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Replayability

December 19, 2007

There’s only one thing I like more than getting 20 hours of fun from a computer game, and that’s getting 40+ hours out of it. While not the most important thing in a game, replayability is certainly a key element in making a title memorable. Let’s look at a few games (in no particular order, both new and old) that do replayability very well.

Operation Flashpoint / Armed Assault

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If it wasn’t for ArmA I’d still be playing OFP today, and that’s strictly for two reasons. The first being the terrific community of developers that has sprung up around it and the second being it’s built in editor. Happily, ArmA has the same two things going for it. I’ve never come across a title that has such a diverse amount of player made material for it in the form of addons and mods, and the editor is both rich and powerful while at the same time being easy to learn… as far as the basics go anyway. I haven’t even started the campaign in ArmA, I do the same thing I did with OFP. Start up the editor and make a quick mission to play from scratch. Last time I did this I put myself as a civilian on a hill overlooking a valley. On one end a mile or so out I put 60 or so BLUEFOR troops, a dozen tanks and half a dozen helos for air cover. At the other end were an equal number of OPFOR units. All of them had waypoints set for the bottom of the valley I sat above. I set that all up in about 10 minutes, then clicked preview and enjoyed the show. The tanks advanced, the troops engaged and the helos swooped in providing air cover. It was really quite spectacular with the OPFOR forces winning the day. The best thing about it was that after the first run through I did it again, but this time the BLUEFOR side won. Next time I’m going to take one of the sides myself and try joining the fight, or maybe I’ll get in an A10 and try my hand at close air support. That’s the beauty of OFP/ArmA… totally customizable, approachable and replayable.

Grand Theft Auto (any of them)

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Say what you like about it, this is a series that does an astoundingly good job of building a world and setting you loose in it. Sure there are missions and a story, but it was often just as fun to fire it up and go wreak havoc in town somewhere. You don’t have to start the game to play a particular mission, you can just start it up to see what happens. Go beat up a hooker in front of a cop then take off in a stolen car. What happens? Who knows, but it’s great find to find out. Definitely looking forward to GTA4.

Counterstrike

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The grand Daddy of twitch, fast action shooters. Though I don’t play much any more, in it’s hey day that game had me locked in. When I wasn’t playing, I was thinking about playing and I’d go back to it time and time again. It had the benefit of being very simple to learn, and very hard to master. Yes, there were/are a finite amount of maps and the gameplay was/is the same every time, but there was something about the immediacy of it all that just made you want to get back in there on a regular basis. From what I hear Team Fortress 2 has this same sort of vibe, but I’ve yet to play it.

X-Com

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One of my all-time favorite titles, the original X-Com has gobs of replayability. Each tactical engagement was similar to the last, but different enough that you never knew what to expect. That and the ability to rename the soldiers after people you know (or whatever) was great. At the end of a mission you’d find that the X-Com versions of your best friend and your Mom survived the last mission and got promotions so you would just be dying to see how they’d do next time out. I ought to reinstall X-Com come to think about it.

There are countless more titles that are great as far as replayability goes. Feel free to share your favorites in the comments section.

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The Witcher

December 14, 2007

I started playing The Witcher last night, and I thought I’d make some early comments. If you want an indepth review, Google can show you a ton of them.

New battle mechanics, a fantastic storyline, and a gritty setting make The Witcher one of the most engrossing, mature RPGs to arrive on the PC in years.

That’s from Gamespot, which gives the game an 8.5 and Eurogamer gives it a respectable 7.5 and says;

One for those who value story and character over technical innovation then, but definitely a game worth trying if the concept has tickled your fancy.

Now that’s great and all, especially as I maintain that good characters and character development so important in a game. The problem is, after playing for an hour I’m just not feeling it. Yes, I’m admittedly only an hour in but there’s not been anything so far that hooks me, or makes me care about anyone or anything in this game. The plot mechanic of amnesia is straight out of some daytime soap, and the characters seem about as deep. Everyone I’ve seen so far is very wooden in both a graphical sense as well as a story sense. For the record, I’m playing at 1680×1050 max detail with very smooth frame rates so my comments on the graphics are not crippled by a lousy system. At one point I was drawn out of an ingame cutscene as I was thinking how much they characters look like wax dummies. The pre-rendered stuff is spectacularly rendered (less spectacularly animated) and the overall in-game graphics aren’t exactly bad… they’re just nothing to write home about. Sadly, I’ve played Crysis and as I suspected that experience has limited the wow factor in just about every game that comes after it as far as graphics go.

