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Game Anatomy: FreeFlow Combat

ArkhamCity

Copyright WB Games and Rocksteady

One of the things a lot of western developers have had difficulty finding is a way to make a good brawler.  At least in the 3D era.  Rockstar made the Warriors in 2005, and there was that awful Final FIght game, Streetwise that was a reboot of the series, a sequel to 3, might be in Street Fighter/Final Fight continuity and inexplicably features Cammy, but nothing really worked.  There was the possibility that they could just copy Devil May Cry, but that has a very Japanese design, and a lot of what makes that game work tends to be eschewed by a lot of Western developers for various reasons, both good and bad.  What finally worked was a small game called Batman: Arkham Asylum, which introduced the FreeFlow combat system, a combat system that was based more on Dance Dance Revolution than a fighting or action game.  It’s legacy, lately, has been a bit tarnished, but it was successful in making the Asylum games work as well as they did.

I wasn’t being entirely silly when I called Arkham Asylum a “small game.”  It was a bit of a gamble because at the time, superhero games were seen as shitty tie ins for their bigger movies.  This is actually still kind of a problem, mostly because super heroes are extremely powerful, and doing something other than putting them in a fighting game and mostly ignoring how powerful they actually are for anything other than “Superman is like Zangief” is kind of the only way it works.  Rocksteady, though, wanted to make a game where the player felt like Batman, all that power and ability, and they did so by focusing on fighting large groups of people, and making combat easy (but not unchallenging).  One of the best descriptions of the game I’ve ever seen is that no matter how bad a player is, the bad guys have already lost because they brought a knife to a Batman fight.  Being Batman means that the player needs to feel like they can drop into a room of armed goons and take out all of them, while simultaneously feeling like they’re the most badass martial artist in the world, and that was the goal of the FreeFlow combat system.

In order to do this, the goal was simplicity.  One of the coolest things about Devil May Cry is that everything Dante can do in this video, so can the player.  However, it requires precise button inputs, usage of combos and a deep understanding of an extremely deep combat system, one more akin to a fighting game than an action game.  This works for the sort of game that Devil May Cry is, but it’s not Batman, so simplicity needs to win out.  So, Batman has four commands: strike, cape, dodge and parry, each one connected to each of the face buttons, each one given a special prompt in order to work, cluing the player in on what they’re supposed to be doing, as well as giving a large wind up in animations, and other visual cues (such as body armor, weapon type, etc.) in order to make the player aware of what’s going on and what they need to do.  More importantly, the prompt indicating that Batman needs to do something specific will disappear once the game registers the player’s input, informing the player they no longer need to parry or dodge, even if Batman is in the middle of another animation of combat.

It’s not Dark Souls, but it’s not trying to be.  Dark Souls isn’t what I’d call a horror game, but it is a game where the player is punching upwards, trying to kill dragons or gods.  Batman is a game about punching downwards.  Batman IS a Dark Souls boss, and the player needs the tools to be one, but that doesn’t mean the game sacrifices depth.  Certainly, it’s not as deep as Devil May Cry or Bayonetta, but it has it’s own combo system, and manages to have more depth than its contemporaries like God of War.  What works is that Batman has a lot of tools beyond the four basic inputs, and what those can do aren’t binary.  Strike and Parry can only do so much, but Cape stuns enemies, leaving them open for a Beatdown combo, but also keeps them from being able to attack for a moment, while Dodge allows the player to not just get away from an opponent, but can be used to remove obstacles and get them so they’re lost in a sea of their own allies.  Then, of course, there are the gadgets, with add in their own abilities, such as the grapple gun’s Scorpion style “Get over Here” ability, the Batarangs that can cause damage at a distance and stun stronger enemies, and so on.  Each of these abilities are easy to use, again, tied in with a single button, or a combination of a trigger button and a face button.

This level of simplicity means that each individual mook or goon is no threat to Batman, and can only be in great numbers.  However, since the game requires great numbers to be a challenge to Batman, it means the game is going to throw great numbers at Batman.  This means the game can’t be unfair about it, so that means Batman has to be able to react quickly to various attacks.  As such, Batman can’t move during animations, but he can Parry or Dodge out of one, jump past enemies to Strike enemies far away, and can set up friendly fire.  That’s not to say that enemies will open fire on Batman if they have a gun and their buddy is in the way, but bigger or metahuman enemies can be tricked into knocking down swaths of regular goons, and the taser gun can be used to spin certain armed enemies around to hit their opponents.  It’s kind of funny, actually, to do stuff like that.

