Dragon’s Dogma, Dark Arisen (PS3) – A Bright Spot for Capcom

I’ve written some things about Capcom’s inability to continue the development of its major franchises. At the same time, newer series the company has created constantly appear to be  foundering (is this a screaming endorsement or what?). I’m wondering if it all comes down to development resources, particularly that we’re now in the era of the quarter-billion dollar game. Whatever the reason for Capcom’s woes, Dragon’s Dogma represents another major launch of an original title.

First off, I want to couch any positive review with some warnings that there are some huge problems with Dragon’s Dogma. Surprisingly, they don’t detract from the parts of the game that actually work well, but given the huge amounts of investment that must have been involved in the development, the number and magnitude of flaws is downright perplexing. The long and short of it is that the combat system is very good, but pretty much everything else is bad (or worse). Given that this is a PS-Plus free download for the month of November (complete with “Dark Arisen” DLC pack), I’m assuming Capcom wants to take the risk that more people playing Dragon’s Dogma will allow enough critical mass support to go forward and develop a sequel. Given the raw materials are here for a good game, I’d like to see that.

Look and Feel

Dragon’s Dogma is obviously cast in the mold of Bioware’s 2009 release, Dragon Age: Origins. The comparisons, like similar loading screens, equipment menu layouts, menu selection sound effects, and the entirely-expressionless protagonist, are simply too numerous for it to be anything other than a coincidence. Dragon Age did some things really well, but ultimately I didn’t like the combat system that much and thought it felt flat. The free-roaming world has lush colors and wilderness detail, although it’s not up to the level of Skyrim.

The story and characters are certifiably terrible. Basically at the beginning of the game a big dragon shows up and attacks your village. In the ensuing battle your heart is stolen, but you miraculously survive. Despite the complete lack of emotion expressed by the main character, and the minimal concern that this has happened among your friends and fellow townsfolk, you’re supposed to pick up that your main purpose now is to enact revenge on the dragon. This theme would better be hashed out if your character wasn’t completely mute like a 90’s Squaresoft game though. The main character thus becomes, the “Arisen,” one of many in a cycle of recurring villains and heroes that reappear to threaten, and then respectively save the world. I’m not through the story completely yet, but that’s pretty much it. Story quests do little in answering questions as to why the world is the way it is, or what factions are at play. It’s a far-cry from the narrative conflict between the Stormcloaks and Imperials in Bethesda’s Skyrim, or the million and one ethical dilemmas of Dragon Age. There is no other backstory or pathos. There are no mythology books to pour over, nor a guide giving you any more than the meager bits of story incompetently fed to you by NPCs. Major love interests can be ignored entirely (I wouldn’t even know they existed if it wasn’t for online walkthroughs). To make matters worse, the rest of your party consists of literally soulless beings who offer combat advice, but no narrative content.

With the sheer amount of effort that went into creating a very lush adventure sandbox, and then how that effort was entirely wasted on the complete lack of interesting content. Most side-quests take the form of reading a bulletin board, which generally asks you to kill a certain amount of enemies. Well, you were probably going to do this anyways, as the encounters aren’t randomized and you’re forced to do a lot of walking. There is a fast travel system that is a not explained that well and a little frustrating (although from what I’ve read online, it was improved significantly through patches and upgrades). These aren’t really quests though. NPC quests on the other hand are poorly designed. More often than not, the solution to finding where a certain item is, or where a certain person is hiding comes down to dumb luck. Because there aren’t usually any usable clues on where to proceed next, progressing in a quest usually occurs by finding a random person with a blinking icon over their head. Why would some random guy in the market know what’s going on the castle? The clues don’t even logically follow each other. The “detective” or deductive reasoning aspects are thus reduced to just tedious time-wasters. Another dumb decision is the extreme number of doors you can’t enter. I get it, you didn’t want to have to put stuff in 500 houses. I’m cool with that. But when you go to one of these doors and try to open it, the message often reads “The door is closed.” Yeah, obviously it’s closed, now tell me why I can’t go in. What it should say is that you can’t enter. It’s a pain trying to figure out which ones you CAN actually enter, because that’s seemingly random. Outside combat, music is uninspiring. 

Another big NES-style boner comes from the beautiful, yet constant and frustrating progression between night and day (this could arguably be a criticism of real life if you think about it). This is a classic criticism 1987 game Castlevania II, Simon’s Quest. With 25 years, Capcom definitely had fair warning here. Night and day are a cool concept, and the difference in Dragon’s Dogma between the two is not insignificant. Monsters are usually more powerful at night, and certain NPCs, flora, and fauna will manifest itself at certain times. Also, it’s dark at night, and having a lantern with you is not an adequate substitute for natural daylight. Alright, so this is maybe like those old Ultima games, or like Skyrim or something. Sure. The big difference is that there is no option to wait, or camp until morning, other than going to an inn. There aren’t a lot of inns though, so you’re basically stuck waiting until it’s morning again. Please, Ultima figured out how to avoid this in the 80’s. Obvious fixes other than an option to camp; make the nights shorter, or make then less frequent.

One standout area for Dragon’s Dogma, however, is the character creation system. There is no choosing alternate races, but the choices you’re given are maybe more substantive, as there is some impact on how you perform in combat and what you can carry.

Combat

Dragon’s Dogma’s combat innovations dwarf it’s other flaws. In particular, the combat takes oft-repeated premises and recasts them into a more coherent form. In particular, for a third-person action-style RPG, Dragon’s Dogma has strategic elements that make the standard fighter, rogue, mage dynamic more interesting. Each class doesn’t just have different skills, the upgrade systems impact other aspects of mobility and durability. Getting ambushed in a canyon or having the high ground can be huge disadvantages or advantages respectively. Flanking makes sense and works well, which adds a layer of validity to the genre a lot of other games don’t have. It’s an RPG, but less reliant on using stats and numbers and replacing it with more free-form control.

One aspect that heightens this experience relates to the fact that each enemy you face has a high degree of interaction with your party. This isn’t just stun, but also how groups of enemies function together. For example, one aspect of having a fighter as a pawn is allowing it to grab and pin smaller enemies down in a hold. Airborn enemies are required to be shot out of the sky. In other words, rather than just having stats, a mage, fighter, or rogue all fundamentally offer different playing experiences.

