10 Things You Want to Know About GTAV

I feel like I learn more about this game every day. Here’s a short list of 10 noteworth things you want to know about GTAV: 

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1. Rampages Are Back

Rampages are back. GTAV accommodates the senseless violence by attaching it to a character that is the most unstable; Trevor. Each of the five rampages all follow the standard GTA format, unlimited use of one weapon against an infinitely spawning enemy. Trevor’s uncontrollable rage actually makes this exercise in destruction sort of make sense, especially considering each rampage now comes complete with a brief and funny backstory. Kudos to Rockstar for preserving GTA’s sadist roots. Again, this is only possible because each character seems to bring something to the table personality-wise that is different, but still ultimately identifiable as classic GTA.

2. Missions Now Have Checkpoints, Are Not Part of Busted/Wasted System

This is a huge improvement that makes the missions significantly easier. When you start or accept a mission, failure, either due to missing a key objective or by death, results in a replay or quit option. Although this sounds fairly straightforward, it’s a first for the GTA series. Previously, when you were killed during a mission or missed an objective you would need to start all over. At least GTAIV helped mitigate this inconvenience of having to drive back to the start point by having a cab parked outside the hospital or police station. Still, multi-part missions were very frustrating. There would be missions where you would have to drive somewhere with no time limit, then kill 100 gang-members, then evade a NOOSE Team (GTA’s own version of SWAT). One of these things was not like the other; there were lulls or portions of the mission that were just filler between harder portions. Obviously I can do the driving part where there is no time limit and nothing to chase or evade. It made the action sequences repetitive, especially considering how bad the shooter mechanics used to be. GTAV abandons this format and puts frequent checkpoints into each mission, and keeps you out of the hospital if you die. It’s a huge improvement that makes things flow easily. 

Does this ruin the experience by making it too easy? Not really. Passing the missions is no longer the only objective, getting all the subsidiary objectives for a “Gold” trophy adds replay value here. In other words, it accommodates two different styles of play. The missions are so diverse and generally do not lean heavily on exactly the same mechanics over and over again that I think I’ll probably replay all of them at some point. Still, I appreciate being able to move along without being bogged down with a lot of busy work in between story segments. I can always come back later if I want more trophies.

3. Auto-Aim

Auto-aim is back, although there are multiple settings where it can be completely disabled. Despite looking very different from GTAIV, the auto-aim functions essentially the same. Aiming for a new target sets you up at center of mass, and fine tuning the controls sets up a headshot. Likely the online version of the game will force you to use free-aim entirely. Other aspects of the HUD are also customizable (always a good move in my book). 

Aiming is now a lot more precise as well, and is accomplished with a very tiny white/grey reticle. Functionally it works a lot like Resident Evil, only without the laser pointer assistance. Although higher levels of play are clearly possible now (the sensitivity can also be adjusted), the reticle is way too small and frequently blends into what you’re shooting. In a nutshell, I don’t see how the free-aim mode would ever work well. I mentioned Resident Evil because the laser in that series lets you very easily mark up what you’re shooting without having a cartoony bullseye logo on your target. It looks realistic while aiding the player effectively. I honestly think that’s the gold standard in 3rd person shooters right now. If a laser-sight isn’t an option for at least the pistol or carbine rifle in either DLC or future updates, I would be EXTREMELY disappointed. It seems like an especially natural modification as a number of guns have the option to attach a flashlight already. 

You can’t see where you’re shooting at all right now. This is the only genuine thing that’s irritated me about this game so far. 

4. Hang Outs Far Less Annoying

One frustrating aspect of GTAIV was that you were constantly being interrupted by calls from friends to “hang-out.” The hang-out and social function in GTAIV was integral to the spirit of GTAIV, although ultimately you didn’t need to spend time with your friends, and if you did, you didn’t get much out of it. I thought it was a good feature in GTAIV because it helped develop the characters more. It also gave meaning to a convoluted moral tale about revenge and loneliness. After all, most of the sites and sounds of Liberty City only existed when you shared them with a friend. Maybe there was a deeper meaning there for the sandbox genre. But at the same time you constantly had five or six people calling you and interrupting you from something you were trying to do. Worse yet, if you declined a hang-out, you would lose respect and potentially abilities from your friends. It’s like you had a gun to your head to waste time doing the same task over and over again. It was a good concept that was poorly executed. The only thing worse in this series to date has been GTA: San Andreas’ requirement that you eat periodically (despite not having any grocery stores in the game). 

