Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Mirror’s Edge

Who’d have thought running could be so much fun?

Mirror’s Edge is essentially a game about free-running (or parkour if you fancy, or are French). And rather uniquely it’s a game about free-running in First-Person Perspective.

I didn’t think free-running would work in First-Person if I’m totally honest, I’ve always found the more platformy sections of FPS games to be more of a chore than a joy, but Mirror’s Edge does rather buck the trend.

DICE have gotten a lot right here. Not everything works perfectly but there’s a lot here I’d like to see become standard in all FPS games.

First up, how about running? Running and sprinting in the majority of FPS games lacks realism to say the least. Often it feels like your character is some sort of weightless entity gently bobbing in the air, sprinting results in slightly more vigorous bobbing and the sensation of speed is often lacking. Some games bob better than others, but Mirror’s Edge is king. Ok, yeah it’s still essentially bobbing but the sense of acceleration and speed DICE have achieved in Mirror’s Edge ranks it head and shoulders above any other game I’ve played in first person. Other developers need to rip this off, because what they’re coming up with is weak in comparison.

How bout we talk low walls and fences? In too many games these are insurmountable obstacles. Aw, seriously? a low wall? Better be a gate or we ain’t gettin past this mutha! Mirror’s Edge has a vaulting mechanic that allows a smooth vault over low obstacles that also increases your momentum. There’s no reason why this can’t be implemented in every single FPS game. It makes a butt-load of sense. Some games have tried to implement the feature (Call of Duty springs to mind) but it’s clunky and lacks the fluidity of the DICE solution.

Scenery! All games have scenery, but a lot of it, well, most of it, is very much look but don’t touch. That stack of boxes look climbable to you? Yeah, let’s go check it ou- ah, no, it’s just scenery. In Mirror’s Edge if it looks like a person could climb it, you can, and in a fluid realistic manner. People have hands. Hands that can be used to help you up and shit. Amazing!

Rockin the Taijutsu shit. Mirror’s Edge is light on combat, you’re expected to avoid confrontation where possible, but when you need to take a guy out you’ve got some ass-bustin moves to get you there. I don’t think all the unarmed combat aspects of Mirror’s Edge would transfer well into other games, but the disarm-takedown moves are something that other developers should think about. If you get the drop on an enemy it kinda makes sense that you should be able to pull off some cool ninja shit to take them out.

It’s a shame DICE don’t have the rights to Assassin’s Creed, because when it comes to this free-running stuff, DICE in first-person created a better free-running experience than Ubisoft Montreal did in third-person. Considering third-person has long been the home of games with free-running elements that’s quite some achievement. My major complaint with Assassin’s Creed is that it’s free-running on auto-pilot. You hold down the right trigger and point yourself in the right direction and the game does everything for you, auto-jump, auto-roll, auto-climb, auto-bore. In Mirror’s Edge it’s down to you to time jumps, when to roll etc etc. Personally I feel more involved in Mirror’s Edge whereas in Assassin’s Creed I feel more like an observer, and that bores me to tears.

Never played Mirror’s Edge? You can get it for as little as £4 right now. That’s a freakin steal. Do It.

Oh yeah, and the games title music is fucking beautiful

I fell in love with this song the very first time I loaded up the game

freedoms_stain, DO IT! out.

Friday, 15 October 2010

The Sacrifice

I’m a Left 4 Dead fan, and as all good Left 4 Dead fans know The Sacrifice is the newest thing in the Left 4 Dead universe.

Today I got around to playing.

Valve marketed the dlc via a 4-part webcomic which bridges the events between the end of the original L4D game up to the point where the L4D1 and L4D2 survivors encounter each other in the finale of L4D2 dlc campaign The Passing. It does somewhat spoil the “story”, although anyone who’s played The Passing can make a decently informed choice as to what goes down. It’s a worthy read even if you’re not an L4D fan, great artwork and well written, check it out here:

I enjoyed The Sacrifice. It follows the staple L4D formula, fight your way through the hordes of infected through a series of themed areas (The Sacrifice is set primarily in a dockland) followed by a finale event. Although it sounds like standard L4D gameplay I get the feeling that Valve are getting better at designing maps for L4D. Although still largely linear in format they feel a bit less so, some sections let you take the high road or the low road, through the building or around, or a combination of both which means on different plays you can see the level from a few different angles.

The finale occurs in the same area as the finale of previous L4D2 dlc The Passing, again your goal is to raise a bridge this time though you’re required to start a trio of generators scattered around the map rather than fetch gas cans to a single generator in a scavengesque manner a-la The Passing. Starting each generator unleashes a fresh wave of infected complete with tanks. Once all three have been activated the Survivors haul ass to the bridge where the controls have been powered up by your heroic efforts and it can be raised – Yay!… ah, no, crap, a generator has packed in. ONE of you must return to the duff generator and restart it and in the process Sacrifice themselves to save the others.

