Saturday, 15 October 2011

Freedom Force Vs The Third Reich: Game Design Review

Released about 3 years after the original Freedom Force, Freedom Force vs The Third Reich is a direct sequel to Freedom force.

Freedom Force 3rd Reich is basically Freedom Force except with a new storyline. Which I think is a real shame. I loved the original Freedom Force and I definitely love this one. But rather expanding on the gameplay, the creators have only created new missions and a couple of new characters. The entire game feels too much like an extended storyline and a couple of new characters thrown in rather than any substantial improvements or mechanics.

From a gameplay mechanics and usability perspective, the Freedom Force series nails everything about a superhero game should nail:
  • You have a team of 4 super heroes with various powers and abilities with all sorts of super hero abilities.
  • All stats and bonuses and attacks are labelled very clearly breaking down you exactly all the information you need about each attack for example, that the attack is ranged attack, takes 2 seconds to complete and does energy damage in addition to normal damage for example and will deal 7 damage to the opponent.
  • When you hold down right over an enemy or terrain you are given a list of possible actions your currently selected Hero can perform
  • A very fun physics engine - You can pick up lamp posts and cars and debris and hurl them at enemies and damage buildings. Some attacks even allow you to hurl enemies upwards or away with great force which is great for deal additional damage when they land.
  • Levelling up is similarly quite easy and straightforward, you level up the previous skill up to level 3, and then you can purchase. Although the upgrade path is linear and you can't alter the superheroes, you can create your character using existing characters models or your own character modesl with all the powers available to you to give to the characeter. This custom character can be quite expensive or cheap depending on many powers or weaknesses you give him or her.
  • There are battle rooms and challenges.
Unfortunately, what I am critical off is the lack of anything truly new or innovate. I thought a sequel would at least mix things up a bit and give some additional ideas in the game. But no, it's a linear campaign from start to finish.

What features could they have included in Freedom Force and the 3rd Reich?
  • A world map maybe with optional quests or storyline to unlock and optional missions depending on your choices in the campaign.
  • Increasing squad size from 4 to 6 maybe?
  • Group move where everyone moves togehter as a group and the same speed hasn't been implemented. Faster characters will travel towards enemies and get that before slower characters.
  • Synergy and bonuses - For example Man O' War and Sea Urchin are a team, so why not have some sort of synergy bonus when you use them in the same mission?
  • Simultaneous attacks - Combo attacks like the ones seen in Chrono Trigger where both characters combine their powers would be cool.
  • More time puzzles or missions? One of my most favourite missions in the game was a time puzzle where your actions in the present would affect the past. Considering the screwing up of time/space/reality was a big part of this game, they could have made even more missions like this. Maybe even have it so that you can play both teams at the same time! For example Chrono Trigger on the Super Nintendo gave you several time periods to travel in freely and your actions in the past could actually change the future!
  • More character options to customise the appearance of your custom characters? You can use existing models but some sort of better customisation utility would have been nice.
  • New Game+ Start the game again except with the stats of your Heroes already at the same level as they were in your old game.
  • Needs more new enemies - There aren't that many new ones.
  • More vehicles - You do get to control the tank for a while. Would be nice to control some sort of Freedom mobile or something or be able to hijack more stuff.
It's more of the same which is a good thing. It hits all the right notes and is still one of the best superhero themed squad based games especially with the custom character option but I am disappointed that a game which came 3 years after originally hasn't matured at all.

It's now available in a collection with the original Freedom Force so do buy it in a collection and play them back to back. If you love squad-based tactical games and superheroes, buy the Freedom Force Collection which contains both games. Now available on various platforms. It won't disappoint.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Why Games are Art

My good friend Shaun (a physicist) started a new blog (mostly about science) and invited me to do a guest blog on why games are art. Check out my post on why Games are Art.

Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain Vs Legacy of Kain Defiance

After a long while, I've finally been able to get Blood Omen PC version working on my computer and have just finished Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain (the first game) after playing through Soul Reaver, Soul Reaver 2 and Legacy of Kain: Defiance (the fifth and last game). The only game I haven't played is Blood Omen 2 which seems quite hard to obtain on the PC. I thought I would just run through my thoughts on the design of the games.

Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain
My overall impression of Blood Omen has been a positive one despite its age. It's a Zelda-like open world action game in many respects and it deserves its status as one of the best action RPGs. It has a dark unique atomosphere, good storyline, great voice acting and memorable characters. It's level design is quite logical in most cases and some of the puzzles are quite clever as well. Many dungeons have a clear picture at their entrance indicating what power you'll get and most of the dungeon save the last ones are of good playable length (no more 15 minutes between save points). It strikes a good balance between exploration and reward of your next power or ability. There are also a number of secrets and specials you can unlock during the course of the game. I love all the various spells, items and gory ways you can kill opponents and the ability to morph into gaseous form and werewolf form.

