Monday, 31 December 2012

Wario Land 4: Game Design Review

Released on the GBA, Wario Land 4 is an action platformer like the previous games and was the first proper GBA Wario game. In my Wario 3 review, I criticised a number of aspects of the game, mostly to do with the large confusing levels. Wario 4 Fixes many of the the problems I had mentioned of the Wario Land 3 game and is much closer to Wario Land 2 in terms of game design.

There are some very minor game design issues from my perspective:
Short game- Wario Land 2 had a huge number of short levels and alternative levels you can unlock depending on certain actions. Wario Land 4 on the other hand has very distinct levels but is extremey linear with only around 20 levels.

Lack of opportunities to use special abilities- For some reason, there are greatly reduced number of opportunities to use the special abilities/forms that Wario can transform into compared to other games. It's a bit of a shame really as that was often the most fun and unique parts of solving puzzles in previous Wario games.

Mini-games- Mini-games are okay but nothing to write home compared. You should probably just play Wario Ware instead.

Limited Lives- Wario now has hearts again and will have to replay the entire level if you lose them all. I think lives seem a bit like a step back from the precedent set by the previous games. The game was all about being invincible and being slowed down rather being forced to redo the entire game.

Wario Land 4 is a very fun game even today and a classic by my standards. It doesn't quite reach the standard that Wario Land 2 set but the fun levels, kooky graphics and solid gameplay makes it worth playing despite its age.

Saturday, 29 December 2012

Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine: Game Design Review

Created by Relic that made the Dawn of War strategy games, Warhammer Space Marine is an action-shooter set in the Warhammer 40K universe where you play as Captain Titus of the Ultramarines. Here's my thoughts after playing it.

What I liked:
Set pieces and large battlefields- Some of the most fun moments in the game are when you fight alongside Imperial guard and fellow space marines some pretty cool looking set pieces and battlefields against hordes of Orks and Chaos space marine

Lots of shooting and strong action!- The action and shooting feels very solid and quite smooth. Especially when combined with the Xbox 360 controller where you can feel the vibrations.

What I didn't like:
Lots of empty corridors and walking around in large passages- Lots of games have quiet moments between action sequences to help break up the pace. It's good that Relic recognises the need for well timed breaks in-between large scale battles but the amount of walking around in sewers or passages is very noticeable particularly as Titus is deliberately slowed to a walk and the only thing you do in those scenes is listen to your marines and support characters talk.

What's even worse is that numerous checkpoints are placed before the dialogue meaning if you die you'll have to listen to them over and over again. It's just a waste of time unfortunately having to walk all the way back to the next combat area. It's twenty second of just walking around really.

Lack of health kits/stations- I appreciate the lack of regeneration but at the same time I do think that once a battle is over in an area you should be restored to full health or when you reach checkpoint. You are given full health when you die and respawn at a checkpoint so why not?

Enemy variation- Considering the large and varied lore, it's surprising that we only see Orks and later on Chaos space marines. There are about 7 or 8 kinds of units in total which is very disappointing.

Needs more jet pack action- The jetpack action sections were probably the best and reminded me strongly of Dark Void which I loved! In fact I'm convinced that if the entire game had been design around jetpack action as an assault marine it would be much more successful and exciting!

Lacks gameplay variety- There's a distinct lack of gameplay variety in the sense that it is a straight forward linear action shooter amidst static arenas. Melee is very simplistic compared to games like Devil May Cry and new elements such as new melee weapons, new enemies are introduced occasional game but somehow the repetitiveness just wears thin after a while. It feels like it needs to be more ambitious.

The best parts of the game as mentioned at the start is when you're fighting with the Imperial guard in large spaces with friendlies and enemies fighting. There should be more vast open spaces, more crazy fights and more races! Why aren't there large dreadnoughts and tanks fighting alongside you amidst scorching battlefields? Haven't we already seen enough of urban environments, sewers and underground factories in other games?

Squad AI- Throughout the game, you'll be accompanied by several squad members. Unfortunately, they are controlled by generic AI which you can't control. I thought it was a great shame that you can't give them weapons or issue them commands to help them cover you. A real missed opportunity here to introduce some interesting decisions.

As a whole I did enjoy quite a number of parts of Warhammer Space Marine. But the repetitiveness of enemies and gameplay soon drags everything down. Overall, it's a solid game that's worth a rental but not much else. It really doesn't take enough advantage of the source material to craft a unique experience and ends up feeling very generic.

Anomaly: Warzone Earth Game Design Review

Anomaly: Warzone Earth is a reverse tower defense game by 11-bit studios. Instead of building towers to fend off attackers, you control a commander with a convoy and have to attack towers to travel to the end of the map. Gameplay revolves around buying units or upgrades for your convoy, deploying your commander's special abilities and telling your convoy where to go using the strategic map.

Your commander's special abilities are absolutely crucial for ensuring the survival of the convoy. The commander is an actual unit on the map that will be attacked so you have to be careful when deploying special abilities. The game ends up feeling  more like an action game than a strategy game at times and can get quite busy when you're in the midst of action.

What I liked:
Solid graphics, sound and animation- The presentation is very well done and solid for an indie.

Usability- The gameplay is fairly easy to grasp and well explained considering its unusual concept. You use a map to tell your convoy which turn to take at each intersection and you also get a number on how long it will take to reach each point and the total time to the goal. The strengths and abilities and cost of each unit are well represented and overall easy to understand.

What I didn't like:

Needs more unit variety and strategies- The commander also has limited number of abilities and there are only a handful of units and a handful of slots in the convoy. The combination of fewer units means that the basic strategies are quickly learnt and it became a bit too repetitive.

Commander unit is limited- The deliberate introduction of an in-game commander that has health and can be attacked is clear game design move to improve the action in games like this. Your commander will often weave in and out of fire deploying support abilities while your units take out the towers.

I feel the commander is a bit under utilised because he can't attack directly and can only deploy a very limited number of support abilities. He's no different from your standard tower defence special abilities that a player can normally deploy except he's vulnerable. In other words, he doesn't add enough to the game play. The android version of the game does away with him completely and I don't think anything was loss in the process.

More interesting levels- In a game like this, the levels themselves start to get repetitive because of the nature of the game. There's only so many ways of street combinations and towers before it gets a bit stale. There are some minor missions and challenges but levels themselves are mostly static aside from the towers. I wonder if there's a way to make the levels more dynamic by introducing even more environmental effects, friendly units, optional timed objectives, multiple paths etc

Doesn't feel enough like a true tower defense- In a tower defense game, you'll often have lots of enemy units being thrown at lots of towers. Being a much more intimate game with very few units makes it feel a bit sluggish compared to games like Defense Grid: The Awakening. What I really want to see is a game where you have tens of units streaming past towers and you have to decide which group of units to assist.

Special effects in the upgrade menu- There's a strange 'pan and tilt effect' in the upgrade menu to make it feel more like a futuristic floating 3D menu. It's small but I thought it was a silly as it adds nothing to the game and ends up being distracting rather than cool.

Warzone Anomaly is an indie game by a small indie studio and it is important to acknowledge it for what it is. It is a solid well put together package but it feels like it needs more of something. I didn't have a great time with Warzone Anomaly after a while as I've never really enjoyed playing Tower defense games but if you like Tower defenses you'll probably enjoy this. If don't already enjoy the genre then you might want to check out the demo first.

Monday, 17 December 2012

Brothers in Arms: Hell's Highway: Game Design Review

The third in the series, Brothers in Arms: Hell's Highway follows Matt Baker and his squad of men as they take part in Operation Market Garden. Like in previous games, it's a tactical squad-based FPS where you control Baker and yell out orders to your various squads.

As far as I could tell, there were only several real differences compared to its predecessors aside from better graphics. Note that this only applies to the single player, not sure how the multiplayer is any different.

Destructible cover- You can now blow up and destroy scenery with your bazooka squad or grenades. This is extremely fun actually and adds a bit of tactical variety. You can now force enemy squads into destructible cover and then blow up the cover!

Cover based shooting and healing- Like modern shooters you can now take cover behind chest-high walls and you heal slowly if you wait a little.

Grenading close targets- In previous game, sometimes the game would end up in a stalemate with your troops and enemy squads being several metres apart firing at each other behind cover. Now, if you're close enough you can order them to grenade the location instead which is much more fun and safer for your guys ending stalemates much more easily.

Otherwise the game and the tactics involved are the same. You still have to fix/suppress them with fire and then flank them.

Game Design issues
The main criticisms of this game are the same as in my review of the previous game in the series.

Lack of order queuing- In the game you can order people to provide cover fire and attack enemy squads  but you can't actually queue orders. I believe this was done quite deliberately to to make the game much more immediate and accessible for console players and also force you into action.

Missing tank control- In the previous games, you could order a tank around which acted as a powerful weapon and also as mobile cover. In this game, the tank has been removed from the main game. Instead you occasionally get to control a tank in an action sequence. The tank sections are okay but frankly ordering a tank around the battlefield is much more fun.

Squad situational awareness against explosives and threats- While squad members will take cover appropriately, they aren't particularly good at avoiding getting blown up by tank shells or explosives just like in previous games. They pretty stay exactly where they are and die regardless or how horrible the situation is going. You have to pretty much tell me where exactly where you want them to go.