The cannon as depicted in The Passing and The Sacrifice webcomic has Bill make the ultimate Sacrifice, although when you play the game yourself any of the survivors can fill the role. During my L4D2 Sacrifice play a Jockey managed to snare our teams Louis character and run him off the bridge walkways, I managed to snipe the Jockey leaving the guy playing Louis in prime position to go Sacrifice himself. It’s little unpredictable moments like that which make this game shine.

Predictability is a problem in gaming, scripted events in identical locations limit the replayability of single player campaigns. With L4D Valve have attempted to reduce that predictability by making you play cooperatively with 3 other live people (nice, people can be very unpredictable) and with the introduction of the AI Director.

Rather than relying on scripted waves of enemies L4D relies on the AI Director to determine where and when enemies spawn and attack, and where items and weapons can be found. The difficulty determines how generous the AI director will be, and how aggressive.

This works to an extent, but ultimately the human players will identify the quickest routes, the most common spawn points for weapons and the best strategies for beating back the infected.

The AI Director needs to get smarter, not only direct the enemies within the world, but craft a unique world for each and every game played. Maybe not in its entirety, there could still be a stock of Valve designed areas which could be slotted into the AI Directors design. We would therefore have a number of Valve designed climax points with a randomly generated journey between them crafted by the AI Director.

It’s not an idea that would work for every game, but it would certainly extend the replayability of L4D titles.

Until such a thing is possible we’ll have to rely on Valve drip-feeding us content periodically, or for PC gamers, feeding off the best the mod community has to offer.

Content like The Sacrifice is good, I played it 3 times today, the last time took 28 minutes. It’s a nice addition to the PC game, but is it worth the dlc cost on 360? Not for me, but that’s for you to decide.

Another thing Xbox gamers might want to know is that The Sacrifice campaign is identical for L4D1+2, but in L4D2 you’ll get the benefit of L4D2 weapons and special infected (I believe L4D2 buyers get the NO Mercy campaign from L4D1 thrown in to boot). Something to consider before you shell out for both.

This does enhance my original annoyance at L4D2 seeming like an expansion pack I was being asked to pay full price for, but Valve have made their decision.

Anyhoo, L4D, awesome, freedoms_stain, out.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood

I played the original Call of Juarez, it was a decent Western FPS, it had its flaws but I managed to overlook those and get to the end.

I rented Bound in Blood knowing relatively nothing about it, I knew it featured a pair of Brothers as the main protagonists, that’s about it. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that one of those brothers was a younger version of Reverend Ray McCall from the first game and that BiB is in fact a prequel detailing the events that caused Ray to set aside his guns and take up the life of a preacher and how he and his brother Thomas came to incur the wrath of the infamous Juarez.

The story itself is pretty good, you get more out of it if you’ve played the original as BiB gives a lot of back story to the events of CoJ, so if you’ve played both games you get the benefit of that feeling of revelation at the points where both games are tied together.

One of the hallmark features of the series has been its dual character setup, in CoJ you saw the action through the eyes of both Billy and Ray, both with different strengths, weaknesses and capabilities, BiB returns to that tradition. Ray returns in younger form while Billy is replaced with Thomas, who plays relatively similarly to Billy, more agile than Ray, able to climb, packing a lasso and the ability to use a bow, Thomas additionally packs some throwing knives. As in the original Ray with his armoured vest is able to take more damage and excels at dual wielding pistols and can use dynamite while Thomas cannot.

The way the dual character setup works differs in BiB, rather than alternating between characters during the course of the game as in CoJ most chapters allow you to choose whichever character you prefer. I thought this interesting at first, however after my first playthrough playing entirely as Ray (except where no choice was given) I soon realised that there was very little difference to the game whether you play as Ray or Thomas.

For most of the game Ray and Thomas fight side-by-side cooperatively, whether you play as one or the other the only real difference is the weaponry at your disposal with only a few short sections throughout the entire game where the characters branch off for a unique perspective. It makes the dual character slightly irrelevant, particularly in light of the fact that Rifle weapons are the most effective in the game and that both characters can use them.

You spend most of the game playing with an AI (no online co-op) brother at your side. I’ll be honest, it’s not ideal. The AI is pretty useless in a firefight, it’s slow (the game has a sprint function which the AI will NEVER use) and if you get too far ahead they’ll just stay where they are and wait for you to come back – if you go too too far ahead you effectively “die” and have to reload a checkpoint. It’s a pretty frustrating experience and slows the pace of the game down.

