Sunday, December 28, 2008

Difficulty Done Right - Part 1

I don't enjoy overly difficult games. Challenging games are fine, but it's a rare game that strikes the perfect balance between just tough enough and soul crushingly difficult. I don't usually play games on "Hard" or whatever the game calls it. I'm usually more interested in the narrative and experience of playing than I am in conquering whatever sadistic difficulty level the developers put in. I want to have fun! It's a highly subjective thing, of course, but I doubt I will ever play Ninja Gaiden 2 or Ikaruga for this reason.

While I generally play on the default difficulty in games, there have been a few exceptions. Before Halo 3 came out, I read that the Heroic difficulty was the way the game was "meant to be played." This piqued my curiosity for some reason, and I decided to start the game at that difficulty setting. I found it painfully frustrating, but I was able to push through. After completing the story, I went back on Normal difficulty to get a few skulls I missed, and was struck at how much easier the game was. The difficulty curve from Normal to Heroic is steep, and I think I would have enjoyed the game more the first time if I had played on Normal. Heroic was hard enough that when I pushed through a level or particularly difficult fight, I simply felt drained, rather than accomplished. I did eventually complete the game on Legendary, but that was with a group of four people in co-op, making the game ridiculously easy.

The Xbox 360's Achievements are what really inspired me to start playing games on harder difficulties in the first place. I picked up my 360 a month after it launched, and one of the games I got with it was Call of Duty 2. I played and finished it pretty quickly on the default difficulty, but my friend at work started on Veteran difficulty and got every achievement in the game. I felt I had to match his accomplishment, so I began a new game.

For those of you who haven't experienced it, Veteran difficulty in the Call of Duty games is one of the most punishing and soul-crushing experiences in modern gaming you can have. You only take one or two shots before dying (just like real life!), enemies instantly spot you and are 99% accurate, and their endlessly spawning waves mean you can't simply camp in one spot and clear out everyone in an area. You end up learning exactly where the spawn points and script triggers are because you hve to play each segment over and over and over. I've had Call of Duty 2 since December 2005, and I still haven't finished it on Veteran. My Achievement list for the game is a timeline chronicling the periods of my life where I felt the urge to wallow in misery. Some of the dates in the list are separated by more than a year.

Because of experiences like that, I usually sample a game's hardest difficulty level, but rarely complete it. Other games don't have a difficulty setting, but rather ramp up in difficulty as the game progresses. Burnout Paradise is one example of this.

Burnout Paradise presents you with an open city for you to explore, with various events at every stoplight. Completing these events unlocks new and better cars for you to use. There are traditional races, Burning Route events where you have to get from point A to point B in a certain amount of time, Stunt Runs, Marked Man events where you must get to the finish line while being pursued by opponents trying to take you down, and Road Rage events where you try to take out as many of your competitors as possible in the time allowed without taking too much damage yourself. In addition to that, each road in the game has a Road Rule time to beat getting from one end to the other, and a Showtime mode where you must flip your car down the road causing as much damage as possible.

In short, there is a ton of things to do in the game. If a particular event is giving you a headache, try destroying everything in your path in Showtime. If you lose a race, try linking together three barrel rolls, a 720 degree flat spin, and three seconds of air time in a Stunt Run. There is a certain way to enjoy the game, and whining about having to drive back to the start of each event is not it. The game reduces frustration by giving you an abundance of things to do. Of course, as you near the end of the game, you find less and less to do, but by that point you're generally good enough that the final few events aren't too much trouble. Also, all events can be accessed at any time, even if they no longer contribute towards your progression. Road Rage is a great way to decompress after work.

While each event type requires mastering a particular set of skills, the most important thing is to learn the layout of the city. Compared to the previous game in the series, Burnout Revenge, the AI is more forgiving. Most racing games quickly become utterly intolerant of mistakes as you progress. In Paradise, you can crash once, twice, sometimes even three times in a race and still end up winning. The reason is that having a completely open city allows you to find your own route. The game will give you a path to follow, and it's the path that your opponents will take, but it's rarely the fastest or the best path to take. The biggest reward in the game is learning where the shortcuts, hidden jumps, and best paths are throughout the city. Since all events end at one of eight locations, you learn fairly quickly the main thruways of the game. The other necessary skills like learning how to handle each car and how to pull off the various tricks don't matter if you don't know the best path in which to use those skills.