GTAV does not do this to you. Although you’re bombarded with text messages and emails from properties you own, the gun store, and parts updates from the customization shops, you never are forced to address these until you want to. Although calling people and setting up hang-out trips to bars or tennis outings is still possible, it’s only under your own initiative that these things happen. You’re not constantly being solicited for activities. And there’s good reason for this; each of the three playable characters will have at least 20 names in their contact list half-way through the story, including multiple copies of the same contact for the other player. It would be overwhelming to keep track of these. Even without the hang-outs, there are plenty of other things to get distracted about in GTAV as it is.

5. Cars Are On Point Clones

There was an article in Forbes about this already, but I think it really downplays the fact that MOST of the vehicles in the game are direct clones of actual vehicles. Rockstar has even gone so far as to make very obvious knockoffs of corporate logos. The GTA series has always had cars that could be mistaken for real life models, or were two models glued together into some sort of vague resemblance, but there are so many in this game that are spot on that it stands out. There are both the new Taurus style cop cars in addition to the classic Crown Victorias (in the more rural areas only). There is an identical Town Car. The new Corvette is in there as well. And I mean the Corvette that was just revealed a few months ago. It’s not just the cars either; it’s right down to the actual logos (see below).

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I’m wondering if there is some sort of backdoor advertising deal in here. Certainly that’s not an alien concept to Gran Turismo 5. On the other hand, you’d figure if you were a carmaker you wouldn’t want people using your car to mow down pedestrians or pick up prostitutes. And especially you wouldn’t want to be GTA’s own Vapid Motor Company; there is a mission where you have to assassinate the CEO. 

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6. It’s More Amoral Than Ever

As soon as the general public catches up to the middle of the story in GTAV, there is definitely going to be some controversy. Aside from the pervasive swearing, there is a good deal of sexual content that isn’t that far from the whole hot-coffee incident that really hit GTA:San Andreas. In addition to the strip club content though, there are also some disturbing instances of violence (aside from committing literally hundreds of murders of course).

One thing that especially stood out for me is a mission where you have to torture a suspected terrorist to get information. The mission setup and resolution offer incredible commentary to the way we’re doing things in a post-911 America (“I got him, I think?”), but the actual mission itself is disturbing. In torturing the target, you the option of using pliers to remove a healthy tooth (it’s a mini-game where you have to use the joysticks), and also engage in waterboarding (I don’t mean surfing either, I mean the bad kind). Granted GTA has always been a lightening rod, but I can’t remember doing anything like this before. It honestly made me a little uneasy. As did murdering a kidnapped celebrity locked in the trunk of a car who was pleading for his life. Torture is not a common part of GTAV from what I’ve seen in the other missions, but it’s in there in a key story mission you need to complete. Absolutely this is one game that is truly M for mature. If you have younger kids in your house it would be hard justifying access to this game. 

7. Drafting and Driving

The driving really works well in GTAV. I’m not sure if I’m getting so much better at it, or if the driving skills of my characters is helping as well, but the movement and physics (including collisions) are greatly improved. In addition to tweaking, a slip-stream system has been added, although most missions are not straight-forward enough for you to really feel the difference because you’re swerving through congested traffic or bounding up the side of a desert dune. 

Driving is also greatly aided by the fact that the map is gigantic. It’s good fun running a super-fast Infernus or Comet car through traffic, but it’s a lot more fun to be able to get onto the highway and actually speed over to another county. I would actually like to see some straightforward racing missions, other than the racing around obstacles that the game normally presents. GTAV could be a competent racing game if it were setup for that though. 

8. Car Customization Is Comprehensive

What’s great about the car customization features is that it’s not limited to fast cars only. There are speed and cosmetic upgrades like tinted windows or turbocharging, but also upgrades for suspension, armor, and even roll-cages. Other obvious upgrades; brighter Xenon headlights.  