Indoor gameplay- During the single player campaign, Baker will sometimes be separated from the squad indoors and have to shoot his way out. Unfortunately this is where the problems of the cover-based system are exposed. Because of the narrow corridors, all too often Barker's head often obscures your view and enemies also tend to run into you more often giving you little chance to react. There isn't a close range attack so it can frustrating at times when you die because you're reloading while the enemy is less than a metre way.

Linearity- This is a very linear journey from set piece to set piece and very short. There are no optional areas or missions which is a bit of a shame really. I think a couple branching areas would have livened things up a bit and added a bit of replayability.

A lot of my criticisms focused around the problems inherent creating a game like this. Who do you please? The action-orientated gamers or the more hardcore simulation gamers? This is not a simulation game, this a squad-based action shooter primarily for the consoles and it's hard to criticise the game on it's simple command system and controls because that's exactly what it set out to do. It's still an engaging if linear game and good for a couple of hours.

I enjoyed this entry into the series, and its a good solid action game. It doesn't stray far from the mould of the original games so if you enjoyed those you'll enjoy this but if you're looking for something different, it's best to look else where!

Saturday, 15 December 2012

Vectorman: Game Design Review

Released on the Sega Megadrive, Vectorman was re-released as part of Sega's release of Retro games a couple of years ago. Despite people saying it's one of the better games on the Sega Megadrive, I really can't get into the game.

Vector was partly created to showcase the 3D capabilities of the Sega Megadrive and has very interesting early 90's visual style which is certainly very unique even if it hasn't aged as well as other 2D games. It's not quite Shinobi or Golden Axe on the Megadrive in terms of 2D Artwork but I think it measures up well in an artistic manner.

Most enemies and objects in the game are animated quite well in the game which is important in games like this. The actual controls of Vectorman are fairly robust. He only has one attack but he's fast, responds fairly well and has a double jump.

Despite all it's pluses, the design breaks down in the level design and gameplay department. Why? 

Speed- Simply put, everything is just too fast. Bullets are too big and enemies move too fast. When combined with the extremely fluid motion highly responsive speedy movements of Vectorman it ends up being very difficult. I was constantly running into enemies that were just off-screen or being blasted by the fast bullets.

Levels are a bit too big- The levels are fairly large and at times it can lead to accidentally missing platforms several levels. It's a minor quibble but tighter level design really would have benefited the game. When combined with the speed as mentioned above, I find it hard to recommend the game.

I liked the idea of Vectorman but the tight gameplay from other games like Golden Axe I, Golden Axe II and Shinobi III is simply missing and the high frustration factor completely diminishes any hope of me recommending the game. This is one game which has all the technical elements of a good game but where careful editing and thoughtful level design would have made all the difference.

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Universe at War: Game Design Review

Universe at War by Petroglyph (a studio made from ex-Westwood studio employees) was an RTS released several years ago to mediocre reviews overshadowed by other games of the day such as Command and Conquer and Company of Heroes. Having the played the game, I'm going to got through and discuss what I loved about the game and where the game fails.

What I liked:

Each side has distinct and very unique gameplay- One reviewer commented that there's enough gameplay to fill three different games and he's right! Each side plays extremely differently and nearly all units have one or more abilities to bring into play.

For example the Hierachy has Walkers instead of buildings with hardpoints making them highly customisable. The Novus have the ability to 'flow' to any other node in the network extremely rapidly and a very flexible patch system that provides bonuses to all your units. The Masari generate their own resources and have the ability to switch between Light and Dark modes each with its own benefits. Even today, it's hard to find an RTS that combines such very different and innovative ideas in a single game!

Highly customisable abilities and tech trees- You can only research 6 slots out of the full tech tree which has a total of twelve slots but you can also take back research as well and develop it in another direction if need be. Also each side has different ways of customising their units to meet battlefield conditions such as patches for the Novus and walker hardpoints for the Hierachy. I really enjoyed the flexible tactics system of each side which allow on the fly customisation and wished more games would create games like this.

Artistically distinct with plenty of awesome moments- Both gameplay wise, the game is both artistically and graphically distinct. There's nothing quite like watching a walker fully equipped with weapons approaching an enemy base firing artillary shells from afar while your troops move along  it. There's nothing quite like watching Novus units zip quickly across the network appearing where they are required en masse. There's nothing quite like watching your Masari enter the fray with Dark Armour constantly healing or watching them in Light mode attacking and burning enemies even as the enemies try to retreat. The unique designs on every unit and building mean that you'll never mistake this game for any other.

Quick Move uses double clicking- Double clicking means 'priority move' or 'priority attack'. No need to clutter up the interface with a button for move or attack or having to hold down control or alternate keys. I think more games should consider this.

Easily accessible ability icons- Regardless of which units you select, all their abilities are displayed at the bottom allowing you to quickly select them. Just as importantly, if you want one unit to use the ability, you click once. If you want several units to use the same ability, you click the same ability as many times as needed.

What I disliked:
So where did the game go wrong? I think it suffers from what I term 'consolitis'. Developing for the console forced a number of gameplay decisions to adapt the game more easily for gamepad and the Xbox.

Global map isn't fun and very basic- Considering Empire at War by Petroglyph had sectors that granted bonuses etc and both space and planetary battles, the global map in Universe at War comes across as sparse. You can build a few buildings that provide some bonuses or the ability to produce units but that's about it really.

Campaign is short and not that fun- The campaign soon falls into mediocrity. There weren't enough exciting moments or plot twists and the campaign is very linear. This is particularly grating in the Masari campaign which gives you control over the global map enshewing any cut scenes when the global mode isn't very fun or complicated. Its actually possible to win nearly all the missions in the Masari campaign by having your flyers attack the enemy headquarters straight away as they rarely have flying or anti-flying units.

Healing/repair system needs revamp- Each side has their own way of healing things. For the Hierachy, they can repair infantry using radiation which is spawned by defilers while repairing vehicles and walker hardpoints by using the repair mode of Foo fighters/saiucers. For the Novus they can repair by ordering their constructor units to repair infantry, vehicles. For the Masari architects they can repair by ordering their architect to heal units and structure or by placing the architect in a sentry. Placing the architect in the sentry allows the sentry to heal all units around it.

However,  the idle builder units don't automaticaly heal damaged units near them so you have manually ask for repairs taking you away from the action. Also, for the Hierachy, there is no way to repair walker parts once destroyed and you have to order in a new walker instead. I assume this is for gameplay balance but I found it rather annoying.

Novus network nodes are hard to queue- Considering expanding your network is crucial for Novus' survival, there doesn't really seem to be a queuing function to build these. When extending your network, you have to wait for one to finish building before building the next one. It would have been better if the player could automatically queue them up so the player can focus on other things.

Limited Population- The maximum population caps is set at 90 per side which is very small considering some of the more powerful units can take up 7 units! It's clear from the beginning of the game that Universe at War is meant to be a fairly intimate game relying on unit abilities rather than numbers. The previous game by Petroglyph Empire at War had infantry squads to partially compensate for this but they decided quite deliberately to remove squads like that in this game.

Queuing units is limited- Along with the reduced population cap, queuing units is limited to only five per buliding if you're the Novus and Masari. For the Hierachy, up to 3 units are teleported in instantly so you can queue up to 12 at once. It's a rather strange limitation.

Slow start- Like most other RTSes, each game starts of with you having to build the equivalent of barracks and factories.

I personally found the Hierachy start really slow and a bit too open for attack. More so than required, leaving them open to rushing in my opinion. First they have to carve a glyph, then wait for the glyph to call the actual unit in such as walkers or reaper. If the glyph is destroyed during that time, the summoning of the unit fails. Why not have you start off with a Habitat or Assembly walker automatically? It might solve the problem of Masari flyers rushing the Hierachy as mentioned above.

Lack of explanations for advanced controls- Things like queuing waypoints etc and force move are in the game, but I think could use a bit more explanation how they work.

Size of the game- For a game which has giant hierachy walkers, it's a surprisingly intimate game as mentioned above. You control relatively small squads of units with a variety of powers. I wonder if it might have been better off as a Supreme Commander like game where you amass huge armies and units and attack.

This is particularly obvious for the Hierachy which has 3 walker slots in total and the only way to get more
walkers is to sell one or wait for one to get destroyed. I think some medium sized walkers would have been helpful instead.

Hierachy grunts don't automatically guard or follow your walker- Any units created from the Hierachy walkers just stand there rather than following the Walker that spawned it. There doesn't seem to be a option to have the Hierachy units move to a specified point either or automatically guard.

Oceania is completely ignored - Unfortunately neither Australia or New Zealand are part of the game. I can't believe they included the himelays etc but can't even create a map for Australia!

Overall, Universe at War is a very unique game. Despite its usability flaws as covered, I think it really pushes the envelop for RTS. It's hard to understand why it didn't suceed as well as Empire at War, Command and Conquer 3 or even Supreme Commander 2! Perhaps the problem was that is was too unique, too unfamiliar and certain aspects weren't quite polished enough as mentioned above. The small scale and console orientated development being I believe, the prime culprits. Considering you can get this game for less than US$10 it would a real shame if you didn't at least try it!

