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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.

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.


Game Anatomy: The Plan


Copyright Capcom and Ninja Theory

It’s honestly surprising that I’ve never really talked much about this game, although it came out during my hiatus on this blog, so that’s probably why.  DMC: Devil May Cry is a strange beast of a game, and it’s really hard to discuss thanks to all of the baggage the game has accumulated over the past 7 years (or that the last main series game came out almost a decade ago), but ultimately, it’s not really all that bad.  I’m a bit of a strange fan, considering I hated it until the fourth game came out, which totally revised my entire view on the series (except for 2, 2 sucks), but I am a fan of the flashy, stylish, anime as Hell series, and when I got a chance to pick up the game on Playstation Plus, I really enjoyed it.  It’s sort of a better version of the first game, and that’s really good.

Yeah, it has really terrible art direction, bad character designs and the story is terrible even from the perspective of the series, but the action is really good, the platforming is really cool and the level design is the best in the series.  That last one doesn’t sound like much of a barrier, because Devil May Cry level design is terrible, but seriously, it’s really, really good here.  In fact, the levels do a great job of servicing the combat, which is admittedly a downgrade from 3 and 4, because it’s much more than a funnel to take Dante from one fight to the next.  The levels are complex and interesting, breaking into platforming and combat sections in a way that feels natural, and sometimes, if rarely, blending them in a way that doesn’t feel cheap or stupid.  It’s great, and it also allows for encounters that really utilize the weapon switching of the combat.  One level stands above the rest though, and that’s Mission 16: the Plan.

For very stupid plot reasons, Dante and Virgil are raiding the building of the main bad guy, and killing all of his elite troops.  What’s cool, but not what makes the level so good, is that it’s set up in a way so that Dante and Virgil each have their own thing going on, and while the player is Dante, it’s possible to see Virgil’s progress mirroring the player’s own.  It’s not exactly in real time, but it does feel like it’s in real time, the few times you can see Virgil doing his thing.  Also, it solidifies the relationship between the brothers in a way the game hasn’t managed to at this point, which will make their eventual falling out that much stronger at the end of the game.  However, what’s really cool is that the level is set up like a heist movie, with Kat, the kind of boring witch love interest, narrating the entire level.

See, in the cutscene before the level, the player isn’t shown what the plan is, and instead, the level is narrated all the way through by Kat, with commentary by Virgil and Dante, for what the brothers are supposed to do.  Much like the execution scenes at the end of Ocean’s Eleven, Kat explains to Dante and Virgil what they’re supposed to do while they’re doing it, complete with the drawings of her plans being superimposed over the gameplay while its being explained to the player.  What’s really cool about this, other than it being one of the few examples of this in the medium, it also does a good job of explaining to the player where to go and what to do.  Sure, the levels aren’t particularly complex or anything, but it does throw a lot of very, very difficult enemies at you, but it does also have a few places where the player can screw up and wind up having to face a horde of very difficult monsters all at once.

That happened to me.  Kat was specific about not doing something.  I could have avoided it and I wound up dodging into a hole and falling right onto the floor where I shouldn’t have been.  What’s great is is that not only did I get a little scene were Dante chastises himself for being an idiot, it was also something specifically called out to me not to do, I did it, and I got something different happening.  It’s rare that we actually get a chance to see something that interesting in a video game, but to make it in where failure can be well incorporated into the game itself.  It’s very cool.

However, what also really works is the storytelling.  Like I mentioned before, the plot in his game is really bad.  It’s like a bad combination of the worst of White Wolf stuff, and when smug American comic book creators remake manga in order to prove that Japanese comics are stupid and Western comics are inherently superior.  Yes, that’s a thing, and DMC: Devil May Cry is the video game equivalent of that.  It’s disdainful of the source material and goes out of its way to actually insult the previous games, and no, I’m not talking about the infamous mop scene.  It’s a game that takes itself incredibly seriously, so certain it’s the future of the series and so much better than it’s anime bullshit predecessor, but it’s also a game that features abortion via sniper rifle and fighting an demonic Bill O’Reily (which is legitimately the best fight in the series and will be its own Game Anatomy).  However, one of the things that works really well is the relationship between Dante and Virgil, which we never actually get to see in the main series.  The way it becomes strained and fractured, mostly by Virgil’s growing fanaticism, and the brothers slowly switching their views on life and their destiny is really great, plus it’s done very organically, without Virgil suddenly becoming an asshole at the end.  The Mission does a really good job of highlighting all of it, and does a good job of both showing how much the Sons of Sparda care about each other, but also how much their relationship is falling apart.  This level does take place after Virgil shot a pregnant demon in her womb with a sniper rifle.  Jesus, that’s a sentence I’ve written.