Since learning the city is the key to winning the events, doing well in the game is much more on the player's shoulders than other games. It still relies on quick reflexes, and the regular traffic in the streets adds a bit of luck to everything you do. On the whole, though, balancing the use of boost and knowing when a turn and/or shortcut is coming up is the most important skill to have.

I think this is part of why I enjoyed Burnout Paradise so much. Unlike Revenge's brutal difficulty late in the game or Call of Duty's Veteran mode, I actually felt like I had a chance at doing well at the higher difficulty levels. The game challenged me and encouraged me to do well, instead of kicking me in the face repeatedly when I did poorly. If I can just make that turn and nail that jump this time, I know I'll come out ahead this time. Like I said before, the sheer amount of things to do means it's hard to be frustrated for long. It may be the only game that I've gotten 100% completion in, and it's in large part because the game made me feel like I could actually do so.

While writing this, Michael Abbott put a post up about Prince of Persia that dovetails nicely with this subject. In my next post, I'll give some thoughts about that game, and also talk about the game that I think has perfectly nailed the idea of multiple difficulties in games.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Sony Impressions

I picked up a PS3 a few weeks ago. The number of exclusive games for the system currently and soon-to-be available finally pushed me to pool my resources and complete my current generation console collection. Last weekend I also scored a Playstation Portable from the random gift draw at my company holiday party. That, plus the consoles and my Nintendo DS, means that I have fully joined the current gen videogame club.

(I'm going to ignore the iPhone for now until a truly amazing game comes out for it.)

I'll say it right now: the PS3 is an intimidating console. Physically, it's an almost ridiculously large piece of metal and plastic. It seems to almost dominate my entire entertainment setup. It's dark, shiny monolith makes the Wii look utterly pathetic in comparison.

Even the interface conspires to make me feel like I've entered a club that nobody invited me to. The XMB is as black as the hardware that houses it. The number of options underneath each category, especially under the settings section, is dizzying. While I'm sure I'll get used to it, moving around seems to generally take a few too many button presses.

I downloaded Home and briefly played around with it. Going from the dark XMB to the bright white initial Home screen was jarring, and made me think that Home is even more cynical an attempt to reach the Wii crowd than the 360's Avatars. It even features the silly "soothing" music that the Avatar editor has, and that both are again imitating from the Wii.

The controller itself is a mixed bag. Like the PS2 controller, the DualShock 3 feels too small and light in my hands. The d-pad and shoulder buttons are much much better than those on the 360 controller. Seriously, Microsoft. Just license the d-pad patents from Nintendo and Sony. It's worth it. Wireless is of course nice, and even better is not having to buy batteries or rechargable battery packs to keep the juice flowing.

Trophies and the online community integration are pale shadows of Microsoft's offerings, of course. No surprises there.

Of course, games are why we buy consoles. I picked up LittleBigPlanet with the console, and when I got home I immediately downloaded Super Stardust HD, Echochrome, Everyday Shooter, PixelJunk Eden, and Linger in Shadows.

LittleBigPlanet, unfortunately, has been disappointing. In Super Mario Galaxy, I pretty much always know how high, how far, and how fast Mario will jump at any particular time. In LBP, there doesn't seem to be any rhyme or reason to how Sackboy will behave at any particular time. He builds up momentum incredibly quickly, so sometimes it'll seem like I'll make a jump, only to slide right off the other side of a platform. Sometimes I'll hit the jump button and he simply refuses to do anything. Moving objects are particularly frustrating, as often times Sackboy will land cleanly but then slip off, often to his firey or watery doom. It can also be hard to tell when you need to move forward or backward in order to catch a ramp or other object. I think it's great that Media Molecule have made such a full featured level editor, but the underlying game just doesn't seem to completely work as a platformer.

I've only played Super Stardust HD once so far. The graphics are great, and the various weapons and enemies are fun. However, I found my thumbs constantly slipping off the sticks during the frantic movement and shooting. I think most of that comes from not being used the controller, and trying to cope with its small size.

Echochrome is an interesting case. Having levels based on M.C. Escher drawings is a neat idea, but the graphics are so sparse, and the music so conducive to drowsiness, that the only real stimulation the game offers is the puzzle solving itself. While the 5 laws the game revolves around are interesting, they don't carry the game enough for me. The harder levels just require more convoluted combinations of the 5 laws. The game reminded me of reading a college textbook: an overall dry experience.

I really like Everyday Shooter, even though I'm really bad at it so far. It's mostly the music. It's catchy and memorable, like Geometry Wars' music. I've managed to get to the third level after half a dozen tries, but I'm not giving up yet. Figuring out how to chain points in each level adds a nice bit of puzzle solving to the initial playthroughs of each level.

