Anachrony

2010-08-02

Respecting the Solitary Life

So, StarCraft II. Much ink has been spilled over various aspects of the game, from the rebalanced multiplayer to the lack of LAN play to the curiously elevated price tag—$60 for this versus $50 for most PC games. There’s an aspect to this that many haven’t considered, however: the singleplayer game.

Most RTS games treat the singleplayer game as an extended tutorial for the multiplayer. There’s a thin veneer of plot slathered on, but the real purpose is to get you familiar with the units and tactics of each faction, so you can go forth to the online matches and, hopefully, not suck.

This is not the right way to go about it. For one thing, the AI opponents never behave like real people do in a match. This does a disservice to those looking to get ready for the MP, because it sets up a bunch of wrong expectations that have to be unlearned once you actually wade into the fray.

The multiplayer craze has been huge in the past few years, driven in no small part by games like Team Fortress 2 and Halo that manage to be relevant years after their release. For these games, their success is driven by the depth and satisfaction of their multiplayer modes. RTS games are no strangers to this, certainly. The whole genre, more or less, has been serving up the same MP oriented gameplay for years now, providing further and further refinements of essentially the same formula.

The problem with this, I feel, is how this affects singleplayer enthusiasts. The people who play games not to connect with others, but to get away from them for a little while. Sure, playing with others can be fun, engaging, uplifting and so forth. But sometimes, you don’t want to put up with that. Sometimes, you want to just fire up a game and play, without worrying about coordinating with other people’s schedules, without worrying about dropped connections and server hiccups and oh hang on guys, I have to take out the trash.

Singleplayer is an aspect of gaming that has been denigrated in recent years. The contest of man vs. machine is one that can be mishandled in so many ways: inconsistent difficulty, cheating AI opponents, Insane Troll Logic puzzles, narmful cutscenes or dialog that serve to break immersion, et cetera, et cetera, ad nauseam. Yet when it’s done right—and we have plenty of examples of how it can be—it is glorious. Games that pay attention to pacing, to challenge, to fun; these are the ones we remember for a lifetime.

This brings me back to StarCraft II. (Bet you thought I’d forgotten!) Blizzard has certainly spared no aspect of the multiplayer; they understand their fans too well to neglect that. One aspect that hasn’t gotten as much press—though there certainly has been some—is the singleplayer game. Yes, it focuses solely on the Terrans, but this is to the game’s benefit.

Instead of having to cram everything into ten missions, they have the space to let the player breathe—to absorb the game’s essence and atmosphere at a more natural pace. New elements are introduced gradually, and the player is given some agency in the progression via the research trees.

There’s certainly nothing here that hasn’t been seen in RTS games for years, but the sheer amount of care and craft that has gone into this game is phenomenal. I normally loathe RTS games; I only played through the first StarCraft with cheats on to get the story. In this one, I find myself playing the missions for their own sake.

The cutscenes can veer into cornball territory at times, but they never outstay their welcome. The shipboard scenes that serve as the mission hub are bursting at the seams with little touches put there to discover. One of these, an arcade cabinet sitting off in the corner of the Cantina, is the front end to a top-down scrolling shooter game: The Lost Viking. This bears emphasizing: Blizzard hid a whole other game inside StarCraft II, just because they could. It’s mainly meant to show off the capability of the SC2 engine, but it’s got enough depth to be enjoyable in its own right.

Blizzard didn’t have to do any of this. They could have slapped together a quick SP campaign, shipped the game with all the MP enhancements, and they still would have made a mint. They didn’t, though. They chose to put just as much time and care into the singleplayer experience as they did for the multiplayer game. The end result is a polished, refined game that’s a joy to play.

Sure, Blizzard has more money to throw at any one project than most companies have period. But that’s not what makes their games great; Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2 had just as much money thrown at it, and nobody’s going to remember it in a year save the die-hard grognards who spend their life in MP matches. StarCraft II is going to be with us for years to come, because Blizzard put care and thought into making it fun as a game, rather than an interactive special-effects reel. More companies could stand to learn from that attitude.

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2010-04-06

On Reformation

Filed under: Reflections — Tags: , , , — halbyrd @ 11:53

A while back, I made a rather lengthy post about why I was fed up with World of Warcraft. Since then, Blizzard has announced the next expansion, Cataclysm. Rather than being more of the same, however, Blizzard is using this expansion to address many of the problems I had with WoW in a way they’ve never tried: by giving the game a complete overhaul.

The Burning Crusade and Wrath of the Lich King, while they added significant chunks of content–new zones, new races, new dungeons, and even a new class–were basically patches on the same old game. Changes both major and minor happened to class mechanics on a regular basis, but the core nature of the game has not changed much. The new content zones are where much of the realm’s population resides, and everywhere else is a howling wasteland, devoid of any human presence. Home faction capitals have a small presence, but the population there is fleeting, only there long enough to finish whatever business they have in the Auction House.

