Site Index

Here is a link to my Designing a Better RPG series. And here is a list of my reviews to aid in site navigation (my tags are messy so this is not perfect).

:: Alpha Protocol :: Assassin’s Creed :: Assassin’s Creed 2 :: Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood :: Bully: Scholarship Edition :: Dragon Age: Origins :: Dragon Age 2 :: Dragon Age: Inquisition :: Fable 2 :: Fallout 3 :: Grand Theft: Auto IV :: Mass Effect :: Mass Effect 2 :: Neverwinter Nights 2 :: Pillars of Eternity :: Prince of Persia :: The Saboteur :: Saints Row :: Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood :: Star Wars: The Force Unleashed :: Torment: Tides of Numenera :: Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines :: Wasteland 2 :: The Witcher :: The Witcher 3 ::

Build 106

I recently received an e-mail from someone who wanted to check out my first (and only) solo game, I Think The Waves Are Watching Me. It made me realize that I never posted any updates about the game after a certain point. So let’s get some updates in.

For a while, once I had it roughly done, I didn’t touch it. I loved all the amazing suggestions I received from people, and I wanted to implement them all, but I think I was kind of burnt out on working with the game, I was excited to get started on working with Unity — which I continue to work at, and the code for the game was so rough that I was a bit afraid to go back in and tinker with it.

Around late August/early September (2014), I decided that I was going to brave the house of cards and try to clean things up.

That effort resulted in the creation of build 105. Build 105 represented the largest amount of improvements for any of the builds going back to #1. In a normal build, I’d release it after maybe 5 or 10 updates, but for 105 I had packed in a whopping 63.

But I could not even start that process without re-writing all of the code in the first place to make it manageable, a process that took me about two weeks. I originally thought that re-write was a waste of time, but I learned a lot about organizing things, and found so many bugs that I never would have spotted otherwise.

Despite how satisfied I was with 105, any time you make that many changes there are bound to be problems, and there were. So I went back in once more and eventually created build 106.

In fact, I had meant to enter build 106 into a content, but discovered I missed the deadline. Oops! I guess the good news is that I have more time to add in some of the previous suggestions I received. I don’t intend to dedicate a great deal of time to that potential build 107 any time in the near future (I’m more caught up with work in Unity), but I think a few more tweaks and additions could make build 107 the one that I call “the end”.

As a summary of the experience, I have to say that it ended up being awesome. I’m really proud of what I made and feel like I successfully married my desire to create passive, trippy environments with the structure and objectives of a game. I hope before too long I can post new updates about new projects that I’m currently working at.

Note: a stipulation of the contest I want to enter is that I can’t “release” the game, but if you want to know more about it or check out a copy, leave a comment with a way to reach you.

Wasteland 2 (First Impression)

I’m 23 hours into Wasteland 2. What do I think so far?

Choice is limited.

During conversations, you don’t choose what to say. You choose topics on which to gain more information. There’s no way to role-play the good guy, the charming guy, the greedy guy, etc.

During questing, there have been almost no choices. There is one major choice early in the game — save the Agriculture Center or save Highpool — but you’re not given any context on either, and there seem to be no repercussions on either. You’re being asked to choose between two unknowns with no stakes in the decision.

The first good choice I noticed came when I was escorting a prisoner out into the wasteland. I had made a deal with him to let him escape in order for valuable information. Not only did I get to decide whether to honor that offer, but I had to deal with the repercussions either way. It was a small, brief moment, and more would have been nice.

Additionally, many objectives can only be resolved in one way. For example, there’s a wagon stuck in the mud and the only way to free it is with the “bash door” skill, a skill you may not have. Sure, not every quest needs to be resolved, but some of us are a little OCD about completing quests.

Text is great.

The writing is enjoyable throughout, and adds interest to the quests. Without the text, the game would be too combat heavy, and that would certainly slow me down. Every time the dot matrix printer starts going, I stop to immerse myself into the moment.