PixelJunk Eden is as good, and frustrating, as I've read. I love the art, flinging around each garden is soothing, and it's also likely to induce streams of profanity when I tumble all. The way. Down. I haven't gotten out of the first garden yet, but my only complaint so far is that it seems a bit repetitive. Get one spectra, then two, then three, and so on. Maybe that changes in later gardens.

Linger in Shadows was pretty interesting, though it left me confused and slightly depressed each time I played. I feel like it stopped rather suddenly, and I wish I knew what happens next. Perhaps there's some hidden method of unlocking more content? The color palette, the look of the strange flying robot, and the flowing blackness reminded me very strongly of Shadow of the Colossus, which is no bad thing. Even though it's just supposed to be an interactive art piece, it made me wish it was a full game.

Overall I'm happy with my purchase. I think I'll be picking up Uncharted: Drake's Fortune next. It's supposed to be one of the best games on the PS3, so hopefully it's worth the purchase.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

(Re)Discovering the Joy

When the shape of this holiday season's videogame release schedule began to come into focus a few months ago, I promised myself that I wasn't going to obsessively get every single game. For one thing, my wallet simply couldn't handle the vast flood of games coming out. More importantly though, I was trying to keep from rushing from game to game. I wanted to take my time and not feel pressured to play every game the instant it's out.

To some degree, I succeeded. I didn't get Gears of War 2. I decided to hold off on Fable 2. I asked for Prince of Persia and Tomb Raider Underworld for Christmas. At the time, I didn't have a PS3 (by the way, I have a PS3 now!) so I wasn't factoring in those games. I also wasn't really paying attention to my Wii, so I ignored any games that were out or coming out for it.

I ended up getting Rock Band 2, Too Human, Silent Hill Homecoming, Fallout 3, Left 4 Dead, Mirror's Edge, and Dead Space. I also played Sam and Max Season One on the Wii. The first three were a bit spaced out over time, but the last four hit within days of each other. I played pretty much non-stop, and Fallout 3 took up a massive number of hours in particular. A couple weeks ago I finished slogging through Dead Space and was feeling pretty burned out on videogames in general. Except for Dead Space, I loved all of those games. But the tsunami of new releases still left me tired and not particularly inclined to pick up a controller any time soon.

After several days of binging on The Office and generally forgetting that my Xbox 360 played games, I began eyeing my stack of unplayed games. The chance to catch up on those older games and the fact that they weren't the latest hot thing appealed to me greatly. After narrowing my choices down to Super Mario Galaxy, Final Fantasy XII, and restarting Wind Waker, I held an epic Twitter and IRC chat election in which Mario emerged victorious.

I'm so glad he did, too.

Back in the summer when I bought the game, I played the first few levels then got distracted by other games and didn't touch it again. Now, I'm playing through with a vengeance. I'm 40 stars in and just rescued Luigi from the haunted mansion. The exuberantly bright colors are a relief after the next-gen browns and greys of Fallout 3 and Silent Hill. Problably more than many gamers, I need a story to really motivate me to play most games. Galaxy's plot, while threadbare, has just enough meat on its bones to keep me motivated to play its levels repeatedly to get all the stars. Princess Rosalina is a pleasingly mysterious figure who I'm curious to learn more about. So far I'm frankly stunned at the amount of creativity that has gone into each of the levels. Not once have I encountered a galaxy or planet and thought that it was just a rehash of a previous one. I feel like every pixel of the game is made to bring joy into its players' lives.

While getting reaquainted with my Wii, I also saw that I had some spare Wii points available. After poking around the WiiWare selection, I decided to finally give World of Goo a try. Michael Abbott's posts in October really piqued my interest and convinced me to get the Wii version. The first time I played it was when my sister and brother in law were over visiting. I was once again stunned at how amazing and purely FUN the game was. I love the music and desperately wish there was a soundtrack available. The art is unique to any game I've played before and solving the puzzles is incredibly satisfying to me.