Universe at War Troubleshooting:
I found myself unable to play Universe at War because it would crash before starting when installing the latest patch. My crash was because I needed to get the latest Games for Windows Live

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Rising Zan: The Samurai Gunman

Rising Zan: The Samurai Gunman is a PS1 action game based on the idea of a cowboy fighting ninjas in the wild west in a B-grade action movie type setting. From a graphics standpoint, the game is to be congratulated for its fun wacky cartoon nature. Like any good action hero, Zan can attack with his sword, his gun and even power up to a super mode where his sword lengthens and he can fire his gun extremely rapidly. His enemies are likewise quite creative and just down right weird and the game is filled with Japanese humour.

Unfortunately it suffers from some problems which really drag the game down:

Stiff controls- For a sword and gun action game, the controls seem fairly stiff. Zan's attack just feels a bit sluggish compared to what is sometimes required and his blade seems just a bit shorter than what you need. Zan also has a deflect ability where he can deflect or reflect bullets but due to the complicated buttons required to press it almost becomes impossible to perform when you're fighting.

Shooting is also a bit too slow for some reason. Unless you've picked up special bullets, it's hard to recommend shooting compared to just slicing enemies apart. The camera and targeting is somewhat sluggish as well, adding to the problems.

Difficulty curve is high- Like all early era Playstation games the game is hard. Although there are no instant deaths, the numerous enemies do tend to wear you down after a while. This combined with Zan's sluggish movements and camera make it more frustrating than fun.

All button events- There are button events where you mash all buttons as many times as possible before the timer runs out or you'll lose some health. Unfortunately these are a bit too difficult and require too many presses resulting in lost health pretty quickly.

I would also like to mention that at the end of the game, you can unlock the ability to actually replay the game as Sapphire, one of the female main characters with enemies responding with different dialogue. She feels faster and her blade seems longer making me wonder if the game would have been better starring her instead.

Overall, I really enjoyed the creative levels and atmosphere of Samurai Zan but the imprecise nature of the controls and difficult curve makes it hard to recommend to most gamers that are now used to games like the Devil May Cry series. Recommended if you have some patience, like a bit of nostalgia or have an emulator's saved states to assist.

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Keepsake: Game Design Review

Keepsake is an adventure game where you play a girl who arrives at a magical academy for her first day only to find the academy mysteriously locked, closed and empty. It's up to you to figure out what's happening.

It's not really an inventory based game. It's closer to a collection of puzzles wrapped in a story. You do pick up a few items and need to solve puzzles to win some of the items but will automatically use them at appropriate moments.  The game has a good inbuilt hint system that starts off giving you vague hints and becomes more specific and will even solve the puzzles for you if necessary!

The game starts off well, with some good puzzles and an interesting plot. A lot reviewers commented on the second half of the game being as really bad. The puzzles in the second half aren't too difficult when it comes to figuring out what sort of puzzle it is, the problem is that they are just too complicated and tedious! The high difficulty is the only major complaint I have about this game.

Consider for example a puzzle where you have limited moves to get a puzzle piece across a grid. You know what you have to do to solve the puzzle by carefully rearranging and swapping certain pieces. However there are so many different pieces that the brain power required to solve the puzzle is simply too taxing for your average adventure gamer!

There's a particularly annoying garden puzzle where the switch  to change the seasons in the garden is 3 or 4 rooms away making the puzzle ways more annoying than necessary. If it just had a difficulty slider of some sort, it would have made the game much more fun. As it stands, the hint system helps negates the difficulty of the game since you can just by pass the harder puzzles.

The other minor complaints is the fairly short length of the game, voice acting could be better and the lack of characters in the game.

Overall I actually enjoyed the game. It is a fairly good adventure game and it would rank amongst one of the better efforts except for the annoying puzzles in the second half which completely ruin any sense of progression. Recommended, but only if you enjoy adventure games.

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Alpha Protocol: Game Design Review

Alpha Protocol is billed as a Spy RPG and was released to somewhat disappointing reviews averaging around 70%. I recently played (and replayed it) and thought I'd share my thoughts on this game.

What I liked:
Dialogue system- All dialogue in Alpha Protocol has a time limit in the game and generally revolves around three responses. In place of the usual good, neutral and evil responses in similar games you instead get a professional response, a suave response and an aggressive response each modelled around the spy/agent archetypes Bourne, Bond and Bauer respectively. New options will sometimes open up new actions depending on the overall personality you choose.

As a result, the dialogue systems feels much more realistic when compared to Bioware RPGs such as Mass Effect. with its standard Good response, Neutral response or the Evil response. Too often the Good response is just too unrealistically nice while the Evil response is just an angry rude response rather than evil.

The resulting effect is a dialogue system which is a mini-game in itself and like any good RPG certain responses can and do effect how the story unfolds, sometimes in unexpected ways!

Perks- Just about everything you do will earn you perks which either give you more points to spend on your character or other bonuses. What's awesome is just about every major or minor decision you make has a perk attached to it. For example, being suave in your initially responses in the game nets you a bonus while being aggressive nets you a different bonus. If you keep tossing grenades, you'll earn a perk that makes you better at using grenades. If you keep evading guards or knocking them out, you'll earn perks as well. Similarly, if you decide to talk your way through guards rather than fighting them, you'll get a different perk. This rewards different play styles and choices and emphasies that there is no "wrong" choice; just interesting choices to make.

Meaningful choices creating different story- Almost every single choice you make has a consequence of some sort from a change in dialogue to potentially opening up new dialogue. The characters in the game will remember your choices even something as simple as what mission order you accomplish the missions in is mentioned! Its little touches like this that make the game much more memoriable, personalised and 'yours'.

Intel system- There's an system where you can build up a profile of factions and individuals allowing you to undercover their background, how they work, secret facts and damage bonuses! I love this system because it rewards people who try to find every bit of information aside from just simply giving you more items. It isn't very complex unfortunately.

Game design problems
The overacrching issue is that desite using the Unreal engine, the action and RPG elements don't necessarily mesh very well.

2 weapons only- You can't even pick up weapons that enemies drop. Personally I thought they should have allowed you to at least swap weapons in a weapons locker or something mid-level.

Stealth- The problem with the stealth in the game is the fact that it's billed as 'spy' game. When most players think Secret agent/Spy RPG, the first thing you want to do is sneak around like all movie spies do. This is in fact the wrong thing to do! The stealth isn't actually bad in the game but becuse of its RPG approach to the game, you have to sink points into it and wear stealthy clothing/equipment. Otherwise opponents will hear you. If you choose to improve your character's stealth, you'll get activatable stealth abilities such as going invisible and running silently. However the stealth ability is the most expensive out of all the abilities regardless of what class you choose! As a result I consider the stealth portion of the game imbalanced.

Killing everyone with the alarming going off as opposed to sneaking past them is a completely legitimate choice in the game and it won't really affect the overall outcome too much. In fact I found that charging in shooting everyone with loud guns and lots of grenades before they could trigger the alarm an extremely effective tactic.

Furthermore, you actually have to spend points in the stealth ability before you can get the 'enemy detection status' ability which tells you where the enemies are and if they've spotted you! And it's initially an activated special ability lasting only for 30 second before having to be recharged!

Initial missions can be a bit off-putting for players which was one reason why I stopped playing initially before recently picking it back up again.

Personally I think there are several ways to solve this problem with stealth:
1) Introduce better gameplay mechanics or abilities to assist stealth in the game such as making stealth cheaper and give the player a standard 'enemy detection' ability at the start of the game!
2) Remind the player that experimentation is fine and that there are no bad choice: Stealth is okay but equally running and taking out enemies before they sound the alarm is also an okay tactic
3) Create levels are larger and make stealth easier.
4) Reward stealthy approaches more through more story and experience points.

Console controls feel way more natural- Tried playing with a keyboard and mouse but they felt a bit stiff. Fortunately I do own a Xbox 360 gamepad which I plugged in and it felt more natural that way.

Ability selection needs tweaking- To change special abilities you enter the ability menu, select the ability and then return back to the game and activate it making it difficult to actually chain abilities together. Most RPG would allow to assign hot buttons/keys and considering how small the actual pool of abilities, this interface is way too clunky. This needs to be fixed.

Needs more variety and missions- Unfortunately despite your choices change the way the story is told, the majority of most missions are exactly the same regardless and you play the exact same missions. For example, in one mission I sided with one faction and got one introduction, in the same mission when I replayed it I chose another faction and got a different introduction. The actual mission played out the same except my supporting friendlies were different. Yes there were some minor differences but the amount of different content but it wasn't different enough for me especially on your third playthrough.

As far as I can tell there is only one different mission you can unlock in the game otherwise its pretty much the same.

Undistinct- I like the idea of this being set in modern times but it looks like a poorer version of other shooters and you'd think from the screenshots you were playing a poor version of a generic FPS. I think setting it in a slightly more futuristic setting with some interesting or cool looking tech might go a long way to making it more interesting. I mean he is a secret agent, so why not have some interesting spy gadgets rather than just boring grenades and guns?

