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Game Anatomy: Super Combos


Copyright Bandai Namco, Toei Animation, Arc System Works, and Akira Toriayama (please support the official release)

Back in high school, Guilty Gear X was my jam.  I picked it up second hand when I was a junior in high school, tired of playing Smash Bros. Melee.  I had never really gotten into Street Fighter like I wanted to, and once the shock of blood and guts wore off, I grew tired of Mortal Kombat almost immediately.  Guilty Gear, being a slick anime fighting game where the game looked and played like my favorite cartoons stuck with me, and it helped that Arc System Works gave the system a ton of depth.  It wasn’t Virtua Fighter depth, but it made Street Fighter II look like a baby’s game.  Look, that shit was important when I was 17 years old.  Guilty Gear XX, which I picked up a year later, was even better, with more complexity and cooler characters added in.  I always felt like I was getting better, like there was more to master, but eventually, I hit a wall after a couple of years of playing.

Part of this is because I never got much in the way of competition.  I’m the only one in my circle of friends who bought fighting games, and at the time, online wasn’t really a thing.  Nor were arcades.  The other thing, though, was that the depth and complexity of Guilty Gear was insane.  Arc System Works made everything more complicated with Blaz Blue, and a year ago, I even tried out Guilty Gear Xrd and felt left behind.  I had come to the understanding that depth and complexity didn’t have to be the same thing, and this is where Dragon Ball FighterZ comes in.  That is the worst title ever.

Dragon Ball FighterZ (ugh!) might be the best fighting game ever because it does something that seems like it would be counter intuitive and would cut down the games depth and skill ceiling drastically.  It makes it so all of the characters use the same inputs, and, more importantly, combos can be made just by tapping one button, or a simple combination of buttons, over and over again.  It sounds like button mashing, like the little brother system of game design, but it actually works.

The game does have a traditional combo system, yes, and it can chain different combos together, but the main bread and butter of the system is the Super Combo system.  I use an X-Box One controller, so I can tap X over and over again, which can give me a strong, five to ten hit combo, provided I keep up the rhythm.  This sounds cheap, but since I’m using X, I can generally keep the enemy staggered long enough to do the whole combo, it’s a light attack, so the damage is lower.  It’s fast, sure, but it’s also easier to block the initial attack, and because it’s so fast, if I do get blocked, my recovery is going to be slower.  A lot of this will be due to human error, because I’m likely to assume I hit before I even finish the inputs, hammering on the X button, instead of blocking their inevitable counter attack, but there are mechanical issues as well.  If I miss, I’m open, and if I’m open, they can do the same to me.

Even more, the Super Combo system looks cool.  Each attack in the string is contextual, and it changes the animation.  This means it’s much easier to get the spectacular looking combos that people see in the anime all the time.  The whole fight is literal wall to wall best of Dragonball Z, with crazy blasts and huge, multi-hit combos the whole time.  By stringing together animations, which change based on where the player is, what attack in the string their doing, and what their previous attack was, it makes the game seem much more inviting.  Yes, even the newbie scrub can do the cool attacks, which incentives the players into staying.  The simplicity of the Super Combo means that even new players can do things that look cool, which will teach them to continue to working at the game in order to do more cool stuff.

What works best about it, though, is the simplicity.  Sure, it doesn’t have the crazy amount of stuff you can do as in something like Guilty Gear XX, but so much of that extra stuff is super high level, and very difficult and finicky to input.  I’ve NEVER done a Roman Cancel in a Guilty Gear game.  I can’t even remember how to do, and even when I did, I couldn’t get it right, because doing it was so complicated.  The Super Combo system has none of that.  Much like Smash Bros., the game instead focuses on stringing together basic attacks, and making combos from that.  This means the fighting is more focused on mind games, positioning and reflexes.  Anyone can do the same stuff, and it’s all on the same layout, so who can do it the fastest?  Who can use the right Super Combo or Super Attack at the right moment?  Who better able to string a special move or Super Attack into a Super Combo?  Those questions become more important at a higher level than anything else, making the depth much more accessible and easily explored without sacrificing a skill ceiling.  Daigo is going to tear me apart, period, no matter how fast I can hammer X.