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Graphics notwithstanding however, the characters do seem wooden. The story is there, the attempts at development are there and the rather long in-game cutscenes are there… yet I find myself not caring much about the charactersor the plot. Without spoiling it there is a scene early on that’s clearly supposed to pull the ol’ heart strings, but instead just left me sitting there rather dispassionately waiting for the exposition to be over so I could click-click-click my way through some more combat.

About combat; I only found out this game was based on the NeverWinter Nights 2 engine shortly before playing, but even had I not read that it would have been obvious. This game reeks of NWN, which isn’t a bad thing exactly as I enjoyed NWN back in the day but the more I noticed the similarities the more I wanted to actually go play NWN.

If playing one game makes you wish you were playing another, if the characters in it leave you bored and dispassionate and if the graphics are nothing to write home about… I suppose that equals a pretty bland gaming experience. Still as I said, I’m only an hour in so I’ll give it some more time before rendering my final judgement. As it stands so far though, I’m not terribly impressed.

Luckily I still have my NWN discs kicking around if things don’t improve.

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Games with Character

December 10, 2007

I’ve been talking a lot lately about the three key elements that makes a good game great, those being graphics, gameplay and emotion. Graphics obviously involves the look of the game from textures and lighting to models and effects. Gameplay is a function of how the game mechanics actually work, which is where the “but is it fun?” question arises. Lastly emotion, though often misunderstood, is simply the immersiveness a game provides through it’s story, characters and suspension of disbelief. These are broad categories which can be broken down further, with a key one being a subset of emotion… it’s called character, and it directly relates to the other living entities within a game.

Before I talk about why character is so important to a title, we should address the fact that it is of course very subjective, but for me the following are some examples of games that were great as far as character goes;

Mafia

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You are Tommy Angelo, an up and coming mobster working for Don Salieri. The characters in this title were far and away the best I’ve ever come across in any game. You cared about Paulie, you hated Don Morello…. and don’t get me started about Sam. Even the background characters were rich and full, and essential to the overall feel of the environment. If you haven’t played this title (and a lot of people haven’t) do yourself a favor and go buy it. Just having written this paragraph makes me want to play it again.

Half Life series

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What needs to be said here? The characters in Half Life have been key to the story since the beginning, and without them the Half Life saga would likely be just another shooter. HL2 did a great job of reviving the characters from the original game like Barney, but also in bringing new ones like Alyx and Dog that were just as real and compelling. You knew them, or got to know them and cared about them.

Call of Duty 4

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Perhaps to a lesser extent than the previous examples, CoD4 still had a strong character element. Gaz, Price and the rest really existed for me while playing, and the bad guys were really alive while I did my best to ensure they weren’t. I wasn’t playing a game, I was in the mission helping my squad mates and opposing the bad guys. The game gave a sense of “being there” and the strong characters in the game were instrumental to that feeling.

There are countless other examples of games that get character right, and an even higher number that get it totally wrong or don’t have it at all. The funny thing is I don’t think it’s a hard thing to do. Hell, the weighted companion cube in Portal has garnered more attention as a “character” than most fleshed out human beings in other games and it’s a cube. Weighted no less. The soldiers in Xcom were that way too, very simple representations with no dialog or direct communication to the player but they were alive. Face it, if you played the original Xcom you named your soldiers after people you knew and you grimaced when those repulsive alien bastards killed the virtual version of your brother, your best friend or your uncle Lou. All it took with Portal was a simple interaction where you were made to feel bad for burning the cube. The cube became a character at that point, and you related to the fun feeling of awkwardness you got when you had to destroy it. How could you do that? You burned it. Great stuff.

Xcom did it quite simply by allowing the player to make a personal connection to the soldiers, if they chose to. Having a group of randomly named soldiers is one thing, but having one where everyone is named after your immediate family members is something else entirely. Instant connection, and instant empathy.