Larger playing fields- A consequence of being developed also as a console game like a lot of other games is that the environemnts are very small. This game could really benefit from larger environments.

Overall I played Alpha Protocol 3 times trying to see how my decisions affect the story which goes to show how much I enjoyed it despite its flaws. Don't expect metal gear solid or your standard action game. Approach instead as an RPG action game. I feel very disappointed that there won't be a sequel because I think there's lots to explore in the backstory as well as going forward. Considering how cheap it is now, there isn't really any reason not to play it if like story driven RPGs. Hopefully Obsidian will be able to take its innovations and continue them in other RPGs.

Non-Xbox 360 controllers- If you have more than one controller such as a non-xbox 360 controller, you may find that the controls don't quite work as planned. You'll need to unplug all non-Xbox 360 controllers.

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Bully: Scholarship edition: Game Design Review

Developed by Rockstar Games, Bully was an open world sandbox game similar to the Grand Theft Auto series. Like GTA, it was released to some controversy about bullying and corrupting the youth. The scholarship edition is the expanded PC version with some additional content. Here are my thoughts on it after finishing it recently.

Good points
Fun with lots of mini-games- Despite it's age Bully is still a fun good game that's varied with lots of things to do.

Varied level design- Each of the areas is quite unique each with its own graphics and shortcuts. It feels very different running through school and town.

There are a few minor problems.
Game design issues
Slingshot is underutilised- I'm not sure what the heck the slingshot is for really aside from a couple of missions and generally just stunning enemies before you get up close and personal. It can't be confiscated which is a good thing so I'm guessing its a fall back weapon. Outside of missions and the occasion fight, the only use I had for it was climbing up to a tall building and then randomly shooting people just to see the panic.

Lack of customisation and static unchanging world- One of the main problems is the lack of changes in the game. The world remains pretty much the same and nothing you do will change it. It's always 'The Town' rather than 'YOUR Town'.  I think that's  real shame considering how other sandbox games allow you to customise so much more.

Lack of faction and social interaction- The social interaction is quite basic as are the factions in the game. Their relationship to you is governed by the storyline rather than by your actions in particular. It's a bit of a shame really but part of me understands that Bully isn't a sandbox management game but rather a collection of mini-games in a sandbox world.

Can't change the seasons- It was kind of cool seeing various outfits and seasons as the game proceeds but I couldn't find an option to change the seasons which is a bit of a shame if you're like me and concentrated mostly on finishing the main game quests first.

Needs more special festivals- There was a Halloween and Christmas but that's it.

Needs more end game content- While the actual story missions are great fun I feel the number of mini-games you can unlock steadily diminishes at about 70% of the way through the game leaving you to pretty much without anything to do at the end except more collecting and more upgrades rather than unlocking new activities.

As mentioned above, Bully is best described as a bunch of mini-games in fairly static sandbox environment. It's all about unlocking new areas and upgrading your character. The main story is ultimately fun and I quite enjoyed the game overall. It's still worth playing even now despite the criticisms I have.

Saturday, 6 October 2012

Fear 3: Game Design

The third in the trilogy, Fear 3 takes place several months after Fear 1 and 2 where the entire city New Port is now under psychic attack and Alma is pregnant. Pointman and Fettel have to return back to the city to face their mother and determine the future of their family.

Good points
Settings were well optimised- Most importantly for an action FPS, I have a slightly older computer but my computer settings were detected perfectly and there was no slow down despite the action packed smoke-filled scenes.

Paxton Fettel gameplay- Playing as Paxton Fettel the original Fear's man villain is also quite interesting and fun. As Paxton, you have the ability to grab enemies and objects into the air making them easier to shoot, attack enemies with long range psychic blasts and most importantly posses enemies. Possessing enemies allows you to control any enemy soldier for a limited time and allowing to wreck quite a bit of havoc. You can increase the time by killing enemeis and collecting their souls. It really changes the dynamic of gameplay because rather than hiding behind crates and cover like Pointman you'll generally be in the midsts of the enemies shooting enemies right after you possess them.

Game design problems
Lack of innovation and weapons- Pointman behaves almost identically to the first game and all the weapons you can use are weapons you've used before in previous Fear games. If anything I think the number of weapons might actually be less. As for Paxton Fettel, Paxton is fun to play with but the lack of new abilities or moves means you're doing the same things over and over again  after 15 minutes.

Lack of environmental attacks- Aside from exploding barrels, some destructible cover and lots of smoke, everything is pretty static. You can't for example, push boxes around or use the environment to your advantage. I was hoping for a bit more innovation.

Missed opportunity for a proper two character game- Like most other reviewers, it's frustrating playing through the single player campaign when the game is cleary designed for two players. The story and movie cutscenes always have Pointman and Paxton but in the singleplayer campaign you don't even have an AI partner of any sorts to order around making it feel disjointed. One way around this is to allow you to shift between Paxton and Pointman's abilities and bodies or why not just allow you to use Paxton's abilities as Pointman anyway? Overall its just such a missed opportunity.

Lack of skill developments- While I appreciate that RPG mechanics in FPS may not work in some games I think having an RPG like skill tree might actually have worked for this game. You have Paxton Fettel who acts like a mage and Pointman who is more of a warrior type and you have a story about psychic abilities. Furthermore, as you play and gain experience in the game you unlock higher health, minor upgrades to your hand-to-hand combat attacks and minor upgrades to your special abilities. Surely being able to unlocking completely different new abilities would be the next logical evolution of the game? For example Pointman might become becomes better at throwing grenades and be able to create fake clones?

Overall I found the game mechanically sound with good action. I played the single player campaign and a bit of the multiplayer with bots. It's a fun horror-themed shooter, think of it as a graphical and level upgrade to FEAR 1. It's not a bad game it just doesn't do enough for it me to consider it particularly great. The main problem lies with innovation. There were so many opportunities for it to innovate which were missed in favour of creating an action packed but otherwise standard game. Even the innovative co-op idea seems half-baked. I only paid about US$3 for this game and it is fun for what its worth but its such a wasted missed opportunity!

Saturday, 29 September 2012

Cryostasis: Sleep of Reason: Game design review

Cryostasis is an first person horror game taking place in 1981 which tells the story of a young meteorologist who is suppose to rendezvous with a nuclear icebreaker ship but discovers the ship has been frozen in ice and the crew turned into strange ice monsters. He must enter the ship find out what has gone wrong and save the crew.

Good points:
Good atmosphere and suitable graphics- The particles, ice graphics, snow effects and sound are realistic enough to make you feel cold and creates a unique chilling atmosphere.

Interesting heat health mechanic- Heat is your health which is reduced when you receive wounds or stay in the cold too long. Your maximum health is also determined by your current environment's heat. So you can't dawdle in the cold forever and you're pretty much constantly losing heat. Psychologically this creates a good way of making player push forward. I also like the fact that once you've managed to heat a room up, it stays heated and you can stay in it without worrying about your health levels creating 'safe zones'.

Mental Echoes and ghosts- Occasionally you come across dead corpses (humans and animals) which you can possess and relive the last few moments of their life. It's a very interesting method of exploring the past. I quite enjoyed the way it worked. Not only that, but once you save them you change the future unlocking a new door or a new area.

Game Issues:
Story never properly explained- I still don't understand the reason for all the ice zombies or weird supernatural happenings. There's also distinct lack of motivation on the main character. He was suppose to meet the nuclear icebreaker but instead he discovers the ship has been frozen for many years and with weird undead zombies. Why does he persist in exploring the ship instead of staying in a 'safe' area until the blizzard clears? Also, how the heck did you gain super powers like the mental echo which allows you to change time itself?

Guns and shooting needs balance- I have to say that most guns are quite difficult to use due to your hands shaking and the overall recoil makes them quite useless. It does add to the scary atmosphere but since I almost never used them it feels a bit silly.

The most powerful weapon is the icicle cannon which can be picked up fairly early on. It's faster, more accurate and more powerful than most guns and has minimal recoil. Ammo is also quite plentiful in the form of icicles. You only need to switch to a rifle when the enemy is far away and can't be hit. Due to the design of the levels however, you'll rarely need to do so.

Average level design- The game is too linear for its on good. There are no alternative routes or side quests of any sorts. Thankfully the mental echo system, the interesting atmosphere and the fact that you're always pushing forward into other parts of the ship counterbalances most of this.

Lack of interactive elements and unique environment not used to its full potential- Considering how much emphasis there is on water physics and the freezing cold there's a distinct lack in the ability to do anything in the environment. Linearity is sometimes okay if the set pieces are at least interesting but most of the corridors and areas are too narrow, too linear and  set pieces too small. You can't for example, freeze water or use electricity to shock enemies or even kick enemies. You can only punch enemies and use your guns. This is probably most obvious right at the beginning when there are axes hanging from the walls but you can't even pick them up and you can only pick up the axe they actually give you in the game later!

I can accept linearity for sake of story but the lack of interactivity considering how much effort went into making the ice physics so realistic it comes across as just disappointing.