Now, the game has only been out for a couple of weeks, so it’s hard to say if this will be as successful at the competitive scene as it seems, but so far, fighting game veterans are saying the simplicity means they can do more with less.  That’s a good thing, and a good direction for fighting games to go into.


Top Ten Games of All Time

Hey everyone.  I’m actually about to sign off for a long weekend after a long semester.  I finished up what might be the final draft of my novel, started up the next one and began planning a third.  I didn’t really know what to write, since this is going to be my last bit of writing (not counting some D&D notes) for probably the next four days, and it’s kind of been a shitty day.  So, to right some wrongs and go out on a positive note, I decided to get down and write out my Ten Favorite Games of All Time.  This is the 2017 list, and it’s a list that gets updated all of the time.  Hell, there are games on here from this year, last year and the year before.  I can’t remember the last time that happened.  So, it’s less of “All Time” and more “of All Time until something I like more comes out and removes a game from the list.”  I have no rules to this, no one franchise only things or any of that.  Just my favorite games of all time, in reverse order.  Enjoy and yell at me about my bad taste in the comments.

Fire Emblem Awakening


Image Copyright Nintendo

The title at the bottom of the list was Shining Force II.  I love tactical RPGs, but too often, Yasumi Matsuno makes them too complicated.  I love the idea of Final Fantasy Tactics, but I could never get into it, mostly in thanks to it taking 3 menus to decide on character actions.  Also the cheating AI.  So, I just continued to love Shining Force II for 25 years.  Then, when I had a bit of free time over the summer, I finally played this game, and it was everything I ever wanted in a tactical RPG, without being way too complicated.  I loved all of the class switching and interesting things you could do with your characters in Final Fantasy Tactics, I just didn’t like playing it.  The game feel is kind of awful.  Fire Emblem Awakening takes that complexity and gives it Shining Force style game feel.

I know there are bunch of other Fire Emblem games, but this was the first one I could really get into.  The characters were fun and interesting and there was a ton of love poured into this game.  Hell, it even made grinding fun, since the way the battles and maps were set up, it made for a lot of fun.  Maybe there are other Fire Emblem games that might scratch the itch more than Awakening does, but I haven’t found them yet.  This is it, the perfect balance of Shining Forces’s more traditional JPRG gameplay with the complex character building of Final Fantasy Tactics.  Also, it’s got, like 5/7 of the Critical Role cast in it.  Just no Marisha or Ashley.

Mega Man X


Copyright Capcom

I love Mega Man.  I listen to music about Mega Man.  I’ve had the Blue Bomber as a keychain since 2015, making it the longest lasting keychain I’ve ever had.  Like, Mega Man is a great game.  It handles great, you can jump, shoot, slide, steal weapons, it’s awesome.  Without counting the strange X7, Mega Man 8 is the worst Mega Man game ever made, and it’s still a really kick ass game.  Like, that should say something about this series, especially since all of the games are basically the same, gameplay wise.  Mega Man X, though, is just the best Mega Man game.  It takes everything Mega Man ever did right, does it better and cuts out a lot of crap.

The X series gets a bad rap for going way too anime way too fast, and I think it sort of deserves that a bit, but the X series also had a lot of really awesome ideas and ways to improve and alter the series.  I like that.  I also really like how unique and varied the levels are, the excellent opening stage and lots of really cool Mavericks.  I’ve explored a lot of Mega Man in my life, but the first X game is the only one I stayed up with a buddy and a bottle of adult beverages to beat at four in the morning.  Can’t say that about Mega Man 3.