Your first quest is to investigate the murder of a fellow ranger while, also, completing the quest he was on: planting transmitters on radio antenna in order to help track down a mysterious radio signal. Mechanically, it’s simply “Go to location X”, but the high level of mystery did a great job at capturing my attention.

There’s also a good bit of humor mixed into the writing. I found a DNA sequencer machine, and used it to scan my group. I learned that one of my characters bears the mark of the beast, another stinks when stressed, and another has a 3rd nipple. Elsewhere in the game, I found things like a cache of old Atari games buried in the desert (i.e. ET), and shrines either depicting a giant TV or giant cats.

Characters are So-so.

None of the characters who I’ve met have really stood out. Each of the characters I’ve met feels like they actually inhabit the wasteland, but there are no zany or off-beat or larger-than-life or scary or cool characters who really stand out one way or the other.

But there have been some stories which hooked me. One short story that really caught my attention was from a girl calling out on a radio broadcast that I picked up. The lines were simple, but sounded lonely and scared. As I walked, I’d hear her asking: “Elroy? Where are you Elroy? Elroy are you there? Please answer me.” Later, I heard her broadcasting again, “Please, if you can hear me, please come back. Don’t let me die alone. I can’t take the pain any longer.” It’s such a simple, but effective, way of taking advantage of the fact that the players are always hooked up to their radios.

Combat is good.

There was one trouble spot, for me. I hit a wall when I reached the prison/Damonta where I struggled to get through fights. Guys had 150 health, were doing significant damage to me each round, and I was doing around 10-or-less damage per hit. I took the time to re-equip my gang (switching from M1s to M4s was huge, getting armor was helpful) and focus my skill points a little, which led to me regaining heroic status once more.

That aside, I find that fights range from trouble-free to leaving me a little banged up. I’ve had to re-load a few times, more so early on when I was first learning the combat system. It’s a nice difficulty curve. Otherwise, the biggest obstacle in getting through a level is carrying all the loot.

One thing I really like about the combat is that each map only has 2 or 3 combats. When you trigger a fight, you’re nearly clearing the map in the process. Fights feel more meaningful in this way. There’s no excessive, uninspired “popcorn” fights. Nor is there the weirdness of a major gun fight happening in one room while the inhabitants of the next room stand around waiting for you.

Performance is Poor

Or, rather, I should say that performance was poor. Now it’s fair.

I discovered that DX11 is enabled by default, and while it doesn’t come with any DX11 features, for some reason it was a major drain on my frame rate. I was struggling to get 30 FPS consistently on the fastest settings at the worst resolution, and was at times averaging around 18-22. When I realized I could disable DX11, I found my frames jumped to the 70s and 80s. Thankfully, the latest patch disables DX11 by default.

However, it’s still disappointing overall. While I could play the latest Batman with DX11 enabled, all settings at Ultra, and still lock 60 FPS, in Wasteland 2 I have to keep everything at poorest quality and the lowest resolution to maintain a range of 40-80 FPS.

Levels are Big

The AG Center, that is, was huge. I think I was there for about 10 hours of game time.

That said, most levels still feel fairly large. It doesn’t seem to contribute to the overall performance (smaller levels retain similar FPS rates to larger levels), so it’s fine in that respect. And it’s enjoyable to wander around the maps and explore.

Map Design is Sometimes Good

The level design is generally OK. Nothing special. Sometimes the levels aren’t laid out clearly, and it takes a minute to figure out what you’re supposed to be doing or where you’re supposed to be going.

The mini-map isn’t as useful because it doesn’t rotate to match your heading, leaving it more confusing than anything.

But there have been times where the map design has been more exciting. I found one combat map that featured a tower in the center, and a cliff along the back side of the map. The enemy had snipers positioned on the tower, and others ranged around it. It felt like some kind of assault-based FPS map, and I enjoyed the strategy that resulted in it.

Economy is Well Balanced

Aside from some guy at the Citadel who said he’d pay double for pain pills (he offered me $32 per bottle LESS than what I’d paid — though maybe he meant double what anyone else would pay), I’m finding the resources are limited enough to leave me feeling uncomfortable, but common enough to let me get through the game. I feel poor, though I continue advancing. It leaves me with a “skin of my teeth” feeling.

