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Game Moments #2 - Falcon 4.0
Bryan Brown says he remembers this like it was yesterday. Me, not so much, so I hope I don't embellish too much. I get worried I may be combining two stories into one - but if I do get them mixed up, Bryan can step in and correct me.
The game was Falcon 4.0. This game was famous not only for its accuracy for simulating the F-16, but also for its bugs. It deserved the reputation on both counts --- though sometimes its adherance to reality was assumed to be a bug by people who were used much simpler flight simulators. Bryan Brown is a friend of mine who also worked at SingleTrac. We both shared a love for the really hyper-realistic modern air combat simulators. Unlike most fans of these kinds of games, however, what we enjoyed most wasn't duking it out in massive furballs (though those were fun too). Bryan and I liked to MOVE MUD. That is to say, causing all kinds of destruction to the things unlucky enough to be sitting on the ground.
In some sims, this was easy. ATF Gold (an earlier game that we also loved to play) would just have you magically lock onto a target, fly within launch parameters, and boom! Watch the guided missiles or smart bombs do their thing. You had to WORK FOR IT in Falcon 4.0. Our mission one afternoon had us blowing up a shipyard. It was the first day of the war, so it was pretty much insane air and ground activity across the board as North Korea began moving into South Korea. The shipyard was somewhere out on the southwestern part of North Korea. Bryan and I loaded up on iron bombs and had precious little space to spare for any air-to-air defenses.
I was flying lead, Bryan was my wingman. Bryan is pretty much the ultimate wingman. He was awesome to have in any flight sim (or in games like Rogue Spear) because he's cool, he's competent, and you know HE'S ALWAYS GOT YOUR BACK. Every time. Like it's a matter of honor for him. If you die before he dies, he takes it as a personal failure on his part. Even if you died because you were overconfident and stupid - which happens to me a lot. He actually preferred the role. We still swapped from time to time. But on this mission, I was flying lead. Bryan was flying behind me and to my right.
We weren't yet halfway to the target when we got bounced by MiG-21s. Not the most advanced aircraft in the sky, but they were nasty to tussel with in a close-range dogfight (a furball), and their missiles could kill you just as dead as the more modern versions. In our current condition - loaded for bear with bombs - we'd be incapable of taking them on in a real dogfight. We'd be forced to drop our weapons - conceding failure for the mission. Best to take them out at range.
We fired off our AIM-120's - I think we had two each. I don't remember if we killed anyone with those, but the enemy aircraft were forced to abandon their attack to evade our missiles. When all was said and done, there was ONE enemy plane left at close range. He engaged Bryan's plane. Bryan didn't want to drop his load yet, and the enemy plane hadn't quite gotten into a solid firing position. I was still loaded down like a pack-mule, too, but I went above and behind to try and help.
I saw the MiG right behind Bryan - he was at extremely close range, trying not to overshoot. Unlike the movie Top Gun, you don't hit the airbrakes to slow down in air combat. If you are in danger of overshooting, you typically pull your nose up on your turn - so you lose speed in the climb, but you gain an altitude advantage over your opponent. This maneuver is called a "high yo-yo." I expected this pilot to do the same thing, but my own range was pretty close - so I switched to guns and got ready to fire.
Sure enough, the pilot started pulling the high yo-yo and I shredded him with my guns. He exploded right in front of me into a thousand pieces of debris. I was too close, and flew right through the explosion, watching smoking chunks of the remains of his fighter fly by. Unfortunately, one of those chunks hit my aircraft, and my master alarm went off. The female voice in the cockpit (referred to as "Bitchin' Betty") repeated "Caution... Caution" as I checked my lights to see what was damaged.
The lights don't tell the whole story - they just report that a system was damaged, not the extent of the damage. If you see only one or two lights, it could be just superficial damage. Which is what I assessed. Everything was working, the smoke wasn't getting let out of my jet's engine, my HUD (Heads-Up Display) was still working - it looked like I was okay. So we continued the mission.
We met no more resistance on the way to the target. There was the shipyard, right in front of us. At the I.P. (Initial Point - where you begin your attack run), Bryan backed off and I switched to Air-to-Ground mode. The base was lightly defended, but the Anti-Aircraft guns could be nasty, so we needed to fly in as fast as possible and get back out again - just as fast. I lined up the target under my "Continuously Computed Impact Point" on the HUD (AKA the "Death Dot" - the point at which the in-flight computer calculates your bomb will hit), dove in for maximum accuracy, and LET THEM FLY!