What this combination does is it makes Batman seem powerful, competent and intelligent.  By focusing on simplicity, Batman can wipe the floor with tons of enemies in a variety of ways.  It does sacrifice the depth of combat that Japanese brawlers have, but it’s not going for that.  Instead, here, Batman gets to feel like Batman, like a super hero.  What’s interesting to note, is that it’s something that translates really well to other similar games, where the player takes on the shoes of a similarly overpowered character.  That’s overpowered in that they are more powerful than the people they fight, not that Batman is OP and needs to be nerfed.  I’m a big fan of Batgod, myself, actually.  Because Batman is supposed to be able to take out a group of big, strong dudes, he needs a system where the regular goon, or even four or five, can’t be a threat, and that’s what the FreeFlow system does.  I’m at at almost 1200 words here, so I might need a part two to go into how the dance game inspiration makes it work, but that’s basically what it comes down to.  Simplicity, large groups of enemies, and allowing Batman to cancel makes him feel powerful.

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Gambling?

Last year, Overwatch made my top 5 games of the year.  I had actually stopped playing it regularly around the time the year ended, but my time playing it, I really enjoyed it.  Obviously, I complained about the RNG from the Loot Boxes, but at the time, it didn’t really bother me that much.  “It’s all cosmetic,” or “it doesn’t affect balance” or “no pay to win” were all the things I really agreed with.  Here’s the thing, I still sort of stand by this.

overwatch_cover_art_pc

Copyright Blizzard Entertainment

The loot boxes in Overwatch, and apparently Heroes of the Storm now, are objectively awful.  I don’t like getting them when I level up, the few times a month I actually play the game other than to get on and do more than shooting gallery as Widowmaker, and I don’t like the few times I’ve paid for them.  I have gotten what I wanted, but it was more relief than anything else (it was Witch Mercy, for the record) and I didn’t feel like I ever earned anything.

Still, it really is just aesthetics.  Now, these things are really important to me.  I like to look rad in video games, especially since as a school teacher, buying clothes that look cool is kind of outside of my budget.  At the same time, it’s not game breaking to me, either.  Yes, I understand that it’s manipulative, but I can play the whole game without it being an issue.  I don’t like it.  I don’t like that it took forever to get Commando 76 or Anubis and that I’m never, ever going to get that super awesome Orisa skin, either.  Here’s the thing, though, I have all of the characters.  I haven’t played the game, for real, in several weeks, but I have Moira.  I also have Ana, Doomfist and Orisa, too, and I never paid a cent for any of them.  It’s great, and I love that Blizzard updates the game, for free, and I get all of the characters.  There’s no subscription, there’s no cash shop to make sure I can shoot better or do more damage and I get all of the modes, maps and characters because I bought the game, and I always will.

Overwatch is at fault for Star Wars Battlefront II, though.  All this shit about loot boxes determining what you get is because EA saw what Overwatch could do and how much money they could make by going crazy.  It’s Overwatch’s fault and I hate it.

SWBF2_box

Copyright DICE and Electronic Arts

So, the real question I’m getting at is whether not Blizzard brought gambling into the gaming mainstream.  Not being a lawyer, I don’t want to guess the legal element of it, but from a purely gut reaction, it feels like it’s gambling.  It’s already bullshit to cram what everyone else gives for free as a level up into lootboxes, but to make it so it’s like a slot machine feels worse.  What I feel, though, isn’t exactly what we’re looking at.

I don’t think it’s gambling.  It feels like it.  In a way, it looks like a slot machine, where someone pays money and they get a random chance at something, but it’s superficial.  No, I think in a lot of ways, it’s worse than gambling.  It definitely hacks into your brain the same way that gambling does, but gambling has a chance for money and real value, but this isn’t even that.  It’s the same issue I had with Hearthstone.  The collectible element of Magic: the Gathering sucked, but at least I could trade my shitty cards with other players, or sell them, or do something with them.  With a digital item, however, that’s not possible.  All we get is a money sink that preys on the same thing that gambling does.

It’s not a good way to do things.  I’m not here to arbitrate what “should be done,” I’m too tired, sick and unqualified to do that, but the trend of lootboxes make me upset and concerned about how they can sink people who don’t have the control, or have addiction issues or gambling problems.  I’ve seen the comparison to cigarettes on reddit, and while I don’t agree with that precisely, I can understand the sentiment.

Shooting Nazis Once Again: Wolfenstein 2 The New Colossus Review

Wolfenstein-ii-the-new-colossus-cover

Copyright id Software and Bethesda Softworks

I didn’t even get to kill a single Klansman.  Okay, let me back up.  Three years ago, Wolfenstein: the New Order was my favorite first person shooter since Call of Duty 4, so when a new one came out, and it was going to be in America and it looked like shooting up the Klan was going to be added to shooting up Nazis, I was pretty excited.  The first game was great, but it had some issues, mostly with difficulty and balance, and I was hoping that the change in scenery would also bring some much needed gameplay improvements.  After all, it had been three years, and the gaming world has seen some real advancements in where first person shooters were going in the interim, and it would be great if the game took them into consideration when getting made.  Unfortunately, the game is more of a lateral move than a real improvement, and while that does mean that it’s an excellent game that’s worthy of a great deal of praise, it also means that, once again, the game doesn’t quite live up to its potential, and we’ll be waiting on a third game to, hopefully, perfect the format.

