Sunday, 29 April 2012

Hard Reset: Game Design Review

Created by former developers at People May Fly that created the very fun Painkiller, Hard Reset is a no nonsense old-school action shooter. So how does it stack up to other action games? Unfortunately, not very well. There are lots of things that get in the way of shooting things a lot of things, really fast and really quickly.

Menu is pointlessly animated- The menu has way too many moving parts that delay the time scrolling between menus. The developers seemed to have recognised this and even added a menu speed up button just so the menu animations move faster.

Weapons are unlocked rather than picked up- From the get go, I ran into trouble. When starting the game. In most actions shooters, you pick up weapons when the developers plan for you to pick them. This is usually when the developers will introduce a new enemy. In Hard Reset, you a single gun with two weapons systems and various attachments which function as different weapons. You have the N.R.G System which is blue in colour and grants you weapons which deal lower damage but have special abilities such as slowing enemies down and stunning them. You have C.L.N system which is red in colour and grant you weapons which are more direct, deal more damage and often contain more explosives.

Unfortunately the design of the dual Weapon upgrade system works against the nature of the game because you have to invest a certain number of points in upgrading your existing weapons before the next level of weapons are unlocked. For example, you have to upgrade your starting gun first before the shot gun becomes available. Because I spread my upgrade points across both weapon systems I ended up facing some harder enemies without any of the more powerful weapons such as the rocket launcher, grenade launcher or mortar making things much harder than I anticipated in the beginning when points are sparse.

Weapons are enhancements of existing weapons which makes them hard to differentiate- Because all your weapons are modifications of your one single gun, it's hard to know if you're holding a grenade launcher, rocket launcher or shotgun at a glance. This is very important in a firefight for obvious reasons!

Crowd control upgrades need to be available earlier on- A lot of the crowd control weapon upgrades should be available earlier on. I found my mid game much easier once I obtained several weapon upgrades.

Lots of environmental explosions but sometimes these just get in the way- Part of the game is to try and use the highly explosive objects in the environment to stop horders of enemies. It's fun to see a trap go off right but as there isn't any way to kick or reposition exploding terrain effectively I often ended up any managing to take out one or two enemies at best. Also because there are so many explosive objects in the areas in numerous occasions, I ended up accidentally retreating too close to an explosive object while under fire and dying.

Hard to see enemies- Because of the metallic nature of the environments, enemies are often hard to see and spot on occasions.

Enemies are too hard vs weapon reload times- After a while I had to switch to easy because normal was just too difficult. Even the easiest enemies need at least two shotgun shots to be destroyed on normal!

Dashing is limited and bar is too tiny- You have the ability to dash for a limited time and you can't fire while doing so. Unfortunately dashing is the only way to side step one of the larger enemies. As you can imagine I often died by being rammed death because I ran out of dashing power. Also the dashing energy bar is such a small part of your HUD that its hard to know when you're about to run out without taking your eyes off the action.

Dual weapon system is rarely used- Swapping is so slow that I honestly had no use for the dual weapon system. Instead I sank all my points in the N.R.G system and found that having unlocked the more powerful weapons and abilities, I was in a much better position to deal with the enemies as it's much faster to swap weapons within the same weapon system than it is to switch to the other system.

Overall, its a graphical competent game marred by high difficulty level, poor interface and unintuitive weapon and upgrade system that seems to penalise cross weapon experimentation. I was playing Lair of the Evildoer at the same  and that felt that game had better flow and control than this game despite Lair's lack of variety. I can't really recommend it unless you can get it for dirt cheap like I did with the Indie Royale package. You may as well just play Painkiller or Serious Sam HD, far better games.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Nikopol: Secrets of the Immortal

Nikopol: Secrets of the Immortal is an adventure game by White Birds productions that was founded by the developers responsible for the critically acclaimed Amerzone and Syberia series.

Overall, it's actually relatively fun straight forward. Here are my impressions from a usability and design perspective

Way less pixel hunting and hotspot finding - Previous Games by studio founders such as Syberia had a problem where certain piles of rocks and debris which looked like background objects ended up concealing important items. Thankfully they seemed to have learnt their lesson. There are one or two situations like that but usually it's pretty obvious.

Story is interesting but the story is really a side story to the main plot
- You play the son of Nikopol who has to save his father. Unless you've read the comics a lot of the motivations of the characters just aren't well explained especially what's happening in the middle and end of the story. How for example are the gods involved in this whole thing? How did Nikopol get possessed? Personally I strongly feel that a game should stand on its own two feet or be explained enough. It would have been better if the game was a retelling of the events of Nikopol or had come with the original comics it was based on. I have the Steam edition so not sure about the boxed edition.

Surprisingly short - Compared to some other adventure games, there are very few locations and the game can be finished in an afternoon.

One or two puzzles are a bit too complicated - One of the major puzzles is a rotation puzzle. You do know what you have to do but it's just really hard to figure out the exact steps. Unfortunately most gamers don't have time to sit there figuring it out so it would have been better if there was a difficulty slider for these  puzzles of some sort.

Overall, as long as you treat this as a side story to the game, it's not a bad game. I can understand where people thought it was a good adventure game but I'm surprised they gave a game with such glaring problems 8 or 9! Especially a game with such a confusing narrative if you weren't familiar with the source material!

Microlab Solo6C Troubleshooting

I recently purchase the Microlab Solo 6C and thought I would share some setup issues I encountered:

The speakers default setting is mute - You will have to use the controller or knob to cancel the mute.