Except they didn't. The bombs stayed right where they were. Apparently the "superficial" damage I took from the piece of MiG-21 debris flying through the explosion had knocked out my weapons release. Except for my guns, I was now unarmed. Unarmed but flying with several hundred pounds of now-useless weaponry under my wings.
I quickly told Bryan of my problem as I hit the afterburner and flew out. Bryan said, "Don't worry, I've got them." Trying to be helpful I loitered slightly overlong in the area to draw the fire from the guns on the ground as Bryan made his attack run. He rushed in, dove for the target, released his bombs, and immediately popped up to avoid being caught in the explosion from his own bombs.
BOOM! The shipyard went up, pieces of it flying over a thousand feet in the air. Mission successful. Now we just had to get home in one piece. Bryan had like one missile left - I had two wings full of useless weapons slowing me down. We didn't have enough fuel left to take the long way around (I'd decided - still properly, I believe - that the security of having extra fuel from a drop-tank was less important than the security of a couple of extra air-to-air missiles). Hopefully we could pass through the defensive screen of friendly fighters before the enemy jets which had no doubt been vectored our way reached us.
We almost made it. But we were bounced by more MiGs a few miles before we got to our protective screen. At this point, Bryan was now the Lead plane, and I was his wingman. We saw them incoming - Bryan and I would take turns turning to various angles to catch anything on radar. We pushed ahead as far and as fast as we could, but they eventually caught up to us. Bryan fired off his last missile to scatter the two planes and get them defensive. I was doing my best to support him, but I was still loaded with bombs and couldn't maneuver much. I was shot at, and had to drop chaff and flares and hope that he didn't get lucky. Bryan was all over the place - I was supposed to be covering him, but I couldn't keep up. Somehow, he maneuvered and once again the bandit that was attacking him was in my sites. He was too far for guns (and I was too slow to catch up to him), but I COULD get a missile lock on him.
Now, my missile wouldn't FIRE anymore because of the weapons jam. I knew that, but the little computer-controlled bandit didn't know that. He jinked hard and started dropping chaff and flares as I got the lock. By that point we were getting really close to our screen of friendly fighters, and I heard them call out over the radio that they had confirmed the enemy contacts.
Well, we were too close for the bandits' comfort at that point too, so they kicked in their burners and headed north, disengaging. We flew back to the base, and I managed to make a decent landing in spite of still having bombs slung on my wings.
Mission success, the debriefing told us.
No kidding. It was one of the best missions EVER!
Addendum: I should note here that I'm leaving lots of details out - not really adding any at all. This stuff (and much more) all really happened in the game. Falcon 4.0 had a ridiculously detailed, organic, dynamic world that puts even the most open-ended RPGs to shame. That was perhaps the bane of the game and the team - it was perhaps too big and detailed for its own good - thus the bugs. Some of us REALLY REALLY APPRECIATED that attention to detail, though.
Game Moments #1
It was almost not even a decision. The situation was familiar, and the response was almost automatic. A colony ship was approaching a choice planet close to the homeworld, but an alien race came in and occupied it first. Squatter's Rights - there would be no occupation of the planet by human forces without open warfare. The loss of a rich world so early in the game would be crippling - the human race would be boxed in, unable to expand much further if I conceded the planet. The game was almost over before it had begun.
The game in question is the original Master of Orion, which was released in the early 90's for DOS. It was referred to as "Civilization in Space," though I found it consumed slightly more nights than the Sid Meier classic. I was hooked for weeks.
When it comes to strategy games - even RTS games - I tend to focus on butter more than guns. I push to maximize expansion and economy, often leaving myself vulnerable to early attacks or "rushes." But if I can hold out the first little bit, my economy will usually be solid enough that I can pull off a pretty good counter-attack. But I get ferocious about preserving my opening expansion. Many times before this opening situation played itself out, resulting in the first war of the game. I'd win, then engage the next race, slowly conquering my way to victory.
This time, my finger hovered over the button to launch my attack, I decided to back down. My lone scoutship pulled away, allowing the Bulrathi to colonize the planet. Playing the humans, I was boxed in one corner of the map by the Bulrathi and the Alkari. I focused my research efforts on terraforming the few worlds I controlled, and on weapon improvements for the inevitable wars with my two neighboring races. Soon, I found my terraforming efforts bearing fruit - in spite of my limited geography, I had the second most populous race in the galaxy.