One of the things that made the first game so good that, along with being a throwback to the first person shooters from before Call of Duty, it had a lot of modern sensibilities in its design and construction.  Levels were linear, yes, but they weren’t corridors filled with Nazis (except for the harrowing concentration camp level) and they allowed for a lot of different approaches based on how the player wanted to play at that given point.  Theoretically, if the player wanted to be stealthy, they could be, but they could also go into the map dual wielding shotguns and massacre everything they wanted.  The implementation of this, particularly at higher difficulties, was spotty, but it was there.  It was something that was very cool, when it worked, and even when it didn’t, it was easy to appreciate the fact they tried to do something beyond giving the player a single, linear path.  Of course, this is a review of the second game, why am I spending so much time talking about the first game?  Well, very little has actually changed between games.

Sadly, it is just as much a surprise to see a game openly trying to cater to multiple forms of combat in a first person shooter in 2017 as it was in 2014.  However, that emotion is compounded by the fact that in the interim three years, the game’s formula has changed very little.  It’s a great, fantastic formula for a first person shooter, but I said that it’s attempts at giving players options were not as well implemented as they should have been, and that remains here.  See, one of the biggest issues with the first game was that its difficulty was more about attrition than actually giving a challenge.  It was more about having to fight off waves of enemies rather than challenging position or the player being on the backstep and having to make use of the environment.  Once again, however, that seems to be the case here.  In many ways, it almost feels like it’s a bigger issue in this game, because BJ is much more fragile here than he was in the first game.  It’s easy to exaggerate how weak he is, especially in the first half of the game, but this has more to do with the fact maps throw huge numbers of enemies at the player instead of any actual mechanical issue with BJ.

One of the biggest issues I have is that the game requires stealth.  I can run in with two shotguns and kill a whole lot of people, but the Oberkommandos, will continually spawn enemies until I kill them.  Because a few shots can chew BJ up, having to continually shoot up wave after wave of Nazis until another unit is eliminated, it turns these sections into an exercise in frustration unless the Oberkommando unit is taken out stealthily.  I’m a person who loves stealth games, but with the pounding metal music, the ability to dual wield literally any combination of weapons in this game and tons of cool weapons, I’d much rather just kick in the door and murder everyone I see as fast as possible instead of slink around, and unfortunately, that sort of approach isn’t always possible.  Worse, many of the Oberkommando sections put BJ at a disadvantage if he does get seen, making those sections even harder.  It doesn’t help that the stealth mechanics really aren’t great.  Bodies can be discovered, but can’t be hidden.  Guards can be put on high alert, making it easier to be spotted, but there’s no way to move them away from the player or get them out of high alert.  It wouldn’t be so bad if the stealth worked as well as, say, Metal Gear Solid 2 did, but it doesn’t.

Mechanically, though, the shooting in this game is so good.  Like, really, it’s the best.  BJ has a full character model, and his movement is not only very fluid and natural thanks to not just being a floating gun on a map, his hands and body moves contextually with the environment.  Shooting has great feedback.  Both the assault rifle and the shotgun are some of the best feeling weapons I’ve played with in a game, and when that pounding metal soundtrack hits and enemies start swarming, it feels good.  Like, very few games have managed to capture such a visceral feeling and given such positive feedback when it comes to gunplay.  It doesn’t feel like it’s a means to an end, either, like it can in some games, the gunplay really is the star of the show.  Guns have great balance and feedback, all of them are interesting and fill a creative niche, and their upgrades just make them even more awesome.  Although, with the number of super soldiers and robot enemies, I found the assault rifle’s armor piercing upgrade to make the assault rifle perhaps too necessary.

When the game doesn’t trap the player in a battle of attrition, the game feels great.  It’s more like Doom than the last Doom game was.  Tons of enemies, a bit of challenge, the guns feel great, the enemies react to what the player is doing, and the developers didn’t get cold feet and put actual metal on the soundtrack (seriously, Doom 2016, what happened to At Doom’s Gate?).  It’s amazing and it made me feel like a Nazi killing bad ass, which is exactly what I wanted to feel like.  There are even a few times, once a map or encounter is figured out, even the attrition sections feel good.  They feel satisfying, and that’s one thing I can say about every encounter.  They always feel satisfying.  Frustrating, yeah, especially the final fight, but satisfying when it’s all said and done.