I found Cryostasis an interesting game but maybe a bit too 'safe' in the gameplay environment and puzzles. I'm not certain fans of action games would enjoy it, however I will say that fans of adventure games and horror fans will like it especially with a good graphics cards.

My opinion on what actually happened in the story - Spoiler alert!
As far as I can tell, the story is a supernatural story where something was actually in the ice causing the undead zombies.

In the present day, you are gonig to meet up with the ship. Of coure when you reach there something is very wrong. The ship has been frozen for many years and you encounter weird undead zombies. You also have the ability to use the mental echoes which allow you relive the last few moments of a crew member and change time to save them.

Clearly there is something wrong and you go through the ship trying to solve the mystery. As you alter time and exeperience the events of the final days of the ship you discover the ship seems to have encountered 'something' in the ice.

Eventually you reach a point where you change time and save the ship for it terrible fate by altering a key decision in its past. When you do, reality returns back to the way it was and should be in the first place and you meet up with the crew as you should have done.

For me, it is clear that you are suppose to succeed in the story and save the ship because the timeline/reality from the first scenes indicate you are going to meet the ship. No one sends out a metereologist to meet a ship in the middle of nowhere that has been stranded for 20 years! It is therefore a closed temporal paradox, by encountering the ship and using your mental echo ability, you change time you and save the ship in the past and therefore ensure there is a ship to meet in the current time.

Personally this seems to be the logical deduction. The most mysterious question is therefore who are you? Are you really just a meteorologist or perhaps someone with the powers to change time and is sent undercover to fix a problem in the time line? You seem to have a fairly good grasp of guns, you seem to be able to travel back in time to possess people, don't seem at all phased by nuclear radiation (in fact it powers you up!), have some sort of special healing ability which makes you able to heal extremely rapidly when exposed to warmth and you have some sort of weird relationship with chronos the god of time.

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Jackie Chan Stuntmaster: Game Design Review

Released for the Playstation 1, Jackie Chan Stuntmaster is an action fighting platformer similar to games like Final Fight. In the game, you control Jackie naturally who has to rescue his grandfather and deliver some package.

The game starts off okay and you have quite a number of interesting moves which were motion captured from Jackie Chan and other stuntman. Overally, despite the low graphics, it feels very authentic and true to a Jackie Chan movie. You can even use walls, brooms and other objects in the environment to attack enemies.

However, as you play through the game, there are many frustrating things about the game which ultimately make this a below average game.

Game Issues: 
More attacks- Jackie has plenty of attacks but after a while you realise that most of the attacks are pretty much the same and you don't really need to use most of them to defeat the enemies. The basic punches and throws are all you need. This is a real shame because I think there are plenty of additional attacks or fighting styles they could have thrown in such as the 'drunken master' fighting style in the bonus secret level.

More destructible environments- The best parts of the game are usually when you get the use the environment against the enemies such as flipping chairs and tables just like in a Jackie Chan movie. Unfortunately you pretty much see all of them in the first three or four level which is a real shame. There are very few games which allow you to use a broom, giant fish or foot stool to fight off several enemies at once so even more variety would have made the game much better!

Even more variety in gameplay and movie sequences- There are some fun gameplay varietions in this game mimicking a Jackie Chan movie such as running away from a truck or fighting on trains, these were some of the most fun and memorable sequences. We just need more of in the game while at the same time reducing the difficult of the existing sequences especially the train sequence!

Better level design with less jumping- Jackie Chan doesn't handle like a platforming character and has a really low jump. A lot of his jumps require a high degree of precision and split second timing. This results in many unfortunate deaths and like in many old games losing all your lives means restarting the entire level again. This gets especially aggravating in the final two areas of the game. So much so that I can't really recommend people play this as a result.

Jackie Chan Stuntmaster, it promised to be a fun action Jackie Chan game but in the end, the horrible jumping sequences ruin the fun. Overall I have to recommend against playing this game. It's simply too frustrating for anyone but the most dedicated action gamers. Go watch the Jackie Chan Adventures cartoon series instead.

Sunday, 26 August 2012

Dark Star One

More well known for their Patrician and Sacred Series, Ascaron's Dark Star One is their attempt to create a Space RPG.  It's a typical Elite clone, you can go around being a trader, a mercenary, smuggler or pirate. Systems are connected by hypergates which you exit from. It has interesting ideas but ultimately fails at being a good fun sandbox. As the only space sandbox game I played was Freelancer I'm going to make a number of comparisons. Many of the criticisms I have of the game is due to the lack of variety and sense of progression.

Let's go over the single point of innovation in the game:
An evolving ship like an RPG character - The idea of an evolving ship where rather than seling and buying a better ship you evolve your ship by finding special biomaterial and then actually choosing your upgrades like an RPG. It's cooler idea than the usual cash upgrades and you get higher armour, cargo space and other perks depending on how you grow your character.

You even get special powers you can employ such as EMP blasts or slowing down time again much like an RPG character.

Technically competent - Relatively solid combat controls and fairly easy to use interface. Those familiar with shooters will easily get the hang of it.

What went wrong with the game?
World starts off locked and you have to very slowly unlock it- These are the guys which created Sacred and boasted about having 70% of the world already unlocked when you start, so it's very surprisingly to see this game extremely restricted in this respect. You have to slowly play through the story missions to unlock more and more powerful hyperdrives which will eventually allow you to very slowly unlock the very large map.

Repetitive and limiting universe which lack variety- Overall the world is static and repetitive just like Freelancer was. Whereas Freelancer at least had a large connected world with a variety of factions, Darkstar One's factions remain largely in the background. This is made worse that every sector is too similar. There will always a trade station with some minor locations. For example a pirate base in the asteroid fields to the left and maybe a mining station on the right.

In games like Freelancer, various regions have different planets and sectors such as a mining sector, or a military sector heavily guarded by ships. You don't have really have that variety in this game aside from more or less police and bandits in a sector. Every single sector seems cookie-cutter with its placement.

Static interactions- Unlike the X-series you can't really affect the politics of the world to any real extent, you can't buy a fleet of ships or base or create a home base of any sorts. Every system you visit has a planet and a trade station. As far as I know, you can't even dock with research stations or have any meaningful interaction with anything but the trade stations where you offload goods.

Lack of weapons and equipment - There just isn't much equipment period. After about 3 hours of gameplay I unlocked three different areas, about 35% of the galaxy and I had only unlocked two kinds of laser cannons, three kinds of missiles and 2 kinds of turrets. The laser cannons and the turrets don't behave in any noticeably different way so they just shoot faster, or deal more damage.

In space shooters, part of the fun is experimenting and trying new weapons and combinations of equipment but there just isn't that many. Freelancer was better was in the variety area. There were different ships with different handling and weapons which felt different despite the maximum speed of every ship being the same.

Repetitive missions and quests - There are about ten or so types of quests that you find in other RPGs such as escort quests and bounty hunting quests. There are some interesting ones such as taking photos or spying but once you've done them you're pretty much stuck doing the same kinds of missions which usually involve blowing up several enemies when something goes wrong.

Overall, I am very surprised in the way that they've gone about creating a space sandbox game considering they also made Sacred and the Patrician/Port Royale series. It lacks variety, tactical depth, interesting regions or any real choices. I say spend your money to better something else like Sacred or Sid Meier's Pirate, Bully or Grand Theft Auto. At least you'll have a fairly large world to explore straight out of the box that has different areas and lots of different kinds of mini-games!

Sunday, 5 August 2012

Spirit Engine 2: Game Design Review

Createde by Mark Pay with music provided by the now famous indie game music musician Josh Whelcel, The Spirit Engine 2 is the sequel to the freeware game of The Spirit engine. Both are side scrolling RPGs with a semi-turn based battle system similar to many Final Fantasy games.

If you like the game play of Spirit Engine 1, you'll love Spirit Engine 2 which contains better graphics and better gameplay. The writing is quite solid and I quite enjoyed my time with the various characters in the game.

The biggest and significant change to the gameplay is that it has a slightly improved battle interface allowing you to memories and store attacks together. This allows you to create combos that get unleashed at the same time.

One important point to note is there isn't really gameplay innovation from the first one aside from some new skills. In that vein, I would still like to mention a few minor issues with the game design which I thought hold it back just a little bit.

Limited space in item shop- For some strange reason you can only sell items if the shop has space to receive said item. So if you're like me and like hoard your items and need to sell them off at once you might find yourself unable to do so.

You also can't compared items in shop with currently equipped items immediately (you have to click a button to view the currently equipped items) so you end up switching back and forth between screens trying to compare equipment value. Each shop only has about 7 items on average so it's not a big deal.

Lacks true replayability- Yes you can choose different characters but aside from the dialogue and one or two skills, I'm pretty sure there isn't any real difference. The dialoague is well written but this is quite a lnear adventure. Mind you this linearity also means the balance and variety is controlled and you're never really overpowered and you can easily level up if need be.

However I do think it could use a couple more sub-quests or sub-plots.

Needs more character flexibility and customisation- In my personal opinion rather than having 9 different characters but only able to choose 3 at the game, I think it would have been better to have just 3 characters (knight, rifleman and priest) and then just focus on really developing them or create more levels of the game. Alternatively, a party headquarters where you can swap your characters would be good so for example if you prefer to take on the next enemy with 3 knight you could do so.