The Bulrathi and the Alkari came to blows with each other. I found myself in the enviable position of being on friendly terms with both races. I ran arms technology to both races, trading technology from one race to then trade with the other. As a result, my popularity soared with both races (apparently they didn't question why their opposing number acquired technologies that had just been traded to me), and I maintained a balance of power between each race so that neither could obtain a technological edge over the other.
Eventually, the galaxy was pretty fully populated, and elections began for Emperor of the Galaxy. The Klackons were using my usual strategy of conquest - they'd wiped out one race, and had brought the Mrrshans (a race of cat-people) down to only two worlds. The Alkari voted for me. The Bulrathi sat on the fence, enjoying good relations with me and with the Klackons. Many other races abstained from the vote - enough at least that the Klackons were not declared the new emperor. The Mrrshans, whom I had never met, gave me their vote, which was worth next to nothing. They were simply willing to vote for anyone running against their hated enemy.
The Klackons grew angry with the Mrrshans again (maybe because of their votes?) and attacked once more. They took over the Mrrshan's only sattelite world, leaving them with nothing but their homeworld. Meanwhile, I tried to contact some of the other races to try to bribe them with new technology, but most remained outside of my travelling distance.
Another vote was called. Again it ended in a tie. I started researching the late-game terraforming technologies, to grow my population to the point where I had a greater vote. It was slow going. The other populations were growing almost as quickly. I finally managed to convince the Bulrathi to swing their vote over to me, but it still didn't make any difference during the next vote. Nor the one after that.
Each time, the pathetic Mrrshans - beyond my range to even contact - gave me their one vote. A token gesture I appreciated, but it didn't get me anywhere.
Finally, the Klackons had enough. They finished off the entire race in one genocidal strike. The galaxy banded together in a universal reprimand of the Klackon's actions. Which would have amounted to nothing if it had NOT been a year before the elections.
With the taint of genocide still on them, the Klackons lost key supporters, and several of the fence-sitters decided to swing their vote to me for the next election. I won by a landslide, and saw the "peaceful" victory sequence for the first time. I realized that my only warship I possessed at that point was my underpowered starting scout-ship from the beginning of the game that I had ALMOST used to attack the Bulrathi. I'd won on sheer diplomacy alone.
The game immediately catapulted at that moment from being a "good game," to one of the classics in my mind. The option for a completely different path to victory gave it a much deeper dimension than most strategy games. The diplomatic model - with characters that actually seemed to possess some semblance of memory and consistency - was ahead of the extremely schizophrenic Civilization I (or II, as I recall).
I'll always have fond memories of that one day when I opted for diplomacy rather than force.
Of course, the very next game - started only hours after I was elected emperor - one of the races dared tried to colonize a planet in the early game that I had my eye on.
I brought in my hastily constructed warships and wiped them out of the galaxy.
Geek Thanksgiving Traditions
So the day job let me out of my cage for what I hope will be the entire Thanksgiving 4-day weekend. I'm pretty much on-call this whole time, but now it's Saturday morning and I may be off the hook.
Our Thanksgiving traditions are pretty heavily influenced by college. My first year in college, I couldn't afford to fly back home (to Maryland) for Thanksgiving, so I was stuck locally (in UTAH, the horror). My roommate was in a similar boat, but he had relatives in Salt Lake City - and invited me to come up with him. So at least I wouldn't be alone on campus for Thanksgiving.
In retrospect, it would have been preferable. As I was still a teenager, I believed that my family had the monopoly (or at least lion's share) of weirdness in the world. I was in for a rude awakening. The family was entirely legally blind - which wasn't such a big deal - but they were probably also certifiably nuts. My roommate's uncle accused me nearly every hour of trying to smuggle booze into his house. The fact that I didn't drink didn't seem to convince him. For once, I actually relished the opportunity to actually STUDY during the holiday. We also watched all of the Star Wars movies (there were only three back then), which wasn't so bad. But for the most part, it was just a bizarre, uncomfortable experience.
So the following year, we decided to have an "Orphan's Thanksgiving." Anyone from our extended circle of friends who didn't have a place to go for Thanksgiving would meet up at one apartment, and we'd have a big Thanksgiving dinner among friends. Sort of a pot-luck thing. Locally. That first year we were at the apartment of Jonna-Lyhn and Holly - the gals I mentioned a few months ago who pulled me into starting a D&D campaign my first couple of days at college.
