Friday, April 26, 2013

Vitals of Life

Life bars, hit points, vitality, health or (if your Zelda fan) hearts...regardless of what you call them video games almost always use abstract numbers or HUD indicators to quantify how much physical punishment can be absorbed before suffering from a critical existence failure.  It's a simple system that has roots in 30+ year old tabletop games like Dungeons and Dragons.  I think the reason it has endured so long has to do with its simplicity.  I can relate to that, but I also think the time has come for this particular game mechanic to receive a healthy dose of innovation.

Before I start offering suggestions though, I want to take a moment to review some attempts that have been made in the past to move beyond plain old HP counters.  Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth had a surprisingly intricate method of keeping track of injuries; everything from claw marks by Deep Ones to twisted ankles from falls.  All these injuries can and often do handicap the player, which is fitting for a horror game.  However, there is one notable drawback to the way it was implemented.  Whenever a player suffers cuts, bruises or sprains they must essentially pause the game, by going to the menu screen, and use the appropriate treatment from their medicine kit.  After a short animation all debilitating injuries are instantly repaired.

Another game that tried to employ a similar concept was Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater.  Much like the above mentioned horror game protagonist, Solid Snake can (and does) get bullets embedded into his flesh, along with other aliments like burns, leeches and broken bones. Again it sounds neat on paper, but in practice Snake's max health reducing problems are more of a mild annoyance than a critical aspect of the game. Granted, in what is essentially a tribute to 1980s action flicks, this design choice might be for the best. I can't help wondering what a more detailed system might look like though...

Let me take a moment to emphasis the word "looks" from the previous sentence, because if you want to get technical Dwarf Fortress has an incredibly complex damage system which takes all kinds of factors into account, tracking location and the type of injury in disturbing detail. It's an unique take and has a few terrifying consequences like undead and golems being practically invincible (because they lack vitals). Needless to say it's a game where the construction of a molten lava sluice gate is one of the few effect ways to defend a fortress from attack by an irate herd of zombie mammoths.

Flip to the other side of the coin (metaphorically speaking) and you have Bushido Blade, a one-on-one fighting game in which the duelists wield edged weapons rather than relying on unarmed combat techniques typically seen in the genre. Appropriately, one hit kills are a common outcome of matches and even grazing hits will leave limbs immobilized. A more recent variant of this type of fighting game can also be seen with the Deadliest Warrior series of Xbox360 games.

So, there have been a few attempts to change things up over the years, but so far nothing has really stuck.  Not a big deal except recent games attempting to capture a strong feeling of verisimilitude suffer from hit point based abstractions.  Further compounding this problem is the overused rebounding health meter.  Lara Croft's latest outing was one such example, prompting a suggestion in this quicklook that maybe a bullet avoidance luck meter would be more appropriate than a bog standard regeneration health bar.  While another abstraction in its own right at least under the suggested mechanic the new more realistic(ally proportioned) Lara wouldn't be shrugging of gunshot wounds like insect bites.

Personally, my hope is that someone will decided to capitalize on the processing power of the next generation of console hardware to simulate physical trauma in innovative ways.  While the idea of seeing your character suffer from shock, pain and blood loss might make you feel a bit queasy it could also bring a new (and much needed) dynamic to games trying to capture a realistic vibe.  Of course having fun is important too, so some may find the concept of death spirals inherent frustrating.  However, setting specific details such as magical healing in a fantasy setting or consciousness uploading into clone bodies in a sci-fi setting (The 6th Day in video game form?) could be used to balance between gameplay needs and story trappings.  At the very least though, I hope players will wince when they see their poor onscreen character take a hit knowing that the consequences of injury are something that can't be resolved with a few seconds of rest.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

A Different Breed of 4X

eXplore, eXpand, eXploit and eXterminate have long been the core tenets of this particular style of game.  Sadly, the is also a lot of unneeded baggage weighting the 4X genre down.  Features such as a vast unexplored galaxy, numerous alien species and exotic magical technology have become so ubiquitous that slight variations on the above mentioned don't bring anything new to the table.  So, in the interests of reviving this beloved, but mostly forgotten subcategory of strategy games, here's an idea I'd like to share.

