Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Bioshock: Game Design Review

Bioshock is an action RPG developed by Irrational Games and has won many awards. It's an action game taking place in a secret underwater city called Rapture and is a spiritual successor to System Shock 2. Here are my thoughts on the game.

What I enjoyed
Storyline and atmosphere- Great atmosphere and good story and great plot developments One of the highlights of the game.

Penalty free, customisability- I really hate games which force you to replay the game over again if you want to try a different build. I don't have time to replay a 20 hour game much less a 50+ hour RPG. That's why I really liked fact that you can recustomise your character any time you like by returning to a gene bank in the game.

Photo Research- Taking photos is a fun unique take on doing research and gaining special abilities.

Enemy intelligence- Enemies are smart enough to work together, retreat and use healing station.

Environmental damage- You can use water, fire, debris and oil to your advantage in the environment which helps even the odds. I also like how your destroy health stations to get health kits over the long term benefit of being able to heal for money.

What I didn't like

Difficulty curve is all over the place- Due to lots of ammo and health, the normal enemies simply don't pose any real challenge at all. Combined with Vita chambers which basically restore to full health and no cost and the main  game itself is a breeze. The Big Daddys on the other hand are hulking, walking tanks that will decimate you within seconds. They are optional part of the game on every level and there really isn't any real reason to fight them except as an additional challenge of sorts and to make the final boss easier because of all the ADAM you can collect. As a result game swings between mostly easy (normal enemies) to brutally challenging (trying to take down a Big Daddy). It just doesn't work.

Morality system- Very token. You get the choice of saving a Little Sister or killing a Little sister. A and B choices. Very simplistic and just feels silly and pointless.

Slow switching- I don't know about other people but I found that switching between combat and plasmids (physical attacks and magic) a bit too slow and I wished it could be a bit faster. Combat felt 'jerky' rather than fluid at times because of this.

Lack of enemy variety- The world of rapture is very interesting and unique but aside from turrets and cameras, the humans and big daddies are your only enemies. I was hoping for some other variations like mutants as promised in the preview art. A real shame in my opinion since the idea that some humans/splicers have 'evolved' to become even more inhuman could have been really effective and interesting.

Lack of flavour text- Compared to System Shock 2 A lot of the flavour text is missing, there are no descriptions of things in general which I thought was a real shame. That being said, the atmosphere and posters do way more to bring things to life compared to the dull looking corridors of System Shock 2

Lack of mini-games- Aside from the hacking mini-game, there aren't any mini-games in the game. I mean System Shock 2 had a gameboy parody called the gamepig with additional games in it!

AI- AI knows when to take cover and will hunt you down or run away as appropriate. But for some reason they aren't they will still run directly into turrets and cameras in an effort to take it down. They are smart relatively speaking but still fall the same tricks over and over again.

Tactical options soon run out- About 60% way through the game, no new game mechanics or weapons are introduced from then on except for more powerful versions of existing powers. There aren't any new enemies introduced. This means that whatever tactics you develop from the first part of the game such as burning enemies and then shocking them when they cool off in water are just as effective in the second part of the game. It's just something I noticed as neared the end of game as I realised that hadn't really been killing enemies any differently for a long time.

Compared to System Shock 2, Bioshock is a more streamlined evolution rather than revolution. It is enjoyable but almost everything we've seen in this game is seen in System Shock 2 as well. There's plenty to like about the game despite its minor flaws and still worth playing even today.

Monday, 28 January 2013

Global Game Jam 2013: Eat Your Heart Out

Global Game Jam 2013 is over for us in New Zealand I'm proud to say that I designed a very fun co-op multiplayer game called Eat Your Heart Out that netted the 1st runner up in the Innovation category as voted by other teams at the Auckland venue.

It's a hide and seek co-op game where three players have to tag one player disguised as an NPC amongst lots of NPCs. If you take too long the disguised player will transform into a demon and hunt the searchers down instead! Try using Chrome or Internet Explorer to play the game. It supports 4 controllers as well.

All credit to my two other team members Erik and Michael who helped program the game and bring my idea to life with such polish.

My fellow team member Erik Hogan posted a detailed blog post here about the game and other games from the Auckland New Zealand competition that deserve your attention. Check out the game here on the Global Game Jam 2013 website.

My thoughts on the experience of the 48 hour Global Game Jam competition:
Think small but with a twist- You only have 48 hours to finish the game, don't try to make the next Minecraft, think instead on how to build upon existing ideas but create your own spin. In this case, Eat Your Heart Out is a mix of stealth gameplay and action. You've seen both parts before in various games and there probably are games just like this out there. Assassin's Creed multiplayer comes to mind.