Bullets are the primary example of this, but also actual money. I always have some, but never enough to leave me feeling like I’m skating through the game, or unable to get through it.

The system of skill points emphasizes the feel of older RPGs where not all skills/attributes seem to be equally useful, and you need to play through to the game to figure out how to play through the game. However, the economy of skill points is fine in that you can afford to make plenty of mistakes and still progress, but I can’t help but wonder how the game would go if I re-made my characters with my new-found experience.

I’m typically finding that with skills and money, and to a degree bullets — I tend to do my best to hoard them and only open up the “purse strings” when things are getting hairy. For example, in most RPGs, gaining a level is an exciting things where you marvel over your upgrades. Here, I’ll level up 2 or 3 times before agonizing over whether to spend points on a skill.

Worth noting: Persuasion strikes me as unbalanced. I invested 4 skill points (a significant total) into “hard ass” and in 23 hours I’ve had one opportunity to use it. On the other hand, I’ve come across at least a half-dozen times when “smart ass” was available as an option.

Mini post mortem: puzzle game built in Unity

Here’s the link to my latest learning with Unity.

Puzzle Game Prototype (it’s only 6 levels, 5 of which are very easy, and the last one is too long/has no check points. I also forgot to mention that you move with WASD or Up/Down/Left/Right arrows. I haven’t added keyboard controls for restart, quit, and next level. And I haven’t even touched sound. But this was a project for learning, and not intended as a polished public release. That’s my excuse for sloppy designing.)

Let me know if you make it to the end!

PuzzlePrototype

Putting this together has helped me:

  • Become more comfortable with Unity’s layout.
  • Understand working in multiple levels (scenes), and how that affects assets.
  • Keep track of variables across multiple levels (i.e. global/local variables).
  • With scripting in C#, particularly with managing timing. But, more generally, my scripting is becoming much more flexible and cleaner, and I’m really understanding the benefit of making easy-to-follow code, always using variables (instead of explicit numbers, for example), and other things that come through daily practice.
  • Understand how to better use Coroutines and IEnumerators, or call functions across multiple game objects and scripts.
  • Learn how to use Mecanim for animations, and some of the differences between Mecanim and the legacy animation system.
  • Figure out how to move game objects, both AI-controlled and player-controlled, in particular through the use of tags.
  • Enabling and disable specific elements of game objects, as well as how to reference these elements (such as sprite rendering) and modify them — such as making objects temporarily invisible, re-coloring them, or applying force to them.
  • Using lighting.
  • With manipulating the interface (GUI — which I always say as “gooey”) — including managing text, making buttons appear/disappear, and using input to trigger scripts.
  • Learn how to publish content online (obviously).
  • Use Linecasting and Raytracing and Line rendering.
  • Understand how to set up a project, and use 2D or 3D mode.
  • Paying attention to the little things. Like many people say of the semi-colon in scripting, I’m finding that when I make mistakes it’s often little, silly things — like forgetting to enable a rigidbody or boxcollider. My work logs are littered with “Duh!” comments directed at myself after trying to debug why a script isn’t working — only to realize it wasn’t attached to the game object. Or trying to figure out why an object isn’t behaving properly before remembering I had temporarily changed the way the script works to test something else (and forgot to return it to normal).
  • With some side benefits, such as using Paint.Net to edit/clean pictures.

It surprised me how much I needed to learn in order to make something as simple as this puzzle game experiment. It also surprised me how often I became frustrated along the way and didn’t think I’d be able to get it done. But I kept pushing, even when I didn’t think it made sense to, and then the breakthroughs in understanding began.

I’m about 230 hours into using Unity now (when you add up all of the time spent on reading documentation, watching or following along with tutorials, and other, smaller projects I’ve worked on so far), but I feel like I’m at a point where I have a good foundation (the more you learn, of course, the more you realize how little you know.).