Car customization is aided by a design decision to create certain “owned” cars by the main characters. You start out with a ride that will follow you around on missions, whether it’s in your garage or not. The mods you put on this car will stay. There is also the ability to park cars in a central garage. Obviously dropping $100,000 worth of car modifications on something that doesn’t stay with your character wouldn’t make sense. 

9. Stats Less Invasive

I mentioned in my post last week that San Andreas-style stats have returned. What’s great about these stats is that you probably won’t know they’re there. Only after upgrading a full 20 points out of a maximum 100 will you be given an alert that your stamina or shooting skills have improved. It’s less invasive than in GTA:San Andreas where minor updates were constantly being dropped.One small gripe though; I’m not sure how much these levels are actually influencing game play.  

10. No Bugs or Updates So Far

A major, major launch and there have been no updates in the first week of play. I’ve never seen this before in a big game. Usually somebody has found a bug by now. I haven’t had any hangups of freezes on this game. And this is exactly the type of game that should freeze. It’s got a pervasive world with all these things going on and all this data being constantly loaded and dumped. Bethesda would be wise to learn a thing or two from the gang at Rockstar. I’ve never seen a game that is so hard on the PS3 (as I mentioned last week, the optical disk is constantly being read), but without any problems. 

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.

Top 10 “Needs Improvement” Areas for Gran Turismo 6 (part 1 of 2)

I feel a little nostalgic talking about Gran Turismo again; my first posts dealt with that game (and it’s significant shortcomings) way back in 2011. I’ve played all the main Gran Turismo titles and I’ve already come to the conclusion that I will almost certainly be playing GT6 when it comes out in December. Maybe it’s some sort of battered-gamer syndrome I’ve developed, but I’ll keep coming back to this franchise. Rest assured though, come December 6, 2013 I won’t bullshit you if this falls short of what it should be.

And GT6 SHOULD be Sony’s hallmark game.  Polyphony Digital is Sony.  It’s a subsidiary. So this is what Mario is to Nintendo. It’s a flagship franchise. It’s also coming out on a console that’s mature. There’s no reason to have a chunk of coal here. With that said, here’s what I think are the top “needs improvement” areas for GT6 (the usual five items turned out to be woefully inadequate unfortunately).

1. No Misleading Advertising

There’s a good chance you didn’t read about this in 2010, but the marketing with GT5 was incredibly misleading. Take a look at this commercial I managed to dig up on YouTube.  See that Subaru spinning out?  Super cool!

Here’s the problem though; that’s not in the game. At least it wasn’t when GT5 was released. The Subaru’s in the game, sure.  But that door coming off, the car spinning out like that? Not so much. There was basically no cognizable damage system in GT5 at launch. The fact that the commercial says there is “realistic damage” is a huge stretch. Here’s a video of some car crashes I found. You can be the judge as to how good the damage system works.

The problem is compounded by the fact that GT5 actually hides the damage features until relatively late in the game. Damage isn’t turned-on until level 20, a feat likely to take at least 50 to 60 hours to reach. It’s not fully turned on until level 40 apparently, an amount of time commitment likely to rival most part-time jobs given that the levels are usually exponentially apart from each other. Without the aid of Google, the conclusion for most players is that damage just isn’t in the single-player game until you’ve sunk in significant hours. Considering how long it takes to reach level 30, level 40 is just simply ridiculous.

Occasionally, and unpredictably, visible damage would pop up on a car after a bad hit. This is usually a hood dent or messed up lower spoiler. But GT5 doesn’t kick you out of races if you slam into the wall at 200mph. It arguably should; by not punishing huge mistakes the game doesn’t force the player to develop the driving skills you actually need to advance (regardless of whether you are “leveling”). I can remember an old Playstation 1 Need For Speed having both a comprehensive damage system for each car, and a cost of repairs deducted from each race winnings after every run. Although this was frustrating, it’s certainly doable.

I obviously understand why there is no comprehensive damage system in GT5, at least for non-standard cars (I’ll talk about that below).  Such a system would significantly increase the amount of work per car and would never be perfect. That Need for Speed game was able to get away with it because it had 10 or 15 cars and PS1 graphics. Certainly this falls short of Gran Turismo’s 1000 car standard. The cost of repairing the cars would be oppressive in a lot of instances too, especially during the Ferrari, Formula 1, or NASCAR events. I can remember having to an awful lot of farming in that Need for Speed too. These are legitimate design decisions here to leave these features out. What’s not a legitimate design decision is to put into advertisements a feature your product doesn’t have.