Since my sister was over, we brought out the extra controller and played cooperatively together, with her husband providing backup. Playing local co-op in games isn't something I'm used to. Since I didn't grow up with consoles, I'm used to either playing by myself or hopping online to play something cooperatively. Playing together with my sister, working out the puzzles together, grabbing a goo ball when the other drops it, and arguing over the best course of action has made the game far more fun than it ever would have been if I had just tried it myself. Some of the more difficult puzzles were made much more bearable by the presence of another person to share the frustration. It's a new experience for me. Even when playing Rock Band with friends and family, I didn't feel the same sense of shared enthusiasm for doing well together. After they left I played a few more levels by myself, but it just wasn't the same. Now I only play when they're over. For me, it's simply the way the game is supposed to be played.

These games have been great palate cleansers after the flood of high profile games. They've reminded me that I still primarily play games for fun and brought the joy of picking up the controller back. The added baggage of deep, complicated stories, hyper-competitive multiplayer, and furthering the graphics race has been stripped away to a simple set of rules that are used in a multitude of unique and creative ways. It's nice to get back to basics.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Should Games Have Content Filters?

I never got around to posting it here, but I got a position writing at Hardcore Christian Gamer, aka HCG. It's a volunteer thing, of course. It's Yet Another Games site, of which there are hundreds or thousands on the Internet, so it's not like anyone is getting paid to write for them. The community is growing though, and I enjoy doing it during my free time at work. It gives me a way to work on my writing skills and learn how to write for a specific audience. I write the occasional review, and post news up throughout the day.

My evangelical Christian days are behind me, for the most part, but I'm still sympathetic, I suppose. The range of beliefs among the community is pretty wide, and some of the discussions on Christianity get pretty heated. One topic that comes up fairly often is whether or not a particular game has language and gore filters on it. The Gears of War games have these filters in them. Gore is changed to bright sparks. The language filter apparently only blanks out the f-bomb, which disappoints many in the HCG forums. I've heard that Call of Duty: World at War also has some sort of filter. Some won't even play games like Guitar Hero or Rock Band because of some of the lyrical content in the songs. Others can tolerate most bad language, but get upset when a character takes the Lord's name in vain.

My first reaction to questions about filters in these games was, "Isn't the gore and language part of the point of these games?" Taking them out leads to an experience as watered down as an R rated movie shown on network TV, or a vulgar rock song played over the radio. The tune is there, and so are most of the lyrics, but it loses its impact.

This of course brings up other questions like, should there even be such a thing as "bad" words? Or, why is the violence okay but the language not? I occasionally see someone start a thread on other forums asking about content filters in games, and the responses are usually something like, "Go play crappy movie games if you don't like language." People looking for the fun of a certain game without the more questionable content are generally dismissed without a second thought.

I think, however, that if we ignore those questions and take the desire for tamer content at face value, it brings up some interesting issues. The gameplay and story are almost always mutually exclusive in your typical triple-A game. The parkouring gameplay of Mirror's Edge could as easily have been featured in some kind of extreme sports game instead of the dystopian future it actually contained. The cover based, psuedo-platforming, shooting gameplay Gears of War could easily have been set in some sort of benign lasertag game. The underlying gameplay, and whether it's fun or not, is what keeps people playing. The gritty settings and characters of Gears of War are just an aesthetic choice by the developers.

Since videogames, in my mind, are more deliberately constructed than a song or a movie, I think they are more able to feature customized content. Like Gears of War, a game can be programmed to show either sprays of blood or sprays of bright sparks. A more text based game can feature alternate passages of text that don't feature the profanity that offends some people. It presents more of a problem for a game featuring full voice acting since it would be expensive to record to versions of dialogue for a significant portion of the script, but it's still doable. A movie on TV may feature jarring blanks in dialogue or, even worse, bad overdubs to add in a more "appropriate" word. A game just has to have a bit of code to swap in a particular piece of content depending on what the user chose. The RTS Company of Heroes apparently is an extremely fun game (I haven't played it myself) and can even be used to teach about WWII, but the language and gore in the game makes it something you may not want to expose your fifth grader to. The ability to turn that content off wouldn't take away from the gameplay or setting.

If these sorts of things can be added in, then a developer has broadened the audience for its game just that little bit more. It's impossible to please everyone, of course (Just the other day on the HCG forums, a mother was fretting over the presence of cheerleaders in the DS version of Madden 2009. Yes, the DS version.), but I don't think there's a good reason to simply ignore the sizeable population of people who would appreciate that sort of feature.

Incidentally, I also wish that some games were more liberal about the content they allowed. I've often wished that Harmonix would release a version of Rock Band that didn't censor the lyrics of the songs. Alanis Morrisette's You Outta Know loses some of its punch when the line is changed to "...and are you thinking of me when youuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuher?" Let people have a choice, either way.

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