Storywise, the game is great.  It’s different, sort of, from the first one.  It goes more into the pulpy aspects of the setting than the dystopian elements.  There’s no long walk through a concentration camp here, no harrowing tragedy of people sacrificing themselves to stop the Nazis.  Instead, it’s more about BJ’s personal journey, his past, his potential death and what the Nazis are willing to do to stop one man.  There’s a lot of gross, dark stuff in the American aspect of the setting.  Slavery has been reinstated, what parts of America we see look like the South won the Civil War and it’s the 1950s and the Klan supposedly runs everything below the Mason-Dixon, but we don’t see any of it.  This doesn’t make the story worse, but it does mean it’s more disassociated than the first one was.  The first one was pretty much just as crazy as this one, but it tied itself into the setting more naturally.  The things the Nazis made were horrifying, twisted monstrosities, and those things are still here, but because we don’t see them being used to enforce slavery or crush the leaders of the resistance here, it takes away from the brutality.  The game does not shy away from the Nazis as monstrous dictators, but we get to see how it impacts the rest of the world so much less than in the first game.

The focus on BJ as a character, his past, his death, and the transformation of his body is an interesting thematic view, however.  He’s an interesting, poetic character and there’s a lot of tragedy to him.  The game also does a lot to really deconstruct a lot of toxic elements of masculinity that were instilled into BJ as a kid.  Ironically, a lot of this toxic masculinity were things openly embraced by the Nazis, both in real life and in this game, which makes for an interesting parallel.  While this doesn’t make up for not presenting the suffering of the American people, especially the people who were already oppressed before the Nazis, it does mean the narrative is not lacking depth, and is just as strong as its predecessor.

There are also a bunch of side missions, too, that the player can do.  I never did any.  They come from the Enigma codes the Oberkommandos drop.  That’s apparently where you can cap some Klansmen.  The Enigma machine was a pain in the ass to get right and it wasn’t fun.  Maybe the side stuff is cool, maybe it actually adds to the dystopian elements, I don’t know.

There are a few other things.  The game is more brutal than the last game ever was, which is great, because all of the brutality is aimed at the Nazis.  In a way, I’m sort of glad that we don’t see a lot of the brutality toward the oppressed in this, because it’s therapeutic, especially this year, to blow the shit out of Nazis.  Also, the game tries to add some new abilities.  They exist, I guess, but I’m pretty sure the constrictor harness is the best one.  It’s not the one I picked, though.  Oh well.

Overall, the game is great.  It’s a lot of fun, but it doesn’t improve over the first, at all.  That’s not a weakness, because it’s a great game and is the best first person shooter I’ve played since the last game in the series (yes, it’s better than Doom 2016).  It just would have been nicer to see the game expanded and added to.

Fixing Mass Effect 3

mass-effect-3-the-real-female-shepard

Image copyright EA, Bioware and Bleeding Cool

Mass Effect 3 was a disaster, perhaps one of the worst disasters in the current history of the medium.  Not only did it have one of the worst, most nonsensical endings of all time, across any medium, it also just wasn’t a very good game in general and probably made it so any follow up would be terrible.  There was no escaping for Mass Effect Andromeda, it had no chance to become anything but what it did, and it’s thanks to Mass Effect 3.  Outside of Tuchanka and Rannoch, there really isn’t anything good about the game.  It starts with a terrible mission, the game doesn’t pick up until Tuchanka and most of the game are just ways to funnel the player into its terrible multiplayer game (yes, it’s terrible).  Still, I can’t help but think it could have been salvageable.  Obviously, the game has tons of great ideas, but the question isn’t if it had potential, the question is if it could have worked in the first place.  I think it could, and for the past five years, I’ve been working a few things they could have done.  This might not be my definitive list, but it’s time I got this written down.  So, here are the ways that Mass Effect 3 could have been fixed.

I won’t be talking about story, though.  That needs to be fixed, obviously, but the fixes to those are obvious.  Make the ending not suck (Reapers lose, Citadel space is hurt, but can rebuild, no fucking ending choice) and generally find a way to make the Illusive Man not a stooge of the Reapers, but some bastard who’s trying to profit on the good guys winning.  Actually, just do that.  Make him a bastard who’s trying to sweep in after Shepard so he can rule over Citadel space after the Reapers are gone.

Oh, and this one is a freebie.  Previous choices have to matter.  Anderson stays as ambassador.  Rachni are dead.  Human council.  The Collector Base is destroyed.  It doesn’t really matter what got picked, just stick with those.  If it means you don’t get to do the shitty Rachni mission with Grunt, whatever.  Hell, just make it a slightly different mission with Grunt.  Christ.

The first issue is that of the cast.  It’s probably the worst of the trilogy, and you can probably include Andromeda in there, too.  Andromeda had Vetra.  It’s basically the Mass Effect 1 cast, but with Wrex gone with James to replace him, and EDI to replace whoever died on Virmire.  James is great, but the Virmire Survivor is much less cool now that Mass Effect 2 made them into a dick and EDI is just the worst as a party member.  She’s still great as EDI, though.  It also brings back Liara.  I don’t like her, but she’s popular and she’s not cool like Miranda or Samara, but whatever, she’s a pure biotic and the cast is pretty short on those unless Shepard is one, and even then, the story doesn’t care if she is or not.  Virmire Survivor is a necessity, since they have a bunch of plots to resolve at this point and a new character to fill in for the big guy is great, so James can stay.  EDI needs to go.  Her sex bot gynoid body is weird and kinda creepy, and she’s just useless as a character.  She only exists so she and Joker can bone, so, whatever, add that to the end.  It doesn’t fill any other plot requirement.