I really like that Dragon’s Dogma took the approach that it wanted fewer enemies, with a very rich interaction possible, rather than having too many enemies. I’d like to see more enemies, but the content that is in here is rich. The contributions of the AI, or “pawn” party members also makes this memorable. The team members don’t just use enemy knowledge in combat to attack, they offer advice and observations to the main character as aid. It feels like real teamwork.

Probably the best thing about combat in Dragon’s Dogma though is the “bigness.” Dragon’s Dogma creates encounters with massive monsters that are exciting, but also unscripted. Action games frequently restrict gargantuan battles to being overly scripted and rote. The best example of this is the gold-standard in mythological brutality, God of War. Awesome acrobatic feats are reduced to cinematic gloss and memorized button combinations. Dragon’s Dogma lets you mount an Ogre or Cyclops and cling onto the arms while slicing it with a dagger. Attacking the weapon arm of a Cyclops can knock the club out of its hand, and, naturally, the snake tale of a Chimera can be severed, thus preventing it from poisoning the party. Hit the weak points, or, more importantly, don’t. You don’t really have to in order to win. There isn’t a single-way to beat theses enemies, just options. This freedom is what separates the large, boss-style encounters from other games. Again, this only can be supported by having great interactivity programmed. Critically, the combat experience is more satisfying when a huge monster isn’t just beaten, but is slowly worn down and weakened over the course of a long battle with a prepared party. 

The most unfortunate aspect about this is that the actual genius of the combat system isn’t revealed until you’re several hours into the endeavor. The combat in Dragon’s Dogma feels quite lame until you make it to Gran Soren, a key story location. After this though, the difficulty is raised significantly. If there were a point where I was ready to give up, it was right here.

Forced Sharing in an Online World

So many games have tried to take the MMORPG format and cast it back into a single-player format. I think the most notable of these is Final Fantasy XII, in which you took the drivers seat in creating an automated party based on a series of simple programming commands. Although FFXII worked well on paper, the system was too complex and ultimately frustrating to tweak. Dragon’s Dogma on the other hand has this aspect figured out pretty well.

Your own “pawn” serves as a customization member of your party. You can upgrade his skills and equipment accordingly. But you’re aided with two other random pawns as well. This is a novel approach, and I think it adds something unique and refreshing to the gameplay. Because two of the four “pawns” in your party aren’t your own, they is necessarily some forced interaction with the other Dragon’s Dogma community. You can either fill the remaining two slots with pawns you encounter in game, or enter an area known as the rift and use a more refined search technique. These pawns won’t level with you; they’ve been leveled and sculpted by other players.

The process is managed by restricting the level to which you can recruit certain pawns, making a rotation of supporting cast members necessary as you level and progress. It also creates party flexibility without having to start from scratch. A system is in place to force players to leave comments and rank pawns accordingly after they leave your party. I find this to be a perfect element of online gameplay.

Final Thoughts

A tutorial, particularly showing you some of the nuanced aspects of the game, like the NPC “affinity” system, or better battle guidance for beginners would be obvious improvements. But Dragon’s Dogma has the guts to be a winner. Now if only Capcom could hire some writers.

GTAV(PS3): Spirit of San Andreas Alive and Well

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First Impressions

I’m unlikely to find a spare week lying around anytime soon, but I managed to get in on the launch here and play GTAV for a few hours. GTAV is already getting strong reviews on MetaCritic, but considering the breadth of the endeavor, there is a risk that preliminary reviews might be a little misleading. I’ll try and give my thoughts as they develop.

First off; great work by the Rockstar folks. GTAV looks to be the real deal. The game functionally looks like a heavily updated GTAIV, but feels like the spiritual successor to GTA:San Andreas. By that, I mean the RPG-style elements of play and crazy emphasis on customization have been reintroduced. Driving, shooting, and strength stats have been added for each of the three playable characters, and all are increased through player utilization. Customization doesn’t just extend to cars and clothes, but also to weapons. There also seems to be the return of endless mini-games and odd-job type ways of making money, in addition to completing missions. This is on top of the GTAIV “hang-out” features. Finally, the internet is back, but this time it’s accessible on the go through the character’s phone.

Other common sense updates have been made. Returning home to save is no longer required; outside of a mission you can do a quick-save on your smart phone. Also, as predicted, health below 50% now replenishes over time. There is less invasive auto-aim system now, and shooting mechanics make action scenes feel like an actual game. The “Wanted Level” system has again been modified, this time relying on line-of-sight as a prerequisite for escape, as opposed to just outrunning a radius. Action cut-scenes also have an actual score, in addition to the ridiculous amount of traditional radio station content. All these are really good tweaks.

In a nutshell, everything from prior GTA games is here, but then was multiplied again by 100. It’s really amazing. It’s also what the company promised to deliver. But more volume of content isn’t the only way replay value has been upped. Completing missions now gives the player a rating, and reveals additional bonus objectives at the end. Why this is significant is because there is FINALLY the option of replaying missions. GTAV does everything the other games did well (great characters, story, expansive content; extreme player freedom), but also focuses on the aspects that rewards skill and higher levels of play. No doubt the deficiency in requiring players to have a lot of skill was identified as a problem for a company that wants to base a significant part of this franchise’s future on multiplayer online content.

Other Neat Stuff

GTAV is a serious multimedia effort. In game content can be added or unlocked by downloading the “iFruit” smart phone app on an actual phone. There are also invitations for players to join the Rockstar Social Club to continue modifying endeavors. Finally, the connection to the wired world appears to be pervasive in the story mode; go to an Ammu-Nation and there is an option to go to the PlayStation Store. Although as of this morning there was nothing in there, I am excited that there will be some great updates down the road (although I’m also a little fearful Rockstar will introduce some “free-to-play” dynamics in).

And of course the strip club is back. Interacting with strippers can be increased by flirting, adding a challenge element to the outing (try your luck too hard and you’ll get booted out by the bouncer).

Problems

I’d be hard-pressed to find any real problems with this game, but I have noticed the PS3 really seems to be stressed running it. The optical disc is constantly being read and it’s loud. Some menu inputs also look a little sluggish. I’m wondering if it runs better on the XBox360. This is in addition to a solid 30 minute installation that takes up 8gb of HDD space. Given the amount of content, I wouldn’t be surprised if this is the best expression of the limits to the current console generation.