I think the gaming review industry really screwed up not calling out Sony on this back in 2010. It’s not like this was a feature in the game that everyone was excited about because of a press release or Q&A session at E3. It’s in the commercial! It’s not ambiguous as to what they’re showing. Polyphony put this issue front and center. I suspect that part of the reason the damage system is hidden is to cover up the fact that maybe it doesn’t work so well, and instead reflect the blame onto a player who hasn’t invested the time. It was obscured and basically unavailble at launch, and didn’t seem to work right after. The “you’re not ready for my game” attitude is paternalistic nonsense. This was both a bad design decision and a really bad marketing decision that the franchise managed to avoid being stained with. Honestly, I could care less if the door falls off my Subaru. Just don’t tell me that it might if it won’t.

2. No Imports

No, I don’t mean non-Chevy/Fords/Dodges, I mean imports from PS2. Part of the amazing roster of modeled cars in GT5 came from the fact that 3D assets were imported from prior Gran Turismo installments. Given that this was the first PS3 Gran Turismo (I think it’s fair to exclude the essentially incomplete version, Prologue), I can see that maybe the number of assets to be produced was burdensome. Would fans criticize GT5 if it had only 200 cars instead of the normal franchise setting 1000? To be honest, I think there’s a chance they might.

The solution that was developed was to recycle old body graphics, which clearly have lower resolutions and look out of place. What bothers me the most about this is not that Polyphony did this, but that they did it in a half-assed way. Key races needed to advance the main objectives in single-player mode restrict the player to the use of certain makes or models of cars. Take the “Tous France Championnat” for instance. At the early parts of the game there are only a few cars that are reasonably affordable that you can get to do this race. All are “non-premium” cars, meaning they have these terrible graphics. It’s jarring to buy this game which is supposed to be a quantum leap in graphics over the last installment, and be back to PS2 graphics that just look out of place. The pixels don’t look good and don’t respond to the lighting effects and other environmental image factors the way the premium cars do.  Simply put, GT5 delivers you GT4 graphics in instances you can’t avoid. These non-premium cars also have lame damage modeling (already a pretty low bar for GT5).

There’s some sort of tension with the Gran Turismo series as a whole as to whether it wants to be a complete car encyclopedia, or whether it wants to deliver a stock experience. It’s cool having the car you drove in high school in this racing game, even if its not very good. But at the same time, does it really add anything? Is driving a souped-up 1991 Accord or 1986 Corolla anybody’s fantasy? I don’t know. My only point here is that if you want to be known for doing a great job, you can’t do a great job half the time. Again, Gran Turismo got a pass on this. Those non-premium cars look terrible though.

3. Better Menus

A cardinal sin here. Thou shalt not have terrible menus! There are two huge problems with the menus in GT5: 1. They’re too slow, 2. They’re poorly organized.

In typical Japanese fashion, GT5 with all its statistics, custom-tuning options, and general philosophy of any-way-you-like it, means that Gran Turismo must be stuffed to the brim with menus. The load time on these menus takes forever though. It’s not so bad individually, if it wasn’t that you’re required to change so much at the higher levels in between races. Most importantly though, it doesn’t seem to make much sense as to why the response time is so slow. The graphics in the menus aren’t why people are clamoring to play Gran Turismo, and they’re not that impressive anyway. The slow speed makes the tedious process of buying each racing part option on a new car in the tuning menu excruciating (why can’t I just buy the car with the race parts on it to save me 15 minutes?).

A problem that is compounded by the slow load times on the menus is the fact that they’re poorly organized. Granted a home button has been added so you can get back to your digital garage if you’re trying to enter a race with the wrong car, but it’s a tedious process to have to go back to the start and then have to drill down all over again. Please, if you really can’t make these things faster, at least let me switch cars without having to go all the way out of the menu first. The menus become oppressive in late game where settings need to be adjusted with every different leg of a series of races. I honestly wouldn’t be so bothered by this if there was some sort of obvious reason why these menus are so slow. But they’re just menus. They should do their job well.

