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July 23, 2009

Playing at War

As I recently posted, I finally jumped in and got myself a 360 recently¹. With the recent reveal of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 at E³, I felt like it was a good time to catch up on what modern shooters are doing on the next-gen hardware.

I started playing the game on June 4th, a Thursday. I started late in the evening; I seem to remember coaching a baseball game that night, so I started some time after 9. I may have had a beer with dinner, which I would have had when I got home. I hadn't played any shooters to speak of on the next generation, though I've since also played Gears of War, which I'll discuss a little bit in this space soon.

I couldn't play more than a single level of Modern Warfare, if I even finished that, and my hazy recollection now is that I didn't. You see, I've gotten back into the habit of listening to the news this year, what with having a President I can stomach and all, and while I certainly wouldn't say I've been ignorant of the ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, it's nonetheless pretty safe to say that it wasn't on my mind day in and day out. These days, however, it's more on my mind, particularly with concerns about Iran constantly popping up in the news, and reports about surges being part of Morning Edition or All Things Considered nearly every day it seems.

I sat there and tried to play this modern first person shooter and I just couldn't do it. I was consumed by anxiety, completely stressed out by the sounds and sights of virtual war, bothered more than I could imagine by the suggestions that it brought of real war. It was really surprising to me.

The next day I brought it into work to exchange it for something else from our expansive game library, but due to one thing or another I ended the day having not had time to select something else. In the meantime, one of my producers (a huge fan of the series) suggested I give it another go; he was surprised by my reaction, and thought the game had a lot to offer. So I dragged it back home again.

As it turned out, on June 6th I had a rare day of not much going on, and around the middle of the day I put it in again. I was still a little concerned about my reaction, but for whatever reason -- the daylight, the lack of beer, the lack of baseball, or some other random factor -- it didn't affect me to nearly the degree that it had. I still felt a lot of tension, but it was a healthier, "intense game" kind of sensation, not the panicky, rabbity-heart kind of physiological response I had had only 36 or so hours previously. In all probability I had simply become desensitized having been exposed to it once.

I played through the game on the easiest setting -- I was most interested in being aware of what the game had to offer, as an example of a top shooter, than of the story or the particular level of challenge. I was looking at it with my game developer hat on, not with my gamer hat on, and maybe in the end that made the bigger difference. I enjoyed how characters in the story showed up in a series of flashback missions, which were my favorite missions of the game, both because of that bridge between earlier games and the "present", and because of the remoteness of those characters from current world events. I found the remoteness of the "death from above" mission horrifying in the way it removed the consequences of actions both visually and in virtual distance, the way in which targets became mere abstractions.

It's quite an experience. But playing it on the anniversary of D-Day, with the graphical fidelity these machines possess, and with what's in the news day in and day out, it didn't exactly feel like a game, which I intend as high praise. Worth "playing".

Join me in a week or so for a quick little discussion of mini-mechanics I've encountered recently...

¹Although I have at least a couple dozen games on the last generation I haven't yet played, I've been employed for the last year with Bethesda Game Studios, and it seemed appropriate that I get a system at home I can play our games on. On the plus side, the company also has a sizable game library, so I will hopefully not end up with dozens of games this generation that I haven't played. Check back in a few years I guess. (back)

Posted by Brett Douville at 09:00 PM | Comments (2)

July 12, 2009

Eating Popcorn in the Holy Land

A month or so ago I finished Assassin's Creed as my first foray into high-def gaming¹.

I had bought myself a big TV and a 360 with Halo 3 and Fable II² and considered what games I most wanted to jump in and play. Without a doubt, the first that came to mind was AC, since I remembered being very interested in it years ago when creative director Patrice Desilets and producer Jade Raymond showed some early work at GDC 2006.

I want to say from the outset that I loved this game, but I have to be honest and say I loved it largely in the way I love popcorn. For me, there was a definite thrill to be had from the parkour elements, and the graphics were frankly stupendous. I used to be the sort of person who wouldn't really care about graphics, but to be fair in this case, they completely drew me in. In the future, I guess I'm more likely to say that while the play of a game remains most interesting to me, there are certainly large benefits in the areas of immersion to be had from excellent graphics. Not a great insight by any means, but certainly a change in my own thinking.