Be precise- Have a clear idea about what you want. If you can't convince someone what the idea and game mechanic is shortly and succinctly, go back to the drawing board and if necessary reduce the scope. Some of the teams didn't have a game in the end.

Passion and courage- I arrived without a team at the Global Game Jam, however I had met a number of people at the Auckland Game Developers meeting. I stood up in front of everyone and pitched my idea to the 50 or 60 people there. Fortunately, Michael and Erik thought it was a great simple idea and joined up! If they hadn't responded I would have probably joined the other teams as a level designer or something else. If you don't have programming skills (my background is in copywriting and marketing), having the passion and courage to speak up and present your idea is especially important.

I learnt a lot at this Game Jam and hopefully my 'game designer street cred' has improved a little amongst the game developers in Auckland.

Violence in video games- It's clear that the heart beat theme of the Game Jam wasn't suppose to encourage violence but rather about connecting people and conveying emotion.  I didn't actual set out to make a game which is actually really violent in many respects. For example, whenever the demon appears, he literally appears in a red explosion (signifying blood) and goes around eating bystanders and searchers leaving a bloodstained screen. A little bit disappointed in myself for not being able to come up with a less violent but equally viable game but given the tight time constraints I decided to opt for something 'safer'. Hopefully next time I'll be able to come up with something better!

Friday, 18 January 2013

Cave Story Plus: Game Design Review

Cave Story was a freeware game released in 2004 that quickly gained a large fan base. We eventually saw several commercial releases in 2010 with a PC release called Cave Story Plus released 2011. It is a very fun Metroidvania game that's definitely worth playing. That being said there are a few things I didn't like about the game.

What I didn't like:
Jumping physics- Uses the Mario style of jumping where you never quite stop but slow down to a stop. I never liked this esepcially when I keep slipping off ledges.

Secret choices and closed off areas- Just like in old video games, there are secret choices and decisions that affect the ending and the weapons.  The game is semi-linear like Metroid so you can revisit areas using the teleport system or travelling there. However there are some areas where you can't revisit or quests you can't complete if you make a decision so if you miss it, that's it! Just something to be aware of it. I personally don't like it and I think developers should stop doing this.

Final level, ending zone is sealed off - Once you enter the final few areas, that's it, you can't turn back after that! I wished the game would have warned me because I would have liked to have gone back and finished up some subquests.

Short- Playing on easy, I finished the game in less than 6 hours even including all the deaths. It's a good time considering this game was originally a freeware game. I wished they could have included a couple of more extra levels or areas.

Overall, Cave Story is definitely a solid game experience. I didn't find it particularly revolutionary or as polished or large as Metroid or Castlevania games. That being said, its about 75% as good as these professionally created games from professional studios. In the end, I think that's part of its success, it's inspiring to think that a freeware by a guy and some help from his friends can be almost as polished as game put out by companies like Nintendo or Konami.

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Ninja Blade: Game Design Review

Ninja Blade is an action game where you play as a modern day ninja, Ken Ogawa who is sent along with a team of ninjas to defeat 'worms'. Worms are strange new biological organisms able to infect living things and turn them into zombie like monsters. Set in Tokyo, you follow Ken as he tries to stop the infection and find out more about why his father and friend have betrayed the ninjas. I played on the Xbox 360 Controller on PC which I highly recommend.

Overall gameplay impressions:
The gameplay can be roughly divided into two parts: The first is where you control Ken from a third person perspective like any other normal action game and the second contains the much touted quick-time events. As in other reviews, the quick-time events are extreme cinematic attacks that has Ken flying everywhere doing  impossible things like slowing down a jumbo jet airplane with his blades and leaping off extremely tall buildings. Almost every single quick-time event is unique so you'll almost never see the same cinematic twice except near the end where you have to fight the bosses again.

I find that the platforming handles well and you can run along walls and up walls seamlessly. The combat is also solid and the three weapons do feel differently and all have their uses. You can also use your magical disc which has a wind, fire and lightning forms to attack enemies with different results.

While the normal enemies aren't particularly exciting, the bosses look quite fantastical and suitable ugly and crazy.

What I didn't like:
Here are some issues I had with the game.

Graphics and artstyle- The entire game is draped in grey and black taking place at night in an urban environment. We've seen enough grey concrete buildings in other games so why create such a boring looking environment? The enemies are similarly given white, grey or brown colours as well.

Considering this is the same team that created Otogi: Myth of Demons which was apparently really colourful and interesting it seems rather disappointing. This is probably my biggest complaints about the game. It just doesn't look visually appealing.