Dishonored 2


Copyright Arkane Studios and Bethesda Softworks

I love stealth games a whole lot.  This isn’t going to be the last stealth game on this list.  Dishonored was my favorite.  Great combat system, great level design, excellent stealth mechanics, a real evolution of games like Thief and System Shock.  Both of those were games that were sort of before my time, PC game wise, so I never got into them, but I do appreciate the legacy they left, and Dishonored quickly became one of my favorite games of all time.  Sure, the story left a lot to be desired, but that only mattered when I went back to look at it.  While playing, the whole thing feels great.  Then, Dishonored 2 game out, and it had the clockwork mansion.  Best level ever, 10/10.

I was pretty hard on Dishonored 2 when it came out, because it was very much like the original game, without a lot of changes, other than Emily’s cool new powers.  Then, Arkane decided they were going to add a bunch of cool stuff, like the ability to mix and match Corvo and Emily’s powers, custom difficulty modes and a few gameplay improvements.  It’s still iterative, but it’s an improvement on an already awesome game.  Plus, you know, clockwork mansion.  I even got the achievement of breaking in without anyone ever knowing.  So worth it, even if it took six retries to actually kill the bastard.

Metal Gear Solid 5: the Phantom Pain

This is not exactly the best box art

Copyright Konami

I wasn’t kidding when I said Dishonored wasn’t the only stealth game on this list.  I love this game.  I spent a good chunk of 2015 and 2016 writing about how much I love it.  I replayed it after my Playstation 4 got stolen and lost all my progress.  I haven’t been able to finish it, because of all the great games that have come out this year (some of which might edge out other games on this list, Persona and Mario are so good, you guys), but it’s still great.  Hell, it’s even better the second time through.  The twist is so much better than I remember it being, and the story is actually really good.  Shame about the ending getting cut, but the rest is great.

Seriously, it’s the best open world stealth combat game out there.  The sheer depth of what the player can do in this game is unrivaled.  Sneak in, exfiltrate the prisoners without being seen?  Okay.  Go in guns blazing and play like this is Gears of War, that’s also possible.  Play Gears of War with nonlethal weapons?  Sure, this is Metal Gear, after all.  I love this game.  I guess 3 has a better realized story.  I should probably mention that, but, whatever.  I still like this one more.

The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past


Copyright Nintendo

I’m, uh, a bit surprised as some readers might be.  This was seriously my number three of all time, and when I wrote this list the first time, this is where Breath of the Wild was (so, uh, spoilers?).  However, in the couple of months I’ve been working on this list, Breath of the Wild really has become my favorite Zelda game.  Maybe it’s because it hits the mark in ways I wanted the Witcher 3 to, or maybe it’s because it’s shiny and new and I haven’t played a Link to the Past in years.  Whatever, this is the definitive 2D Zelda game.  Nothing has come close to being as good as this is, except for a Link Between Worlds, which I might actually like more than this, but I’ve also not played it since it came out.  Also, I think Worlds loses some points for reusing the LttP map.

This has great dungeons, a huge, sprawling world and it defined how Zelda games worked for 26 years.  Like, until Breath of the Wild came out, Zelda games followed the format laid out in this game, and this game did it better than all of them.  Ganon’s Tower, Turtle Rock, Misery Mire, holy shit, those are some awesome dungeons, and they were capped off with some of the most inventive bosses in the series.  It’s a shame the 2D games were relegated to the much less powerful handhelds, because they followed a much weaker format.  This is what inspired Ocarina of Time, and it never had a boss like Helmasaur King or Trinexx.  Those were some kick ass bosses that defined how video game bosses should be.  Holy crap.

Dark Souls III


Image copyright From Software and Namco Bandai

Someone told me Dark Souls was a horror game.  I guess the idea was that since the main character is basically a well trained dude taking on gods, and it has this Gothic, decrepit aesthetic, people just assume it’s a horror game.  I don’t think I would grin manically while I charged a monster called Old Demon King in a horror game.  Seriously, this game hits me on so many levels, to an emotional core, that it’s actually difficult to explain.  Like, okay, I blocked a hit from a giant person who turned himself into a dragon with my shield.  He’s a sorcerer and he has a staff three times my size and I blocked it like it was whatever, I’ve got a shield.  Holy crap did that feel awesome.  I stabbed a dragon in the brain.  I stared down an army of the undead and killed them, killed their masters, went into the center of the confluence of the apocalypse and I snuffed out the flame of life.  Holy shit is this game bad ass.