That right there, is what good character is all about in a game. The characters don’t need elaborate backstory or long winded exposition… the companion cube had neither. All they need is a hook that gets the player to care about them. They can have connection to the player through situtational emotion like the weighted companion cube, or through personal player connection like Xcom or they can build a connection through the gameplay itself like our earlier examples.

If you are playing a game with a set number of in game characters and one of them dies, you realize that the others aren’t there as front line actors… guaranteed to make it to the final reel. You realize that any of them might “die” at any time, then you start to root for them Mafia was great at that, and so was CoD4. You cared about the other characters because you got to know them, and root for them in the battles you shared. Familiarity also provides this sense of connection to character, as with the silent cheer we all let out when Barney revealed himself to us in Half-Life 2. Holy crap, it’s BARNEY! We remembered him from early adventures, and were happy to have a familiar face with us again.

I don’t think creating that strong sense of character is all that hard in gaming these days, I just don’t think it’s as often as much of a priority as it should be. All it takes care and planning from the earliest stages of a game, and it’s not so much built in as cultivated. If a game dev cycle is akin to building a house, then giving it’s characters a sense of connection is like planting a tree on the front lawn. It can be intended, but without proper care during the dev cycle it’s not going to grow.

Got any examples of games that were made greater by the inclusion of strong character, or any games that were ruined for lack of it? Post them in the comments.

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Crysis vs Call of Duty 4

December 7, 2007

I wrote a bit yesterday about the three elements needed in a good great game. As it happens I started writing about Gears of War, then it morphed into a Bioshock thing and in the end I settled on comparing the two in order to cover the broader aspects of a great game. Yes, it was a bit of a mishmash I know.

I’m going to delve into that topic again in the near future, but frankly do a better job of getting my point across. The short version is graphics/gameplay/emotion are key. A good game will have two of them, but a great game needs all three.

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For now let’s compare and contrast Crysis and Call of Duty 4, which I finished last night at near 1am. Well, actually I finished the game at about 12:30am, but immediately went back to play bits of it over again. I did this because like all great games, it has all three of the above things going for it. The graphics are there, the gameplay is there and the emotion is there. It’s an absolutely stellar title.

In contrast I finished Crysis a couple of days ago, and I haven’t touched it since. I played it, and enjoyed it but I devoured CoD4 and am keen to revisit bits of it. That surprises me, but I suspect I bought into the prerelease Crysis-hype.

So what does CoD4 have that Crysis is lacking? Let’s look.

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Graphics
Anyone arguing that Crysis has lackluster graphics would have to be blind or retarded, possibly both. It’s gorgeous in ways that games have never been before and the graphics are in fact, it’s biggest selling point. CoD4 is damned good looking in it’s own right, and to tell the truth it’s one of the better looking FPS games I’ve played, but it comes in second after those lush Crysis jungles. So, Crysis wins here.

Gameplay
Both games are linear affairs, and the Crysis fans out there will slap me for that. Firstly there is no arguing CoD4 is linear and makes no apologies for it, it’s designed that way. It embraces it’s linearity and it flourishes because if it. It’s an action movie, and you’re the star. Simple as that. Crysis bills itself as being more open, and in some respects it is but it’s not what I’d consider a true open game. Operation Flashpoint from a few years ago was an open game, Armed Assault is a current example as is a flight sim like Falcon 4. Those games give you a huge world to run around in, and a mission to accomplish within it. Crysis on the other hand gives you levels, just like CoD4 but it tries to open it up by giving you some options as to how to finish them. CoD4 is a linear corridor, Crysis is just a wider corridor that tries to tell you it’s a soccer field. If you’ve never played OFP or ArmA you may not realize the difference. So, for me it’s a clear win for CoD4 here. Yes, it’s linear. Yes, it’s a corridor… but the devs know that, and the players know it. It’s packed full of “oh shit” moments, and bits you can’t wait to experience again precisely because of it’s linearity. Every bit of it is polished to a high gloss because the devs knew exactly what experience they wanted the players to have.