I’m getting better at reading the Unity documents and figuring out how to do new things. Previously, I felt pretty comfortable working in Unreal 3, but I can now say that I think I’m not only more comfortable in Unity, but I think what I can do in Unity far exceeds what I could do in Unreal 3.

“Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.” — Carl Sagan

It’s time for a new update on my game in progress, an update that includes its new title.

My most recent post addressing what stage of development the game was in said that I was at ‘alpha’. This meant that, in a bare-bones sense, everything was in and generally working. You could even play from the start-to-the-end of the game — if you were careful. And while most of it only made sense in my head (ha), the foundation existed.

A week or two ago I hit ‘beta’. I didn’t announce this because it didn’t feel as noteworthy as hitting alpha did to me. At beta, the game had everything in — but a lot of the text was placeholder (fairly significant in a story-focused game), features didn’t always make sense, and it wasn’t easy to play — giving it all a very rough, broken feel.

Last night, however, I hit what some might refer to as the ‘public beta’ stage.

There is no placeholder text left in the game; it’s all been given at least the once-over. I’ve tried to make the game a little more forgiving and, more importantly, clear. All of the intended ways to play through are now in. Thanks to a couple volunteers, I’ve even been able to address two compatibility bugs.

I would not say everything is perfect. There are still things I need to do to smooth the experience out. But it’s hit a state where I’m feeling pretty happy with it. Also, as I noted about the game now has a title:

I Think The Waves Are Watching Me

It strikes me as a name that is unique, and that also reflects the tone and spirit of the game. Feel free to let me know what you think.

My plan from here is to add a little more content by way of ‘random story encounters’ and to address feedback from anyone who plays. Meanwhile, I’ll be training up on Unity. Originally, the plan was to use the text version of the game as a blueprint for a graphical, Unity-based version, but I think the text version has so completely become its own thing that I likely cannot ‘just add graphics’. So while I’m learning Unity, I’ll also be working out the details of what comes next.

Working from home…

For those wondering about how my game is coming along, here is a quick update: I’m very close to what I’d consider beta. All features are now in, the game strikes me as very stable, and it can be played from start-to-finish in every way.

Aside from “polish”, “balance”, “bugs”, (which could take a million years) and replacing the temporary text with final text, it’s done. I anticipate hitting beta in about two more weeks and then I work on the aforementioned until it’s good enough. And, yes, I know it was more than a month ago when I said I was probably “about two more weeks away from beta”. This ended up being far more demanding than I anticipated.

Now that the update is out of the way, I want to take a moment to tell you all how uncertain I was about being able to successfully work from home, even though… *VFX of fading back through time*

… The first time I ever worked from home came when I was working at BioWare — I think it was the first half of 2003. The video game press were visiting to play a game that we were working on (Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic).

Our power situation was such that setting up a dozen computers for the press would exceed our supply and cause the power to go out. Leadership considered the best solution and opted to let some people, such as many of us on the QA team, work from home.

My first day home, I did not wake up as if I had to be at work by 9am (or even my more usual 10:30am). I slept in. I slept until I felt like getting out of bed, which was probably early afternoon, and then I took my time actually waking up and easing into the half-gone day.

I repeated this throughout my “sorta” workcation until I had to return to the office. Then I checked out the stats for my average performance versus my performance from home. I’m sure this will surprise no one, but I was far more productive from home despite feeling like I was being lazy.

That’s where I’m at right now. I sleep until noon. I shower. I catch up on Facebook. I eat breakfast and drink some tea. And then I start working until what would technically be lunch — except it’s coming at 7pm or 8pm. Afterward, I work a little more until it’s time to watch some TV or movies with Candice and go to bed to start the whole thing over.

I remember reading or discussing the topic of how many hours of productivity managers were looking for, and discovered that 20 hours of productive work for a junior or mid-level employee was considered good, and you hoped your senior-level staff could hit 30 hours.