Finally, the additional features added to both car and on-foot mechanics are a little overwhelming. In either case, the D-Pad is used to add a whole bunch of actions that are introduced gradually during the story missions. The tutorial isn’t overly paternalistic, and clearly a significant part of the story is going to be dedicated to getting all the basics down. But now there are a ton of additional options. Guns can be equipped with flashlights which have to be turned on and off, stealth elements have been brought back (arguably a little clunky), and there a whole bunch of new things to do in cars like lower the top or flip on the lights. These are all welcome elements, but at the same time there doesn’t appear to be a logical road map as to how to do some of these things with the controls. I just know I’m going to forget how to do something on the D-Pad at some point with the way it’s laid out.

All in all, my first impressions are that Rockstar has delivered even more than it promised to.

MegaMan Unlimited – Attack of the Clones

Megaman UnlimitedThis post is related to another one I’m writing on what this fan project means for Capcom. I HOPE to finish both around the same time, but bear with me in the event I don’t. Notwithstanding all the issues that come along with a fan made game, namely that they typically will be subject to take down notices for copyright infringement, MegaMan Unlimited is very good.

From what I’ve been picking up from the website of the creator, and random Google searches over the last few years, this was a 5 year project that came from the mind of one guy, who with the help of a group of programmers working for free made a classic Mega Man sequel. It does not appear to be sanctioned by Capcom, and I’m utterly confounded as to how it wasn’t blocked from release through the use of legal action. This game is free to download and has been reviewed by Screw Attack, Geek Insider, Destructoid, and others. It’s as legit a fan project as could be made. If you want like these old NES games and want a fun, challenging experience, download this before it’s taken off the net.

Design

The level design, menu layout, cut scenes, and character design are surprisingly on point with the classic NES feel the game is trying to ape. Backgrounds and menus are generally colorful and animated. Primary colors that pop with bright animations are standard. In sum, it’s fun to look at, as it should be. There is even a hidden bonus stage that definitely ups the challenge even more.

Boss Selection with Bright Colors

Boss Selection with Bright Colors

Some flaws are present though. A careful eye will pick up that certain designs are not as expertly polished. One is the use of a “blurring” effect for certain boss animations that I certainly can’t remember from any Mega Man games on NES. The idea is that the original animation frames didn’t look good for slower, so a blurred frame which merges the animations together between the two was introduced. A sneaky and creative workaround, but also not standard. Capcom would have probably just figured out a way to do it with two frames correctly.

Some of the cut scenes and post-level weapon screens also have  some expressions on character faces that don’t seem to be consistent with other games either. Capcom wrote itself into a wall with the original franchise. The games had deliberately campy stories, and enemies were menacing and goofy in a style that only anime can be used to convey. So it was difficult to have things like character development, or to treat the games as anything other than episodic. This manifestation tries to add a hard core edge to the series that was never there, and in fact seemed to be intentionally designated for the X-series of games.

Music is also another story.  Most of the tracks fail to stand out, and a few are just annoying.  It’s not easy composing with such a limited number of tools, and the music has the feel of a classic NES game, it just doesn’t give a high level of energy into the endeavor.

Opening Cut Scene

Opening Cut Scene

But overall, it’s an A- clone that could easily pass as a real Mega Man sequel.

Gameplay

The gameplay is supposed to be intentionally derivative here.  It’s in the mold of a the classic Mega Man 3 format, the inability to charge up, but the preservation of the slide. Without an explicit NES emulator, the program works exactly in terms of timing and character abilities as a traditional Mega Man game.  Controls are crisp, although I’d recommend the use of a controller for ergonomics over a keyboard. Keeping the original specs as far as movement is an important element, but another is the supporting cast of characters, which are carefully designed to not be do overs of other Mega Man characters, but are totally new to fit the new stage themes.

And the new stage themes all feature some unique feature that mixes up the game play.  The Rainbow Man stage features the instant-kill beams from Mega Man 2’s Quick Man stage, but couples this with little geometry puzzles.  The Jet Man stage introduces movable treadmill platforms.  Glue Man’s stage features sticky surfaces that restrict mobility. These concepts are also combined with some recycling though, such as the use of the outer-space gravity jump originally seen in Mega Man 5 (which is really the same as the underwater jump if you think about it), and the reverse-gravity flip (again seen in Mega Man 5 initially).

What you’ll read in the other reviews is that Unlimited is quite difficult. It is, and at times it seems unfair. It’s fair to say it is harder than any of the actual original games on NES. That being said, the level design is deliberately challenging, but not impossible. Most of this doesn’t have to do with individual traps, but rather the number of traps. The stages tend to be about 30-50% longer than in the original games. Although that doesn’t seem like that much, it’s just enough to set it apart from the originals.

Another notable change is the timing needed. Tolerances are a little tighter here, and when you need to slide, the game makes sure you know it. Generally you’ll need to be a little quicker than some of the original games. With that being said, the slide was never that well integrated into the actual Mega Man games it was initially featured in. It just seemed like something that was thrown in. Here it is expressly needed in certain circumstances though, namely in boss fights.

One point I’d like to make though is that the difficulty is well-managed and very deliberate. Although there are traps that seem a little sadistic at first, there is always a correct way to get around an obstacle, and possibly a few with the use of special weapons. This isn’t the case where it wasn’t tested or was just thrown together. It was engineered. The special weapons range from rather limited in use, to very powerful, including one that gives both mobility and invincibility (which is definitely not standard). Part of the brutal difficulty is also mitigated by allowing carryover of lives and E-Tanks by allowing access to a shop.

Conclusion

Ultimately, as I explain in the companion post, Capcom should not have allowed this game to be made and distributed. It will be taken down at some point. Still, it’s interesting to see what a group of motivated fans with programming skills can do these days. It’s 95% as good as the real thing. In the meantime, if you have a cheap Logitech gamepad for PC and an interest in dusting off your rusty thumbs and testing your Mega-ing skills, download Mega Man Unlimited before it’s too late.