For starters, lets take things back a bit.  Have you ever heard of a novelist by the name of H.G. Wells?  He wrote a number of fantastic science fiction stories toward the end of the 19th century.  One in particular, set in the early years of the 20th century, entitled The War of the Worlds, is generally considered the first great tale of alien invasion.

*spoilers for a 110+ year old piece of media ahead*

The invaders are from Mars! Using an interstellar cannon to fire huge cylinders across the depths of space, the martians are able to ferry themselves and tri-pedal bullet proof fighting-machines, armed with heat-rays (high powered infrared beams) and black smoke canisters (nerve gas?). Unsurprisingly, humanity takes a serious thrashing , but comes out victorious in the end because of simple bacteria native to Earth's ecosystem. The martians had no such microbes on Mars and as such failed to take adequate precautions against ordinary diseases.

*end of spoilers*

Of course, like most great sci-fi The War of the Worlds is the product of then current real world events - namely the decline of colonialism.  Partly because of the rather obvious parallels H.G. Wells never penned a sequel.  However, I can't help but wonder what direction the story would go if it were to continue.

There is some indication at the end of the novel that humanity, while battered, is able to make a comeback. Additionally, the secrets of the atom are unlocked by dismantling the "heavy elements engines" used in martin war machines. Not wanting to be the target of another invasion force, the people of Earth mobilize to catch up to their more technologically advanced foe. Meanwhile the martians, no longer concerned with concealment, begin assembling a second expeditionary force. The board is set for a game solar conquest!

Obviously, this conflict need not be limited solely to the planets Earth and Mars.  The Moon, Phobos or Demos would make good strategic stepping stones for either side.  Taking things one step further into retro-future territory, what if there were life beneath the clouds of Venus?  Perhaps other factions, whether they be enemy or ally, inhabit a Jovian moon or even a mysterious Planet X analogue such as Pluto, Eris or Makemake.  Borrowing concepts from the colonialism that inspired The War of the Worlds, direct conflicts might be mulled in lieu of fighting over resource rich, but poorly fortified locations.  It is implied in the final pages of the aforementioned novel that the martians attempt to establish a presence on Venus.

Limiting the action to just our solar system might sound to confining at first, but don't forget that there are eight planets in orbit around the Sun along with dozens of sizable moons (and many thousands of smaller noteworthy objects).  In addition, there are visits from comets, rogue asteroids, solar flares and other outer space phenomenon which could be thrown into the mix.

I've kept things pretty general thus far, but lets to go into more detail about what an alternate near to mid future space based conflict might be like.  Of course, it's impossible to know the exact direction future technologies will lead humanity.  However, it is possible to make an educated guess.  In reality that often is unacceptable, but for the purposes of creating a video game, it's more effort than most designers put in on the conceptual level.

For starters, there are three basic types of weapons that have high degree of feasibility in space:
  • Narrowly focused radiation, such as light, UV or IR (let's just call them "beams" for now)
  • High velocity inert projectiles which use their mass to inflict damage ("kinetics" is a good shorthand term)
  • Remote operated drones or guided objects which have some kind of built in propulsion and directed explosive device (basically "missiles" in space)

At first designers might be tempted to devise a rock-paper-scissors mechanic to balance out these three weapon systems, but the reality is a lot of mixing and matching can occur.  Also the effectiveness of any combination of the above would be extremely dependent on the situation, tactics employed and countermeasures available.

The specifics of propulsion is also an important point worth analyzing in more detail. Chemical rockets are what nearly all real life spacecraft use to maneuver. However, in a wartime situation the Orion Drive would be a far superior alternative...especially when it comes to combat. In game terms this creates an interesting dynamic. Do you go the quicker, cheaper route of ground based deployment and damage your planetary infrastructure via radioactive pollution? Or do you spare your populous and take the slower, more expensive route and build in orbit with prefabricated components being launched by conventional systems?