To everyone who is working a 40-hour week (or far, far more, as I always did as a teacher), maybe that sounds like a vacation. But from your day, consider what’s left after you chop out time for bathroom breaks, coffee breaks, lunch breaks, chats around the water cooler, time spent goofing off on the Internet or at the foosball table, reading and responding to e-mails (whether or not for work), and enduring agonizingly-long meeting (unless you’re one of those who love meetings and think they’re super productive. I was always happier being left out from them). Commutes may even be a part of your work day. Chop all that out and only mark the time spent being productive. 30 hours may sound impossible after that.

But aside from two light weeks in the last couple of months, I’m hitting between 31 and 43 productive hours per week. And while I’m usually a bit brain dead by the end of the week, this feels very sustainable. In fact, it’s bordering on relaxing. Sometimes I have to force myself to take the weekend off. By Monday, I’m itching to get going again.

The point is that while I initially wasn’t sure if I had what it took to be disciplined enough to remain productive while working from home, once again I am finding that I am likely getting more done than I would were I at an office. It makes me wonder why more businesses-that-can don’t allow their employees to do this — especially when programs like Skype even make meetings easy.

If you’re curious about this idea and don’t want to take my word for it, check out this article (and here are the slides) or listen to some of the smarter companies out there who are also realizing that getting everyone in the same building isn’t always important.

An Idea 30 years in the Making…

There are three games that inspired my game-in-progress in one way or another. Each of these three games are nearly 30 years old (thus the silly title to this post), and worth a little time in the remembering. This post is entirely about those three games. But read between the lines and maybe you’ll get an idea or two about what I’m working on.

Friday the 13th

This game pits you as one of the teens being stalked by the horror movie character Jason Voorhees. Let’s look at a screen shot.

Friday_the_13th_-_1985_-_Domark_Software

Oh my! Those are some outdated pixels. But, to be fair, their game has graphics and isn’t just text like mine is at the moment.

In the game, there are several outdoor and indoor areas you can visit. There are 10 other people at the camp with you besides Jason, but in the shot above we can see one person is already dead. Your task is to kill Jason as quickly as possible. Every person who survives nets you bonus points — which encourages you to move quickly. To find Jason, you can wander around and hope to spot him killing someone, or, silliest of all, you can hit everyone you see. If you hit someone with a weapon they’ll either be momentarily stunned and take some damage or they’ll be revealed as Jason in disguise.

I remember thinking that the game felt “broken” from a game design perspective, but I kept coming back to it. I think that says that there were some really good things about the game. In fact, I remember my younger self being quite impressed that you never knew who Jason was disguised as. And I liked the idea of wandering around a few maps with other strangers (almost like a multiplayer game) never quite knowing when he would pop up.

Shogun

This is a game I struggled to understand, as a kid, but I loved to play it. In fact, I’d call it one of my favorite childhood video games. Here’s what it looked like:

Shogun_-_1986_-_Mastertronic

It looks like he’s floating/jumping, but there was no gravity in this game. You could walk anywhere up/down/left/right.

Like Friday the 13th, the player had a lot of maps to explore, and there were a lot of other people throughout these maps, too. Unlike Friday the 13th, you could actually interact with these people. In the shot above, there is a list of tools running the length of the bottom of the window that you used to interact — including the option to take, give, trade, examine, speak, and fight — as well as a few other options. From memory, you were competing to become Shogun against all the other random people. You could find gifts and money and use them to acquire followers, or even receive them from other people. To end the game you had to gather some specific items and enough followers.

What I liked about this game was the sense of forming relationships with specific people. I’d see someone getting picked on, and jump in to help them out. After the fight (which consisted of running away while trying to keep someone barely overlapping your back edge, strange as that sounds), I’d give my new follower a gift or some money to secure his loyalty, then cry when someone else killed him or stole him from me.

Both Shogun and Friday the 13th were relatively short, and the-same-but-different each time you played, reminiscent of games such as FTL, The Binding of Isaac, and Don’t Starve (as well as all the rogue-likes).