Civ 5: Brave New World

Brave New World Title

It’s a brave new world (but not for the Civilization franchise)!

Civ has always interested me because it’s such an anomaly.  I can’t think of any other series of games that is utterly disinterested in trying to do what everyone else is .  It’s refreshing in some ways, and maddeningly frustrating in others.  Civ V,and it’s recent expansion pack, Brave New World, continue the franchise’s weird Galapagos-esque evolution.  Although Civ V seems to be the best Civ yet, it also carries a legacy of problems along with it that aren’t addressed and haven’t been for over a decade.  That being said, a review of Civ V could easily double as a review of Civ 4 or Civ 3.  Strong points are consistently challenging and nuanced gameplay.

Graphics/Presentation

Civ V generally looks pretty good.  It also definitely doesn’t look great.  I would say the world map looks essentially the same as in Civilization 4, but unit animations have been cleaned up.  This is especially noticeable in combat.  The actual city centers feature all the buildings constructed, and on the borders wonders and other improvements.  Unfortunately, the rest of the map looks bare.  Without towns, or suburbs, the maps frequently look like the Midwest.  Maybe there needs to be a mall or subdivision improvement available in the modern era to fill in some of that farmland.

Some other fit and finish isn’t there.  Loading the game initially seems to take forever, and the load screen features a static picture, whereas in most games a slideshoe of several stock photos would be rotated in and out.  Fonts and menus are themed in an Art Deco type font that just seems out of place.  This isn’t BioShock and the styling choice doesn’t make any sense in the context.  Menus and option screens are often filled with an incoherent layout.  In some instances, such as conducting World Congress votes or founding a religion I was confused as to what I needed to do to select an option.  Menu location itself is somewhat haphazard.

The music isn’t bad, but is consistently underwhelming.  The one exception here is the title screen which gives some gravity to the game.  Because the pace of a Civ match is so plodding, it would really be a good idea for Firaxis to invest in some composition to increase the tempo.

The interaction with other civilization leaders has always been fun, and it still is in Civ 5, where the animated cultural avatars speak their native language and act with passion.  It functions largely the same as in Civ III or Civ IV.

Gameplay

What’s missing in Civ V is a lack of true innovation; the game suffers from exactly the same limitations as all of its prior installments.

Most critically, in order to make this game better, the turn-based system needs to be discarded in favor of something more responsive.  It’s made the franchise unwieldy and just isn’t defensible anymore.  Even under the fastest game settings, a single match takes 4 or 5 hours to complete.  It simply doesn’t work as something accessible to most players.  Turns move quickly at the start of the game due to the fact that most of the players don’t have much that can be done.  But the amount of decisions and actions that need to be made later in the game quickly becomes overwhelming.  Wars take a huge time investment because each unit needs to be moved one by one, and both sides need to move their units during their own specific turns.  This is also coupled with the fact that the computer will frequently gang up on you if you’re military is seen as weak.  The amount of time it takes to play spirals out of control, even on the accelerated settings.

The turns don’t even make sense.  It takes 50 years for a worker to walk 10 miles east of a city?  Another 50 years to build a farm?  A good fix might be to make the maps twice as big and let the worker move twice.  When at war, the middling pace of the game, and moving each soldier one tile at a time to advance in a line is excruciating.

I have never been into hardcore multiplayer games, but from experience, most matches take 20-40 minutes to play.  It’s such a massive deviation from the norm here, and it’s the same with Civ III and IV.  Civ 5 is too time consuming as a single player game, nevermind multiplayer.  I’m apparently not alone in being intimidated by an extended match online.  Note how the Steam post also mentions that there are not really any significant numbers of public matches at any given time.  If online is the future, not achieving a baseline critical mass means failure.

Other features of Civ V seem arbitrary.  The costs of connecting cities with roads is prohibitively expensive now.  That seems counter intuitive.  The game also for some reason doesn’t feature any type of upgrade for paving or constructing highways, which makes modern era cities look out of place when connected to each other with dirt roads.  The tech tree itself seems more nonsensical than ever.

The “happiness” metric is also problematic.  Happiness is necessary to generate a “golden age,” and also any sort of growth in major cities.  That seems fair, but what isn’t is the inability of the player to really do much to change this function.  Conceptually, the happiness measurement makes sense.  Cities which have been conquered and are being ruled by a foreign occupier would naturally be generating unhappiness.  That’s fine, although maybe after having Carthage Novo as part of my empire for 1500 some of those people protesting the occupation would have died.   My problem with the system is that occupying cities isn’t the source of most of the unhappiness that’s typically generated.  Most of the happiness in most civilizations seems to come from either large populations in cities, or unhappiness from the NUMBER of cities.  I can understand the first part, I am at a complete lost for the second.  High population means congestion, higher costs, traffic.  Ok, I get that those could be negative factors.  But I’ve never once thought to myself, “you know, this sure would be a much better country if we had less cities.”  There isn’t much that can be done to increase happiness either, as computer opponents are reluctant to trade luxury resources in almost any circumstance, and buildings that generate happiness never seem to generate enough.

Bright spots include the cultural and religious features.  Both of these are greatly modified from the based game in expansions (in the case of religion, it wasn’t in the base Civ V from what I understand).  The importance of these stats really is what separates Civ from an average empire building or RTS war game.  Given the time commitment it takes to even execute and plan for a war in Civ V make playing for other types of victories especially appealing.

Brave New World

I was only able to play Civ V, bundled with the first expansion, Gods and Kings, for about two weeks before I upgraded to Brave New World.  Brave New World introduces some new major concepts like a World Congress and trade routes.  These innovations expand and refine other aspects in the game, but primarily Brave New World feels like a patch.  I would say a pretty good patch though.  In particular, the expansion puts an emphasis is on economic development, which previously didn’t seem that significant.  The result is that it is much easier to accumulate enough gold to actually spend it on things.  It also adds flexibility to centralizing production or opening up trade with foreign civilizations or city states.  The trade route system implemented is relatively easy to understand and can add a good deal of options to expanding influence, either through trade or the spread of religion.

Final Thoughts

What Civ V has going for it is that it is strangely addictive, and has a punishing learning curve.  Even though you have plenty of time to make decisions, it doesn’t make Civ any easier.  I just wish I could get more out of the incredible amount of play time being invested.