By allowing the player to watch Virgil do what he does, and give us a few scenes where Vigil and Dante interact, plus their narration commentary while Kat is detailing the plan (as they’re doing it, I remind) does a lot for characterization without taking control away from the player.  A lot can be said about what you can do with cutscenes, but by just allowing it to work while the player is actually playing the game, that’s pretty cool.


Game Anatomy: Souls and Stats, Dark Souls Part 2

OK, so this is a direct continuation of the last post I did on this subject.  In a lot of ways, it really is the exact same post as the previous one, but I had to break it up for space reasons.  If you haven’t read it, you can read it here.  Also, I had to break it up for my own sanity.  It was getting really, really long.  Now, moving on.


Image copyright From Software and Namco Bandai  Reposted for continuity’s sake.

Right, so allowing the stats to overlap, while also having their own unique properties, does a lot to make sure that the character is never going to get screwed over by how they allocate their stats, provided they make a point of specializing.  There is an argument that can be made that cost of raising stats should be based on the stat, rather than the character’s level, but From Software also wants to make sure every choice made counts.  This does mean that a wide spread of abilities will hinder tinghe character, and it’s hard for the game to communicate this directly to the player.  Still, the way the rest of the game is built, a badly made character isn’t automatically going to lose, either.  Arin’s build on Game Grumps is probably a good example of that, but there are people who have beaten the game at level 1 with no weapons, so this is probably a pointless digression.

As a personal preference, I’m a little upset it’s harder to branch out into other things, especially now that I’m on my second run through the game and would like to experiment a little bit with magic, but I can also see why the game was developed the way it was.  I want to run a Sorcerer or pyromancer for my next run, but I’d like to play with the magic a little bit, first.

Stats, however, aren’t the only thing souls are used to purchase.  Souls aren’t just experience points, they work as gold, too, since buying ammo, tools and reinforcing weapons require souls.  This makes souls that much more important, in the long run, than just existing as a means to bring up stats for the character.  It means, early on, when the player first gets 20,000 souls, should they buy that expensive key, or should they level up a few times.  It’s a good choice, which is actually kind of a microcosm for the whole risk vs. reward that the whole game is based on.  It’s not just big purchases, either.  Arrows cost money, and the better arrows require more souls, and if arrows are important to a character, it could mean the actual difference between how many times the player levels up when going back to Firelink Shrine (yes, this exact scenario happened to me, but it involved buying Dragonslayer Great Arrows, so, perhaps it’s a little bit extreme).

It’s the same for buying magic, upgrading weapons or transposing large souls into new items.  Is it worth the hard earned experience points to get better equipment now, or is it more important to wait?  This idea is a central concept to the whole game, too.

Map design in Dark Souls is based around the acquisition of souls.  Part of it is about whether or not it’s worth it to go back and pick them up after being killed, and that’s something that will get covered, but another major thing is whether the player has picked up enough of them that they’d be willing to go back to a previous bonfire, thus resetting the enemies, just to make sure they don’t lose what they’ve gotten.  Dark Souls isn’t an easy game, and sometimes, From Software likes to drop ambushes on a player (or all the time in fucking Archdragon Peak).  Without the knowledge of what’s going to happen next, a lot of the time, it might seem safer to walk back to a bonfire, just to level up, than try and venture to the next bonfire.  The whole design of the levels asks the player the question “how much is that sack of experience points you’ve got worth to you?”  Is it worth risking an ambush and burning through resources to make it through, or is heading back and resting, leveling up or picking up some more stuff, more important?  It’s the whole reason why when something dies in Souls games, they stay dead until the area gets reset when resting at a bonfire (also to encourage players to explore instead of farming “lucrative” spots near bonfires).