Ultima V

The fifth installment in the Ultima RPG series may not seem to fit with the aforementioned short-and-replayable titles, but it’s really one specific element of Ultima V that I wanted to talk about. But first, here’s a shot.

u5lb2

These graphics look retouched…

Ultima V was a lengthy RPG in a huge world that I finished three or four (III or IV, ha) times. One of the things I loved about it was the keyword-based conversation system. You could initiate a conversation with anyone, and then say whatever you liked. True, people had no response to most words you might offer up, but as you played and got used to it you figured out how to get people talking and who was worth talking with. Additionally, people wandered around and had their own schedules. They would wake in the morning, go to their job, stop at the tavern at the end of the day, and then return home to sleep. Most of the schedules were simple, but occasionally you’d spot strange patterns which made the game, and the people, suddenly feel more alive.

One night I entered a town around midnight and spotted a few people who had been standing out in the woods, but were now returning to their homes. I was very curious about what they had been up to, having been out so late, but no one would spill any beans. My memory is a little hazy, but I think I finally met someone else, later on, who clued me in that a small group met on the outskirts of a town at midnight. He gave me a password and I went back to that spot just before midnight. I met the group, told them the password, and suddenly found myself on a new mission.

Now-a-days, in games like these, people have exclamation points over their head if they have a mission, or if they’ve got what you need to complete the mission. It makes it all quite easy, and to be honest I’d consider that an advancement in game design. However, I found it so exciting to peel layers away from this world and discovering the secrets within, as if I’d solved a puzzle.

That’s it for this look at some games from the past. Take from what I wrote whatever you’d like, but after you’ve played my game (when it’s done, and hopefully you will), maybe you’ll come back to this post and have some thoughts on it.

“You cannot create experience. You must undergo it.” — Albert Camus

I recently wrote a bit about my ongoing process of making a game, but I never specified exactly what it is that I’m making. I’ll start by saying that this is not the type of game that exclusively emphasizes starting at point A and skillfully navigating your way along to point B. Instead, one of my game design goals for this project is to create an experience filled with discovery — something this post discusses more in-depth.

Experiential gaming is a genre that is typically lighter on game play and heavier on the feelings that the game’s narrative or story evokes. Experiential games want you less caught up in trying to win, and more engaged in how you feel as a result of moving through the experience of the game.

Hopefully that doesn’t sound too highfalutin, but to be clear it’s not meant to be exclusionary, or sound like something that only an art snob/hipster would get. If anything, it’s meant to appeal more to what speaks to every one of us. If you play a horror game and die because you were too afraid to shoot when the monster jumped out, then I would say you “got it”.

There are many great examples of experiential games to check out, most of them made by independent game developers, and when I was teaching game design I always enjoyed spending a class session or two checking them out with the students.

The first experiential game I came across is Jason Rohrer’s Passage, a free game with simple pixel graphics that you can play start-to-end in about two or three minutes. Beating the game is trivial, but again that’s not the point. Instead, you guide your character through life and, maybe, are left pondering the outcome of the decisions you made against what you saw as the resulting happiness/sadness/satisfaction/regret/etc. that played out on the screen.

Experiential titles have stretched out from independent efforts like Rohrers into bigger budget titles like Journey and The Last of Us. These games injected heavy doses of the experiential genre, each tackling the formation of relationships in unique ways, into more traditional game set-ups to create something that felt very new and deep, maybe more satisfying, or satisfying in a different way, than some other games.

And that brings me back to my game.

I like writing, and I like writing characters and events that feel like they’re from a dream. That is, while the scenarios I write are based in reality, there are more than a few things that don’t quite connect or add up. Additionally, when these strange things do happen, no one even acknowledges them as out of the ordinary or uncommon. Think of movies by David Lynch or stories like Alice in Wonderland and you know where I’m coming from.

And so in my game I want the players to be a little uncertain about which way is up, and maybe to even be a little confused by what’s real and what isn’t. If people keep playing despite thinking “what is happening?” then I’ll know I hit the mark — especially if people think about it after they’re done playing.