I remember before Fallout 3 was released reading a lot of press about how Bethesda didn’t see any way to do a turn-based game, but still wanted to preserve the strategic aspects of the original series.  Some stinging comments from readers were dropped below those columns.  Die hard Fallout fans were pissed.  And, Fallout 3 is sort of a weird mix of strategy and skill that is pretty unusual for an FPS.  But it doesn’t feel like work to play Fallout 3.   It would not work if you had to wait 20 minutes during a firefight for a bunch of super mutants to all take their turns.

Granted, I understand the hesitancy to move to real time.  The risk is that Civilization, which is a game about expanding one culture globally through careful management with other societies would turn into Warcraft.  I can get why that is a bad thing.  But going RTS is the only thing that will make Civ manageable.

SimCity: Broader Implications

So I read this and it’s wrong.

First An Update

A month after launch SimCity is still broken.  Initially, frustrated users were unable to login, or were periodically booted out of the game.  Now a more malicious problem has appeared; cities aren’t saving.  SimCity is clearly not the first game to require a persistent internet connection, but the problem was that on EA’s side is where all the technical issues were occurring.  What is this 1995?

I can attest that this morning I logged in to discover I had lost approximately 2 hours worth of improvements in a city I was working on.  I decided to trudge ahead again and in about 25 minutes later, I received warning that the city was not syncing properly with the servers and I was given two choices; rollback the city to a stable save point, or abandon it altogether.  I selected rollback, but I have no idea what the implications of this are.  I just hope I don’t have another dead city in my region that won’t ever load again.

The extent and the severity of the technical issues is just baffling.  Progress in SimCity takes time, and crafting a city is always an iterative process.  Some sort of stability or baseline consistency is necessary for this to work.  What’s really crazy though is that there is absolutely no indication as to when the game is actually saving your work.  I though yesterday it was saving fine only to discover about two hours of work crafting and expanding were flushed down the drain.  There is no save button.  There are no save or sync options.  There is no indication when you logout that all your work might be gone.  It simply doesn’t work and there’s nothing you can do about it.  I have never seen this happen before.  And because it’s not on my hard drive  there is only one obvious party that I can blame here.  Upon login, a ticker on the bottom offers you to do some multiplayer activities.  “Join FUCKEA (this apparently is a pretty popular player created group) and play with others.”  Indeed.  Key point is that I don’t want to play this game anymore if I can’t get some sort of higher level of assurance I can actually progress.

Broader Implications

Anways, back to the Tech Dirt article.  The conclusion of the article couldn’t be more wrong.  This game is EXACTLY the reason gamers need a Bill of Rights; especially a Due Process Clause.

Granted, the issue here isn’t that I’m locked out of SimCity for being some sort of EULA deviant.  But I think not being able to access content raises the specter of who has the control here.  Even if I did own this content, I can’t possibly access it without EA.  The fact that we’re in a new world now is really starting to sink in.  The reason I’m so pissed off isn’t because I can’t login; it’s because I was able to build up a foundation for a bunch of great cities and now can’t access them.  I want MY city.  I want MY content.  It’s entirely too easy to say that if it’s a bad game, don’t buy it.  Sure, there is always a level of caveat emptor whenever you buy something new.  That’s a risk.  But after 100 hours of building cities and crafting an intricate region, does the metric change?  What about 10,000 hours over a decade accumulating loot in World of Warcraft?  You’re locked out of your account with no recourse?  At some point of user investment that can’t be the right answer.

And SimCity plans to foster more user investment.  Although modding is not available at launch, Maxis and EA have indicated it will be in the future.  I can remember downloading a user-created World Trade Center replica in SimCity 4 from the Maxis website.  Back in 2005 this was a more culturally significant event for me.  Who’s going to own this content?  It seems pretty clear the persistent online requirement isn’t so much about anti-piracy as control of the forum here.

For SimCity, the problem might actually be as simple as the Tech Dirt article states.  The press has been so bad with this game that I don’t think the hardcore super-users will want to stick around to start modding.  If things don’t improve soon I definitely won’t be trying to finish those great works.

Sim(Sh)City?

SimCity 2013

 

Saying bad things about a game that you’re admittedly addicted to sort of feels like cheating on your significant other.  As much as I complain to the world how bad our relationship is, I know where I’ll be at the end of the night.  At least until I finish my fourth “great work” that is.  That being said, SimCity (2013) is another example of a major opportunity that EA has bungled.  A great degree of anticipation was met with an initially problematic launch.  I can report that roughly two weeks later, although the game is clearly playable, it isn’t working up to its full potential.  Key game mechanics are either flawed or actually nonfunctional.  And the problem extends beyond problems playing the game; I have a dead city in my region that can’t be accessed or deleted, permanently taking up space due to some sort of corrupted server/sync issue.  You only have 16 of these spaces, however, so it’s a big problem to have one that’s just permanently out of commission.  Moreover, it’s completely unacceptable to have a game that forces you to use cloud-based storage that doesn’t work correctly.

Unfortunately, the DRM and technical problems with SimCity seem to have masked a lot of thoughtful analysis on whether this game is good or not.  It is, in many respects.  SimCity (2013) clearly has improved upon SimCity 4.  But that game came out in 2003.  That was a long time ago.  In some other ways, SimCity is a step back.

Just How Bad Are the Technical Issues?

When you have NFL players complaining about your game on Twitter, you know it’s a big deal.  Because SimCity is persistently online, high demand caused EA’s servers at the launch to crash.  This meant people who bought the game couldn’t play during peak hours, even if they never intended to do any multiplayer activities.  It also meant if you were playing that you might get kicked out for server issues periodically.  Blizzard wouldn’t have let this happen.  Steam wouldn’t let this happen.  But EA did.  That being said, if you’re making game with significant design towards multiplayer use, extensive modding, and a pretty probable stream of DLC, who cares if the first week people were inconvenienced (just think about all the kids who spent time with their families two weeks ago because they couldn’t play old SimCity)?  Well, the issue I have is that the problem wasn’t really solved…

The servers are supposed to mediate relationships between cities.  I suspect the way EA has really eliminated a bunch of the technical flaws that marred the launch is by scaling back the interaction players have with the servers.  It’s pretty well known at this point the game works pretty well when the tethered connection is separated.   But this breaks the game because certain computations aren’t being made.  These computations are made even if you’re in single player mode.  A city that’s making money should be instead updating problems.  Your progress in building a city then becomes a sort of fantasy.  The end result is that because the game isn’t updating itself as it’s supposed to be doing, figuring out periodic income and expenses are flawed.  As the game resets, there are huge budget swings, or unpredictable resource demands that make any type of long term planning impossible.