There are still some niggles leftover from the original that haven’t been cleaned up. Character movement still feels wrong, too smooth, like the characters are gliding around rather than walking or running, the effect is more pronounced when sprinting. The only indication that you’re sprinting at all is the weapon animation, there’s little impression of speed. It’s actually worse than Halo in this regard, and that’s actually a tough ask.

Climbing is still not ideal. The problem with first person platforming/climbing is that spacial awareness is not great. because moving your “head” in a particular direction also moves you in that direction it can be difficult to judge where edges are while moving, particularly if you’ve got to be quick. If future CoJ games are made they might think about allowing 3rd person mode for rope climbing etc.


We’ll start with the good.

The Multiplayer has a few good ideas. I like the notion of “bounty”. Each player starts with a bounty of $100 on their heads, that means when you kill a player you earn $100. For every kill you score the bounty on YOUR head increases, increasing higher still if substantial killstreaks are made (2, 4, 8 etc). It means that the rewards are higher for taking out higher skilled players (and campers – more on that later) and picking on noobs doesn’t carry much of a reward, which I think is pretty cool. I also like the poker theme of the killstreaks “pair” “straight” “flush” etc, that’s pretty cool.

The bounty system also has an impact on the dynamic of the deathmatch system (dubbed Shootout) as the win is based on the bounty an individual player has on their head, therefore very skilled players who manage a lot of high value killstreaks can win very quickly as opposed to the traditional “first to x kills wins”.

I quite enjoyed two of the multiplayer game modes in particular, the first being Wild West Legends and the second Manhunt.

In Wild West Legends one team are given a series of objectives that basically involve planting dynamite in various sequential locations, the other team defend the locations until a timer runs down or until the attacking team succeed. It’s quite a fun mode if it isn’t infested with spawn campers (more on that later) and the teams are even. There’s a nice edginess when you kill a guy a microsecond before he defuses your dynamite, or on the other hand charge into the bank, kill all the bandits and defuse their dynamite a microsecond before it blows. Those are good feelings, those are the moments you play games for, and this game can deliver those moments – as long as the other players are there to play the game and not be dirty spawn camping bastards (more on that later).

Manhunt is another team game, this time each team takes turns attempting to protect their “Wanted Man” for a whole minute in order to score while the opposing team attempt to kill the Wanted Man to prevent scoring and bring their turn earlier. The enjoyment you garner from Manhunt will depend on the map you play, as some fall victim of various spawn point shitstorms the developers included in the game (more on that later).

Now for the bad.

Some poor level design coupled with a spawn system that can only be described as bat-shit mental (at best) can lead to some ultra frustrating multiplayer experiences.

It seems to me that the issue seems to one of QA, some levels play absolutely fine, others are a complete mess.

Some of the game types have static spawn points, most of these have spawn points extremely close to and in some cases actually in sight of the game objectives, this makes spawn camping pretty easy to do and thus an extremely tempting proposition for some players, unfortunately too many BiB players give in to that temptation.

Playing with spawn campers is not fun, even if you’re on their team. If you’re a victim of spawn campers you get the frustration of getting locked in an endless cycle of deaths and respawns. It is a pretty damned sweet feeling if you manage to catch the spawn camper before they get you, but it’s still not a great experience. As for being on the spawn campers team, well with the camper taking out all the opposition before they even get out of their spawn point there isn’t much game for you to actually play, you end up sitting there waiting for the timer to run down. Boring. You start to wish friendly fire was allowed in this game…

Other game types have semi-static spawn points, i.e. there are a number of spawn points throughout the level and players are spawned to whichever point the game feels is most appropriate. Why the game ever feels that it’s appropriate to spawn members of opposite teams at the SAME spawn points, or spawn points in clear view of each other, or at spawn points where enemy team members are close by is totally beyond me, but it does, and it does so with stunning regularity. It’s a source of much frustration, particularly in a full 12 player game when the kills are coming thick and fast, to spawn, move less than 10 paces and then be shot in the back by a dude who just spawned in the exact same place you did is not pleasant. To kill a dude who then spawns right behind you 8 seconds later and shoots you in the back is not a pleasant experience, but this is the design of BiB, and it’s an irritatingly regular experience.

Little tip on improving your chances of finding a good game: use the custom game search, set all the criteria to any/no limit etc, set it up right and it’ll show you all the game lobbies currently available of all types, all maps, player numbers and hosts. I learned that certain hosts pretty much always look to spawn camp or otherwise play dirty, using this method you can at least avoid them when they host. It’s also useful for picking up the “Been There Done That” Achievement, you can cherry pick the maps you need for the achievement rather than going for the crapshoot that is Quick Match.


As it stands I’m sitting at 895 Gamerscore with 3 left to score.

