it has been the subject of countless films and books. I'm having trouble seeing how B2 will bring something new to the table.

Losing my humanity: Space Siege

(Originally written on September 14, 2010)

At the heart of Space Siege is a choice.
Human kind is under a relentless attack by an alien species called the Kerak. These aliens seem to be responding to a religious transgression, but they cannot be reasoned with and they cannot be stopped. The game opens with the Kerak breaching Earth's defenses, ready to annihilate the human race. The only choice left is to run.
The colony ship ISCS Armstrong, is one of several ships who try to escape the Kerak during their siege of earth. But despite managing to breach through the siege, one alien vessel manages to attach itself to the fleeing ship. And now the Armstrong is overrun by the aliens and their numbers are endless. The crew enters suspended animation while the ship's AI, PILOT, floods the interior with a gas which supposed to kill the on-board Kerak. But when they are revived several weeks later, the crew is horrified to discover that not only are the Kerak alive and well, but that a significant number of the crew have been abducted from their sleep and transformed into cybernetically augmented zombies.
Playing a robotic specialist named Seth Walker, the player must fight these threats and secure what may be the last of humankind. The choice which the game attempts to paddle, is whether you sacrifice your humanity for cybernetic implants that augment your fighting prowess.
This is where the game really fails to deliver what could have been a meaningful temptation.
Everything about the game tries to dissuade you from installing the cybernetics parts you find. From the horrified remarks of Gina, the only female character on the crew to the encouragement of characters who are painted as jerks. When installing the parts, Seth cries with a blood curling shriek. And a bar measuring your 'humanity' shrinks with each part installed. And when you discover that zombie cybers are roaming the ship, the threat of becoming one of them is just another reason not to install any cybernetics. The mechanical advantages that cybernetics offer are the only thing that might nudge you to install them, but even these are too small to be really tempting.
Eventually you discover that while you were asleep, PILOT has been waging a war against the Kerak by converting the crew into mindless cybernetic soldiers. And that this army has managed to keep the Kerak at bay. His success has led him to the conclusion that humanity's survival will be best facilitated by conversion into cybernetics, even at the cost of free will. When the crew discovers it they decide that PILOT is a greater threat then the Kerak and you are sent to destroy him.
Despite the fact that his actions have saved the lives of the surviving crew, PILOT is depicted as a megalomaniac and callus entity. His original plan to preserve the crew as a nucleus of unmodified humans for recreation purposes is summarily abandoned despite the implication that this dooms humanity's future. And after this thorough character assassination, you are offered to join him.
Again, this decision could have presented a real conflict of morality, but the game's narrative has rendered it sterile. PILOT is the clear antagonist, he is robbed of anything that might have made him a sympathetic character and his promise to save humanity is overshadowed by an attempt to kidnap you and modify you against your will. The choice becomes a clear choice between Good and so EEvil it needs and extra E'.
It's a pity too because Space Siege does has potential to be more then the simple narrative it forms. The ship is littered with crew logs and some of them paint a darker picture of humanity then the dialogs with the crew suggests. It seems that the attack of the Kerak have brought about a swift curtailing of civil liberties and that the colony ships themselves are governed by a cruel dictatorship. These could have painted a much more complex story of the sacrifices that survival demands. Also of note is the fact that throughout the game you have visions of a little girl roaming the ship, while several logs depict a man searching for his daughter while his sanity seem to deteriorate. The conclusion to this is witnessing a heavily modified human embraces the girl and carry her to presumed safety.While brief this might have cast cyborgs in a much more positive light, but the narrative ignores it.
Better writing might have redeemed what is ultimately a rather unimpressive Diablo Clone. One that suffers from an unmanageable interface, a weirdly limiting camera and a control scheme that doesn't mesh well with the gameplay.

Replaying Deus Ex 2: Invisible War - Meaningful Choices

(Originally written on July 15, 201)

DE2 is much more focused then I remembered. It tells a story that goes beyond the conspiracy thriller of the first, and tries to ask some serious questions about government and political freedom. But where in the original you felt your choices were meaningful, DE2 devalues your choices with each new revelation.

The turning point: A microcosm of the politics withing the world of DE2 is the war between two rival coffee chains. In almost every city you visit in the game you will find them, Pequods and QueeQuegs. And you have plenty of opportunities to support one or the other through sabotage, bribery and espionage as they compete over location, sponsorship and prices. Pequods is the respected brand which enjoys the patronship of the well-to-do, while QueeQuegs is the coffee of the lower classes.
And then, toward the end of the game you discover the truth. Both are owned by the same company. The competition between them is artificial and the people who struggle against each other never know that they serve the same master.
It's a cruel revelation for the player as well. Because now the choices he made, to help one rather then the other have become empty and meaningless. Both are the same, despite their pretenses, and no matter who you supported, the same entity prospered regardless.

A similar thing happens in the main storyline:
The game asks you to side with one of three factions. Apostlecorp, WTO or The Church of the Order. The WTO is a political organization that tries to unify the various city-states who survived the first game. While the Church unites all the world's religions into one and opposes the WTO attempts to form a unified goverment. The struggle between the two colors the game and the question of a centralized power vs autonomous states is one that pops up time and time again. Apostlecorp is a conspiracy which seeks neither, opting instead to create a new type of government through the modification of the human race.

The revelation comes when you discover that the same people created and lead both the Church and the WTO, trying to forge a global political organization that allows the illusion of freedom while preserving social and political order. The WTO representing the martial centralization of power, in the form of government, army and law. While the Church represents the centralization of social power, in the form of belief and ideology.
Discovering that both sides are the hands of the same entity, again devalues your choices. Throughout the game you helped one faction or the other and fought against material and ideological temptations, as each side tried to sway you. Now your choices, whatever they where, are meaningless.

It's a fascinating concept that manages to send a strong political message, but fails as a gaming experience. The game leads you to believe you are an important part of the story, that your actions change the world. And then, robs you of that promise. Your actions still change the story, but the impact you were supposed to have had on the world has become negligible. It's like struggling to win a rope-pulling competition, only to discover the to ends of the rope are tied together. As a gamer, there is something immensely frustrating about this revelation.

I wonder how I would have designed the game. Whether it is possible to deliver the same message, without devaluing the player's choice.