There are a couple of issues with the game which I think could have been done better
1) Faster attacks - For some strange reason, enemies just slightly attack faster than you and I have to do that whole run away, wait for enemy to attack, return and attack. This is very frustrating in my opinion as I always feel that you should be moving forward to attack not retreating with your back turned to the enemey. There were some occasions where I ended up being cornered and got killed because I couldn't strike fast enough. He's suppose to be a superhuman vampire yet can't quite swing faster than some of the enemies.
2) Slightly faster movement - I think this might be something to do with the fact that the game requires slowdown utility but Kain walks a bit too slowly and could have used a bit of speedup.
3) Bat shrines which act as teleportation points are often off the main travelling 'track' and its easy to miss them sometimes.
4) Some of the required abilities require you to search - I don't mind searching for optional abilities but the caves or dungeons with the required abilities should be forced to obtain them. There were one or two instances in the game where I was stuck not realising I had missed crucial powers until I read a walkthrough and realised there was a dungeon I had to backtrack to.
5) Some enemies are too powerful - Some of the enemies had way too much health and it was just easier to avoid them altogether diminishing the point of an action combat game.
6) Faster mana regeneration - Mana regeneration too slow in the game and needs to be faster.
7) Moon caves are silly idea - There are secret caves in the game which open only when the moon is full (ie. every 30 days of in game time). I finished the game in about 35 days so this is very bad design choice as it basically means you have to wait around for secrets to happen.
8) Power effects are the same - Some of the powers are the same as earlier except they do more damage or have a longer duration and cost more mana. It would probably have been better if they had simply completely replaced the old power with the new power instead and kept the mana usage the same. It would reduce the difficulty level but as mentioned the game is hard as it is already.

Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver
Played this several years back so my memory isn't too great on this but I do remember that it was really fun because it had a variety of environments and really awesome boss characters with top notch coice acting. The storyline is very dark and is about how you are seeking revenge against your brothers and Kain I also liked the fact it was impossible to die and you merely return back to the spectral realm and when you get killed there you simply return back to the lake of the dead where you first started.

The game also does something very smart with gliding, when you reach a platform, Raziel will automatically drop on to the platform rather than continuing to glide. This is so much better than other games where you might accidentally overglide or overjump a platform.

Things that could have been improved
1) Ducking/crouching is useless in the game
2) Repetitive nature of some the puzzles
3) Story doesn't actually end
4) A bit too open ended in some respects and hard to find some of the powerups
5) Teleportation runes can get confusing
6) Some puzzles required spectral shifting which warps the environment but it wasn't always clear as to when exactly this should happen
7) Combat is okay but could be better, hard to attack multiple enemies and its easier sometimes just to run.
8) Hard to throw enemies into spike
9) Due to the apocalyptic themes, its a bit too grey and brown sometimes. Could have used a bit of cheerful colour now and again.

Soul Reaver 2
I played this about 7 months ago. Continuing the storyline of Soul Reaver, this game had improved graphics and had you playing in a time when Nosgoth was still green and fresh. Areas are much larger and puzzles more varied.

As before, there are several things which bring the game down:
Fighting is better but enemies can still sometimes overwhelm you.
Lack of cool bosses - Soul Reaver had very cool bosses and there are none in this game.
Spells and glyphs have disappeared replaced with Reaver abilities
Storyline is harder to follow as it involves time travel through different time periods.

Overall a worthy entry as Raziel continues to fight destiny and uncover more secrets. The game's improved in many areas and the story has become more complex. The main issue is probably the lack of cool bosses and the combat system could still use more work. It was getting there however.

Legacy of Kain: Defiance
After playing through Soul Reaver one and Soul Reaver. It seems as if they took the good points of what made Blood Omen and Soul Reaver 1 & 2 great and made them mediocre. The only great thing left is the voice acting which is top notch once again. The combat system has been updated and much more responsive but feels they should have done more.

Here are the things which I've found problematic
1) Combat requires more attacks. The basics are all good and there are some special attacks but it needs more variety. It might be unfair to compare to Devil May Cry but I think combat is a bit half heartened, Kain and Raziel behave almost exactly the same in combat. There are subtle differences but not enough.
2) Missing cool special abilities - Once again spell casting abilites for both Kain and Raziel have been removed and replaced with reaver powers again but these can only be activated when the reavers are charged through battle. I don't seem why they couldn't have had a separate mana bar which allows you could unleash other powers. Also the spell casting abilites looks boring. Usually just involving Kain or Raziel swinging the reaver around their heads with colour waves or attacking the ground. Telekinesis is fun but again could have been so much more particularly as Raziel's full telekinesis powers don't quite kick in until later on.
3) No cool boss fights - There are a few but many of the boss fights are very repetitive and there are maybe two or three 'different' boss fights.
4) Repetitive level design and enemies - The game makes you go through the same shrines as both Kain and Raziel which are exactly the same layout. Blood Omen and Soul Reaver had cool boss fights while Soul Reaver 2 had large unique environments. So why couldn't Defiance have both? You fight the exact same bosses everytime you visit a shrine as Raziel.Frankly that's just lazy design.

Overall, the quality of the game seems to have stagnated in Legacy of Kain: Defiance merely wanting to be average. All the required cutscenes and revelations are there including the showdown between Kain and Raziel but feels like an incomplete a game. If anything I think Blood Omen was better than Legacy of Kain: Defiance. Kain could transform into a werewolf cast various spells, eviscerate people and even control their bodies!

If you're a fan of the series then you should get this because its still okay. But if you're not already a fan, nothing in here will convince you its a good game.