I love it.  Like, I love it so much.  I didn’t like Demon’s Souls, I didn’t like Dark Souls or Dark Souls 2, because they were both too slow, but I did like Bloodborne, and so I liked this game.  I grabbed a sword, a bit of magic, a shield and made myself look as awesome as possible and I murdered a god.  Sure, I died a lot doing it, but holy shit, how many games can I say that, and feel like I kind of actually did it?  Not many.  My only regret is that my save file got erased before I got to play the Ringed City.

Mass Effect 2


Copyright Bioware and EA

Mass Effect is such a disappointing series.  I love it, I love the characters, I love the design, I love the idea.  It was science fiction in an era when there was no Star Trek, Star Wars was bad and the best we had was Halo.  Then there was 3.  Then Andromeda was basically the best thing that could have come from the series after that.  I don’t want to talk about that, I want to talk about 2.  It’s the best.  I love it.  Sure, it’s basically a cover shooter mixed with a dating sim, but it’s the best part of both of those things, with a kick ass science fiction setting and a nice, dark turn for the series.  Yes, it was quite a difference from the last game, but whatever, it had Thane and Miranda and it didn’t have Liara.  That made it great.

Plus, it has the Suicide Mission.  Mass Effect 2 has a lot of great levels, and there are a lot of great final levels, but nothing is as good as the Suicide Mission.  It’s the best level in Mass Effect 2 and it’s the best final level.  Not only is it a challenge that tests the player on everything they’ve learned about the game, it’s also thematically the most appropriate final level I’ve ever played, and it finally delivers on the “consequences” that RPGs have been promising since Ultima in ’81.  Seriously, people can die, and it will be your fault, you monster.  Plus, it’s got Lair of the Shadowbroker, possibly the best piece of Bioware DLC.

Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild


Copyright Nintendo

I guess I spoiled this one.  Yeah, it’s my favorite Zelda.  I think I knew that as soon as I stepped outside of the Shrine of Resurrection.  It’s game of the year, too.  I mean, obviously it is.  I’m still doing the in depth write up next month, but, let’s be honest, this is the best game.  It’s everything I wanted Dragon Age: Inquisition, Skyrim and the Witcher III: the Wild Hunt to be.  It’s an action packed exploration game with great exploration mechanics, a lot of fun combat and so much to see and do.

Sure, korok seeds kind of suck, but that’s like the only flaw in the game.  I don’t even care about korok seeds, man.  I just want to climb mountains, find lynels on the peaks and fight them.  Like, I would just do that, for hours.  I didn’t always win, and it was awesome.  Like, I have a horse called Paladin, and it’s my second favorite horse in video games (I still love you, Nightmare, even though I will probably never play World of Warcraft ever again) and I loved jumping off it and shooting moblins in the face with a bow.  I haven’t played the DLC yet, but that looks like it adds so much cool stuff.  No, it doesn’t bother me that there aren’t a lot of traditional Zelda dungeons or bosses or whatever the fuck.  I don’t care about that shit.  I care that I can go anywhere, fight anything and see the best rendition of Zelda while riding on Paladin.  Oh yeah, I also liked the story.  It wasn’t, you know, Ulysses or anything, but it was cute and fun and nice to see, especially since most of the games on this list are filled with death and apocalypses.

Final Fantasy XII


Copyright Square Enix

This is my favorite Final Fantasy.  VI gets to be my 11th favorite game, and I love me some Kefka, but this game has inspired me more than any video game ever.  I based my D&D setting on this.  I love almost everything about this, except for the optional super bosses, which I don’t care about anyway.  I love Final Fantasy, and this one has my favorite characters, my favorite story and the best lore.  Also, Yasumi Matsuno didn’t make it overly complicated.

