Friday, 6 January 2012

A.R.E.S.: Extinction Agenda Game Design Review

A.R.E.S: Extinction Agenda is an platformer very much in the style of megaman. You control A.R.E.S. a robot and go around defeating robotic enemies on a space station gaining weapons as you defeat enemies and finish levels. First, let me say that it's a good fun game. However, there are I think several problems which I think the game designers need to think about.

Crafting system needs tweaking - I recall there were four items basic materials you needed to colect to craft items or upgrades. Items or upgrades require all four materials. unfortunately the enemy drop rate for this is very low as are the 'material drops' you find scattered throughout the levels. In fact the game advices you to replay past levels to collect more to make the game easier. I don't like this form of gameplay because it breaks the flow of the game actually goes against the design of platformers. Unlike games like action RPGs like Castlevania or Metroid, the
game has very few branching paths and secrets so there isn't a 'psychological reward' for returning. I think four materials is too many for a fairly straight forward game lke this. A single currency to collect would be sufficient and rather than relying solely on random drops, the currency should be earned through exploration or achievements.

Grenade & Zypher Cannon Balance - All the main weapons are fairly balanced requiring you to switch between them in order eliminate various enemy types. Grenades and EMP Weapons however are another story. The grenades function not only as powerful damage dealers but also give you the ability to boost in a different direction. They require several seconds to charging-up before use and cost materials to craft. All too often I found myself unable to charge-up the grenade before being hit by an enemy causing me to fire the grenade in the wrong direction. The boost ability of grenades unlocked later in the game allow the player to reach previously unreachable areas. This is suppose to encourage players to experiment more with the grenades yet because of the scarcity of materials I was hesitant to employ the grenades, saving my materials to craft medikits instead. Once you finish the game, you're given access to unlimited grenades making using them actually more fun and more in tune with the game. Overall the scarcity of materials combined with long delay before their deployment felt to me to be at odds with the purpose of the grenades.

As for Zypher cannon, this basically functions as a room clearing bomb destroying all enemies. The cannon was okay, but it seemed a bit redundant, I don't think I ever used it in the levels and only against the bosses. I feel the the cannon could have been more integral to the game play like all the main weapons or dashing ability was. Perhaps as a way to interrupt bosses in their special attacks or something as in one of the boss battles? I think the grenades and the cannon could have been combined instead rather than having a separate cannon button for clearing the room of enemies.

Locked rooms - Occasionally, the game will lock you in a room and force you defeat all the enemies in the room before rewarding you with materials. It's okay but these rooms are very small and all you really end up doing is sitting in one corner of the room blasting away. This happens at least once or twice every level and get more annoying than fun by the end of the game.

Short game and replayability could be improved - Game is pricey considering how short it is and the replayability. There are extra data and power cubes to collect but I feel the game could have used some extra challenge modes or side quests to really help. As mentioned above, I think these quests or challenges could be linked to upgrades and items rather than the random materials section.

Overall it's a fun game worth maybe about $5 to $8 US dollars as priced. The soundtrack fits the tone of the game really well and is now available to purchase which I have. I think if they fix the problems I mentioned I sure Episode 2 and hopefully Episode 3 will be even better. I'm looking forward to Episode 2 which unfortunately seems to be taking a very long time to finish!

Thursday, 5 January 2012

Black and White 2: Game Design Review

Black and White 2 was designed by Lion Head Studios. A team made up of many members of the old Bullfrog studio who created classic games such as Dungeon Keeper and Populous. I was excited to finally play this game as it had gotten some really good reviews and the idea of having an AI creature to assist seemed very exciting. However, I was very disappointed by this game overall. Compared to Dungeon Keeper, Majesty and the Settlers I found many areas lacking in gameplay. The key issue is probably the simplistic nature of both military and city building and the lack of any real variety in attacks or spells.

Usability and Interface
Let's start with the interface and usability which I thought was one of the highlights of the game despite some missteps.
Controlling consists of mostly using the mouse and if you like also the keyboard. The entire game can in fact be controlled using the mouse and the on screen menu system and is quite intuitive for most part.

What I liked:
'Dragging' a building creates a building blueprint of the exact same building to construct - This is a great feature. I do feel it could have been enhanced if you can create multiple houses at once instead of just one at a time.
Construction Menu automatically sorts the most needed building - This is great because you know exactly what you need to build next.
Free zooming - Rather than lock you down to a specific zoom levels, you can pretty much zoom anywhere you like. Double right clicking zooms you straight to the action at a good zoom level.

What I didn't like about the controls:
Cancelling an action requires you to shake the mouse violently left and right - Sometimes its a bit hard to get the shaking motion to register, commonly happens with roads in my cases.

Right clicking to grab the ground in order to scroll the screen - It's okay but feels a bit limiting at times. Most other RTS have you automatically scroll once you reach the edge of the screen. You can't continue scrolling either once you've grabbed the ground, you have to right click again, grab another piece of ground and move.

