Monday, September 21, 2009

The Dark Is Where I Shine

The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena is a remake and expansion of 2004's well regarded The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay. If you've seen the movies Pitch Black or The Chronicles of Riddick you know that Vin Diesel's Richard. B Riddick is the galaxy's ultimate badass. He can see in the dark, he can take on anyone in hand to hand combat, and if he doesn't want to do that he'll simply sneak up on his enemies and break their necks. He has no remorse, no fear, and no one who can match his skills.

He is, however, as vulnerable to bullets as you or I.

Riddick excels when it tasks you with skulking around in the dark, taking out frightened enemies along the way before they know you're there. More than any other game I've played, I really felt like I was inhabiting the character and doing things just like he would in "real life." The lighting in the game is fantastic. Shadows are black as jet, lights flare when coming to a bright space, and entire spaces can be momentarily lit up by gun flashes. You always know when you're effectively hidden by the dark, even without the game artificially tinting the graphics blue to let you know that you're hidden. When sneaking up on an enemy from behind, once you're close enough to take them down Riddick's hand's raise in preparation for the kill. Initiating the kill causes Riddick to leap up and snap their neck. There are maybe one or two seconds of struggle from the victim, but it always ends with a sickening crunch and a limp body that you are able to drag into the darkness or leave as you see fit. Like any good stealth game, the tension of sneaking around and quietly dispatching foes is excellently done.

The game also features a fairly good melee combat system. Brass knuckles, shivs, scalpels, screwdrivers, and in Dark Athena, wicked looking blades called Ulaks all increase the damage you can do whilst fighting hand to hand. Different moves can be performed depending on the direction you're moving, and different animations play out depending on the weapon you're using. The impact of flesh on flesh are satisfying, and the sounds of sharp objects penetrating skin are cringe-inducing. Once you finally do enough damage to your opponent, a vicious animation plays out where Riddick painfully and permanently ends that person's life. It may be repeatedly smashing his knee into a person's face. Or it may be to shove a screwdriver through an exposed throat. Or he may just slice an opponent's neck open with the scalpel. The finishing moves are visceral and brutal.

In many parts of the game, Riddick is unable to carry firearms. When faced with an armed opponent, the best course of action is to sneak around and try to take them out from behind. The game doesn't always allow you to exercise this option though, in which case you must try to take down the enemy head on. Riddick dies quickly under sustained gun fire, so instead you must run at them headlong and start punching. The enemy will begin to melee you in an attempt to push you back, therefore giving him enough distance to start shooting. When he swings at you with his weapon, a well timed button press will cause Riddick to grab the gun in mid-swing, force it under the enemy's chin, and pull the trigger.Eventually, Riddick gains access to a tranquilizer gun which paralyzes them on the ground for several seconds. If you can get to them in time you can trigger a quick kill where Riddick will crush their skull under his heel.

It's safe to say that the non-interactive animations make up a big part of what makes the game satisfying. They are the rewards for all the skulking around, and effectively release the tension of stealth and melee combat.

The game fails pretty hard, though, when it decides to stick with gunplay exclusively. Enemies are frequently hard to see. While it's possible to shoot out the lights with the tranquilizer gun, many enemies are equipped with flashlights that can expose you from quite a long distance away. Stealth in these cases is not an option. A headshot is just as effective in this game as any other shooter, but it's nearly impossible to get a headshot on a moving target in this game. Enemies seem able to soak up a clip and a half of rounds to the chest area before going down, while Riddick can only take a few shots. I noticed in The Darkness, Starbreeze's other game, that the shooting mechanics seemed off as well, but the supernatural powers available to you in that game made up for it. For whatever reason, it seems difficult to put the aiming reticule precisely where you want it. Instead of feeling like a stealthy demon preying on victims in the dark, you feel like a big, slow, clumsy buffoon spraying bullets indiscriminately at enemies. Perhaps if I had played on PC this wouldn't have been an issue.Admittedly, I am also not the world's best shooter player. Nevertheless, shooting accurately in this game felt like a real struggle.

The Escape From Butcher Bay campaign constantly switches between stealth and gunplay, with a few mech sections thrown in to spice things up. I essentially found myself alternating between really enjoying and really hating the game, depending on what segment I was in. The first half of the Assault on Dark Athena campaign is almost exclusively stealth focused, or tuned in such a way that you can get the drop on several gun wielding enemies. There are a few exceptions, and the AI has a frustrating habit of cheating at times, but overall, the first half of Dark Athena is a stellar exercise in first person stealth culminating in a tense and exciting hand to hand boss fight. The second half is nothing but shoot shoot shoot, much of it in broad daylight, and ends with a gun battle against a fast moving mech thing that's more annoying than anything else. If you want the purest experience of what it's like to be Riddick, play the first half of Dark Athena. The second half, along with Butcher Bay, can safely be skipped.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

A Tale of Two Adventures

To start things off, I want to compare two older games I recently played: The Longest Journey and LOOM.

Both of these games are from the previously defunct but now resurrected point and click adventure genre. A player typically enters an environment, explores it to find objects and/or non-playable characters to interact with, and encounters some sort of puzzle that must be solved in order to progress to the next area or plot point to repeat the process.They also tend to focus heavily on dialogue, character, and plot.

Released in 1999, The Longest Journey was one of the last great adventure games released (with 2002's Syberia, perhaps, being the very last) before the genre's current revival. It centers around 18 year old April Ryan and her reluctant quest to save both her world, the science oriented Stark, and the magic filled Arcadia, from being destroyed by the forces of Chaos. Stark, as far as I can tell, is our world, just several hundred years in the future.