We had an absolute blast. We gamed all weekend long - boardgames, roleplaying games, etc. I don't think we got much studying done for finals that weekend, but it was (at the time) the best Thanksgiving weekend I had ever recalled. So we kept doing it.
One year we played both Ravenloft modules (the old 1E modules - the first one which ruled, and the second one which --- didn't, but could still be fun) during the entire weekend. 3-day marathon run. We were SICK of D&D by Saturday night. But we have fond memories of it now, a decade later.
And we're still doing it today. Though now we have a lot more family that live locally, so Thanksgiving day is a lot more family. But then Friday and Saturday we play boardgames, roleplaying games, videogames, and eat pretty much ALL the Thanksgiving leftovers. Saturday night we're so sick of stuffing and turkey sandwiches we order pizza. And we game to our heart's content.
At some point down the line, a friend at work loaned me "Tetris Plus" for the weekend. We'd stock up on videogames to play - so while some people were playing board games, others could be plugged into the Sega or Playstation or whatever. Tetris became kind of a weird tradition - this version was more puzzle-based, with the Tetris board being a spikey trap for this dumb little archaeologist. You had to arrange the pieces so that the professor would fall through as he walked back and forth. If he reached the bottom, he was rewarded with treasure. But as time went on, this spiked ceiling would descend on him. In two-player mode, the competition got FIERCE. We ended up buying the game ourselves, but we rarely play it EXCEPT on Thanksgiving. Ah, for all of Sony's recent crimes, at least they made the PS2 backwards-compatible with the Playstation.
Yesterday's roleplaying games included a one-shot D&D game for low-level characters in the afternoon, and the start of a brand-new Mage: The Ascension campaign (2nd edition - they really seemed to screw up the setting the more they worked with it after that) in the evening. LOTS of fun. Traditionally we also have a Call of Cthulhu game, but my wife just wrapped up her campaign last week.
Wednesday night and Thursday morning, my oldest daughter and I played a game of D&D miniatures. She developed a real strategy this time, and the game was extremely close. I guess I learned not to underestimate her. And it was a heck of a lot of fun. We had to leave the game Wednesday night to continue it in the morning because it was her bedtime. I remember looking at the map later that night, with her forces strategically placed at a choke-point where my missile-heavy forces couldn't get her without coming into deadly melee range with real bruisers, and thinking, "This is so cool. This is like what Geek Heaven might feel like."
So I REALLY look forward to Thanksgiving each year. We still have many of the same geek gamer friends, we're raising up geek gamer kids (well, some of them --- they all kinda do their own thing), and the weekend is always a blast. So among the many things I'm thankful for, Thanksgiving weekend and our little geek traditions for the holiday definitely rank up there too.
What kind of gamer are you?
So now "Casual Gaming" has caught on (like CRAZY). The whitepapers suggest that this demographic is the fastest-growing in the games industry, and lots of people with lots of money are jumping on board the bandwagon. This market is dominated by an older, female audience - pretty much the polar opposite of the traditional "hardcore" market, which is younger males.
It's tough to define the two, but in general, the casual gamer plays a few games for amusement - preferring simple mental excercise games that are often of the "match three" variety. The casual gamer may go days without playing, and will usually not devote more than fifteen or twenty minutes at a sitting to their game. The hardcore gamer, of course, is a highly competitive young male who plays to crush and devotes many, many hours each week to his "sport." It's often younger guys with little demands on his time.
The mainstream industry has focused on the hardcore gamer, because these guys spend a LOT of money on games. But the casual games business is really taking off.
And then there's me. I have a fairly demanding job, a family to take care of and spend time with, a mortgage, church responsibilities, and a highly demanding "hobby" (making games). But I also love PLAYING games. I've been playing videogames since before Pac-Man became news. I enjoy a good casual game just fine, and I also love a solid hardcore game when I have time to devote to it. But I can't take a whole week of evenings off very often like I did to play through F.E.A.R. I don't have the time nor the patience to replay through long sequences between save points on console games because someone was worried the game was too short. I'm more likely to say, "Oh, cool, I have fifteen minutes, let me run a quick game of Ricochete: Lost Worlds." (Which I *STILL* haven't come close to completing, but I have fun trying).
So what kind of gamer am I? Is there a cool word for it. This category was recently referred to as "interstitial" by a recent GamaSutra article, but I hate that term. It's obscure, and it implies that it's a pretty narrow category. I don't think it's narrow at all. I think there's a huge gulf between what's coming out catering for the hardcore audience, and what's coming out for the casual market.