Souls are the game asking just what something is worth to a player, and how much it’s worth to them.  Are stats more important than weapons?  Is venturing further worth the greater risk of dying?  Is all that experience worth going back for, because that place is hard?  There’s a reason the player loses all of their experience  when they die.  It’s not a punishment, it’s a question: why did you die, and is it worth it to get back what you’ve earned?  If it is, it’s possible the player is going to walk away with even more Souls than they had when they lost them in the first place.  If not, then maybe they weren’t ready for that part of the game yet.  It’s a masterclass in level design.

The final word on souls I’m going to say, since I’m already at over 2,000 words now, is that souls also offer one of my favorite narrative, in-universe justifications for why enemies come back whenever the area gets reset.  Since everything is undead, it doesn’t matter, they’ll always come back.  It’s kind of hilarious in a way.


Game Anatomy: Z-Targeting


Image copyright Nintendo

There’s a lot to be said about the Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, and that could probably fill a multi-article project, but there’s one thing that it did that completely made the game as playable as it is, and that’s Z-Targeting.  See, today, 18 years after Ocarina of Time had been released, a lot of the mechanics for Z-Targeting are taken entirely for granted, and kind of seem like a “no-shit” solution, but back in the early days of 3D, it almost seemed like an insurmountable problem.  There were targeting systems in place, but a lot of them didn’t seem to take into account the camera and the ones that did didn’t really make it work within the entire spectrum of  gameplay, so it really wasn’t an intuitive solution it seems to be in retrospect.

So, Ocarina of Time shows up and it gives us Z-Targeting, and lock-on mechanics are basically fixed forever.  I mean, kind of.  I’m not too sure of the history if anyone else was working on something similar, or of anyone else got anything up and running around the same time, and while Ocarina of Time’s isn’t perfect (and really, it’s seen iterative improvements in every 3D Zelda title up through Skyward Sword), it was definitely the best in the world at the time, so everyone decided to build on it.  It’s literally among one of the most revolutionary and important mechanics in gaming, but that’s not why we’re here.

What also made Z-Targeting work was that it basically made the game what it was.  Zelda has attempted to utilize something of a Z-Axis since the first Zelda title, and they’ve done so in their 2D Zeldas to mixed success, Link Between Worlds probably being the best example.  Nintendo built all of Ocarina of Time around the Z-Targeting mechanic.  It looks like the entire game, from the ground up, is designed to work around Z-Targeting.  It does this in a few ways, most of the involving combat, but some of it involves exploration as well.

First, all of combat is built around Z-Targeting.  It’s why almost every fight is one-on-one or two-on-one.  Yes, I know there are exceptions, but since the mechanic is entirely about locking onto a single enemy and focusing on them, and concepts like splash damage and cleaves were still being worked out, it makes sense.  Imagine trying to fight off six or seven Stalfos at once.  In a post-Wind Waker world, we can do that, but this is a game where all the dodges are manual and based on player eyesight, so the game’s combat has to be pared down.  This doesn’t mean that the game isn’t without it’s epic confrontations, however.  Sure, there are a lot of enemies that are hurry up and wait kind of bad guys, but that’s not really a bad thing in this kind of game.  It doesn’t have the tension of, say, Dark Souls, but the idea behind this is to make the fights more like an intense sword duel.  It works, sometimes, and does a good job of making the combat feel less like a chore and more like something that’s fun.

Where it really comes together, though, is in exploration.  See, one of the issues with 3D environments is that it’s hard to see, and camera controls, especially in the late 90s, were still an evolving concept.  The Dual Shock controller just came out, and wouldn’t see the light of day while Ocarina of Time was in development, so Nintendo had to come up with something to make it possible for Link to find what was needed.  Not everything that should be Z-Targeted is (nor is it still), but a lot of things are, and using Navi was a genius move of making sure the player could find what they needed, whether it was a person to talk to, or a solution to the puzzle.