Crysis in the other hand has some awesome combat, and absolutely tremendous environments to fight in… but it’s not what it purports to be. You realize that as soon as you hit the first “loading” screen a little ways into the game as it loads the next level. You can’t go back to the beach you landed on, that beach isn’t even on the island any more. It’s back on level one. You also see it within the levels themselves with fake obstacles and clear corridors guiding you from point to point. Yes there are various ways of getting there, but you have to go. None of this is bad in and of itself mind you, it’s just that having been billed as so open-ended I find it’s lack openness sort of annoying. I also found the combat in CoD4 to be more… immediate. Everything seemed more tense and urgent and it really gave a sense of drive that Crysis lacked somehow. I’d give CoD4 the win here because of this urgency to it’s combat and just because it’s honest about what it is. It might also tip towards CoD4 because it’s so very real world in it’s approach. No sci-fi, no supertech. Just real world stuff I can relate to on some level.

Emotion
You’ve got to care about your character in a game, and you’ve got to care about the characters around you. You’ve also got to hate the bad guys, and you’ve got to develop a personal attachment to the fight such that you will willingly suspend your disbelief and let it immerse you. Crysis comes up a bit short here. The Korean enemy are little more than targets, the aliens are never much more than faceless “things”. Why are they on that island again? I finished the game, but I’ve already forgotten the plot points. Sure I saw my team mates killed at various stages of the game, and there were some attempts at twists and plot structure to pull me in but none of it really worked. CoD4 on the other hand, had me cold from the first level. The urgency was there. I wasn’t playing a game, I had to complete my mission. I was instantly and completely immersed and that drove the emotion. I got attached to the characters around me and grew to despise the bad guys. There were twists and some gut wrenching portions of the game I won’t divulge that created a total sense of “holy shit, I can’t believe that just happened”. This occurred more than once. You actually play more than one character in the game, which I’d have thought would limit the immersion aspect given that you couldn’t latch onto your own identity through the whole game but as it turns out, it helped. Whenever the game would pull me out of the SAS role and put me into the US military role I’d be dying to get back and see how the SAS stuff would play out, and vice versa. It all involved me, and pulled me in just like a great game should. CoD4 for the win in this category.

Verdict
So, in the comparison we have Crysis winning in graphics and CoD4 winning in gameplay and emotion. That explains why I’ve already started playing CoD4 again and have yet to go back to Crysis. Yes, it’s graphics are stunning but I’ve seen them once and they’ll still be there next week. CoD4 has some situations that I’m eager to play through again, just to witness it all with fresh eyes.

Crysis has stunning graphics, pretty good gameplay, and emotion, well… that just wasn’t there for me. Two out of three should make for a good game, but not a great one and that’s how I’d define Crysis. Excellent in some areas (graphics) but overall just good, not great.

As said initially way up above, the graphics 4 in CoD4 are certainly not sub-par, they’re just not quite as good as Crysis. I think on it’s own CoD4 is a winner in that area as well giving it a solid showing for all three of my key categories. By my own definition that should make for a great game, and that’s exactly what CoD4 is.

Overall win for CoD4.

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Gears of War and Bioshock

December 6, 2007

I started playing Gears of War for the PC a couple of nights ago after a very unsatisfying attempt to get into Bioshock. As odd as it may sound to anyone whose played these games, they strike me as similar in some odd way.

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Where Bioshock was graphically attractive, emotionally deep and tactically challenged I find Gears of War graphically attractive, tactically challenging and emotionally retarded. Graphics, tactics and emotion. There’s something about those three things a game needs, and the loss of any one of them gives the same feeling of soulessness.

Graphics are always a big thing with games these days as the visual aspect is the first thing that really slaps people in the face. Though it’s certainly possible to make a good game with bad graphics, ugly visuals are just hard to overlook. Bioshock and Gears of War both win here.

Tactics is a catchall word I’m using as a not-so-clever substitute for gameplay. Graphics show you what it looks like when you shoot at the bad guys and tactics cover how you actually go about shooting them. A game needs to be compelling and fresh from a tactical stand point these days to stand out and get/keep peoples attention. Gears of War wins here in that it’s combat/cover system is really very well done. It may not be entirely revolutionary but it’s a good idea, well executed. Bioshock on the other hand, despite attempts at tactical daring with the plasmid nonsense really doesn’t offer anything new or compelling in this area.