4. Improve Collision Physics

Gran Turismo has always really tried to pride itself on being a great simulator for all things driving. But one key area that this racing series has always consistently under-delivered on is car crashes.  GT5 is no exception.

You will know something is wrong the first time. Do these car crashes look right? There’s no way you can say yes to that. What that means is that GT5 is a great simulator, provided you don’t hit anything. The real problem I have with collision system is the lack of penalty imposed by making mistakes. Mistakes aren’t tolerable in the license test portions of the game, they probably shouldn’t be in the Formula 1 races or NASCAR races either. There’s no real downside to being super-reckless in these races. Moreover, multiplayer updates after the initial launch actually had to be aimed at introducing driver penalties because the administrators felt that players were using barriers in order to actually increase their lap speeds in some instances. In other words, the pinball physics were being used to cheat.

If there is any indication that the modeling isn’t right, it’s when causing an accident can be used to create an advantage. If Polyphony Digital wants players to earn the right to have damage and real consequences, it needs to impose at least some sort of penalty early on to prevent bad habits from forming. The lack of cars flipping over, catching fire, or otherwise being disabled is a gigantic blind spot for this series.

5. Dull Environments

I wish I could find a blog post I read back in 2010 on the Circuit de la Sarthe. Pausing the game during the very long straight-away on the track, a blogger took some images of the bushes on the side of the track. Now this is a real track in France. Sarthe is where they hold 24 Hours of Le Mans. The photos clearly show the same bush has been copied and pasted over and over again along the side of the straight. This is straight-NES BS. Granted, this a portion of the track you’re likely to be topping out at +200mph, but the poor attention to detail was right there in the photos.

It’s not just that bushes look bad, it’s that stands look empty, that crowds don’t come out for Grand Prix races, and that the environments look soulless.  There’s no activity going on in the background. Pit stops to change tires and refuel are uneventful. The AI doesn’t get desperate. There’s no sense of drama or urgency being conveyed to the player outside the ever-ticking clock.

I can remember the game Pole Position for Atari having a little blimp fly over head announcing race updates. And the Nintendo series Cruis’n’ USA game having scantily clad bikini girls wave the starting flag. This is the playboy lifestyle that’s obviously part of what we think about when when think about auto racing. Professional racing is a brutal meritocracy; a high-stakes game the well-off play that’s akin to professional football for the less physically inclined. The dangerous celebrity lifestyle of a dare-devil race car driver is drilled into our consciousnesses by mass-media. We think of superstars like Senna or Michael Schumacher. It’s inescapable when we see a $250K sports car drive by.

Gran Turismo has always eschewed from having any sort of excitement other than what happens on the track. I can remember the same kind of blandness from the Microsoft flight-simulator, or alternative from Jane’s F/A 18. There’s just no sexy in GT5, other than the beautiful cars. Gran Turismo doesn’t make you feel like a race car driver, it makes you feel like you’re grinding away in a basement playing an MMORPG hoping to get some magic sword. It’s all just stat tracking and leveling. Maybe the concern is that fans or funny pit crews would be distracting, or alternatively would sap precious processing power from the actual driving. These are fair points, but Gran Turismo is supposed to be fun and it often makes simulating a race feel like a desk job.

GTA 5: Returning to San Andreas With High Expectations

I’m really impressed by these three mini-trailers that were just released this past week.  No doubt that there is a strong correlation here between the impending release of GTA 5 and Rockstar parent, Take-Two Entertainment’s, stock price in the past nine months.

Majestic beauty featured likely in order to contrast inevitable GTA-style carnage

Majestic beauty featured likely in order to contrast inevitable GTA-style carnage

What’s most impressive about the three character approach is that it’s obviously meant to remedy deficiencies in the story-telling of GTA’s San Andreas.  San Andreas is a great game, but the narrative struggled with developing an identity for the main character, CJ.