Aside from completing the game on Very Hard all the single player achievements are fairly easy. A few of the took me a couple of tries, but provided you have a look through the Achievement list before you start you should manage most of them in a single playthrough. One thing I liked about the Achievements in the original CoJ was that each chapter had a unique Achievement, like a wee extra goal to shoot for, a challenge you normally wouldn’t think of going for in the course of normal play. For BiB the developers haven’t gotten as creative and there are fewer of such achievements and they seem more straight forward, but at least it’s not 95% story progression Achievements like the majority of games.

The only single player achievement I’m not shooting for is Very Hard completion. Far too frustrating, I did the 1st mission and it took an hour, I was shot through cover that had actually been cover when I played through on Hard, I can’t face another 10+ missions like that. No thanks.

Getting all the Multiplayer achievements will require an investment of some serious game hours without boosting. There’s an Achievement for earning $1 million in multiplayer cash (Which I don’t have, but am considering boosting). In my experience the fastest way is to play Manhunt against skilled opponents (who’ll amass some serious bounty on their heads) and kill a lot of them, particularly near the end of the round. Against crappy opposition you’ll be looking at $10,000 per 20 minute round, against good guys you might make as much as $30,000, say $20,000 average. 50 games, 20 mins each, that’s almost 17 hours of pure Manhunt, take into account all the waiting for games to populate, that’s an awful lot of time. The other multiplayer achievements are relatively easy to get unless you’re incredibly unlucky in drawing teams (or incredibly shit).


Ultimately BiB has a reasonably solid single player campaign and a story you’ll love if you played through CoJ, the multiplayer can be a frustrating experience, but it has the potential to be incredibly fun.

If you have the urge to play a Western-themed FPS BiB isn’t the worst choice you could go for.

And Buy yourself some nice guns, you don’t need the cash.

I’m freedoms_stain, and I’ve had enough of games without automatic weaponry, out.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

How Achievements Should Be

In my opinion the introduction of "Achievements" to this generation of gaming was a fantastic idea. I look at it like an extra layer of challenge, yeah sure, you beat the game, but look at all these OTHER challenges, can you do these? There's also the potential for added longevity and replay value for titles you may otherwise only bother playing once, so that's another string to the bow as far as I'm concerned.

Of course not all developers get it right when they dream up the Achievements for their games. Too many developers have failed to recognise when an achievement presents an actual challenge to the playerband leaves them with a sense of achievement when actually achieved versus boring grinders which don't present any real challenge and leave the player not with a sense of achievement, but rather a sense of having wasted a lot of time for meagre reward.

A few weeks ago I completed the 2008 installment of Prince of Persia with a full 1000 gamerscore (excluding dlc) a fair portion of the games achievements revolved around collection of an entity known Aeneas "light seeds". 541 light seeds are obtained in the normal course of the game, a maximum of 1001 are present in the game. The extraneous 460 light seeds are pure Achievement fodder, but they're not hard to find. Less than 10 of the 1001 seeds in the entire game presented me with any difficulty in collectingn So did I feel any great sense of achievement when the *plink* notification came up upon seed 1001. No, not really.

Collecting things for no purpose, particularly things which aren't even difficult to find do not make for challenging worthwhile achievements.
Give me something enjoyable to to, something clever and challenging that will enhance my disposition towards you, the development studio, rather than curse you for wasting my precious time, or even entertaining it.
Enter Valve.

Last Week me and my good friend Michael popped the achievement "Bridge Over Trebled Slaughter" in Left 4 Dead 2.
It was pretty awesome.

The requirement is for all (living) survivors to make it across the bridge finale to the rescue vehicle in less than 3 minutes.
It's a good achievement for several reasons, you're presented with a genuine challenge, something outwith the normal scope of the game that requires a bit of a game-changing strategy, normally we'd just proceed at a fairly leisurely pace, fighting our way through and covering each others ashes, but take away time and you've got a whole other dimension to the level.

It's fun! This took us 3 or 4 tries, to pop, there's a real sense of exhilaration as you blast down this one-way zombie track knowing full-well that every hit taken, every mis-timed jump has the potential to cost you the goal, and of course there's the special infected, all of whom have delaying abilities that threaten that 3 minute deadline.

This is also a cooperative achievement. I suppose it might be possible to solo it, but it's better as a two man job. If for nothing more than the fact that two mob-clearing pipe bombs are infinitely better than one.
If you're familiar with the game then you're probably aware that it's 4 player co-op - we had to execute the bots. Ellis, Rochelle, you are without a doubt the shittest characters in the L4D franchise. I was happy to do it.
Other game developers should take note. I want to see more achievements like this that make me think and make me work, and less of the time consuming collection irk.

I've been freedoms_stain, gamerscore where, out.