The best thing to do would be to add a few characters from 2 into the mix.  That game has the best cast of pretty much any BioWare game, except maybe Baldur’s Gate 2 (high praise from me, I don’t like that game), and that’s thanks to some really interesting characters.  Oh, but they can all die and you won’t get them?  Yeah, Tali and Garrus can die too.  So can Wrex, Miranda Mordin, Jack and Thane, and they all have major plot points in this game.  Miranda Lawson is the obvious choice, because she has so many plot points that aren’t tied up that there’s a whole subplot devoted to her in the game already, as well as a major role in one of the last story missions.  A story mission that is almost good.  Miranda is also a really cool character in that she fills a role of being your second in command, which no other character does right.  Miranda as Shepard’s XO works really well, and it’s portrayed through the gameplay with her unique set up.  Especially if they found a way to tweak them to make them a little bit better.  The second choice is Jack.  She’s more unique as a pure biotic character than Liara, plus she leans a bit towards Vanguard, so it’s not overkill to have both.  I’d round out the party, giving the game nine companions, with Kasumi.  I don’t care if she was DLC in 2, she’s unique and should be given a chance to expand her character and gameplay in this game.  Also, much like Miranda, she fills a unique niche in story that no one else does.  Mordin does too, but he’s got to die, so we can’t have him in the party.  He should have been a temporary party member on Tuchanka, though.

Second, we need to remove Kai Leng.  He’s lame.  I mean, seriously, look at this Nightwing ripoff mother fucker:

Kai_Leng_amongst_two_Cerberus_Phantoms

Copyright BioWare and Electronic Arts

Fuck him.  He doesn’t get to exist in the Mass Effect universe.  Retcon the damn novels out of existence while we’re at it.  Seriously, he uses a sword.  That’s so lame.

Third, smaller missions should be more like Grissom Academy.  That’s probably the one good mission that isn’t a part of the Tuchanka and Rannoch clusters.  It’s a story based mission that has a time limit, consequences and some serious gameplay challenges.  Sure, there are a few other missions that are single maps like Grissom Academy, like the one with Miranda’s dad (surprise, he works for Cerberus.  Jesus) and the Citadel mission, but most of them are literally just multiplayer maps, and the goal is to literally do a game of the multiplayer, only offline and not with some shitty rando griefing your game.  I may have had bad experiences with Mass Effect multiplayer.

Still, even the single map missions that aren’t just horde mode advertisements for the multiplayer are mostly pretty bad.  The stories are pretty shit, especially the one involving Miranda and her dad and the one where you go to the Illusive Man’s house.  Part of this does involve terrible writing and screwing over your choices in game (oh, wait, you thought blowing up the Collector Base would mean something?  Nope, TIM still has it, somehow).  What each of those missions needed were consequences to go along with their story.  If you don’t get to Jack in time, she can die.  So can her kids.  Hell, if you don’t do the mission itself fast enough, she gets mind wiped and turned into one of those awful ninja Cerberus bad guys (they also use swords, they are so lame), and all of the kids die, or are turned into Cerberus troops.  I forget which.  It’s great, and while it was clearly a set up to recruit Jack (despite the fact you can’t recruit her), it should serve as a template for the smaller missions.

Fourth, most of the Priority Missions, specifically Palaven, Earth and probably TIM’s house, should be set up as mission clusters like Tuchanka and Rannoch.  Yes, the great writing and pay offs from both of those games are sort of what made Tuchanka and Rannoch work, but what also really worked was that the player, as Shepard, had to make a plan of attack, like they were fighting a war.  You know, like they were doing in the game.  Hell, making Palaven a losing battle would be a great way to introduce the threat of the Reaper invasion full force.  Making it so rescuing one city means sacrificing another would be a great way to set up the consequences throughout, as well as showing that your actions would have consequences during later Priority Missions.  It would also make Priority Earth not terrible.

Palaven is probably where I realized that the game was going to suck.  It’s mostly a point defense mission, and while that’s not bad for a mission or two, that’s all it is.  You show up, pick up the President (Primarch, whatever) and fly off with him and Garrus.  Nothing with Garrus’s dad or sister is dealt with (except in a FUCKING EMAIL), we don’t get to see any of the Turian homeworld since it all takes place actually on the moon of Palaven and it just feels helpless.  Yeah, it’s fine that Shepard fails, sort of, but it’s just a pick up mission.  It’s boring and it doesn’t give Shepard a chance to be heroic.  Have her drop in at a city and cover an escape, but that means another city burns.  She saves people, she gets some glory, but she can’t save everyone.  It’s great mission structure.  Plus, it doesn’t even have to be long like Tuchanka and Rannoch.  Those are about five or six missions, but this could be done in four, with the last one being sort of a short boss fight.  Also, it would be nice to have decent boss fights, but this is BioWare.  That might be a ship too far.