It's in this no-man's land that games like Outpost Kaloki reside. Outpost Kaloki has quite a bit more depth than your usual casual game, and has a little bit more of a learning curve to it. It's nowhere near the scale or complexity of your mainstream "Sim-whatever" game. Though I imagine a hardcore player who tried Outpost Kaloki out would grudgingly admit that while it's simpler fare than they are used to, it's still a lot of fun. And I think casual gamers could figure it out pretty quickly and start having a lot of fun with it pretty quickly as well.
Void War also occupies that gigantic twilight zone between the extremes. If anything, it errs too much on the side of hardcore, particularly with its competitive multiplayer focus. But it's not a mainstream game - it goes for depth rather than breadth. Kid Mystic has a LOT more scope and scale than a traditional casual game - but nobody would mistake it for a mainstream, hardcore title. And as long as I'm doing some obligatory plugging of games on my site, there's Mythic Blades - which is actually the most "hardcore" style indie game on my site, but it's still geared for a different audience than the die-hard Tekken fanatics.
But they occupy this fuzzy limbo of an ill-described audience of players that doesn't even have a cool-sounding name. Semi-Casual? Semi-Formal? Or that "Interstitial" word. But can you really describe the variety of gaming experiences that fill this ocean of possibility with a single word?
So what kind of gamer are YOU? If you were to descibe yourself as a gamer with one or two cool-sounding, buzzword-friendly terms, what would it be?
Labels: Game Design
To sleep... perchance to dream...
We've been in crunch mode... well, kinda forever, but the serious crunch at The Day Job hit this week. The entire office looks like a scene from a George Romero movie (complete with screams and violence --- albeit Nerf-gun violence). Yesterday was the worst - I wasn't entirely sure what day it was (I was barely aware it was daytime). Everyone has been pretty sleep-deprived, and we've been having all-hands meetings at 1:00 in the morning. That kind of thing.
Reminded me a lot of my days working full-time in the videogame industry.
The first year or two of SingleTrac's short existence were pretty amazing. We were ridiculously short-handed, and so everybody gave it everything they had because they knew nobody else would be there to pick up the slack. You'd think being able to play videogames all night long (and get paid for it!) wouldn't ever get old. But when it's 2 in the morning, and you are staring bleary-eyed at the TV screen watching the AI once again perform some really whacked-out logic, trying to capture a trace of what set of conditions are triggering what actions that result in that bizarre on-screen behavior you are seeing... well, it's still kinda fun sometimes, but it's exhausting. Fortunately each of our machines had a PlayStation dev card inside of them, and we had a bunch of consoles in the conference room attached to a big-screen TV, so if you really felt yourself dozing you could boot up a fast-action game to get the blood flowing again.
Here, we've got nerf guns.
And you know, when EVERYONE gets so sleep-deprived, the smallest things become really, really funny. That helps keep us going.
One plus side - yesterday (what day WAS yesterday, anyway...?) the Tome of Horrors revised came out at Drive-Thru RPG. The original was a collection of monsters from previous editions of Dungeons & Dragons that hadn't been translated to third edition, and which Wizards of the Coast claimed WOULD never be translated. Well, after they gave Necromancer Games permission to do the translation AND release all of the monsters into the Open Gaming License (so that ANYBODY could publish something using this content for free), Wizards went ahead and made their own versions of these creatures. But if you are going to use a third-party adventure (or publish one yourself), you'll want the Tome of Horrors. The new version has been revised for 3.5, and is a real bargain (especially if you never had the original).
(Note: I'm not affiliated with Necromancer Games, I've just done some writing for them in the past. And I really like their books.)
Anyway - sorry for the ramble. I'm still just a little brain-fried.
Prototyping Means Sucking Less Sooner
I had this whole new, revolutionary system for controlling characters in an RPG that combined the virtues of real-time and turn-based combat. Oh, and a really clever idea for handling stats that added a great amount of detail and flexibility and a minimum cost of complexity. A couple of really great ideas. I spent the last few months off-and-on working prototyping these and other systems.
Only to find they sucked.
Lesson to remember: Things that sound GREAT on paper are often less than wonderful when they make the transition to mouse-and-screen. This is why getting a playable prototype is SO CRITICALLY IMPORTANT. So now I can go back and change things before committing the game to these elements. Sure, I've wasted a little bit of effort (some of which went into premature polishing... something else to avoid), but an early retooling is better than a late one. And many of the tools I've created are still useful with only minor redesign.