This problem is partly due to the RPG and customization elements in the game that give the player the choices to make CJ look like a gang-banger, a CEO, or a construction worker (also there is that weird S&M outfit…).  San Andreas is such a big place, that after the first act, CJ just sort of feels out of place.  The entire San Fierro (San Francisco) and Las Venturas (Las Vegas) portions of GTA: San Andreas feel aimless.  CJ’s story starts and ends in the same place, his hood.  That’s the point.  After a very long detour at the end of the first act, the final mission takes you back there to confront characters you haven’t seen 100 hours of play time.  It’s incoherent.  Fortunately, the meat and potatoes in between are a lot of fun.

If San Andreas is 3 times bigger than it needs to be, why did Rockstar bother making all that extra stuff?  The answer appears to be an obsession with attention to detail.  San Andreas is LA, San Francisco, and Las Vegas because it’s trying as hard as possible to capture and satirize the Southern California 90’s zeitgeist, even if CJ’s world is naturally a little bit smaller.

I remember seeing GTA3 and just being completely amazed by the size of the game.  In the past 10 years there have been a lot of knock-offs of the GTA style of creating huge worlds, but all seem to suffer from the same flaw of confusing physical space with scale.  What you won’t really appreciate until you’ve run down every alley looking for hidden packages is that a gigantic portion of every GTA game is hand-made.  There is not a lot of 3D modeling copying and pasting.  There are no identical city blocks.  GTA4 even features a huge fake-internet.  It’s the attention to detail that separates GTA from every other massive game world.  Other developers just don’t do this, not even Bethesda.

Venice Beach?

Venice Beach?

GTA4 marks a big evolution over San Andreas, even if it isn’t as large and vast as its predecessor.  The major difference in GTA4 is the emphasis on social perspective, and I don’t mean multiplayer or or Twitter.  GTA4 lets Liberty City be defined through the eyes of its characters.  Activities open up depending on who you’re hanging out with and what you’re planning on doing.  And engaging with the people you’re working with is part of the experience as opposed to just getting a cell phone call and showing up.

And GTA5 promises to be somehow significantly larger yet again.  The obvious approach to reconciling South Central gang warfare, with pot growing up in the red woods, and the glitz of Beverly Hills is to tell the stories of those places through the eyes of separate characters.  GTA4 maximizes the story of Liberty City the same way, through different characters, albeit only through downloadable content, but the premise is the same.  The world of Luis Lopez, and the club scene of Liberty City is very different from Niko’s darker struggle to get revenge.  To tell the story of a heavily satirized California it is necessary to have many different perspectives, in the same way the DLC tells a broader story about Liberty City through its three characters.

This obsessive attention to making everything perfect is exactly why concerns about juggling three separate characters are likely to be unfounded.  Three times the characters makes three times the amount of narrative scope, and three times the opportunity to force interaction with a gigantic world.  It’s a very deliberate choice that is clearly a response to maximizing the incredible amount of content GTA5 will offer just because, well, it’s Rockstar.  I can’t think of any other series that is virtually guaranteed to get better with each installment, other than GTA.  Given the additional PS3 and XBox console penetration compared to 2009, GTA is again going to be breaking its own sales record come later this year.

 

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.

Ultima 7: The Lost Gem? (part 2 of 5)

I wanted to finish up this series of posts months ago, but I got bogged down with a bunch of “real life” stuff.  Hopefully I can finish these up and move onto Assassin’s Creed 3 before anything I have to say about that becomes too dated.  Hiatus aside, I’m still not done talking about Ultima 7.

Design Choice 2: Size and Scale

I used to be easily impressed by big games.  I wouldn’t say this is necessarily the case anymore, but I think it’s an understandable response to be awed by a massive amount of content.  Ultima 7 offers that essential RPG experience of developing a character by trying to maximize the amount of choices the player can make.  This is the precursor to the sandbox age; the spirit of creating a simulated world with complex rules based on the environment instead of some abstract objective like jumping or shooting.

Physical terrain

As stated in my first post, you have a lot of access to most of the game map and content in this game pretty early on.  Ultima 7 isn’t the size of a Bethesda Softworks masterpiece (probably due in part to 90’s PC hardware limitations), but when considering the amount of interactivity each little location offers, it becomes clear that Ultima 7 doesn’t just look big, it IS big.