Cataclysm is set to change that paradigm, however. Certain things that are expected of an expansion will still be there: the level cap will be raised, new zones will be introduced, new raid dungeons opened up, and everybody will have a new set of loot to chase after. As with The Burning Crusade, two new races will be introduced, one each for Horde and Alliance players, with their respective starting zones. Every class will get a few new abilities, and the number of available talent points will go up. The graphics engine will receive another update, adding a new layer of spit & polish to the proceedings. So far, no major surprises.

Here’s where things start getting screwy, though: the new content isn’t going to be limited to the new zones. This time around, the two major continents of the original game, Kalimdor and the Eastern Kingdoms, are getting remade top to bottom. The events of the eponymous cataclysm will serve to literally reshape the land, with old zones taking on a new complexion. New quest lines are being written for every zone, and the type of questing is shifting increasingly toward story-focused tasks. Largely gone are the old standbys of FedEx (take x to y) and bounty (kill x number of y monsters for lazy sod z), except in early levels where their simplicity allows new players to get used to their class mechanics. With two new continents’ worth of stuff to explore and do, getting around is going to be a lengthy proposition. Towards that end, Blizzard is finally implementing a long-asked-for feature: support for flying mounts in “old world” Azeroth.

Perhaps more significant even than the mass of new content are the changes to core gameplay mechanics. Aside from the usual slew of balance tweaks, the way abilities are learned and used is being changed. Previously, each ability was improved by purchasing successively more powerful ranks from the class trainer. Now, the abilities will scale with level and associated core stats, with new abilities being added where needed to further flesh out each class’ repertoire. On the subject of stats, many secondary stats on gear are being merged or eliminated, with their function being rolled into core stats where appropriate. Spell-slinging damage dealers will care about Intellect for more than their raw mana pool, healers will care about spirit for mana regeneration–yes, even Healadins. Hunters won’t care about Intellect anymore, as they’re being moved to an energy-based system that better fits their class mechanics–and incidentally allows Blizzard to put some sanity checks on their damage scaling, so they won’t be ping-ponging between impotence and infinite godlike power.

Another significant pair of changes involve talent specialization, and the very process of leveling up. The idea of glyphs to “customize” your spec was well received in Wrath, and is being expanded into the Path of the Titans. The idea here is that you will progress through the final five levels through a gated series of quests, rather than through simple XP grind, and get a chance to pick out glyphs that compliment your intended build along the way. Many of the “boring-but-essential” talents, such as those that boost damage or critical strike chance, are getting moved either here, or getting rolled into specialization mastery bonuses. In effect, such bonuses become perks handed to you for investing a certain number of points in a given talent tree. The Mastery stat, which is replacing a lot of secondary stats on gear, is designed to complement this, further boosting the potency of your spec bonuses.

They’re being rather more tight-lipped about how things are going to work over on the PvP end of things, but one presumes that area of the game is getting similar attention. My not-so-secret hope is that they will finally implement the dual-system ability mechanics the game has needed for so long. As my previous post complained, it’s nearly impossible to get the one set of ability mechanics balanced so that changes to the PvE end won’t unbalance PvP, and vice-versa. Better by far to formally acknowledge the split, and set things up so that abilities have different behavior when in world PvP zones, Battlegrounds or Arenas. This leaves random in-world PvP a bit hard up, but that stopped being interesting to anybody but gankers and griefers years ago.

Time will tell if all this pans out, naturally, but the effort is laudable. They’ve managed to rekindle genuine interest in a game I’ve been following only diffidently, and one that’s quite aged as well. Here’s hoping that Blizzard’s grand experiment pans out.

2009-08-13

Spyro on Game Design

Bah, if your hero is a flying purple dragon, there should be no “So deep you fall and die” traps in the game.

And if your hero is a melee fighter, it’s poor form to put someone with a freeze-mortar attack in level 1 guarding a narrow, un-railed bridge which gives you no side-to-side space to dodge…

…When said enemies usually run in packs of 2-3, and have to be beaten to death three cunt gargling times, and are immune to damage while twitching on the floor on their backs to the point of introducing clipping bugs to shield them from your razor-toothed affections…

…It’s in even worse form for the unstoppable superweapon to only count as one beatdown of three, or to ignore helpless, prone enemies when the weapon consists of 360° homing fireballs the size of a Volkswagen Beetle…

…Which don’t even go far enough to take out the fire-support bastard lurking on the ledge you need to jump to…

(Oh, don’t forget that your basic melee attack winds up over about .2 dangerously vulnerable seconds, and is fairly frequently hit-cancelled.  And even bullet-time isn’t reliably fast enough to stop hitcancels.)

Also, it’s in poor form to put big pieces of terrain that look like platforms in a disappearing-platform jumping puzzle.

Because jumping puzzles are only ever more fun while taking fire.

With net-rays.

And ice bombs.

That have splash damage.

And sometimes inexplicably airburst.

Over spikes.

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