A friend of mine (Steve Taylor, of NinjaBee) told me about his guiding quote for game design - which I then printed out and posted on the wall of my office. The quote is by Antoine de Saint-Exupery:
"Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away."
This has been expressed in design as the KISS method. Of course, a big part of the fun in an RPG (or most games) is the depth in which you can take the gameplay ... but it has to be done without adding complexity. The goal is always to have someone feel like they know how to play the game within the first five minutes (or less!!!), but have them also feel that there's a lot more to the game that they haven't seen yet (but want to see).
I've ended up dragging my feet a little the last few weeks revamping the prototype with the appropriate design changes. Part of is the reality of having a full-time job and some other projects in the hopper, and taking some time to play games again. But part of it has been trying to work on learning to do 3D modeling. I posted my evil mosquito-wannabe giant cootie bug a couple of weeks ago.
I've been working on another monster from the game - termed a "devil-kin." Think of small, fallen-cherub types that are invisible to most people, who drink the life from sleeping victims over a course of several nights. I'm about ready for texturing, which will probably be sloppy and horrible, but I'm feeling slightly more confident about my modeling skills in Blender. I'm still a beginner, but I feel I am sucking less:
Animation is still pending. Which is going to be a nightmare of a whole 'nother order. I haven't done any animation in Blender yet, so it's going to be yet another learning experience.
But I'm having fun doing it all. I remember a session in GDC many years ago on game design, and one of the key things the presenters asked was, "Is your team having fun making the game? Because if you aren't having fun making it, how do you expect your audience to have fun playing it?"
Labels: Game Design
Halloween Costume '05
For this year's costume, I decided to go as "Doc Oc," Doctor Octopus of Spiderman fame. I decided to go more as the movie version than the comic book version, since the movie version is more recognizeable --- and face it, very few people look good in Spandex.
The really frightening part is that it looks like it's time for me to lose about thirty pounds again. I was poking my gut out a LITTLE for this shot (Doc Oc is supposed to be pudgy), but yeesh. The tentacles are mounted to a workman's toolbelt. The cabling I ran through the tubing to make them hold their shape added a lot of weight to the whole thing. I thought the overall effect was pretty good.
Alas, I didn't even get an honorable mention. The guy who won the first prize (and $1000) at the office shaved himself bald, colored himself green, and came as Shrek. His wife helped in a great Fiona-as-an-Ogre costume. They looked REALLY good and deserved the prize.
F.E.A.R. Mini Review
Sometimes I go to one of those "gourmet hamburger" places to eat. You can get all kinds of new twists on the basic hamburger idea, like getting chile verde and avacado on your burger. It's an interesting flavor, but it doesn't change the fact that you are still just earing a hamburger. But you know what? That's okay, sometimes. Even though I've had lots of hamburgers in my life, they still taste pretty good, and sometimes I'm in the mood for them.
That's pretty much how I'd describe the game F.E.A.R., which I just finished last night (WAY too frickin' late, especially for a creepy horror game). F.E.A.R. should be a textbook example of how you can take an almost painfully generic First-Person-Shooter and make it really stand out with solid execution and a really cool theme / story. Like a gourmet hamburger. I DID enjoy it, and wanted to just write up a short review from a game-developer's point-of-view.
The enemies include soldiers, heavily armored soldiers, corrupt security forces, big battle-mech type robots, automatic defense guns, ninja-types in stealth suits that make them temporarily invisible (with a predator-style effect behind them), and flying laser-shooting robots. Except for some spooky stuff at the end, that's pretty much it. If that was all there was, the game would be another ho-hum entry in a long list of first-person shooters.
The special effects and graphics are top-notch, so it gets all kinds of props for the eye-candy category. Graphical wows don't tend to age well, though. My computer wasn't even close to being capable of cranking up the effects to their proper levels, so maybe I'd have been more amazed if my machine was closer to cutting-edge. I also can't really comment on multiplayer - I haven't tried it, and really doubt I will. I just don't see how it could be anything but a poor cousin to, say, UT 2004 or the Battlefield games. But it's more-or-less obligatory in a first-person shooter, so they hit the marks for having it in there.
I can't say my F.E.A.R. experience was bug free - I got some really annoying sound glitches that forced me to quit and reload, and sometimes my proximity mines would develop anti-gravity drive and just slowly start rising up in the air without arming. But aside from those occasional flukes, the game still ran pretty solidly (even on my krufty old machine).