 Another factor worth consideration is the mantra, "there is no stealth in space." That is to say any civilization with a decent collection of ground based telescopes could easily spot the movements of practically any least within the confines of a single solar system. However, an important point many people fail to realize is that saying "there is no stealth in space," is roughly analogous to saying, "there is no stealth in Stratego."  In other words, you always know where your enemy is and in what numbers, but not the disposition or exact strength.

"Science fiction writers have no sense of scale," is sadly all too applicable to 4X games.  You might think that Mars and Earth are right next door to one another, but keep in mind that planets move at different speeds around the sun.  This gives rise to the concept of "launch windows," time frames in which the logistical feasibility of a departure plays an important role.  Also worth noting is the fact that a deep space encounter between rival forces would most likely be the futuristic equivalent of a single pass in jousting (since the time in which both sides are within effective weapons range is exceedingly brief).  So, baring extenuating circumstances, decisive engagements would be more likely than not occur in orbit around a moon or planet.

Naturally, this might encourage "turtling," the concept of digging in by means of static defenses.  While this idea has merit there is on big obstacle to fortifications in space - the environment is three dimensional   Because an attack can be concentrated from up to six different cardinal directions (or any portion of the three axis) the result is situations in which it becomes very easy to overwhelm ground based defenses provided the attacker is a credible threat to begin with.  Obviously an orbital defense network would work better because it could shift to meet the attack vectors in strength.  However, there is a big problem with this method too.

"Amateurs study tactics, while professionals study logistics," applies quite well here in that if you know much about the realities of spaceflight you'd quickly realize that getting a spacecraft into orbit the can maneuver autonomously is 80% of the work.  Hence, you're already a pretty big chunk of the way to deploying something capable of interplanetary travel.  Therefore, from an economic standpoint, "the best defense is a good offense!"  That should probably be mentioned somewhere in the tutorial...assuming this proposed game ever gets made.

While this entry is quite long, it isn't a design document, so I'll stop at this point.  Granted there are a number of things that I haven't touched on yet.  "The devil is in the details," I know, but to exorcise *wink-wink* everything here is beyond the scope of this humble little blog.  So, I will leave matter of this 4X concept here for now.  Hopefully, you have found reading this as interesting as it was for me to write it.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Mech Blues: A Retrospective (Part 2)

Continuing from where we left off...

There's definitely a metaphor going on here...
Front Mission, as a series, has to be one of the most mishandled Japanese IPs in gaming history. The first entry came out on the Super Famicom (SNES) and the second on the PSX. Neither game was brought overseas and it wasn't until after two spin-offs that the series finally got it's first western release with Front Mission 3. You read that correctly, the first two games were never made available in the USA, thus forcing people like me to start this IP off with the third mainline title. Eventually, the first game got a Nintendo DS port, but not until the fourth and fifth games had already been made. Worse yet the second and fifth entries, to this day, have never been released outside of Japan, despite the fifth game being widely regarded as the best in the series! Then there is Front Mission: Evolved, which I will get to in a minute. Before that, I want to talk about the games themselves. Front Mission (spin-offs aside) has always been a Tactical RPG. Players control a team of pilots who gain experience in battle, level up and gain new abilities (in the form of passive bonuses and special moves). The mechs (spelled "Wanzers", but pronounced "Vonsers") are basically 5 meter tall giant infantry armed with over-sized rifles, machine guns, shotguns, mortars, missile launchers, melee weapons and riot shields. There are a lot of customization options including four interchangeable body parts along with four weapon hardpoints. An auxiliary backpack is also optional which can contain things like a field repair kit, additional ammunition or a secondary power generator. The basic design revolves around squeezing by with just slightly more power than weight. In this way you can have the heaviest arms and armor while still being able to take to the field. The systems iterated and changed slightly from one game to the next, but whenever two wanzers battle the game switches from a tactical map to a short in-game cut-scene showing the results of the exchange. The setting is another near future Earth laden with a complex geopolitical landscape troubled by brush wars and limited proxy conflicts often occurring outside
Front Mission also has a
multi-volume manga series
the boarders of various fictional world superpowers.  Something I really liked about Front Mission is its attempts at realism. Unfortunately, the wanzers themselves work against the hard sci-fi setting. Why don't these relatively compact, agile machines ever take cover in a fire fight? Why do they have fingers? They're too delicate and complicated to be practical in combat. Much like jump jets in Mechwarrior, I also have to ask why the mechs in this setting slide around all the time? My guess is the animators wanted to save themselves a hefty chunk of work, but it raises the question, "Why have complicated, vulnerable legs at all when you can just fly or skate?" How pilots interface with their machines is never addressed either since the most we see are vague hints at the technology being used. Much like the Cross Purposes article I posted about awhile ago the setting and technology don't really jive. As such, this series has floundered over the years until finally getting put down for good with the release of Front Mission: Evolved. Basically, farmed out developer, Double Helix made a mediocre third person shooter in the same vein as Mechassault. A sad end to the series, but the main thing I took away from it is verisimilitude counts for a lot in my book.

