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.