Vayne and Venat anre’t my favorite Final Fantasy villains (it’s Kefka, to no one’s surprise), but they’re the reason it’s my favorite Final Fantasy.  They’re regular people with real desires, ones that I can believe in, even if they’re couched in a lot of fantasy mumbo jumbo.  Sure, Vayne is a prince and Venat is an ethereal immortal creature that was once part of a group of ethereal immortal creatures who claimed to be gods, but what they want is relatable and they’re sort of right.  They’re terrible people, but they’re people, and they have the right idea.  The story is touching and subtle, and it’s all about character development.  Balthier learning to stop running, Vaan growing up, Basch taking his stand, Ashe becoming a true queen, they’re all great, and that’s just the good guys.  The bad guys get development, and they feel like people.  Hell, even disposable woman Judge Drace manages to become a bad ass one scene wonder by cramming six hours of awesome into her three minutes of on-screen appearance.  That’s saying something.


I mean, hell, this is the cover in most regions.  Copyright Konami

It’s been my favorite game for years.  I only wish the sprites were better, and even then, I kinda don’t?  Like, they’re great for 1997, I only want them better because I want this game to exist forever.  It’s beautiful and I love it.  I mean, that’s it.  Like, great soundtrack, excellent level design that takes into account the fact you’ll be walking on the ceiling for half of the game, cool enemies, the best bosses in the series, playing as Alucard, a bit of depth to the action platforming in the form of spells and RPG mechanics.  The only flaw?  Gear and loot.  I guess it’s unbalanced, but I never use the Shield Rod, because that isn’t fun.  I guess that should be a flaw?  Whatever, I don’t care.  It’s great, and I’ve bought it like four times.  I even have the original PS1 game.

Game Anatomy: FreeFlow Combat


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.


Fixing Mass Effect 3


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:


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.


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.


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.


Level Thoughts part 1: The positives of levels in RPGs

I’ve been playing RPGs for a really, really long time.  Seriously, I got into D&D 21 years ago, and while my first time playing a video game RPG was technically in 1991 with Final Fantasy IV, I really got into them with Shining Force II and Phantasy Star IV in the mid-90s when I was in elementary school.  I’m a bit on the old side, I guess, at least compared to some gamers, or maybe I’ve been around a while, so I’ve played a lot of games, but I love RPGs.  That’s not to say RPGs are great, and I’ll admit, I’ve played a few RPGs because that’s the sort of fantasy I want to see, and that’s the only way to experience it, even if that RPG is kind of shit.  Seriously, I love the idea of Wild Arms, but if someone wrote a really damn good fantasy western, and not a shitty horror one that tries to white wash the Confederacy like Deadlands, I’d probably never even look at Wild Arms again (actually, I still don’t really look at Wild Arms that much to begin with).  While I love RPGs, they have a lot of issues, and lately, I’ve been thinking of what really works for RPGs, and whether or not some of their more traditional elements should be excised, or at least examined.


Pictured: the dream?

The first thing I really want to look at is levels, and not just because I want to change Jobs on Final Fantasy XIV and don’t want to level them to 60 before finishing Heavensward content.  It’s a thought I’ve been having for a really long time, and while a lot of it is sort of related to Massive Multiplayer RPGs and the use of a level cap, which artificially and detrimentally lengthens a game more and more over time, there’s also the question of whether or not level systems work for every single RPG.  Now, before we get into the meat of the discussion, it’s important to note that I tend to not consider any mechanic inherently bad, except maybe save deleting, so I’m not trying to come at this discussion in bad faith.  Also, I’m not sure any real conclusion will come from this, so this might just peter out in the end, which, should make sense, as there is still a lot that needs to figure out vis a vis game design.