The two protagonists of the game and their respective
Armored Fighting Walkers
Ring of Red, is not the error you get when your Xbox malfunctions. It is a PS2 game which is set in an alternate history circa 1960. The Korean war happened in Japan and as such the northern half is now communist and the southern half democratic. Major world superpowers on both sides have agreed to a no-fly-zone over the country. This, combined with the mountainous terrain of Japan has led to the heavy deployment of AFWs (Armored Fighting Walkers). These diesel fueled machines move via hydrolysis and are armed with straightforward WW2 style autocannons/artillery. Once again the player is in charge of a multicultural squad of, what eventually becomes, eight pilots each with their own unique mech and unlockable special abilities. There are four basic classes; lightly armed fast moving chicken walkers, standard human shaped walkers with one arm replaced by a tank gun, heavy four-legged spider walkers that resemble self-propelled guns, and brawler Anti-AFWs that like to get up close. Ultimately the player will have two machines of each class to utilize. There are no options to customize the mechs themselves although the designs do automatically undergo minor field modifications over the course of the game. To make up for this shortcoming Ring of Red allows the player to choose three support squads for each AFW. Six different types of infantry are available, each with their own special abilities unique to that unit. This is a novel idea and fits well with real life armor deployments in that it has historically been rare for tanks to engage in combat operations without any infantry support. The player can also make use of special types of ammo depending on which squad crews the mech. There are day/night cycles which affect combat and when AFWs engage in battle the player has a degree of control over the battle in real time. Of all the mech games I have played, this was the closest to perfect. Failure to scratch that gearhead itch aside, there were a few other things which didn't work in the game's favor. For one the real time battles are limited to one-on-one AFW duels lasting a maximum of 90 second. The in-game justification for this being the AFWs overheat when pushed beyond that limit. I found this a little silly given that the time frame doesn't change when fighting in snow. Why not slap some cooling fins or a radiator on the engine?
As part of the backstory, AFWs were deployed during
 the final months of WW2, but had difficulties due to
their untested bipedal method of locomotion

Also, despite the clever idea of mechs being superior to track and wheeled vehicles in mountainous terrain, all in-game battlefields are flat and featureless excluding the non-interactive backgrounds. Occasionally, there will be a tree or some other obstacle the can interfere with gunfire, but for the most part there is no opportunity to perform reverse slope (hull-down) tactics which are a common defense employed by real life tanks on uneven terrain. Once again the details of pilot control over these towering war machines is handwaved. Given the dieselpunk trappings though I guess this is to be expected.

From here on I'm going to only briefly touch on a number of titles which will help serve to rap things up.
Yup, another harem anime...
Sakura Wars is a series that has been largely ignored outside of Japan. Despite this, it's alternate 1920s steampunk setting takes cues from theology, sociology and history. The game uses a Tokyo based theater troupe (again taken from a real life equivalent) as the undercover backdrop for a secret military force dedicated to fending off demonic invasion. The concept is way too anime for my taste, and the characters themselves are imbued with psychic/spiritual powers which tends to push things into the super robot subgenre. That said, I really like the steam driven mini-mecha. The suit of armor style of design and close combat weapons give the series a distinctive look. Too bad it's only window dressing for what is, at its heart, a dating simulator. Shifting gears a bit, Armored Core has some of the coolest cutscenes in the biz. Sadly it falls for the same mistake as Zone of the Enders (and countless other mech themed Japanese IPs). The mechs are not really machines, but extensions of the pilot and as such don't really feel like vehicles so much as metal skinned anime superheroes like Ultraman. Often times technology is ignored in lieu of character drama which is a shame since the mechs themselves are, more often than not, the most interesting part of the story.