I’ve now talked a fair bit about the game without saying anything too specific about it. Excellent, haha. However, in my next post I will write a little about some of the games that have more directly inspired my project, which should give you a more clear sense of the traditional side of my game (that is, the skillful-movement-from-point-A-to-point-B part of the game).

New Project Hits Alpha, World Holds Breath

It’s been a time since I last posted. But I’m not here to talk about that. I’m here to write some thoughts about what I’m doing.

Back on February 3rd I came up with what I thought to be a quick game concept that IĀ  could knock out in a matter of days. It was to be a board game-esque, text-only game — something to let me get comfortable with the basics of C#.

Skip the next 200 hours laterĀ  to today, and I finally hit alpha. Alpha! Who would have ever thought words could take so long to “make do stuff”? Obviously, my planning is getting re-adjusted.

Capture

(By alpha I mean that a player can start-and-finish the game, without cheating, and all the features are in and working — but a lot of the text and content is placeholder. Yes, 200 hours to make a text game and I’m not even done with the text.)

What’s next?

  • Get the content and words done! That puts me to beta.
  • Polish, bug fixes, and balance. That puts me to release.
  • Freely distribute the game to anyone who doesn’t get ill at the thought of playing a game with no graphics. Solicit feedback.
  • Wrap the project –
  • – and then re-build it in Unity… this time with graphics!
  • Sell the game for bazillions (bazillions of what?) and then hopefully move on to the next project.
  • Update this site all along the way.

I have tons of other things to add, but let’s start this thing up slowly.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution

A few random thoughts that wandered into my head as I started Deus Ex: Human Revolution for the PS3:

This game has a lot of loading screens. They are long.
I dig the music theme at the title screen.
This game has a lot of gold and brown colors.
I should have known that since the logo is also brown and gold.
The people in this game have small heads and big hands.
And, to Sean: crouching is not only implemented, but it’s important.

I’m not much of a fan of FPS, and I’ve never finished any of the prior Deus Ex titles, but games like Alpha Protocol and Mass Effect 2 have bridged the gap, as I see it, and I’m now happily wandering around New Detroit, trying to figure out how to get into a police station. Read More

Witcher 2: Post #2

The following is based off my current playthrough-in-progress, covering the first chapter of the Witcher 2.

 

***
I’m having fun with the combat in the Witcher 2. The game contains the tools necessary for a great fighting system. But it lacks polish and balance. The outcome is a system that is frustrating not for how bad it is, but for how close it gets to something really well done.

The Tools

There’s quick/weak attacks, and strong/slow attacks. There’s blocking, there’s parrying, there’s evading, there’s juggling, there’s fatigue (which, I now know, prevents you from blocking if you’re empty, and is accompanied by a sound that does not at all suggest at fatigue), and there’s stringing combinations together with properly-timed attacks. Plus, you can weave magic into the mix, but you can’t spam the “drink healing potion” button (because there ain’t one).

The Best

For those who have ever talked games with me, you know that my high-water mark for action game fighting comes from Batman: Arkham Asylum. What a perfect system. It is one of the few games where I was genuinely excited from, and satisfied by, fighting outside of the context of the story. Stick me in a room with a bunch of baddies, as the training rooms did, and I was made content for hours on end. For many years prior, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time held that title.

The latest Assassin’s Creed, Brotherhood, saw me spend a lot of time fighting baddies in a training room. But that was less out of enjoyment and more out of a desire to really grasp the combat system so that the game would be more enjoyable. That isn’t to say Brotherhood’s fighting is anything less than good, but it’s not to the level of Batman.

The Witcher 2’s combat feels inspired by these games. But there are problems.

Fighting against Groups

My primary gripe is that there is no effective way to fight groups — at least, not early on. The game excels when it’s you versus one or two others, maybe three others, but when the numbers rise beyond that the combat is frustrating.

Half of the problem is that if you do it properly, you string your attacks into a rhythm that focuses on one opponent. The moment your rhythm is disrupted or ends, the defender goes on the offensive. I’m not saying you can’t hit 5 or 6 different targets by bouncing around the battlefield, I’m saying that it is not an effective method of combat for a new player based on the controls.