Fifth and finally, do something with some of the side characters.  Most of them, both former PCs and NPCs might get a scene, then do nothing.  The person who gets it the worst is either Jacob or Bailey, hard to say which.  An extended cameo sucks, but ruining their character is worse.  I’m not sure what to do with each one, but giving Jacob, Samara and Bailey something to do would be nice.  Hell, put Jacob on the Citadel and have him run multiplayer or something.  I don’t know.  Just have him do something.

Difficulty

I like hard games.  It’s a realization I had while playing Divinity: Original Sin 2 this week, but I came at it backwards.  When I was little, I’d play games on easy, but once I got to middle school, I was playing things on hard, or harder, difficulty.  It started with Soul Calibur, one of the few Dreamcast games I had at the time, and my desire to beat my friend.  To train, I played Arcade mode over and over on Ultra Hard, which wasn’t a good idea, but I didn’t know that at the time.  It seemed like the best way to do it, and I did get better.  A lot better.

Soulcalibur_flyer

Copyright Namco

So, obviously, I needed a challenge.  I normally start action games on hard now, unless they’re made by Hideki Kamiya, and RPGs on whatever their harder than hard setting is.  Then Divinity kicked my ass.  It kicked my ass hard, actually.  I couldn’t get out of the first area, I got murdered over and over again because I wouldn’t give some asshole a name, it was brutal.  I restarted 4 times, so sure I just didn’t understand the game, trying new classes and companions.  Finally, I gave up and changed to easy.  I’m enjoying it much more, but it required me swallowing my pride and even publicly announcing on Facebook that I didn’t care.  I did care.  I still care, and I started to realize it’s affected my approach to games, even how I design and run games.

As an example, I used to run D&D 4e, which is notorious for tough PCs, and I would generally consider each combat encounter a failure unless I took at least one PC below 0 hit points.  It’s the D&D edition I have the highest body count as a DM for, and I prided myself on hard encounters.  One time, I had an easy fight, that only had a couple of traps and the players weren’t even outnumbered, and I apologized.  They thanked me.  They thought stomping a mudhole in the monsters was a lot of fun.  I should have listened.

I thought I knew what my players wanted.  I thought that drive to win by the skin of your teeth was part and parcel of the game, but it’s not.  I love Dark Souls III, I love Devil May Cry and I didn’t really understand that it wasn’t really what everyone wanted.

DnD_DMG

Copyright Wizards of the Coast

It wasn’t that they didn’t want to have to take tons of damage and burn through every single resource they had, it was that doing that every time was exhausting for them.   It requires a shit ton of input from the players and a lot of engagement.  Yeah, it makes for intense, emotionally engaging fights, but doing that every single time is a chore and I didn’t get it.  Playing, even on normal, for Divinity: Original Sin 2 requires that same sort of engagement from my players that I demanded from them, and it was exhausting.  I couldn’t do it.

It didn’t just make me think about how I was running my D&D games.  Difficulty is a dynamic, difficult thing to understand.  It’s something I’ve written about a lot, too, because it’s very difficult even for master game designers to grasp.  A good, challenging game can easily develop into a grind of attrition by the end of the game and even a game with a good balance can still require too much dedication from a player too early on.   Or maybe they give the wrong signals early on.  Dark Souls, as an example, uses a lot of those last two, by throwing a lot of tough monsters right at the player right in the beginning and by encouraging the player to use a shield rather than the more engaging dodge mechanic.

Sonic Mania Review: Redemption

Sonic_Mania_(artwork)

Copyright SEGA

There shouldn’t have been any reason to worry.  Sonic Mania was being headed by the guys who did the great Sonic CD, Sonic 1 and Sonic 2 ports over the past six years, which were easily the best Sonic games coming out, but I was still worried.  I like a lot of Sonic games, but let’s be honest, there hasn’t been anything like Sonic Mania for decades.  Whether this is the best Sonic game ever made might take a few years to decide, but this is definitely the best one since Sonic 3 and Knuckles, and I’m a guy who says Sonic Adventure was the right direction for the series, and could work if SEGA gave the game to people who know what they’re doing.  There is nothing like Sonic Mania, but I hope to be proven false and that this is the herald of a new renaissance for the franchise, because if any series needed redemption, it’s this one.

Sonic Mania happens sometime after Sonic 3, with Sonic and Tails picking up weird energy readings coming from Angel Island.  The duo head over to the island to find Dr. Robotnik excavating a powerful gem, called the Phantom Ruby, and they, as well as a nearby just chilling Knuckles, wind up getting transported through time and space and have to stop Robotnik and his new group of Egg Robos, the Hardboiled Heavies.  Sonic and his friends jump through a bunch of old and new zones to stop Eggman from taking over the world.