Auxiliary input is the default rather than PC input - Most PC users will connect the RCA cables to the labelled PC input. You will need to use the remote to swap it to the PC input otherwise you will have no sound. Alternatively. you can just plug it into auxiliary output like I did so whenever you switch it on it works automatically.

Wires provided have a very fine thin layer of plastic which are covering them - When you try to attach them to the secondary/left speaker you will find that the speakers aren't working because the plastic acts as insulation. Not having installed stereo speakers before I thought I received a faulty left speaker. Fortunately my father realised the very thin layer of plastic was the problem. He took a pair of pliers and stripped it properly to expose the copper wires so now the speakers work perfectly.

From a usability/newbie perspective, a thumbs down for installation of the Microlab Solo 6C.

As for the sound quality, I actually think it's pretty good so hopefully this will get you on your way.

Friday, 6 April 2012

Indigo Prophecy: Game Design Review

Indigo Prophecy is an action adventure game created by a French studio Quantic Dream that also made the well-received Omikron: The Nomad Soul. Indigo Prophecy tells the story of Lucas Kane who becomes possessed and murders a man. The game switches mostly between him and the detective's pursuing him. It is simply put a riveting and a must play game.

In retrospect and from a strictly interface and game design perspective, the interactivity is actually as minimalistic as any other adventure game, perhaps even more so than normal. Generally the interactivity is aroud Resident Evil level. In Indigo Prophecy, you can interact with only handful of objects and the game practically locks you in an area consisting of one or two rooms. Aside from one or two sequences, you really only need to combine object A with object B in most cases and this is very straight forward. It's pretty clear what you need to do most of them. Yet I (and many others) found it very enjoyable more so than many other games. The only difference from other action games is that being that the actions the player performs on the controller or keyboard are more related to what they see on screen. i.e pushing a door open requires to player to push the the joystick forward as if they were pushing the door open.

Reading the walkthrough after finishing the game, the game is extremely linear and while you can affect minor portions of the story, there are less than a handful of optional scenes you can unlock.

Upon reflection I wondered why exactly I and other reviewers enjoyed the game so much. How can a game which is so linear get such a high metacritic score? There are several very polished aspects of the game which I can identify.

Attention to detail - The rooms you walk around in aren't just boring corridors or generic rooms. The rooms give you clues and hints as to the lives of the people living in them. In other words atmosphere.

Easy to use interface
- The interface is extremely easy to use and only requires several buttons. It almost never gets in the way of what you're trying to do.

Strong Storyline and good editing - Every single character you encounter and can talk with reveals something interesting about the game world or plays an important part in the story. Just as importantly the game is well-written and maintains good pacing.

Lack of interaction - As a player I was never really stuck in a location for long. In most cases the lack of things to do meant the action I did try would reveal to me more about the world or advance the story in some way. Most actions were significant in the sense that I was always uncovering information or advancing the plot. Lack of pixel hunting was a big thing for me.

There are however a number of glaring problems with the game.

Action sequences and mini-games - The main weakness of the game in my opinon were the quick time action sequences using the PAR system. Basically, during certain action sequences or mini-games you push the twin joysticks on your controller up down left or right as directed by the game. The actual onscreen action was really cool especially later on in the game with the matrix style action sequences but I felt it really disconnected me from the game. Here are a couple of examples: There is a morgue sequence in the game where Carla observes the coroner examine the body, you have to press the sequences in order for Carla to understand what the coroner is saying. Completely immersion breaking in this case, what does pressing the up down left right have to do with understanding the coroner's medical terms? Maybe a better way would have been a dialogue where you question the coroner based on wounds you find on the body or something like that or where you have to manipulate tools and the corpse to get the answer.

Another example are the vision sequences where you see through the eyes of one of the other characters in the game. As before you have to follow the onscreen instructions which have absolutely no bearing on the dialogue heavy vision sequences. It would have been better instead to actually take control of the other character or have some sort of puzzle sequence where you have to figure the order of the dialogue or piece together the evidence in a logical fashion.

So what would be a good action sequence in contrast? Well one game sequence that I thought was done really well in the game was a scene in which the female detective enters the police department archives but suffers from claustrophobia and you slowly and carefully have to go through the archives and solve a puzzle by moving some shelves. The game switches to first person perspective You can hear her breath as she gets more tense and while walking have to carefully reduce her fear through button presses. I have to say it was an extremely effective sequence despite the fact that nothing really happened. It really conveyed the sense of helplessness in a very effective way. This was repeated in an asylum later in the game which really upped the ante and was just as terrifying. More so because you were trapped with insane patients.

Lack of interaction - Despite saying lack of interaction helped the game I also believe lack of interaction is also one of the the game's minor but glaring weakness. This isn't so much a problem during timed scenes or action sequences such as the opening scene where you have to race around doing things but during the normal exploration sequences, I don't understand why there couldn't be more interaction, more chatting and more things to do in these slow paced areas. I would have to liked to be more of a detective and investigate but the exploration bits really start to decrease the further you go into the game which is a shame really.

Linearity - I really enjoyed the story but I was expecting major multiple plots depending on who you sided with. As it turns out there really aren't multiple plots to the game. Just one over arching plot with very minor details changed as a result of your actions. I think its better to have a well-polished well written character drivenlinear adventure game like this rather than a adventure with plenty of plotlines but lack of focus. Still I hope that future games by Quantic will capitalise upon this basic formula and create games which do have major diverging plots in the gameplay and therefore more replayability. Unfortunately the most recent game by Quantic, Heavy Rain, as I understand still suffers from this problem.

Overall I enjoyed it and any story driven action gamer or adventure gamer will enjoy this.