So, first, I understand where levels come from.  I’ve played table top RPGs for a really long time, and levels do a really good job of organizing things in a way to make the game playable.  Because of the somewhat “naturalistic” feel some gamers think table top RPGs have, a lot of games either try to do away with, or obscure, use of level systems, with very mixed success.  Games that are more like Dungeons and Dragons, or at least be more combat focused mechanically (regardless of what the rulebook actually says about the system), tend to work better utilizing some sort of level or rank based system in order to give a baseline for the players and the GMs in order to make sure that everyone knows what’s to be expected.  Some people who play a table top RPG may balk at D&D assigning levels to a certain monster because it detracts from a “living world” or some other argument I don’t believe and will probably not engage in good faith, so I’m dropping the discussion here, but I’ve found that it’s good to get a good handle on what is supposed to be a challenge for each tier of play and level of power.  After all, a party with access to Fireball is a very different party from one that has access to Meteor Swarm.  Especially since table top RPGs have a high level of abstraction and most elements of combat and gameplay are resolved through die rolls and elements of chance.  A big problem in table top design right now is to try and figure out more “skill-based” and less “chance-based” resolution, but since so much of that kind of game is abstracted, it’s a very hard problem to even approach, let alone solve.

Video games, however, are not abstract.  What happens on the screen has a 1:1 relationship with what the player is doing.  Even in games with highly choreographed combat and contextual information, like the Batman: Arkham games, there’s still that 1:1 element.  What kind of parry Batman does might change based on his positioning, who he’s fighting and from what direction the enemy is coming, but every time I press Triangle, I know I’m going to parry the nearest attack, and every time I hit Square, I know I’m going to strike at a person in the direction I am pressing the thumb stick (I’ve played every Arkham game on a Playstation).  As such, a lot of the advantages that level systems give are somewhat unneeded.  That’s not to say there aren’t some advantages to a level system, however.  Such as determining character growth, or to ensure difficulty has a gentle slope.  For example, as the player begins to unlock more powerful abilities in INfamous, the game begins to throw more powerful, or more numerous, enemy types at the player.  Diablo games, too, hold off on giving complex or difficult monsters until the players begin to unlock the full suite of their abilities.  The Skeleton King in Diablo III is deliberately a lot less complex than Azmodan or Diablo, since the player has access to fewer abilities when they were expected to fight the Skeleton King (it’s also one of the many reasons why the traditional Diablo approach to difficulty didn’t work for Diablo III, but different article).  So, in a lot of ways, with a good slope and the right gameplay, a level system is a good way for the developer to determine what sort of conflicts the player should engage with, and this works outside of an RPG as well, which is why the system has been adapted so well outside of RPGs.

As there is, there are a lot of positives to utilizing level in RPGs, but it really depends on the contextual arrangement of the game.  However, what happens when the game doesn’t have a lot of context, like in an open world?  Next time, we’ll look at how it can be applied negatively, and how it can have a negative impact on the game, and the mechanical expression of the story.


Game Anatomy: Handsome Jack


Copyright 2K Games and Gearbox Studios

I’m going to admit, even for the limited definitions I put out for Game Anatomy, Handsome Jack does stretch them, a lot.  Unlike a lot of things I’ve covered in these articles, Handsome Jack is an NPC, and I’m not talking about him as a boss fight at the end of the game.  I mean Handsome Jack, the character, and how he basically makes Borderlands 2 the game that it is, and without him, it is a much lesser game.

First of all, let’s start with the obvious: Handsome Jack is one of the most evil bastards in video games.  A murderous, sociopathic, selfish psychopath, Jack has almost nothing redeemable about him.  Worse, he goes on to declare himself the true hero of the game, and that everyone should bow down and follow him, while doing nothing but murdering people for pretty much no reason.  See, Borderlands 2 takes place on Pandora, a world with tons of bandits, lawlessness and people whose brains have been completely destroyed and mutilated by the world itself.  It’s a really, really awful place, but it’s not without its good people.  There is a civilization here.  Jack, however, wants to kill everyone on the planet and sell it off to rich people across the galaxy (also claim an ancient alien superweapon to continue doing this).  He’s not just a murderous psychopath, he’s the head of a interstellar corporation with a private army and a space station capable of firing on people from orbit.  Not only does he want to kill a bunch of people, calling them all bandits, he can do it and he does.  It’s gentrification literally weaponized.