That said, I truly felt like the gameplay of the game was a bit schizophrenic. In essence, whilst in cities there are two forms of locomotion, walking around slowly on the ground and flying parkour style amongst the rooftops.

The action on the ground seems largely made from negative reinforcement. Moving quickly is discouraged, because if you bump anyone too hard, the guards will wake up and you'll be fighting your way clear, which is fun if you're doing that intentionally because you enjoy the combat, but significantly less fun when you're attempting to execute some mission.

A quick catalogue of the ground obstructions:

  • Guards, around whom you must move slowly, because they will otherwise realize that Altair, who is dressed all in white unlike all the folks around him, somehow doesn't fit in and must be that assassin everyone's all worried about
  • Beggarwomen, who are placed at various locations and who run up and deliberately obstruct your progress, crying out about their family, and how they have nothing, etc. ³
  • Madmen, who simply run up and push you, therefore slowing you down
  • Women with baskets, vases, urns and what have you balanced precariously upon their heads, who must be carefully navigated via the game's "push through a crowd" button
  • Thieves, who can be pickpocketed for resources (throwing stars, which are of use in the rooftop game), but who, in cases of failure, engage you in a fistfight. These stop randomly, leading to failure.
  • Scholars, who obscure your presence but walk maddeningly slowly. They aren't properly speaking an obstruction, but they are indicative of the problem I describe.

This is in signficant contrast to the rooftop game, which is all about speed, killing guards quickly and quietly, moving from place to place with great rapidity, and generally getting that sense of flying that I loved so much from Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. The extreme positive reinforcement of running around on the rooftops should be reason enough to go up there; the game doesn't need to negatively reinforce the ground game by making it so much slower-paced.

It's particularly noticeable because so much of the game must take place on the ground. Contacts are on the ground, your throwing star refills are on the ground, side missions are on the ground, assassinations are on the ground, which is perfectly sensible and realistic. However, spending time on the ground is such a slog, the differences between it and the rooftop game are so different, that the one feels constantly as if it is fighting the other, like two sides of a split personality.

How would I fix it? (After all, it's easy to complain.) I'd relax the always-on alerts until the main assassinations actually occur, or in particularly sensitive areas like palaces or guard barracks. I'd tie pickpocketing, which already exists, to a small amount of resource management whereby merchants can be pickpocketed and the money given to beggarwomen. Thieves would stop less frequently and for more clear reasons, and vase-carrying women would be automatically navigated unless Altair is running. I'd remove the madmen altogether, and I'd speed up the motion of scholars. In short, I'd aim to make the ground game more quickly paced and only deploy those resources as obstructions when they really ought to be.

I hope I'll be back soon to talk a little bit about how weird it felt to be playing Call of Duty: Modern Warfare on D-Day.

¹Aside, that is, from time at work spent test/playing Fallout 3, but that doesn't count -- the focus of the eye is less drawn to the positives than the negatives when you're readying a game for ship. (back)

²Both of which will likely see a write-up here at some point, since I've finished F2 already and played it quite alot. And look for a bit about FPS design in reaction to my playthrough of Gears of War, which I finished yesterday. (back)

³I actually found this quite frustrating, because what I really wanted was to give them some money and have them never bother me again. This felt a bit like a lost opportunity element; I would have been interested in paying a beggarwoman money to distract a guard. Instead I found myself tossing dozens of them aside so that I could get 5 cheap achievement points. It didn't work and led to significant unnecessary frustration, quite apart from the realism it was likely intended to convey. (back)

Posted by Brett Douville at 10:33 AM | Comments (0)

SWRC Retrospective

EuroGamer has a retrospective of Star Wars: Republic Commando¹ out, motivated by the game's release this week on Steam. Here's a clip:

The whole game is simply a brilliant action package that subscribes to the Halo mantra of delivering that same exhilarating burst of action again and again - all to orchestral music that blends the chants of excitable holy men with the familiar strains of John Williams.