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Emotion is arguably the most important of the three, though that depends on who you talk to. Graphics show you what it looks like when you blow up a tank, tactics deals with how you go about it and emotion wades into the morass of why you’re doing it. Sure the tank looked great when it blew up, and the process of slapping the sticky-bomb on it was fun but if the story plays out such that the tank commander turned out to be my former squad mate, or my long lost sister or something, well… that’s different. Those are admittedly pretty lame examples but you get the idea. Why we are doing what we’re doing in a game, that’s emotion. In this aspect Bioshock wins for the unique setting and the sense of immersion created by it as well as the inclusion of at least some effort at a moral dilemmas. Gears of War on the other hand is just run, hide, shoot. I don’t really care who I’m shooting at, and honestly I don’t care. They’re bad guys, that’s enough. While this works on some levels, it lacks that emotional connection that makes a really stellar gaming experience.

So Bioshock lacks any form of decent tactical/gameplay devices, and GoW lacks any real sense of emotional attachment. Pick another game that has both of those things yet lacks decent graphics and all three will feel vaguely similar in that each will be lacking something important.

Now none of this is to say that Bioshock is bad (it is) or Gears of War is horrible (too early to tell but I don’t think so), it’s just that to me both lack something fundamental.

I need to come up with an example of a game that has all three elements, those are hard to come by but when you find one, you know it.

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Biosuck

December 5, 2007

As mentioned at Rock, Paper, Shotgun there’s finally a patch for Bioshock out and as mentioned in an earlier post I conveniently decided to give it another shot.

The first time I tried playing it, my old system couldn’t deliver all the graphical goodies so I thought I might be missing out. “Maybe”, I thought “if it looks better graphically, it will overcome my inherent dislike of the entire horror-genre!”. Well although I haven’t applied the dandy new patch yet I’m sorry, and not overly surprised to say that better graphics really just can’t make up for the failing of an entire genre. That’s right, an entire genre.

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With me there are a few things that are automatic losers. These things include zombies, undead things, homicidally insane monsters, people who talk too much and large mutant ape things on tropical islands. Hate. Hate. Hate those things. Bioshock fits squarely in the “homicidally insane monsters” category to the point that it’s borderline retarded. As I said in my previous post on the topic, I knew I was on shakey ground as soon as the elevator landed me in Rapture and I saw some monstery Gollum sounding thing kill a man outside the porthole I was forced to look out of. Yes it was clausterphobic and scary. Yes, for what it was it was very well done. No, I just don’t like that crap. I don’t find it “too scary” and no it doesn’t keep me up at night with bad dreams. I’m 38, I’ve seen scarier stuff than Bioshock in my daily life. I just find it inane, and silly.

An example is those stupid syringe things. I mean really, the main character finds himself in a plane crash and whisked away to this mysterious underwater city where very early on he sees some pretty horrific things. It’s very clear things aren’t quite right down there, yet upon finding a strange syringe full of some mystery fluid out intrepid hero promptly slams the needle into his wrist and injects this crap into his system. The game doesn’t even give the user an option. Once you pick the thing up the cut scene starts and for reasons beyond comprehension (but well within convenient the domain of convenient plot nonsense) he sticks himself. Yeah, that’s what I’d do alright. No question about it.

It’s inane. Really.

So, despite the spiffy new machine and maxed out high-res graphics… for me, Bioshock has a bad case of Biosuck. On the plus side, I won’t have to bother applying that new patch I guess.

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Gametrailers Crysis Review

December 4, 2007

Gametrailers.com put up a good Crysis review, in both crappy regular res and superduper high def. **

Can’t argue with any of what they said really, short of the comment about the game not running well “even on the beefiest of machines”. Runs perfectly fine here (30+ fps) at 1680×1050, max settings plus the “very high” tweak for DirectX9.

As I’ve said elsewhere on the internet, although I enjoyed Crysis I find I’m enjoying CoD4 a bit more. That surprises me as I think I bought into some of the Crysis hype and hadn’t been following CoD4 at all. I think I’ll write up a good indepth comparison of the two in the near future.

**note to self… sort out how to embed gametrailer vids on the blog

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