Although you sink points into upgrading their existing skills and unlock more as you go on you don't really choose the skills and you don't really know when picking the characters at the beginning of the game what skills they have. Again, because of the linearity, and the fact that you have to pick a knight, priest and gunman type character there is no wrong choice.

Chain system isn't special enough - Basically its a way to program your troops so they act in unison and launch attacks together. It works perfectly fine but I was hoping for a more complicated combo system similar to Chrono Triggers combination attacks. As enemies change tactics occasionally I never really felt the need to use it as manually controlling my troops seemed more effective.

A lot of empty space at the bottom of the screen- I mentiond this in my Spirit Engine review but the 2D nature of the game meant there was as lot of space at the bottom third of the screen. I wonder if something more interesting could be placed there instead. Maybe a map?

I enjoyed The Spirit Engine 2 immensely. For a story driven person like me who prefers story over statistics heavy gameplay found in most western RPGs I have to give it a thumbs up. Considering its now free, there is no reason not to play it.

Personally, I think the Spirit Engine 1 and 2 deserve a special place in video game literature as two very well done indie games. Yes, neither have amazing million dollar production values but like a well written light novel, the tight story, gameplay, graphics, music and unique setting make them well worth your time.

As a reminder, the music is also free and I strongly recommend downloading it.

Sunday, 29 July 2012

Serious Sam: Random Encounter

Serious Sam Random Encounter by indie studio vblameer is their take on the Serious Sam franchise based off the Japanese RPG format. The game has wandering around a 2D map like other JRPGs. Every few steps you will enter into combat and have to fight enemies in a action-turned based format with up to 3 characters. During combat the game has two section. The menu selection section consists of you deciding where you want your weapon to fire, deciding to switch weapons or use an item. The game then unpauses and your characters carry out the action. You can move your charaters up and down the screen to avoid enemy fire and direct their fire more effectively. I think the 2D Graphics are spot on and definitely convey the 16-bit era type gameplay quite well.

From a game design perspective, it's a  good concept but below average execution. So what went wrong in my case?

Combat is unbalanced- In the real serious Sam games, the game strikes a very sharp balance between enemies and your weapons. So while there are lots of enemies, you also have lots of ammo and your weapons are usually just enough to take them out. Unfortunately, in this game that balance is broken, there are often way too many enemies and weapons just don't deal enough damage.

Aiming is awkward- Just like in Serious Sam, enemies can come from almost any angle, allowing you to choose where you aim your gun might actually have had a detrimental effect on creating gameplay balance. I found myself focusing the guns in the centre and then finding the enemies from the top and bottom pretty much . The gun coverage is simply too narrow to accommodate all the enemies on the screen and I simply kept getting overwhelmed.

I understand the developers were trying to make it feel like an FPS but from a game balance and design perspective I think they should have reduced the amount of control players had over the aiming and reduce the areas where the enemies could wander around it. In other words, making it similar to a Tower Defense game like Plants and Zombies.

Need better pickups and more powerups- Some of the pickups are really fun but there are often in short supply. Furthermore because they are limited it's difficult to know when they should be used. I think one thing the designers should have done is created special abilities such as the ability to move faster or attack faster, the equivalent of magic spells in other RPG games. I think this would have really solved the entire problem of balance while increasing strategic depth and playability.

As one reviewer put it, it's a great 'proof of concept' but really needs some polish to be worth US$5 it was released for. I say just play the original Serious Sam game or get Serious Sam Double D instead.

Defense Grid: The Awakening: Game Design Review

Defense Grid is an indie Tower Defense game by Hidden Path. Having played through the entire campaign I have to say that Defense is grid is a good solid albeit uninnovative tower defense game. I have game as well as the extra DLC maps but I didn't really play the extra maps too much.

There are probably two notable innovations:
3D maps- The maps are 3D in nature where towers on higher levels can shoot at lower level and paths can twist over or under other places. It's not six degrees of freedom as some reviews seem to imply but it does contain more freedom than other 2D tower defense games.

Cores and Resources - You have cores which represent the enemy's goal. The more cores you have left, the faster your resources regenerate. Regeneration of resources also increases the more resources you have. This creates a nice risk/reward dynamic where if you spend too much resources now trying to defend you can make the game harder later in the level but on the other hand, if you don't spend the resources now you might not last the entire level.

There are a couple of minor issues with th game design which I found while playing:
Key board shortuts all over the place- Why place L for "Fire orbital laser" and U for "Upgrade tower"? It's as if we haven't learnt anything from the last 20 years of gaming and still place keys all over the place.

Difficulty increases exponentially all of a sudden- Most of the earlier maps are fairly straight forward and then the difficulty suddenly jumps as the 3D aspects of the game suddenly become much more prominent. The expansion maps are also very tough and they are much more open-ended making the jump from the main game to them hard.

Lack of guide lights- As the maps become more open-endeded it becomes exponentially harder to know the path enemies will take to get to the cores. Especially for maps where there are various levels.Its strange then that there aren't guiding lights showing you the route of the enemies.

Well balanced but could use more special towers or special powers - Nothing you haven't seen before. You have your standard gun towers, flame throwers, artillary, slow-down towers, slow enemies, fast enemies and shielded enemies. Absolutely nothing stands out as unique about this game aside from the polished graphics and gameplay. 

Overall, if you enjoy Tower Defenses, you'll like Defense Grid. You're paying and getting exactly what you expect a solid very polished game with good graphics and well-rounded gameplay and a variety of good game modes. If you prefer an equally solid game but with at least some innovation you'll probably prefer playing a game like Revenge of the Titans.

Sunday, 22 July 2012

Black Mirror: Game Design Review

Black mirror has consistently received high praise and promised to be a horror adventure game . Sitting down to play however, I found it to quite disappointing. There are some spoilers in this design review so reader beware.

Graphics and atmosphere- The game is quite beautiful and has a good graphic style.

Good interface- If you've already looked at something and the description has already been read out and has no further use, it will not be selectable again. I quite like that system because it reduces red herrings and  lets the player know that the object is no longer necessary.  I quite like this system and I think a similar system should be adopted in most other adventure games.

Terrible pacing and poor atmosphere that promises horror but never delivers - Terribly dragged out and nothing really horrifying happens in the game until about 80% way through. There's a lot of atmosphere and potential for atmosphere in the game considering Samuel is suppose to be the evil one. Yet aside from the strange dreams Samuel has and some death scenes, there wasn't really much horror in the game.

A key idea that the developers could really have developed would have been to have the supernatural slowly invade reality reflecting upon Gordon's slow mental breakdown. Perhaps create a few scenes where Gordon and the player are uncertain are even real yet have somehow impacted the real world. And then rather than claiming 'it was a magical family curse' all along, leave the ending somewhat ambigious. Perhaps the trauma of losing someone has caused Gordon to completely flip or have an ending where he either commmits suicide and redeems himself or ends up in an insane asylum.

Main character is unlikeable - Samuel Gordon seems boring but I suspect that it was a deliberate 'bored nobleman' persona. Bribery and throwing rank around seems to be one of the key character traits and is often available as a 'first solution' to many problems and puzzles. Samuel comes across as an uncaring aloof rich noble person with very little feelings of guilt on his actions. That being said, this contributes the boredom in the game.

I think there was an opportunity to create a complex character here but because of the lack of opportunities to showcase his more human and caring side; it is very difficult to like him. There just isn't a sense of empathy or tragedy surrounding him despite a tortured past. I think delving into his past a bit more and understanding what made him leave in the first place and turned him into such an angry person might have been better.

Bad puzzles and one dead end - Most of the puzzles are really boring. Mostly fetch quests where people just give you keys or items. There are also two puzzles requiring you to exit out of the game and try and find information on things in real life. The first is on the order of the planets of the solar system which is something which you can easily google or look up in a book and fairly obvious from the puzzle setup.

The second however, is the horoscope and requires to know the order which they appear in. The puzzle linked to this however is in the form of a sliding puzzle and it's difficult to know exactly the order of the horror scope. It's a real difficult puzzle as a result because nowhere does the game hint at the actual order.

Finally there is a dead end with a gun and a wolf which I found infuriating. I thought we had left out dead ends back in the early 90s?

Promising but never delivering on that promise or horror and action, Black mirror just isn't fun or interesting or atmospheric. I would personally avoid it and spend your money on some better adventure games like something from Telltale or AGS adventure games like the Blackwell Trilogy.

Dark Void Zero: Game Design Review + Dark Void Series Review

Following from myprevious post about Dark Void, Dark Void zero was designed as 'lost' 8-bit game from the NES era and a promotional game for the Dark Void 3D action game.. I have to say Dark Void Zero despite being short is really fun and worth your time if you like hard 2D platformers. Having a controller is highly recommended.

From a design perspective I can only find a few complaints:
1) Repetitive level boss- Every time you finish the level you end up fighting the same boss except the boss shoots out more projectiles or has more enemies guarding it

2) Too short- There are only 3 levels in the game meaning it's over way too quickly.