Like Ultima 6, there is no world map; one scale of perspective runs consistent from start to finish.  Consequently, although the world of Britannia doesn’t feel like its own continent, the fact that everything is in one scale has the effect of making exploration more challenging.  After all, the zooming in and out is just a method to funnel a player into specific areas.  It has the effect of making the game environment seem larger than it is by propping it up with empty content.  As I stated in the first post, U7 doesn’t do funneling.  Consequently, the map doesn’t want to give away to the player what’s important and what isn’t.

This approach makes exploration feel more organic.  Take the town of Yew for example.  Yew is supposed to be a town populated by forest dwelling rangers, loggers, and recluses.  Consistent with this design, the houses are set deep into woods, often away from the main roads and paths.   Rural Yew is like any other rural town; it has ill-defined borders.  Naturally finding a cabin in Yew should be as difficult as finding a real remote cabin in a real forest.

On the other hand, it’s really frustrating to miss a key location because it’s literally 20 feet off the beaten path.  Navigating a town should not be as challenging as navigating a complex dungeon or vast forest, but in U7 it is.

Depth

Not only is the size of Ultima 7 large, but also the level of interaction with the environment is meaningful.  Bales of wool can be spun into thread with a spinning wheel, bread can be baked, and swords can be forced at a blacksmith.  There are hundreds of items filling houses, dungeons, and secret passages.  If you want to count your party’s total gold, you’ll need an abacus.  Locating yourself requires map and a sextant (which will only work if you’re outside).

Maybe more impressive is the level of NPC interaction available.  Text trees are detailed and can often lead to long and detailed conversations.  A townsperson doesn’t just tell you about what they know about a something, but what they think about it, what their opinions are on other people in the town.  Sometimes you’ll get an entire life story.  Touching inventory or murdering a civilian prompts any witnesses to call the town guard.  Guards will either arrest you or force you to pay a fine.  That’s assuming that the NPC is awake, which is not always the case as most have set sleep patterns.  During waking hours, NPC’s don’t just stand in their own homes, they go out into the world and work their fields, spin thread on a wheel, make weapons at a forge, and hit up a pub at the end of the day.  Often the fiercest critic of the player’s behavior comes from inside your own party.  Party members will leave or renounce you in the event that they aren’t being fed or witness unethical behavior.

Although all this detail is really cool, like the lack of a world map, it often just serves to complicate completing a pretty standard objective.  Having to constantly feed up to seven different party members is frankly annoying.   Being policed for ethical violations by your own party is logical considering the emphasis in prior Ultima installments on morality, but you NEED to break some rules in this game (this theme is more evident in Ultima 8 and is supposed to tie into the conclusion of the series in Ultima 9). and there’s not any meaningful way to reconcile the disagreements here.  And the abacus weighs like 5 pounds…  There’s something appealing about needing arrows to use a bow, or people needing food to live, but not so when it fills up 50% of your inventory.

U7 is a great example of what can be done with a huge amount of effort into programming an environment.  The sheer volume of content though stands in the way of actually letting the player accomplish anything.  Constantly feeding party members, rearranging equipment, and moving items back and forth is a chore.  Nothing is ever fast or convenient because there is so much detail here and each bit needs to be navigated separately.  It just feels like you’re falling all over yourself doing anything.

The problem with adding so much stuff in, and forcing the player to manage a huge amount of information is that it obscures the actual objective.  Is U7 a detective game?  Sort of.  Is it a sort of medieval Oregon Trail?  Sure.  Is it an action game?  It’s in there, but not so much.  The main take away is that the more that is added, the less the main point of the game is clear.  Ultimately solving this game has more to do with shaking down leads and enduring a lot of seemingly useless conversations than battling dragons.  I’m not sure if that makes a lot of sense.  The lesson learned should be that, before you go and develop a really massive game, you should pick what the core mechanics are first.

This is still a problem in newer games as well.  Ask yourself this, does Assassin’s Creed I really need to be a sandbox style game?  Does that add anything when there are basically only a few missions to accomplish and where there are essentially no benefits from the free-roaming experience of wandering around Acre?  Contrast this feeling of estrangement with the original Tenchu, which takes the same stealth kill mechanic and challenges the player to hone their craft and achieve a higher level of score and mastery.