The first thing about Sonic Mania is that it looks great.  It has some of the best sprite work I’ve ever seen, with everything running at a crisp and fluid 60 frames per second.  No Sonic game, ever, has looked this good, thanks to the best art direction the series has ever seen.  Some of the last couple of mainline Sonic games (not Sonic Boom) have had some great graphics, they have nothing on how good these levels look.  Inspirations from Sonic CD, Sonic Triple Trouble, Sonic 3 and a bunch of top tier ROM hacks from around the Sonic fan community created some gorgeous levels, all highlighted with a bright, color palette, giving a wide variety to each level.  This is a game that looks like it pushes my PS4 to the limit because of how well it pops on a 4k TV.  Sonic and crew each have a bunch of brand new animations, as well as more added to their existing ones, to make their movements look more real and natural.  It’s not quite up to the level of playing that opening from Sonic CD, but it’s the closest we have ever gotten.

Thankfully, too, the game plays like a dream.  It’s the best handling Sonic game, ever.  No slowdown, no frame dips, each character moving with no delay acting right as they should.  The Genesis/Mega Drive games had great controls, using momentum physics to propel Sonic through the roller coaster levels, and they felt great, but Sonic Mania feels even better.  Sonic reacts faster, moves faster and has some new moves to gain speed and momentum like never before, as do Tails and Knuckles.  The game basically has the same controls as the old Genesis/Mega Drive games, but does them even better, not just because of the smooth frame rate, but because the controls have been tightened and given much better tuning than it’s ever had.  The developers took 23 years of complaints about the minor control issues with Sonic games and took all of that time to playtest them so the game feel was almost pitch perfect.  There are still some issues with edges, and Sonic still has a bit of an issue turning around, but those are minor.

Of course, Sonic games live and die on how well mapped out the levels are, and that is a place where Sonic Mania shines.  It doesn’t have the best levels ever, or at least the best collection of levels, but the game makes do with what it has.  There are 12 zones, two acts each, with 4 of them being completely new and the rest being remixed versions of games from the first four Sonic games.  For the most part, the full speed slope followed by a bed of spikes unless the player already knows to jump kind of death trap that plagues the early Sonic games has been excised.  There are a few instances of cheap shots, but most of those are in the more exploratory platform sections, and less when Sonic and co. are busting out at full speed.  Those full speed into harm traps exist, sure, and are more common later in the game, but for the most part, the player can breathe a sigh of relief when they hit a high speed section.

Each zone feels new, even the 8 old ones.  It’s a little disheartening to know that most of the game is a remix of the old games, but each zone is changed and altered so much, it feels less like a mix tape or greatest hits collection, and almost feels like a new level.  Maps are different, enemies are new or placed in new locations and gimmicks are either altered, stolen from other zones/games or even created whole cloth.  Most of the time, this works quite well, such as mixing in elements from every “first Sonic level” into Green Hill Zone, or adding the darkness making the level more dangerous element from Sandopolis into Oil Ocean.  Sometimes, though, it gets in the way, such as the Marble Garden stuff added to Stardust Speedway Act 1, which slows down the gameflow more often than it should.  The new levels are all a lot of fun, adding in completely new elements the series has never seen before, or building on top of old ones.  Studiopolis might be the weakest in actual design, borrowing more of the negative elements from the casino levels than is good, but, conceptually, it’s such a new idea.  Plus, it added one of my favorite bosses in the game, so credit where credit is due.

Special stages return, which is probably the most controversial element of the game.  They’re hidden around zones like in Sonic 3 and Knuckles, generally behind breakable walls or secret doors, in giant gold rings.  They play as a sort of combination of Sonic CD’s, Sonic Heroes’s and Knuckles’ Chaotix’s special stages, and beating all of them unlocks Super Sonic (or Tails or Knuckles) and a final zone to give a bit of closure to the story.  Personally, I found them to be a lot of fun, but they’re also challenging in that same way special stages always are, and getting the last few emeralds after beating the game to unlock that final ending can feel like grinding, and no one wants to grind in a Sonic game.  Except on rails.

Super Sonic/Tails/Knuckles is a great reward, but it also unlocks a final level, called the Egg Reverie Zone, which is basically the same Super Sonic fights the final boss stage we’ve seen in every Sonic game since the Doomsday Zone.  Much like all of the others, it’s not nearly as cool as the Doomsday Zone, and is actually sort of difficult, and there’s an unskippable cutscene that plays every time Sonic dies.  I wasn’t a fan.