3) Lack of saves- The large leves mean that the levels can take you to half an hour to finish so the lack of saves is really annoying.

I know this was made more as promotional game rather than a full game but I think Dark Void Zero should get a sequel. Maybe a 'lost' Super Nintendo 16-bit era type sequel to be called 'Super Dark Void'. Rumour has it that Dark Void Zero sold well enough to warrant one so hopefully we'll hear proper confirmation of this.

Dark Void - Final Conclusion
As mentioned in my first reivew, for me, the Dark Void series reminds me of a popcorn 1980s action film. It didn't make a huge hit when first released but has gained a small but loyal following in the subsequent years. I think what the series needs better direction, marketing and a fun shot in the arm! It tries to be serious while trying copy those pulp fiction series when it should have gone all the way and just had fun! I enjoyed it and I really hope I can create more fans of this underdog. Recommended at least as a rental.

Sunday, 1 July 2012

Dark Void: Game Design Review

The humourous review over at Zero Punctuation actually praised it despite other sites giving mediocre review. I decideded to try it for myself wondering what sort of experience I would get. Perhaps its because I haven't played any recent AAA games like Assasin's Creed or Crysis 2 but I actually quite liked the game.

Like the B-grade movies that it copies, Dark Void starts off as a very standard 3rd person action cover based shooting adventure game. But then once you're comfortable with the shooting and meelee, it quickly adds the jetpack allowing you to jump to different levels and then once you're comfortable with that it gives you the prototype jetpack allowing you to start flying around its environments attacking spaceships through

A lot of the positives and negative were actually quite well-covered in the Zero Punctuation review so I'm really expanding upon the basics

What I liked about the game:
Jetpack action! - I can understand where the critics are coming from. As a shooter, it isn't very good, but if you're playing this and judging as a Gears of War cover based shooter than you're playing this wrong! The key point of the game is that this is an arcade action game with jetpacks. The whole focus of the game is to shoot a couple of robots, fly in with your jump jet, punch out one or two stragglers and then boost off to a safe haven and rinse and repeat. And the action is fastpaced as a result. And because of the jetpack, unlike other cover based shooters, you're never really stuck behind cover. It's Gears of War combined with Tribes, Crimson Skies and Megaman.

Mission variety - The levels and missions are suitably different and varied enough. In particular once you get the prototype jetpack that allows you to switch between ground based shooting and flying, the battles get way more intense. You'll have to fly into enemy buildings, deactivate them and then fly out while they explode, or fight off landing troops before taking to the sky to blow up transports and then landing back to mop up remaining troops

I thought the Vertical cover concept was quite clever as its used to break up the other normal gameplay  sections. Basically vertical cover has you shooting down or upwards with a cover based shooting mechanic. However because its vertical, you fall or boost immediately to the next piece of cover. In essence it's like cover based shooting but extremely condensed so you're either in a 'safe platform' or close enough to melee the enemy.

Beginning is well-paced - As mentioned in the introduction the game opens up new abilities and weapons just as you get comfortable with the old ones.

Ending wasn't what I expected - Most B action movies end in a happy ending, hero gets the girl etc. Fortunately this had a pretty dark ending which I felt was much better.

Epicness - When the game opens up and give you the prototype jet pack then the real epicness of the game becomes aparent as you fend off ground troops in one movement before taking to the skies and attacking the transports that are bringing them in. There are several situations where the situation will 'get out of hand' so to speak and those are the most fun. When a ground battle turns into an air battle before returning back to a ground battle again to mop up the survivors; that's when the game's at its most intense.

Music - The music is suitably epic and inspiring and never over powering but always suiting the atmosphere of the game.

Game is very short- I found it a bit too short and the plot points just come and go very easily. There definitely needs some holes filled in.

Needs more artistic direction- Like King Kong the game there aren't enough variations in the locations or art direction to make it feel different enough. Further the dull palette doesn't really help it either.

More integration between flying and ground- It's difficult to strafe or attack ground enemies from the air and I think there needs to be more ability to actually affect ground units while flying. A simple scenario could be for example, being able to take out some ground turrets or tanks from the air to make it safe for your troops to assault your position.

Really needs a sequel - The game ends aroudn the time of the start of World War II. Seriously, this is begging for a sequel.

Journal collections is pointless -There are journals which provide you with more backstory written by various characters but I found the journal collection completely pointless. It just seemed very out of place suddenly having all this text that you can read in the options menu. In keeping with the B-grade action, I think they should have used 1930's pulp fiction comics to fill the backstory and unlock in game abilities or at least new costumes.

Overall a fun action game. It's definitely worth a rental and feels like a game that should be better loved and noticed by the crowds, much like many film cult classics.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Rayman 3: Game Design Review

Sequel to the award winning Rayman 2, Rayman 3 is a 3D action platformer just like Rayman 2. Of note, the game was produced by a different team. Michel Ancel, creator of Rayman was only involved in advisory role. The game is very fun and a worthy successor to Rayman, however there are a couple of issues I have with the game.

Combat still a bit lack luster - Probably the most glaring weakness is that nearly all of the combat is exactly the same. In the game you need to side step and launch your charged up fists at the enemy. It's pretty basic and frankly just tiring on my index fingers holding down the shoulder buttons.

Doesn't innovate - Compared to Rayman 2, the game isn't innovative enough, there are some minor innovations but it's pretty much Rayman 2 with some additional powerups and mini-games.

Controller doesn't work on PC - The game was designed for the console gameplay so its frustrating that I couldn't properly use my controller.

Can't return back to replay stages until you finish the game - In Rayman 2 you had a world map which allowed you to return back to play previous stages. There is no such thing in Rayman 3 until you finish the game at least once and it's just a menu where you scroll between names of the levels.

In conclusion, it's no Beyond Good and Evil but it doesn't necsssarily need to be. Fun, relatively varied, well put together and enjoyable 3D platformer. It's basically more of Rayman 2's gameplay but in larger environments and better graphics. I look forward to the HD version coming out shortly. I do hope they will throw in a couple of new levels at the very least.

Monday, 4 June 2012

Lair of the Evil Doer: Game Design Review

Lair of the Evil Doer is an indie top down dungeon shooter with some light randomised RPG elements developed by Going Loud Studios. Overall I found it a surprisingly fun albeit short game.

Of note are the melee attacks that have 'force' allowing you to smack enemies away with your melee attacks or push them away with your shotgun attacks; something more games need.

 What I didn't like:
Lacks weapon slots - Guns and melee weapons generally feel right. However, you can only have one melee weapon, one sidearm (handgun with unlimited ammo) and one weapon (more powerful weapon but uses up ammo). There are plenty of weapons but what's the use of being able to carry only two? Weapons like shotgun or rocket launcher are situational and there's no reason to carry it when the machine guns or rifles are overall more suited for whatever the game can throw against you. Really, it just needs 1 or 2 more weapon slots just to fix this! This is compounded by the fact that as the statistics for weapons are randomised you can get a really powerful rifle or machine gun making other weapons even less useful.

Poor enemy pathfinding - Enemy often get caught in the corners and it becomes almost silly picking them off as they try to slowly crawl past the corner.

Could use a bit more variety- Yes you can build your character by choosing which stat to upgrade but what about some different classes or abilities? Again, increasing the weapon slots would have helped alot.

Also there need to be different kinds of traps and enemies as the current ones just aren't enough.

Lack of game mode - After finishing the main game you unlock an endless mode where you can keep playing. I think the game needs more game modes and the ability to start endless mode straight away. Maybe a survival mode.

Overall a fun visceral game but needs to have more features and variety. I give it a 5/10. Technically competent, enjoyable but there are better freeware games out there.  I got this as part of the Indie Royale bundle and was probably worth what I paid for it.

Sunday, 20 May 2012

Madballs in Babo: Invasion - Game Design Review

Madballs in Babo: Invasion is the sequel to the freeware game Babo Violent 2  using the 1980's Madballs toy as it's theme. The corney ball designs actually works quite well in my opinion and I can't think of a better way to use them. I quite enjoyed the freeware Babo Violent 2 back when it came out years ago so I was excited when I got this game thanks to the Groupees bundle.

Initial Impressions - As a Babo multiplayer game, the game mechanics seem to work fairly well. There are different classes and lots of interesting weapons each with a dual secondary fire. Basically it takes Babo to a fairly solid next level. Doesn't innovate too much but seems well put together.

So while technically and graphically competent, cracks start to appear when I sat down to try out the game's single player campaign since I couldn't find anyone online.

Boring Singleplayer - As a single player game, Babo madballs is very repetitive and average. The campaign starts off okay but needs more variety in the maps and gameplay. You don't have any allies in the game so everyone in the game is gunning for you, the enemies aren't very intelligent and the single player arenas aren't that interesting. As a result the game really runs out of steam about half way through. Base building is neglected in the single player as well except for the very last level which I personally thought was a shame because it seemed just as interesting.

Weapons and abilities start off locked in single player - I get the strong impression that the game is designed ideally for you to switch between both single player and multiplayer to slowly unlock all the skins and characters.