Updates from other cities frequently don’t register.  Let’s say I gift one million simoleons (Sim Currency) to a neighboring city to give a boost.  I have no guarantee that the money will ever make it there.  I’m serious too.  I can attest that I had trouble registering the shipment of resources to the construction of an international airport.  A few hours after shipping the necessary resources, the progress on the resource I was sending froze.  I switched to another city and eventually it updated, indicating the objective was 100% complete.  I switched to yet another neighboring city, and my progress was under 100% again.  What exactly is going on here?  We’re all working on the same airport, right?  This is a pretty basic question that you often can’t answer at any given time.  This type of uncertainty makes playing the game unpredictable and frustrating.  There have been large updates to this game almost every day, but these core problems haven’t been addressed.

Cloud saves are cool, but not when they’re buggy.  Getting booted off a server when you’re on a single player game is equally puzzling.  I get the distinct feeling that the bugs are not only not ironed out yet, but won’t be anytime soon.  This is discouraging if you’re planning on this being your obsession for the week/month/year.

Actually Playing

If you love freedom, you’ll hate SimCity.  Well, sort of anyway.  SimCity brings challenge of the classic 1989 version back.  It does this by eliminating the renaissance landscape of SimCity 4.

A significant number of achievements in SimCity are premised on the development of city “specializations,” of which three are premised on the development of industrial raw materials.  Players with crude under their hamlets can build oil fields, then a refinery to develop higher value petroleum products, and then eventually use those products to construct consumer electronics and massive “great works” projects which provide benefits to all cities in the region.  Creating a successful mining, drilling, or electronics empire requires significant transit and utility logistics.  High tech industry is dependent upon skilled labor.  The list of needs, coupled with the scarcity of available space is challenging and fun.  But SimCity was always about understanding and building the conditions needed to develop a successful city.  These raw materials can be exported to the broader market and will provide immediate cash upon delivery to the city coffers.  I can remember playing the original SimCity on Super Nintendo and bulldozing low-density residential slums.  No poor people in my city!  Obviously bulldozing doesn’t solve the underlying problem, either nobody could afford to live there or that nobody wanted to build a nice house like 3 tiles from a nuclear power plant.  Having the city itself own and invest in mines, oil fields, and electronics factories sort of seems a little socialist.  You don’t own the businesses in SimCity, you’re supposed to be establishing the conditions for them to thrive.  Although this feature is sort of cool, it seems to be fundamentally anathema to a key feature of the game; SimCity is about governing and not capitalism.  Not that reasonable incentives can’t be given to encourage particular developments. Maybe a state owned mine makes sense, but a state owned factory to make computers and TVs?  That’s not a core governmental function.  Maybe these SimCities are being built in the Peoples Republic of China where that sort of thing goes.

One thing that SimCity does, much to the chagrin of SimCity 4 players, is significantly limit the amount of space available to develop a particular city.  I suspect this is done intentionally.  With a low density, poor road design, and clumsy placement of key civic buildings, your city can quickly be out of space.  This is in contrast to SimCity 4, where players were presented with the opportunities to establish custom-terraformed mega-cities with thousands of tiles.  You can easily accomplish the many objectives of SimCity 4 with unlimited space.  In the new iteration, the lack of space forces some real decisions to be made.  This is a switch back to the classic SimCity style of playing, where getting to the Megalopolis was a real test in governing.  Each city in the region needs to be contributing not just something to the region, but something needed in a big way.  It’s a lesson in interdependedness, and also forces differing play styles.  My only gripe is that extreme density, or extreme specialization, seems to be the only way to proceed in the game.  SimCity 4 offered multiple objectives.  I think this is a good feature because it adds some serious challenge to the planning aspects.  Building a town in SimCity 4 based on agriculture unlocked unique rewards.  Agriculture is gone now.  SimCity 2013 is all about heavy industry and high technology.  So, although the core challenge is back, so is the linear nature of the objective.

Other design features have been dumbed down.  All structures not require roads to be built before being plopped down.  Although this prevents issues in other SimCity iterations where you would have buildings that no one could get develop or access, it also can be a pain to place large buildings in a small confined area.  Roads also now are a fiat for all civil service connections; a road is a power line, water line and sewage line, thus eliminating a lot of tedious additional construction.  I can’t think of any reason to complain about this; it eliminates a tedious aspect of prior volumes that never really served any type of purpose.

The scarcity of space is really apparent here too.  You have one highway connection leading out of your town.  This might be in addition to a train track or a waterway, but not necessarily.  That means you have to be careful to avoid gumming things up with traffic.  The point of this is to make region access, and transportation management, paramount to building.  And it’s how cities actually work too; there are basically  three highways in my state.  I would imagine 50% of the people living here take these roads to work every day. This is another way the difficulty has been upped.

Graphics are good. They are not simulated 3D but actual 3D, which can be scaled and rotated without breaking.  Music isn’t bad, but it doesn’t accelerate with the pace of the game and repeats too quickly.  Developers, take note.  If you want people to play a game for a hundred hours or so make more than 15 minutes of in game music.  Or at least try to encourage people to import from their iTunes or something.