As the player solves puzzles and the plot progresses, April fulfills a few prophecies, reunites estranged races, and ends up cavorting with god-like dragons as she fights to restore balance to the two worlds. Before all that, and after a brief dream-like prologue, the game introduces us to April and her daily life. We meet her landlord, Fiona, and her partner Mickey. We also encounter her two closest friends. Emma is the hot friend who always ends up with the wrong guy. Charlie is the open minded but tragically friend-zoned companion she works with. There's the sleazy neighbor who just wants to get in April's pants and penny pinching boss who nevertheless cares for his employees. They're all painted with broad strokes, but they effectively convey April's little community and provide a human anchor for the epic events that follow.

As the game continued, I found myself hooked on finding out what the next fantastic environment would be. There's a huge variety of locales featured in the game, all beautifully rendered and in pseudo-3D. Despite that, though, whenever I was back in Stark I made it a point to try to find my friends in the game and see how they were doing and what they were up to. They tended to be my main motivation for continuing in the game.

This brings up my main point. In adventure games, I rarely enjoy the puzzle solving. What some see as the meat of the gameplay, I usually see as an irritating obstacle keeping me from finding out what happens next. I enjoy the stories and characters in adventure games more than anything else. While there is of course a certain satisfaction that comes from solving many of the puzzles, I very quickly lose patience when I get stuck on a particularly obtuse problem. Sometimes the leap in logic required is not at all what I'd consider logical. Other times, the environments conspire to make me miss a crucial item or object with which to interact. When I think back on an adventure game I played in the past, I remember two things: the writing and characters, and the puzzles I got stuck on. I may remember a puzzle's solution on a repeat playthrough, but I generally don't think about them afterward. When I'm gushing to someone about The Longest Journey, it's usually about the character of April Ryan or a particularly memorable event in the plot. Similarly, the things I remember about The Secret of Monkey Island are the great gags and jokes, and how I always seem to get stuck on the boat after getting off Melee Island.

Contrast this with LOOM, which features a more traditional fantasy world where you, as Bobbin Threadbare, learn to "weave" spells by playing musical notes with a distaff. Each spell consists of four notes, and some can be reversed to produce the opposite effect. For example, the Open spell also closes things when played in reverse.

Like all PC adventure games you click on the environment with the mouse to move around and select objects. To cast spells, though, you press the keyboard key corresponding to the note you wish to play. To turn straw into gold, press C, C, C, and E. This added an interesting tactile feel to all the puzzles. Clicking the mouse is something that long time computer users don't notice or acknowledge unless something goes wrong. Games like Diablo and Starcraft have taken clicking the mouse to almost absurd extremes, but it still requires little effort or thought to move the mouse button down a few millimeters. 

This more methodical, tactile approach reminded me of the first time I played the Wii or DS. The novelty of doing the same old thing in new ways makes quite an impression, even though that novelty wears off quickly. It seems like a silly thing to say; playing games on the computer of course requires the use of the keyboard. The WASD keys in shooters are such a standard that my fingers instinctively go to that position when I sit at my keyboard, and they're effectively invisible when I play those games. With LOOM, though, the gameplay is completely different, and perhaps because I have no musical skills in my body, entering each spell was a somewhat methodical act. The Open spell is used often so I memorized it quickly, but others required me to hunt them down in the manual where I wrote them down. Then it was a matter of pecking at each key to fire off the spell. Instead of just clicking through the puzzles, I actually felt like I was interacting with them. While I still got stuck a few times, I tended to look forward to the next time I could cast a spell and have it work.

I found out later that you can click on the notes displayed on the screen instead of pressing the keys, but I stuck with the latter. I suspect a more musically inclined person would have gone through the game quicker than I did. Indeed, there is a higher difficulty level where the notes are not displayed on screen and only by listening and knowing what each note is can you cast it. Something like that is only possible with this particular game, but it's a wonderfully unique way of adding challenge.

The makers of video game consoles have spent decades figuring out how to make good controllers, game developers have wrestled with creating the best control schemes for those controllers, and it's often said that the best games make you forget that you're holding a controller at all. The old keyboard and mouse, though, doesn't seem to get much attention. Barring flight sims and maybe racing games, it's just what you use on the PC. LOOM made me "see" the keyboard again, and it made the experience more enjoyable as a whole.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

A New Focus

For several months now, I really haven't had much to say here. While I've been playing plenty of games, I've had nothing in particular to contribute to the conversation around them, if one even exists. I don't have the liberal arts education or, it seems, frame of mind, to do in depth critiques like my favorite bloggers L.B. Jeffries, Michael Abbott, Leigh Alexander, Iroquois Pliskin, Corvus Elrod, and a host of others have learned to do so well.

So! What now? Well, I enjoyed writing my posts on difficulty in games. Why? Because I was able to figure out just why I enjoy Burnout Paradise so much. It was an interesting thought exercise for me, and it was satisfying to figure out something that is usually just a vague feeling in my mind when playing a game.

Most, though not all, of the gaming blogs I read have some sort of overarching theme or focus to their posts. Many authors have found a nice niche for themselves in examining games from a particular focus or viewpoint, and for a while I've felt like I needed the same thing in order to keep myself motivated to post and to connect posts together a little more coherently. Therefore, I will try to do the same thing I did with Burnout Paradise on a regular basis. Why is the game I just played fun? Why is it not? What is it that added to the experience, and what is it that detracted from it? I may not say anything new about a particular game, but I look forward to it as a good thought exercise for myself, if nothing else. So off we go! I hope some of you find this interesting, and maybe some people will comment with their thoughts on what they do or don't find fun about whatever game I'm rambling about.
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