One of the worst things and disheartening things that a player see in a game is when you move to pick up a weapon on the ground in a level only to see a big lock on the sign and the requirement to play more to unlock this weapon. The standard practice in shooters is to give you new weapons, upgrades and abilities as you complete areas and proceed to the next level. It's part of the reward of finishing that section of the game. So why did the designers deliberately place weapons on the ground but lock them up so you have to play at least two more levels to unlock all the weapons on the first level?

Some might argue that's for the speed run portion of the game and isn't necessary for the campaign portion of the game. It tells me as a player that you designed the level with those weapons in mind but then decided to lock them up for some unknown reason because it would have some how affected the level gameplay balance. I strongly feel that it creates the impression of an artificial barrier rather than a goal to reach.

Also why can't you have all the abilities of a character or weapon unlocked once you unlock the weapon/character? Instead you have to slowly fight your way through before the game with it before it finally agrees that you've killed enough enemies to warrant the new abilities.

There is plenty of downloadable content DLC for you to purchase such as extra skins but there is also an unlock everything DLC purchase. This last option particularly annoys me because it feels as if I haven't purchase a full game but a game which the developers are trying to scam more money out of me. It's a bit like making a game deliberately difficult and forcing the player to pay for the cheatcodes.

No players online and lack of skirmish
- Couldn't find any servers to join and you can't fill a multiplayer map with bots. This is a real shame because mentioned above the core game seems quite solid. I'm thinking it it might be worth releasing for free instead and just sell skin packs.

Overall it is a solid multiplayer game albeit one in which you have to grind to unlock your single player. Because of the lack of multiplayer servers online although it is a technically solid game I have to recommend giving this a miss as you can probably spend money on other game with more players and have just as much fun!

Serious Sam Double D: Game Design Review

First of all I found Serious Sam Double D a very fun game. There are plenty of secrets to discover, the gun stacking ability is pretty fun, the enemies bizarre and bosses are huge. I think it does relatively well to capture the crazy essence that is a Serious Sam game.

From a design perspective, there are some minor issues that could use a bit of tweaking. A lot of the issues centre around the game physics and certain design decisions. All of these are minor and don't really get in the way of a cheap, fun 2D shooter.

Controls and Jumping - Controlling and jumping isn't bad in the game, but it lacks a weight to it compared to other platformers like say Megaman or Contra. Some reviewers complained about this problem saying it completely ruined the game. I think there is some issue to it but not to the extent of spoiling the game for me. The jumping pad does ad an extra dimension to dodging but I wondering if putting in a double jump or super jump might have been a slightly easier option?

Gunstacking - Gunstacking and swapping gunstacks is fairly intuitive however I found the gunstacking a bit underutilised. Yes you can stack lots of guns with each other but all too often I found myself pretty much gunstacking all the shotguns or all the tommy guns or all the rocket launchers. Only very occasionally would I use the chainsaw or greande launchers or flamethrowers.

Enemies tend to be quite powerful so you pretty much need all the firepower you can stack. I guess what I'm trying to say is that although gunstacking is fun, the significance of gunstacking choices diminishes at times so I'm left having to use the obvious choices like 4 shotguns rather than mixing and matching.

Also, when you gun stack you can only gun stack weapons that you've found in one gun stack. For example, imagine if you've found 2 shotguns and 2 tommy guns each gun can only be in gunstack 1 or 2 or 3. You can't have your shotgun in both gunstack 1 or 2 at the same time so when you swap, the same shotgun appears in stack 2. The system just doesn't allow that. In gameplay terms, I found this broke the flow of the game. In the early parts of the game when I had fewer weapons, rather than swapping between stack 1 and stack 2 and stack 3 with the keyboard, I ended up continually entering to the gunstack screen and reconfiguring my existing stack to manage the small number of weapons I had.

From a game design perspective I wonder if reducing the number of guns to a more manageable 4 but increasing the damage might be a better idea. Also having some sort of combos system or bonus system where using certain configurations might trigger bonuses (i.e. 2 lasers = more damage) might be helpful. Some might argue that having 2 shotguns and 2 laserguns firing at once is your combo system and they might be right on further reflection.

Dodging enemy bullets can be difficult - Because of the 2D side scrolling nature, it can be difficult to dodge some enemy bullets. Yes, you are relatively manoeuvrable in the air thanks to the floaty controls but the bullets are too closely spread in many cases. It's not a deal breaker but I think spacing the bullets and increasing the zoom out might have been better.

Artwork and animation- This is personal opinion but I think the artwork and animation should take a different path. I appreciate Serious Sam is not really a serious game but I find the 'paper doll' feel of the graphics and the lack of good animations an area which could be improved on.

Zooming and character size - When you look at games like Metal Slug or Contra or SHUMPs like R-type, the characters or ships tend to be super deformed or smaller than usual taking up relatively small amount of screen space. The camera in this game will often zoom in and out to show how large the enemies.

From a game design perspective I wonder if it might be better to stick to just one perspective and design the game around that single perspective. This might sound restrictive and a minor detail but I think it might have forced the designer to carefully consider certain aspects of the gameplay such as the size of the bullets, the space required to succesfully dodge incoming enemy fire and the floaty controls as well as creating more integrated experience. On several occasions they zoom just wasn't quite right.

No cannon - One of the signature weapons of Serious Sam, the cannon is missing from the game! A serious Sam game without the cannon? It's like accidentally leaving out the shotgun! I'm sure it wouldn't be too overpowered...

Overall a game that does convey the Serious Sam mayhem most successfully. It isn't quite Contra or Metal Slug level of polish however which is a real shame but the game is fairly easy to like and is very enjoyable.

Sunday, 6 May 2012

Battle Realms: Game Design Review

Battle Realms is an RTS created by Liquid Entertainment. From the get go, the focus and game design of Battle Realms is very specific. It is very clear that tell that the game is tactically focused and revolves around a fairly small number of units. A high level of micromanagement is encouraged and practically required.

There are low unit caps (you can only have a maximum of 50 units) and rather than building advanced units straight from your barracks you train existing units in different buildings to create different combinations.

For example, you train a peasant to become an archer by sending into the archery range. If you want a dragon warrior, you send it into the dojo. The combined training of the archery range and dojo turns it into a dragon warrior.

The reasearch is also conducted by spending yin or yang points which are gained through combat encouraging players to attack and continually go on the offensive!

So far so good. There are however a number of design issues that are worth mentioning.

High level of micromanagement required for building units; more so than required
- For example, to create a high level unit such as a samurai with a special ability, you first have to find an available peasant, hold down shift to queue the order, click on the dojo, archery range, alchemist Lab and then the spring. four buildings in total. This is quite a number of clicks. I'm sure there can could have been an easier way of doing this. Perhaps dragging and dropping the peasant into a build samurai slot so the peasant automatically sends himself to the right places perhaps?

Unit strengths and weaknesses are not obvious enough - While it is obvious that Cannoneer are strong against buildings, it's not so obvious how strong say archers and arrows are against what units. As I found out by reading a help file, Lotus units are terribly weak against arrows and therefore should best be countered with archers. You just can't tell with these units, what their strengths and weaknesses are. Its not in the manual either and I had to consult the Battle Realms website and the help file. They should have made the these strengths and weakness clear either in the unit description like in other games such as Dawn of War. This would have really helped.

Power activations are one at a time - Aside from healing, most of the power activations are manual and you have to activate powers individually. This can get really annoying when you want to for example have all your warriors to activate a shield ability.

Environment could play a more significant part in the game - For a game which promises a living world, the environment is well-detailed for its time but aside from forests blocking your view, birds scattering to warn you of enemies and the occasionally conveniently placed boulder I didn't really see much else. I would like to see more interaction with the environment. Maybe more wild animals or weather effects.

Final attacks seem a bit weak - I'm not sure about the other sides (as I haven't played them much) but the most powerful structure for the Dragon faction involves you sacrificing 3 Samurai to unleash an attack. But I didn't think the attack was that powerful at all compared to how much damage a fully powered Samurai could do.

Healer unit AI needs a bit of tweaking - Unfortunately the healer unit AI seems to be suicidal and loves running into battle and often gets a bit too aggressive.

Campaign is a little harder than necessary - I think the campaign battles are a little imbalanced and I found it quite hard to muster a force with enough power in many of the missions turning it into a real problem. The building limits of defensive buildings only compounded my issue.

Campaign benefits and disadvantages could be listed more clearly - Throughout the campaign, you'll very often have to make choices between two different missions. Depending on which mission you choose you may get an additional Hero to add to your party. To my surprise, I found that my choices meant I had actually missed neary all the optional Heroes! Very annoying as it made the campaign harder than necessary for me!

Overall, it still stands the test of time relatively speaking and will appeal to gamers who enjoy lots of micromanagement. I didn't enjoy it as much unfortunately, I prefer a less hands on squad-based approach similar to Dawn of War and something which is much less punishing but I can certainly see the appeal in it. Liquid Entertainment later used the same engine to create a Lord of the Rings game which did not fare as well unfortunately as Battle for the Middle Earth. It is still overshadowed by more modern games such as Warcraft III and Dawn of War II which provide similar experienced so in terms of money, you might be better off buying them.

I do wish that a sequel would be made as it would be interesting to see how the game mechanics could be updated.