Finally, the GlassBox Engine is cool, and when it’s working right.  The real cool thing about the engine is that the game is supposed to be taking a literal approach to the agents in the economy.  If your coal power plant needs coal, a truck from a global market or coal mine needs to physically drive it over.  No coal means no power.   Unlike before, where congested roads made noise and air pollution, and just made people less happy, inadequate transit can literally cripple your economy.  Power plants stop producing power, export warehouses get jammed up with goods.  Oil refineries stop producing petroleum products.  Fires burn out of control (although this is dumb because the police and fire trucks shouldn’t have to wait at red lights).  Mass chaos.  But when you can’t get from point A to B that’s how it’s supposed to work.  Unfortunately, other aspects of the algorithms in the game need some serious work.  For example, every new municipal building has a demand for workers when it opens.  One problem, though, is that once a sim person has a job, it won’t switch.  So, police station you just laid out 85K of simoleons for sits empty because there is no labor.  That doesn’t really make much sense.  I shouldn’t have to build new housing because my economy added a few jobs.  Sometimes new construction begins because the service you’re adding makes the area more desirable  but it’s frustrating to see a building you just plopped down idle because of the lack of employment.  Another big issue I have is the lack of express information regarding specific population and other metrics for buildings.  Some parts of the process are sort of obscured, although the game generally gives you a lot of cool graphical data to analyze all sorts of metrics (fire coverage, police, health).  The agent approach also is flawed with respect to power, water, and sewage services, especially when purchasing from a neighboring region.  Power comes on instantly, it doesn’t move around slowly stumbling from building to building.  What a dumb model.

End Thoughts

The region system was available in SimCity 4, however, and although it didn’t really work that well in that game.  Despite being the major update feature in the new SimCity, it somehow works worse.  I suspect the real purpose behind the persistent online experience is not so much about combating piracy, but rather is based on control of an online experience EA is banking on.  The control of the modding community certainly features into this.

Much like building a SimCity though, the first rule of developing a community is laying the ground work for a reliable infrastructure.  People want power, water, sewage, and gaming when they need it.  If they can’t get these things in a reliable fashion, you won’t have any growth.  Perhaps Electronic Arts could learn a few things about developing online games from it’s own products.

InFamous 2

I’ve been super busy lately, but managed to sneak in some time for another free PS Plus offering; InFamous 2.  I want to first note that game developers have been trying to develop high-quality, sandbox-style superhero games for, well, since Grand Theft Auto 3 proved to everyone that a sandbox city could be done well in 3D.  Unfortunately a lot of the effort has been put into developing games that are tie-ins to already successful franchises like Spiderman or Batman.  It makes sense from a developers’ standpoint; they get to use ideas that have already been fleshed out and proven successful (really incredibly successful) in other media.  On the other hand, it’s a risky bet because gamers have had 30 years of experience being victimized by bad movie and comic tie-ins.  The only real standout has been Arkham City, which I’ve already written about.  InFamous 2 breaks from this convention and tries to take its own path.  It’s refreshing that this game isn’t about some a 60’s comic book character.

Story/Environment

Welcome to New Marais (AKA: New Orleans)!  The developers of InFamous 2 have decided to relocate the action from a New York type metropolis (Empire City), to a post-Katrina New Orleans.  Considering the social and political baggage from the 2005 hurricane that might still be out there, it’s certainly a bold move.  I appreciate the originality.  Considering the world of InFamous 2 and it’s main character, Cole MacGrath, “the electric man,” it also proves to be apt in providing a backdrop to the story and action.  Music has a creole feel to it at times, but doesn’t feel out of place in an action game.

New Marais, like it’s real life counterpart, was devastated some years earlier by a massive flood.  Although there does not appear to be any specific references to a botched federal disaster response, the flood has apparently had a big impact on the lives of the citizens.  At least that’s what you’re told.  New Marais is now an island in the figurative, as well as literal sense; it’s run by a privately operated militia, which dwarfs the police in size and power.  The power vacuum is only tangentially connected with the flood however, the real story has to do with the destablizing effects of “conduits,” people with superpowers such as the main character.  Some sort of political point or message could have been made here, but it was left out.  The only impact it seems to have made, other than making a mess of some of the territory the player navigates, was that it fostered an isolated sense of community.  There is a missed opportunity here for some sort of message perhaps.  To come so close to saying something, anything, and then use then use the flood as anything more than a canvas for more challenging battles seems a bit callous to me.  Could you imagine if there was some sort of 9/11 reference in GTA’s Liberty City?  9/11 and “Hot Coffee” mode seem to be the ONLY two things out of bounds for GTA, and there’s a case to be made Hurricane Katrina is maybe off-limits too, at least to your average New Orleans resident.

The protagonist (or perhaps not depending on some of the choices you make), Cole, is likewise carefully constructed.  The opening video, in partially-animated graphic novel style, explains that prior to acquiring his superpowers, Cole is a bike courier who dropped out of college to piss off his parents.  That one sentence is really a perfect explanation of Cole; he makes his own decisions, he doesn’t always do what’s told or what other people think is right, and he’s comfortable with himself and the choices he’s made.  Cole easily fits into the description of either a total dick, or a badass with a heart of gold.  It’s ambiguous intentionally.  Part of the noncommittal nature of Cole is necessary from a narrative perspective.  InFamous 2 requires you to make choices between good and evil alternatives in a few key missions, and again at the end of the game.  By making Cole seem morally ambiguous, or callously indifferent, the developer’s avoided having to create alternative cutscenes, or creating a branching story path.  Sadly, as I’ll discuss later , the “karma” system in place here, and presumably is where the title of the game is derived, is underutilized and not really that good.  The lack of branching story missions essentially means that the only choice that matters is the last one, and that it’s the same set of options whether you’ve spent the entire duration of the game mowing down cops or healing wounded pedestrians.  Cole lusts for power, but his motivations remain unclear until the player makes that final choice.  Physically Cole’s former life as a courier also fits into the gameplay design.  He’s athletic, good at climbing, and wears a two-way radio in a pocket that’s part of a backpack strap.  Of course every superhero needs a handy two-way communicator.  His running looks natural, and meshes well with rolling dives or big jumps.  Cole’s outfit is just a shirt and pants and some tattoos, which change color depending on which way you’ve been leaning with your karmic activities.

Cole’s powers are derived from electricity, making InFamous one of the best vampire games out there.  Electricity is loosely your life, but mostly your ammo for attacks that include throwing thunderbolts, grenades, launching cars, and creating huge vortexes of energy.  Most importantly, the environmental design seems tuned to the actual gameplay.  There are ample sources of electricity that Cole can feed off of in a pinch, but attention has also been put into the effect that dropping all this voltage has on objects; transformers and light poles conduct blasts that don’t make contact, and fuses blow out.  Plenty of rooftops around to push militia off of.  Water, naturally is lethal, which probably explains why you never see Cole take a shower, and also why later sections of the game feature flooded sections to “amp” up the difficulty.  Locked areas of the map have to be powered up by activating transformers, a neat way of keeping some areas off-limits to earlier exploration.  There is a big 3D world just begging you to mix it up.