See, Z-Targeting does two things: lock on to the enemy, and snap the camera to an optimal (most of the time) angle in order to allow the player to see what Link is seeing.  First, this does a great job of stealth immersion, especially since it’s Navi, an in game character, telling you the player and Link the character, what to do or how to do it.  More importantly, though, what it does is allow the camera to work without getting in the player’s way.  Even now, the ability to “snap-back” the camera behind the PC is an entirely understated boon, and is often overlooked in just how important that is.  The camera can easily get in the way, and the environment can often obscure what needs to be seen.  Allowing the camera itself to lock onto what’s important, or at least instantly get back to a default view extremely important and does a great job of conveying good information to the player, allowing them to make good decisions.

Now, Z-Targeting isn’t, and still isn’t, perfect.  However, without it, it would be extremely easy to get lost, maneuver around enemies, or solve puzzles.  It makes the game what it is, and without it, I think Ocarina of Time may have been a much poorer game, and I think 3D would have had a much more difficult transition to what it is today.


Game Anatomy: Specailizations

I’ve played a lot of World of Warcraft in the past six years.  I mean, a lot.  In an hour to hour basis, I’ve probably played World of Warcraft more than any other game, ever.  It’s not my favorite game, by any means, it wouldn’t even break the top 20.  It’s not exactly a game that would show up in these articles.  Not to say that it’s a bad game, because like all Blizzard games, it’s quite good, but it doesn’t have anything that really stands out or makes it work that is specifically related to it.  An argument can be made for raids, I could do a whole article on Siege of Orgrimmar alone, but raids are more of a genre thing than a specific game thing, and I’m starting to think that maybe raids have long since exceeded the grasp of the game.  However, there is one thing that really makes World of Warcraft that stand out more than in any other game in the genre, and that’s the various specializations of each class.


Copyright Endgadget

That’s my specialization, the Demonology Warlock.  It defines everything about how I play, and it’s almost an entirely different class from my other specialization, the Destruction Warlock.  Stats, spells, demons and even the basic approach to combat is completely different from the two other specializations, making my character feel completely unique.  It’s a different approach to building characters, and classes, because it makes everything different.

In most RPGs, class determines everything about a character, from better or worse, and this is definitely true for World of Warcraft.  If there is a specialization in another game, it only changes a few things or alters how a few spells of abilities are used, but in WoW, it completely defines who you are and what you do, making class more of a theme  on an idea, which is actually really cool.  It allows the developers to play around with the classes and find ways to make sure each player has their own cool toys, and to allow each fight to be played a little bit differently.  It also allows the players to be unique, which is important in a multiplayer game, since every player needs their own identity in order to not feel faceless while they’re playing.

It is, in fact, one of the reasons I keep playing, even when I don’t actually like how the game is going at the time, since I can play the game differently and try something I didn’t previously see.  Like I said, I’ve been playing for several years, and there are whole classes I haven’t played before, let alone groups of specializations.

What’s interesting is where the impetus for specializations come from.  Since the game requires the Trinity (Tank, DPS and Healer) in order to do anything other than questing, it means that certain classes need to have different approaches to the game.  Early in the game’s life cycle, a lot of specs didn’t do anything, didn’t work, or only existed to add certain bonuses to spells that were basically the signature ability for the class.  However, as they began to add more classes, starting with the Death Knight, Blizzard was sure that each class needed to be different.  They would have four tanks when the Death Knight came out, and they were going to have to make them different from the others, which started to bleed into the other classes.  If the tank specs were going to be different, than it was important they were different from their other specs as well.  This was around the time a lot of the hybrid classes were beginning to see their DPS  and tanking specs become viable, and they had to have their non Healing specs be differentiated from their other ones.

This necessity led to some very interesting classes, since nearly everything began to get overhauled.  Classes got Limit Breaks or their own super powers and they became more than just the black mage who turns into a demon.  Now, the Demonology Warlock is all about summoning demons, rather than just having a few demons show up to supplement the blowing shit up.  Even transforming into a demon turned into something more than a DPS cooldown, it became like its own Limit Break.  It’s totally different from when I switch to Destruction, where I have completely different resources.

Not enough games are willing to experiment with class design.  Classes have to have some rigidity to them, but too many are limited to “well, in D&D, this guy gets a sword, so sword guy is a class now” which is not a good way for video games to develop classes.  They need to have an identity, which is something Blizzard really gets.