The artificial intelligence is pretty dang good. One thing that they did with this game is make the enemies chatterboxes. They speak very loudly and clearly so that you can hear their plans. This is key. AI typically all happens "under the hood," and so players don't have a clue what kind of decision-making processes are happening. (As a developer who has done videogame AI, I can tell you it's often hard for the PROGRAMMER to know what's going on in the AI's "head"!) Usually the only time you really notice the AI is when it's doing something stupid, like trying to hide behind an open window. The simple act of having the AI broadcast their intentions and perceptions to the player by very loud talking goes a long way to making the AI feel "smarter." It's kind of amusing how smart the AI seems when it is capable of something as simple as counting ("I've got two men down!") or being worried.
The AI does behave itself pretty well most of the time. The AI soldiers seek cover (pretty much ALL the time), even knocking down a shelf to use it as makeshift cover. When the player is behind cover they try to flush you out by using grenades. They will also use alternate routes when available to get around behind you. They yell warnings and run when you toss a grenade at them (except for the heavily armored guys). Consequently, the firefights have a visceral punch that rings true.
The storyline and mood is of course the primary selling point of the game. It wasn't what I expected. So many games with the "horror" theme inundate you with hordes of ravenous zombies and other monsters - to the point that they quickly cease to be horrific and become just more targets for your gun. F.E.A.R. has long stretches of game that are pretty mundane. When it does it hit you with the supernatural - usually in the form of stumbling upon the scene of impossible deaths, or visions that your character has that nobody else can see - it makes it all the more creepy.
The chief villains of the game are a little girl named Alma, and a big defense contractor that is trying to bury a secret involving something they did to the girl. The girl only appears (until the end) in visions that you can't really interact with - giving her a presence throughout the game, but without the feeling that you can do much about her. Mostly it's plumbing the depths of the mystery of her past, your own past, and your quarry - a man who is obsessed with setting the girl free, somehow (though it's clear that she's been dead a while). The presence of the defense contractor and certain chief people within the company is established by a series of voice-mail messages you can listen to as you chase the bad guys through the company (after most of the employees have been slaughtered), or through files you are able to download on their laptops.
The twists along the story are mostly pretty predictable and often unsatisfying. In nearly every chapter, you succeed in your mission only to have your victory get snatched away from you by some event. Sort of "Sorry, but the Princess is in another castle!" type flavor throughout the game. Once or twice it adds to the tension, but beyond that it just gets annoying. I found myself wondering, "Oh, how are my allied forces going to screw this up this time?" And a lot of the "bits" in the storyline looked they were lifted from the pages of every single tired device from every B-movie script ever written. But the state of storyline in most games is so bad that even borrowing from hackneyed B-movie stories is an improvement.
The climax of the game - and epilogue - is pretty well-done and appropriately creepy and twisted. It's also not so insanely hard that you lose all the tension the game had built up for repeated re-loads. If you've seen the movie, "The Ring," a lot of the exposition will sound a little bit familiar, but it's still well-executed and is genuinely scary.
As can be seen from this review, they got a lot of mileage (from MY perspective) by just executing well and providing a unique presentation. Now, some folks may blast me for praising these things instead of pushing the concept that the gameplay should somehow be more unique and original. And they wouldn't be wrong. But I've also learned that when you are doing a commercial game, the audience doesn't usually seek out the unique and original too much. They want something just original enough to feel fresh, but still comfortably familiar. I think F.E.A.R. accomplished that pretty well, and provides an experience that may still be fundamentally the same as other games, but has a very unique flavor. And in THIS case, it made it worth the price of admission for me.
Labels: Mainstream Games
Rules of Combat According to FPS Games
I'm still enjoying , but as I mentioned before - it follows very typical conventions (dare I call them cliches?) of the First-Person Shooter genre. It's well-executed, but painfully predictable in spots. I have found myself saying, "Didn't I play this game when it was called Return to Castle Wolfenstein, or Half-Life, or No One Lives Forever, or Aliens vs. Predator II, or Quake II?"
Which is why I don't play a ton of FPS games. But even when they are following the formula to a T, they are still fun to play. But inspired by certain predictable elements, and the old John Kovalic series entitled "Murphy's Rules", I thought I'd throw together my list of Rules of Combat according to FPS games. Some are due to actual technical limitations, but many others are just lazy design because these elements have come to be accepted (even expected) in the genre:
#1 - A Three-foot-high wall made of a quarter-inch thick plywood is impervious to harm, and incapable of being vaulted or climbed over by a highly-trained supersoldier who can jump down dozens of feet with little or no injury.