What makes Jack work, first, is that he acts as a foil to the Vault Hunter.  It doesn’t matter which one, all of them, none of them, whatever, it’s to the player he serves as a foil.  Throughout the whole game, the player goes about murdering pretty much everyone that they meet, taking their stuff and using it to kill more people.  The justification is that those people are bandits or psychos, that they need to be put down for the good of society, and the Vault Hunter, and by definition, the player, sees almost no people aligned with them for the first several hours of the game.  Of course, once the player gets to Sanctuary and links up with Roland, this changes a bit, but it doesn’t change that the player and Jack are, on a superficial level, doing the same thing.  Jack even points this out on multiple occasions, implying that the player should be on Jack’s side, should be helping him, instead of fighting against him.  This of course is ignoring the fact the player signed up with Jack at the beginning, and he tried to kill them, to take responsibility for their actions.

Borderlands 2 is a game where the primary game loop is to kill bad guys, steal their weapons and use those weapons to kill more bad guys.  It’s got some engaging gameplay, if it’s a little simple, and said bad guys have too many hit points, but it’s very similar to a loot of other loot shooters in that regard.  There doesn’t seem to be a lot of nuance, either.  The player is going to come in with the assumption that the people they’re shooting are bad, and that the player is playing a good person, just doing what they need to to survive and help out the world.  While this is literally true within the context of the game, Handsome Jack gives it the nuance.  By comparing the player to what Handsome Jack does, we can see that not only are we not just murdering everyone we see (mostly), but we’re not just doing it for selfish reasons.  Except maybe Salvador.

In addition to him acting as a foil, another thing that makes him work, is that he’s an asshole.  He’s pretty much one of the worst villains in video games.  His job is the exact same as Freeza from Dragon Ball Z, in that he kills entire populations of planets and sells them to rich people, but he’s also a man who’s had busloads of refugees murdered (refugees from a town he destroyed), personally had his daughter locked up, personally murdered several innocent people and he buys a living horse made out of diamonds.  Not a statue.  He then calls the player to tell them, then names it Butt Stallion, after the Vault Hunter.  Just to gloat.  Part of the reason Jack works so well as a foil is because he makes it very personal, pretty much for no reason.

Jack spends most of the game calling the player with a combination of gloating and taunts, often kicking them when they’re down, or blaming them for things he did.  He is hilariously petty and vindictive, at one point eating chips while calling just to prove the Vault Hunter is beneath them.   By doing this, it injects all of the flavor and context the game needs to make the core gameplay loop work, because otherwise, he’s right, you really are a psychopath.  See, one of the problems of a lot of games like Borderlands, and that can be FPS games or loot shooters, is that the player kills a truck ton of people, often for no reason.  The original Borderlands didn’t have Jack, and very early on, it’s hard to tell who the player is supposed to kill and why, and while it does give some context, it’s not the same.

By making it personal, and by acting as a direct foil, we’re able to see the Vault Hunter, who in other games would be a murder hobo, as a hero.  Yes, a lot of people are going to die, and not all of them are people whose brains have been irreparably damaged, and that is sort of weird how many people players kill in a video game, but Jack gives the player something real to fight against.  Give them something legitimate as an enemy, and turns the tables on the assumptions of the game, by making your goal not that different from the villains.  Even the means are the same, but at no point are any of the Vault Hunters murdering innocents.  In fact, because of the damage Jack causes, the Vault Hunter gets to go out of their way to help innocents.  Plus, we get to see how many settlements of “bandits” Jack has wiped out, and see that his destruction has only made Pandora worse, and that’s saying something.