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!