Ultimately, it’s a great Sonic game.  In addition to being a lot of fun, and just generally being the best Sonic game maybe to ever come out, and proof that Takhshi Iizuka should never be allowed to make a Sonic game, it’s also got a bunch of cool unlockables, like Puyo Puyo that players can play with local multiplayer, a sound test for the so awesome music (which is amazing, like, crazy good.  Sonic CD JP soundtrack good) and the ability to have Knuckles follow the player around like Tails does, no matter who the playable character is, even Knuckles.  Yes, this game allows for Knuckles and Knuckles.  That’s worth the money right there.  Seriously, it even has its own joke ending for beating it.

Level Thoughts part 2: The Negative Aspects

Last time, I went into detail about how some of the ways level in RPGs can be used in a positive manner, and how they can be used to enhance the experience of playing an RPG, and I used tabletop RPGs as one example.  This time, I’ll be exploring the negative aspects of how they can be used in RPGs.  As I said in the last entry, I’m not going to try and approach anything in bad faith, although I do have my own biases and that can come into play, so keep that in mind while reading.

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The genesis of this discussion.  Copyright CD Projeket Red

In the Witcher III, Geralt, a veteran monster slayer travels around a big, possibly overlarge, world where he takes jobs to kill monsters.  It’s a lot of fun, but one thing that really gets in the way is how it uses a level system in order to divide up where the player can travel.  Ostensibly, the level system is there to make sure Geralt doesn’t get access to too powerful loot too early, and that early, low level monsters remain a challenge until they can be outclassed.  I can understand this, since a lot of RPGs use this element to great success, but the reason it’s an issue in Witcher III when it’s not in, say, Final Fantasy VII, is because all level equates to, as far as monsters are concerned, are numbers.  How much damage, how much HP, how much damage it ignores, etc.  A level 5 gryphon has the same abilities will have the same abilities as level 10 one.  In fact, a gryphon is similar in abilities to several other monsters, differing from, say a wyvern, by one or two abilities.

Level means little to Geralt beyond numbers, but because how big these differences in numbers between levels can be, it means that Geralt can’t just wander around, pick up a random monster contract and hope to complete it if the contract is several levels higher than Geralt.  It’s not a guarantee, I’ve personally killed monsters outside of my level range, but mostly by spending several minutes dodging and getting in a couple of hits when I can.  It’s not impossible, but it’s tedious and it makes the combat less engaging than it already is.  Even a single screw up would get me killed, and it wasn’t enjoyable.  Most of the time, if I ran into a higher level monster, I’d just run, maybe come back later.  Of course, by the time I got high enough level to fight them, I’d tear them apart, since I was either way over leveled or the mechanics were so simple and their numbers were so low, they no longer mattered.

Open world games aren’t the only RPGs to show the issues with levels, but they seem to have the biggest problems with the level system.  There have been tons of attempts at trying to find a solution to this problem, most notably by making the game level with the PC.  Obviously, this makes leveling seem superflous, and while some Elder Scrolls games have tried to make higher level monsters more complex than lower level ones, leveling just seemed pointless, or detrimental in the case of Oblivion or Final Fantasy VIII (although VIII’s issue with leveling was different and more complex than I’ll get into here).  The best open world games seemed to have removed it entirely.  Consider Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, which doesn’t use a level system, or at least a very simple one, but allows Link to wander the entire world without issue.  It’s possible to even engage Calamity Ganon at the beginning of the game, even if not awakening the Divine Beasts makes the fight much harder, and that difficulty isn’t just “extra damage.”  Yes, as Link becomes more powerful, more powerful monsters begin to appear, but they also become more complex, and thanks to an engaging, if easy to work, combat system, it’s possible to take on a lynel naked with three hearts without it being too tedious.  Part of this is because of really well done balance of HP and damage, but also it’s got a combat system that works as well.

Tabletop RPGs, too, sometimes work well without levels, although many claim they don’t need it and it pretty much destroys the game’s balance or work.  Games where combat is the main focus of the rules, even in games where they claim combat isn’t the main focus, tend to need levels in order to determine what works and what doesn’t for the game.  On the other hand, consider Fate, which doesn’t utilize levels or high numbers.  There is advancement, yes, but specific and individual advancement of different abilities.  While Fate does have combat, and it can be very good and complex combat, Fate is primarily focused on characters and who they are.  It’s a very robust RPG with complex mechanics and cool utilization of character and roleplay in order to facilitate play and it doesn’t need levels to be engaging.  If it had levels, it would get in the way of how to play the game, since it’s primary mechanics are “aspects,” which are elements of the characters, both positive and negative.  They can be elements of personality, beliefs, weaknesses, specialized training, special equipment, dependents, allies, enemies and many other things, but the important thing is that you have all of them from the beginning.  At no point does the player “level up” and gain more aspects.  It would hurt the game, because everyone is supposed to be able to engage with the game at the same level.  Even in places where you can “level up” are still given out to whole parties, not individual players, so when characters bring up their skills or gain new stunts, it’s with the whole group.

The big issue is that levels work when they’re to make sure novice players aren’t thrown against more complex characters, but they don’t work when they’re just there to use big numbers.  That’s what makes the game boring.