Jesse Harlin on the music, everyone else on the "brilliant action package". ;)

Second post about Assassin's Creed will probably drop today -- have been very busy playing games for a change. Getting a new console always seems to goose that for me; it feels like I've finished as many games in the last two months as I think I finished all last year.²

¹I was lead programmer; it's a shame we never got to do a sequel. (back)
²Patently false, by the way. I finished 8 games last year, not including the game on which I worked, and have only finished 4 this year. But it's true that I feel like I have. (back)

Posted by Brett Douville at 08:46 AM | Comments (2)

July 03, 2009

Assassin's Creed's Functional Story¹

I remember, back when it first arrived on shelves, that Assassin's Creed took some knocks for its story. Not the storyline of Altair, the Third Crusade-era assassin, but that of Desmond Miles, the curious young man whose genetic memories get him kidnapped and made to be part of an experiment which taps into those memories, giving us the story of Altair.

Setting aside the believability of this sort of Lamarckian idea, I've found to my surprise that this story works for me in a purely functional way -- it solves specific game-related problems:

  • Make sense of gamer HUD conventions. With Altair's memories being experienced by Desmond Miles through a hardware interface, we're presented with a useful mechanism for introducing HUD elements into the experience. It's essentially as if Desmond Miles is himself a player of games... it makes sense to have the Animus hardware introduce elements that allow Desmond to manage and control his experience.

  • Allow for player failure in a less jolting manner. Though Altair apparently dies, this is explained away in the fiction as something that didn't really happen, much like it was in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.

  • Skip the boring bits in a "realistic" manner. Although by realistic, I mean "internally consistent" with the rest of the experience, this is an interesting point as far as maintaining gamer flow. While some games allow you to travel quickly among locations, it brings you out to an interface which is clearly separate from the game. This can be seen many games, such as in Fable 2, where the player clearly steps out into the UI, selects a destination (typically by quest) and has the option to go there. In Assassin's Creed, while the mechanism is almost entirely the same, the player is instead stepping up and down in levels of the experience -- from Altair up to Desmond Miles.

  • Control the experience. While many describe Assassin's Creed as an open world game, in actuality it closely follows the form of Super Mario 64, with Masyaf and the Kingdom more or less serving as the hub (SM64's castle)². Rather than requiring a certain number of stars to open new areas, Assassin's Creed opens its neighborhoods via story goals. The outer story of Desmond Miles allows the inner story of Altair to proceed at a controlled pace, with areas from untapped DNA memories being unexplorable.

  • Establish options for a franchise. As with any new IP, a publisher/developer needs to establish options for sequels and new storylines. Having a story in which a character can recover memories from DNA means being able to visit potentially any time-frame, as proven by the recent E³ showing of Assassin's Creed II.

In the end, my feelings are that there were other story options here, such as a format more like Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, where the protagonist's recollections of a series of events became the framework of the narrative and gameplay conventions. However, that may have presented difficulties with controlling the experience, and would have been a stretch at establishing a franchse. I think the "genetic inheritance" storyline presents its problems, and I'm curious where the series will go after Venice, but all in all it did a serviceable job for me.

OK, I'll be back in the next week or so with another look at Assassin's Creed before I turn my sights either on Call of Duty: Modern Warfare or Fable II.

¹This is the first of two posts about Assassin's Creed; the subsequent post will focus on the game's play systems. (back)
²The topology is a little different in that you're able to seamlessly move back and forth between multiple neighborhoods, which would not have been possible on Mario 64, but if you're running back into a neighborhood you've already completed, you are generally there because a) it's convenient, b) because you're headed to the local Guild office, or c) because you are looking to finish some optional goal in that area. The first case is mostly irrelevant; you are not really "visiting" the hub in the game sense. In the second case, it's more like you're returning to the hub to do unlock more star challenges in the level (i.e. advance the story). Finishing an optional goal is akin to returning to a Super Mario 64 level to pick up a challenge star or something. (back)

Posted by Brett Douville at 07:21 AM | Comments (0)