Ninja vision blurs after usage- Ninja vision in the game acts like a cross of bullet-time and super-vision. When activated it slows down the world, highlights barrels, highlights climbable surfaces and shows boss weak spots. Unfortunately, whenever Ninja vision is turned off it the screen goes blurry and you can't see anything for about 1 or 2 seconds. It's very annoying especially in crucial moments like trying dodge boss attacks.

Normal enemy units are boring- While the enemy bosses are quite large and epic, the normal units are quite boring. There were only a handful of normal enemies and most of differences come from the main zombies having different equipment.

Lack of stun in normal weapons- Only the most powerful heavy weapon has the ability to actually stun enemies, the standard sword and twin blades don't. Its a bit annoying because you have to continually dodge attacks while attacking rather than focusing your attacks on one enemy.

Lack of weapon and magic variety- You can only get three weapons and three magic spells with a secret fourth magic spell. While I thought the game was fairly balanced with each one doing different things, it would have been nice to have a few more options.

I quite enjoyed Ninja Blade actually especially the over the top quick time events and solid action gameplay. It's not as good as a Devil May Cry game because of its lack of variety but its a solid game. There really isn't much replayability once you finish it except to try and beat your previous times and unlock a couple of extras but its enjoyable from start to finish as is.

Monday, 7 January 2013

Darksiders: Game design review

Darksiders is an action adventure game that I recently purchased thanks to the THQ bundle. You play War who is tricked into accidentally appearing before he was suppose to. He is stripped of his powers and must seek revenge on those who have wronged him.

According to a developer interview, the game is designed to be similar to Legend of Zelda. You have an open world and travel between various areas and dungeons to collect items and unlock powers. The closest on the PC to this game is probably the Blood Omen and Soul Reaver series.

It is very solid well put together game and I quite enjoyed the combination of modern day buildings taken over by fantasy elements in a post-apocalyptic world. If you're an action gamer I would highly recommend playing it. I played this game with an Xbox 360 controller on the PC which I would highly recommend.

So here are my thoughts on some of the minor issues that annoy me about the game:

Camera doesn't work in small rooms- The usual problem of action games rears it ugly head. Fighting in a corner or near walls in small rooms  usually results in a camera focusing in the wrong place. The numerous enemies also make it very difficult to figure out where you are sometimes swamp you blocking your view of things.

Short Length and lacks replayability- According to my Steam account I've only been playing for about 15-18 hours. It actually felt a much longer epic game than that but some might find it lacking. There's isn't much replayability similar to other action games like this although for those who enjoy collecting there are various minor health and magic powerups you can collect.

More interesting bosses- I find the enemy bosses kind of ugly and boring. They all look very much like ugly insect-like demons and pretty much just scream and taunt you like any other comic book villain. I was hoping for some variation like in Soul Reaver where each bosses looks different based on their powers and some one like Kain with depth and a charisma.

Hard to empathise with characters and lack of characterisation- Most characters are really hard to empathise with in the game. War is pretty much angry and angst-driven all the time and most of the other characters fall into the archetypes of being 'too righteous' or 'too evil' declaring in loud tones their desire to defeat you. I appreciate this is a comic book style game but even a mediocrum of restraint would have been good.

I think the greatest misstep is probably the Watcher who accompanies you on the journey and who is plain out comically sadistic and evil always looking for opportunities to taunt War. He also acts as an in-game guide and I really didn't enjoy summoning him. I think that's a mistake. The helper character should be someone the player should want to converse with. Or if you have to make him/her a villain, make the character someone likeable, like a scoundrel.

In fact I would say that the character that I liked best was Samael, the former demon prince who assists you who has an agenda of his own. Right off the bat, The Watcher and everyone else expects Samael to betray War but surprisingly this doesn't happen in the game at all and Samael remains enigmatic on his true goals hinting about the bigger picture. Samael seems more developed than everyone else in the game including War and shows a level of restraint despite every thing. Unfortunately, he yells a lot and taunts War like all the other characters in loud brash tones which I think works against his favour.

Lack of horse-riding- You get a horse and can ride around the desert and even fight the boss with it but the horse section seems token unfortunately. I wish there was a bit more chances for horse riding to show off the vastness and landscape of the world.

Some items are just useless after a while- Like a lot of Zelda-like games, some of the early weapons and items become a bit useless. I've always found it puzzling frankly. I personally think a game should just upgrade existing weapons so they become more useful or simply replace them.

Portals- Late in the game you get a gun which fires orange and blue portals which allow you to teleport between them. That's out right copying of the portals from Portal! Its a minor detail but seriously, couldn't they colour them differently or something?

As mentioned above, I enjoyed Darksiders and its a very fun game despite its few quirks. It's somewhat derivative but we don't really have many games like this on the PC. I highly recommend it if you're an action adventure gamer. It's often on sale for just US$5so there's no excuse to enjoy this game.