Other characters are not so well developed, and a few are only introduced by doing some annoying “dead drop” sidequests or having familiarity with the original InFamous.  The only real character other than Cole that isn’t just some sort of ethical foil or plot stepping stone is Zeke, Cole’s best friend and Elvis look-alike.  Zeke, a former courier like Cole, thinks for himself, and  has a way of grounding Cole to his human side.

InFamous 2’s story itself is a bit uneven, and clearly draws on some old X-Men story arcs.  Not that this is terrible, but it definitely struck me as a bit derivative.  The central conflict is between the existence of the super-powered “Conduits,” and everyone else.  Predictably, Cole has the power to determine which side survives.

Gameplay

The core of the game is good, what doesn’t work every well are the RPG and sandbox elements that have been added in.  Health regenerates slowly over time, but also can be stolen from the electrical grid or incapacitated enemies.  The two brightest elements of this game are the climbing dynamics and the physics.  Although climbing is not Assassin’s Creed good, it’s head and shoulders over many other games.  It looks a lot like Assassin’s Creed, in that advancement up a wall depends on the proximity to certain grapple points.  So, obviously this works because the environment has been designed to accommodate it.  Because Cole can glide, but not fly, getting up high is a big part of strategy in InFamous 2.  Fortunately some care has been put into how exactly you’re supposed to do that.

The physics are just great.  Although good 3D physics are available in a lot of games now, they stand out in InFamous 2 because they’re used so much.  Grenades, the ability to throw a wall of force, and levitating and launching passenger cars make the action BIG.  Ragdoll effects hit enemies right away, as opposed to only popping up on a deathblow like in Skyrim.  This mass destruction is also helped by the presence of a huge number of objects present that respond to brute force.  Wooden walkways shatter with explosions, transformers and light poles get blown out, and warehouse walls and ceilings get blown out.  Actually using your powers is fast-based, as most of the enemies have deadly weapons and quick reflexes.  I should note that the melee controls stand out in the “needs improvement” category though.

Where InFamous 2 suffers is the filler content; RPG side-quest style leveling.  There are no mini-games or other styles of play in InFamous 2, so every side quest deals with more combat.  These diversions are either very easy or very hard, depending on what enemies popup.  Usually there is some NPC that tells you to do something, and then there is some combat.  These quests have no relationship to the actual main story or plot.  There’s just not enough differentiation in the styles of play here to make these side-quests meaningful.  Most importantly, there is a bizarre experience system baked into unlocking stronger versions of powers in InFamous 2.  The only way to get significant experience is by knocking out the side-quests, forcing a grinding sort of drudgery into the process.  The whole XP system is arbitrary though.  A cutscene will give you 500XP just for watching two story characters talk, whereas the hardest side-quest will only give you 100XP.  Finding a hidden package gives you 3 XP.  Finally, doing the side-quests removes the appearance of enemies from the map; making the source of additional XP harder to come by later.  There are some side-quests that force alternate play styles, such as chasing an enemy down, or grinding on a series of powerline tightropes to get to another transformer, but these aspects of the game usually aren’t very difficult and always end with fighting a small army of enemies.  At first these seem like good departures from the normal story missions, but they begin to repeat quickly once new territories are unlocked.

Other sandbox style elements include multiple exploration elements, such as picking up “hidden packages,” called blast shards, and “dead drops.”  The dead drops explain aspects of the story through short excerpts of audio recordings.  I’m reminded of the monument puzzle games in Assassin’s Creed 2.  Unfortunately there are no monuments to mark where these story points might be, and I never got much out of completing them.  Picking up blast shards is a nice diversion, but getting all of them seems like a huge waste of time as they don’t offer much benefit or XP.  The obvious influence is GTA; InFamous 2 even copies GTA’s menuless automatic loading.  Where GTA4 is very mature, however, in that it really captures the existentialism of the sandbox genre (and perhaps life itself???), InFamous 2 uses the size and breadth as a ploy to make the game longer.  All this serves to do is make the total fun per minute ratio lower; a much better approach would be side missions that lead to some sort of tangible story realization, character development, or accomplishment other than a pitiful amount of experience points.  There is just no way to feel any emotional  investment in anything other than the main missions.

Lastly, and most surprisingly, the “karma” system in InFamous 2 is simply not that great.  This is because the method of earning karma (good or bad) is broken in the context of the main game, and also because the game encourages an all-in approach.  Because differing degrees of good or bad karma unlock more powerful versions of Cole’s superpowers, there is no advantage to be gained neutral karma.  You either need to be as good as possible, or completely evil.  You can’t get both mid-tier powers.  You can patrol the city searching for random muggings, or alternatively for patrols of police to silence.  But then there are opportunities to acquire blast shards, either by defusing bombs (good karma + blast shard), or by mugging (bad karma + blast shard).  If you just want a lot of blast shards though, you’re inclined to do both.  The karmic balance your character has doesn’t really have any other impact on the story other than changing some of the powers around, and changing your appearance.  Cole will look increasingly more pale and tattooed if you’re evil, but the developer’s did not change the story at all to reflect these choices.  You don’t lose anything of substantive value by picking one particular side.  There is no dark side of the force style temptation here, good karma just gives you a different set of awesomely destructive powers.  Finally, the gaining karma is pretty arbitrary as far as the side missions go.  A pedestrian will ask you to hunt down a monster, or stop a militia rampage, but these are karma neutral events (unless you kill some civilians in the crossfire).  It just doesn’t seem that well thought out.  Obviously ethics and morality aren’t cut and dry, but in InFamous 2 the implementation of the rules seems really arbitrary.

Final Thoughts

InFamous 2 is a familiar 3D person action format in a sandbox environment.  The sandbox aspects are decent, but the action aspects significantly outshine the former.  The RPG aspects of the game should have been refined.  A solid 8 with fun dynamics.  Hey, it’s free right now too.