The other half of the equation is the enemy AI. In a game like Batman, where group combat is handled flawlessly, the AI mirrors old kung fu movies. You face off against one foe while the rest circle, take a step back, and then lean in menacingly. They’re standing around, allowing the player to fight and have fun. Realistic? No. But that’s not what we want here. What we want is to see the player finish off one foe, and then one of the circling remainders jumps in for a shot.

In the Witcher 2, the foes all lunge at you at once. And while you start a series of combos against one foe, the remainders hit you in the back — not only disrupting your attack, but dealing double-damage for the rear attack. You’re also temporarily stunned each time you are hit, meaning your three foes now juggle away half of your health bar while you can only watch.

Moves

Movement during battles is handled pretty well. The Witcher can dodge his way about the battlefield by dropping and rolling out of (or into) harm’s way. Presumably, this gives you the ability to roll behind attacking foes and strike them in the back. In action, it never quite works out. Foes respond too quickly to keep you in front of them.

Balance

Throughout the first chapter, combat is balanced to make you feel heroic. Most fights square you off against singular or small groups of foes who are quickly dispatched. Their challenge comes from great numbers, and surviving waves of combat. Killing a few nekkers is easy. Taking on a dozen, a few at a time, is an exciting challenge that forces you to be careful and patient.

But, as mentioned in the first impressions post, some fights fall outside this zone. The fight against Letho is one example. The fight on the prison barge is another. These fights can be very difficult. In the case of Letho, like the fight against the kayran, things are more forgivable because you realize these encounters are pattern recognition challenges. The goal is to figure out your opponents patterns, and then dodge or attack based on the tells. Again, the game isn’t precise enough for these encounters to work well, but I appreciate the effort at a change up.

The prison barge fight is deeply flawed, pitting you against more than a half-dozen armed-and-aggressive guards. The saving graces here are that a) there are locations on the boat where the guards don’t follow, allowing you to sit back and recover energy or try to pick off stragglers from the group, and b) you have an ally who generates a huge amount of threat, meaning the majority of the guards focus on him instead of you. Since your ally cannot die, this allowance comes with the ridiculous humor value of letting you sit back and watch your ally get juggled around the perimeter of the boat by the guards.

‘Tis but a scratch!

In the Witcher, many foes fall from one well-executed string of attacks, a combination of, say, 5 or 6 successfully-timed strikes. Some regular foes, however, can absorb 4 or 5, or more, such combinations. I’ve said this before and I’m saying it again now: when combat is abstracted, as it is with the tabletop version of Dungeons & Dragons, I can suspend my disbelief when I’ve hit an ogre 20 times because I’m imagining little hits weakening and tiring my foe.

In a game like the Witcher 2, where the visuals are so amazing, I don’t want to watch my hero grinding his way to victory by sticking his sword in a guard’s face 20 times, only to note along the way that the guard’s health bar is still half-full. If I can prove I can do something a couple times, don’t make me do it another dozen times or more.

So You Hate It?

No! As I said above, I really like it. I’ve been through countless battles, and I can count the encounters that I became frustrated with on one hand.

The Witcher 2 does a lot of good things. I don’t want to see this game’s fighting re-made to perfectly copy Arkham Asylum. I like the fatigue on blocking, even if it’s not intuitive. I like that you can’t drink potions during a fight. I like that you have to time your attacks. I like the critical hit/kills. I like the animations, especially for the further-along-the-chain attacks. I like the occasionally QTEs. I like the realism that a single hero can be felled by a few normal people if they swarm you (even though they shouldn’t swarm you). And I like the various ways you can level up your hero to shape how you engage opponents.

Tighten up the reaction time so it feels more responsive, give the player an obvious opportunity to “potion up” prior to tough fights, weaken the excessively healthy individuals as in games like Brotherhood and Arkham Asylum, and prevent more than 2 or 3 people from attacking at once and you’ve got something special. Hopefully future patches for the game improve the experience and get it even closer to its potential.