#2 - If you find yourself in a room full of goodies (armor, healthpacks, and ammunition), do NOT be grateful. You are about to get the crap kicked out of you.
#3 - If there's a straight path to your goal, it will be obstructed by crates and debris that are as immovable and indestructible as Mount Everest. Even a little fifty-pound open-frame tool shelf that the AI can knock over to provide cover will effectively block any and all efforts for you to move it, go around it, crawl through it, or otherwise pass it. You must instead follow a twisted alternate route through air ducts, maintenance tunnels, and flooded waterways to make fifty feet of progress.
#4 - If there's a straight path to your goal that is NOT heavily guarded or obstructed, go VERY carefully and slowly. You are about to experience an earthquake or explosion that will go off and destroy the path, possibly knocking you into the resulting hole in the floor. This event will inevitably take place right underneath you or when you are scant inches from ground zero.
#5 - A properly trained soldier is capable of carrying two pistols, a submachinegun, an assault rifle, a sniper rifle, a heavy machinegun, a rocket launcher, and two more advanced and/or alien weapons, plus a couple hundred rounds of ammunition for each AND a few grenades. They will be able to run at full speed and jump over short distances (but no three-foot-tall barriers) while carrying this load.
#6 - There is NO SAFETY IN NUMBERS when you assault an enemy stronghold. A squad of highly-trained, elite special forces operatives are DEAD MEAT six feet past the doorway. The rookie who was for whatever reason left out of the initial assault (got separated, or was left out because he wasn't tough enough) is going to be partly ignored by the bad guys and allowed to storm the fortress (or deserted warehouse) challenged only by pockets of resistance, until this individual destroys the enemy mastermind. Apparently the good guys know this, and think nothing of sending the same lone-wolf soldier against hordes of enemy soldiers again and again. Like it's nothing more than an INCONVENIENCE - sorry they couldn't send someone else to keep you company while you are slaughtering endless hordes of heavily armed bad guys.
#7 - Any industrial-looking place is going to have hundreds of crates and boxes scattered randomly throughout the complex, sprinkled with barrels of highly volatile and explosive contents that will cause lethal destruction when bumped. Apparently evil masterminds don't fear OSHA any more than they fear police and the special forces.
#8 - If you find any badly wounded friendly, they won't live long enough for the emergency crews to arrive - just long enough to give you a cryptic clue. So don't worry about stopping your mission of destruction to save them.
#9 - Enemy Soldiers cannot see or hear a firefight with explosions taking place a hundred yards from them out in the open in broad daylight. But they can spot you INSTANTLY at thirty yards slinking around a corner in the darkness even when they have their backs turned to you. Unless you've just been instructed to sneak up on them by the tutorial, in which case you could probably have a rock concert behind them before they'd notice.
#10 - There are few things as satisfying as hearing a hidden enemy yell, "Oh ****" right before he gets blown up by your well-placed grenade.
Labels: Mainstream Games
F.E.A.R. the URL Change!
So yesterday our provider changed servers around without letting us know about it, and so we temporarily lost email and the website until I could change things around and wait for the new nameserver information to propogate. Fun, fun, fun. I'm still very much a webmaster n00b, so these sorts of things are semi-arcane to me. I guess I learn by doing. Fortunately I know a lot of smart people, like my brother, who understand these things very well.
I also picked up the game F.E.A.R. yesterday. That pretty much blew my productivity for the night. So far, I like the game. A lot. I had to crank down the graphics settings to get it to run at a reasonable rate on my machine, but it still looks pretty good. And it plays VERY well. I'm not a huge FPS fanatic - I still haven't even played Half-Life 2 - but I am really enjoying this game. It's got a solid "creepiness factor" throughout, but (so far, at least) the supernatural and "horror" elements overlay a pretty straightforward - but very well executed - FPS design. So far, I'm just blowing up soldiers. You could pretty much write any story you want around the action. But the creepy little girl - Alma - and the visions you receive from time to time (not to mention your supernatural ability to kick in reflexes and move in Matrix-esque "bullet-time") give the otherwise standard action a really awesome flavor.
I haven't tried the game multiplayer, but I don't really see how the game could really stand up in multiplayer against competition like Unreal Tournament 2004, the Battlefield games (all my complaints notwithstanding), and so forth. But I didn't get it for the multiplayer.
Labels: Mainstream Games