Lack of set zoom levels - A minor complaint as the default 'double right click' mentioned above pretty much gets you where you need to be and at the right level.

Hand gestures to use spells doesn't work properly - Unfortunately the detection of your gestures isn't very good. I really couldn't get most of the spells to register and had to use the spell menu most of the time.

Unobtrusive menus make things occasionally difficult to navigate - Because the menus have small tabs, scrolling through the horizontal menus can be a pain at times. This isn't too much of a big deal when constructing but it did make finding spells a bit difficult at times when I was trying to fend off the hoards of enemies trying to beat down my

Poor throwing physics - You can also fling spells and drop rocks on enemies to stop them. Unfortunately flinging things isn't very accurate. As a result, some of the throwing mini-games and defending your settlement personally is more annoying than fun. Too often I would accidentally fling my spells or rocks into my own walls.

Soldier banner system - To control soldiers you pick up their platoons banners and place it at a different location. To combine platoons or link platoons you hold one banner over another. Overall, it's not a bad system but at times it seems a simple right click or left click would have been easier than holding down the left mouse button.

Lack of radar and mini-map - There isn't any fog of war but You have to rely on your zooming abilities to keep track of the enemy. Sometimes I was too busy building and expanding my settlements to take notice of the large army approaching my walls.

Hard to transfer citizens between settlements - After capturing a settlement you can freely transfer citizens between them by picking them up and dropping them but it's actually quite difficult to do so in a balanced way. You pretty much just grab what you see and hope you've done the right thing. You might have accidentally grabbed too many old people or men or something like and there isn't really a way to say, 'split the population equally between settlements' or 'transfer everyone to the main city'.

Nearly all the aspects I didn't like were mostly related to making the player feel more like a floating god hand and create a sense of immersion and feel to the game. Unfortunately I feel if that they had stuck to the more tried and true traditions as laid down by other RTS games they would have the made the game easier.

Game design
Here's my list of things they did wrong:
Islands are too big - From a level design perspective, the game lands can become a bit too big. You often have to wait quite a while before your soldiers get to their target.

Ore is extremely limited - Ore is essential for your economy and developing advanced buildings. Unfortunately there's always very limited ore making the game more frustrating than necessary. Too many times I was waiting for ore to come through from migrations. As a result Some sevels take a lot of time and the tension becomes very repetitive.

City limits- These are a bit too strict especially when combined with ore limitations. The city limits determine not only where you can build and how much space you can build with, it also determines where you can cast spells. The limits created by the game are very limited. Too often I would find myself unable to build more houses or bigger buildings. While you can of course start bullzoing older houses and replacing them with better versions, there is a problem of whether or not you have enough ore to do so.

Lack of unique spells - Basic Spells include Fire, water, healing, shield (unleashes a wind attack). The wonders grant a couple more but realistically all abilities are generally more powerful flashier versions of the basic spells.

Only 3 military units - Soldiers, archers and catapults. No real tactical diversity. There isn't even a healing unit!

Lack of unique citizens and interactions between people and you - Aside from assigning roles for them and attacking them, there really isn't that much you can do between the people and you. They pretty much all act the same. In games such as Caesar, Zeus or Pharoah there are different kinds of units you can create and different social classes of citizens.

Good and evil buildings and actions don't really make a difference in actual gameplay so much - Instead of good things like villas you build houses and skyscrappers instead which is 'evil'. Similarly, most good and evil actions don't really matter much and doesn't really change gameplay that much aside from how things look. Yes there are some evil actions that will give you short term benefits over long term benefits such as sacrificing your citizens at an altar to gain mana quickly but there just aren't many choices like that.

Repetitive - I pretty much built the same city over and over again using the same structures to win the game. I pretty used the Siren wonder to create impressive cities to capture all the other settlements.

Creature development is limited - The creature pretty much has the same abilities and spells as yourself. While the idea of a Creature isn't bad but I would like to be able to customise my creature a bit more or see the creature develop different abilities that are unique from you.

Lack of terrain abilities - For a god game with a physics engine, there aren't really any real fun terrain deforming spells or abilities to shape the land better. The spells which can change terrain such as volcanoes or earthquakes take forever to use as they are powerful wonders. If you look at games like Populous, Sim City or Dungeon Keeper terrain controlling, shaping and changing terrain was one way to ensure better cities and defenses.

Lack of any game play modes - The lack of skirmish mode or anything but the campaign hinders the game replayability.

Overall, although I did enjoy Black and White 2 at times, but the drawn out nature of the levels, the relatively simplistic gameplay made me want to go back to Majesty, Dungeon Keeper, Settlers or Caeser instead. Smaller levels, more variety in building options would have gone a long way in making a fun game.