40 buttons and if you don't hit the eject your save
gets erased
Heavy Gear, much like Battletech, took its table-top gaming roots and adapted them to video games.  Sadly this series failed to make a lasting impression. The mechs (called "Gears") really have nothing to make them stand out from the pack and suffered from many of the verisimilitude problems I mentioned with regards to previous titles. ChromeHounds is an example of problems that arise when games choose to ignore applied physics. Customization doesn't work if your design can be the most top heavy joke, yet never has to fear the effects of gravity. The fact that this game is no longer playable also highlights the pitfalls of dedicated online gaming.  Hawken players be warned.  Steel Battalion is an example of going to an unplayable extreme one way or the other. The original was too complex and as one reviewer put it, "Where Mechassault and Robotech wouldn't let us into the cockpit, Steel Battalion won't let us out". The sequel, Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor, had the opposite problem as most players found themselves wishing for more direct means of control than the unreliable Kinect.  Poor VT pilots just can't catch a break...

Feels like you're flying a helo
but without all the complexity
So where does this us leave us?  With room for improvement.  All the elements are there for great new mech games.  Developers just need to put the right pieces together into a cohesive package.  I'm not saying there's a perfect formula, but think there should be more striving for perfection, even if it means looking to non-mech titles like FTLValkyria Chronicles or XCOM: Enemy Unknown for innovation  Reality needs to provide the framework with sci-fi elements explained in detail in order to establish a solid foundation.  Lastly, looking to historical conflicts for a setting is a good starting point, but a bunch of war cliches don't make for a compelling story.  Figuring out how mechs fit into an armed conflict will let a large part of the plot write itself.  The rest comes down to the characters, events and having a metal-stomping-pavement-cracking-building-smashing good time. 

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Mech Blues: A Retrospective (Part 1)

An iconic image burned into my childhood memory
I'm a big fan of mech combat video games and there's a lot to choose from.  The vast majority of them fall into the "simulation" category.  I really like controlling a big stomping robot around the battlefield, but I also like games which embrace tactical elements beyond what a single pilot can do.  On top of that there's the gearhead aspect to these types of games, where players get to be armchair engineers and construct their own custom designs. Sadly, I've never found the perfect mix of these three cornerstones to mech game design.  There are some titles that have come close over the years though, so I'd like to take a look at a few of them.  Before continuing, I should say this is not a exhaustive exploration of the subgenre, but rather a look at what I feel are titles worth mentioning.  Because of its length, I'm going to brake this retrospective into two parts.

The appearance of the "Warhammer" battlemech was nearly
a carbon copy of the "Tomahawk" Macross Destriod and
and as a result many classic designs eventually became
'unseen' due to copyright issues 
Mechwarrior was probably the first noteworthy to come out on the PC. It featured EGA graphics and the first real 3D model engine for a mech based game. Sound effects were crude, but the A.I. was surprisingly advanced for the time. Enemies would withdraw if they suffered too much damage. Allies were also competent and assuming the player's merc outfit had the funds, up to three friendly mechs could help out on the battlefield. Eight different types of battlemechs were available and players had the option to choose their missions (They could even haggle over the amount and types of payment they would receive per contract). Damage modeling was detailed and, with a few understandable concessions, the game hewed very close to its tabletop gaming roots. Overheating, detailed damage modeling, knockdowns and the possibility of instant death from a hit to the cockpit are all coded into the game. There was also a story though I must confess, I never followed it to the conclusion. Six years later Mechwarrior 2: 31st Century Combat came out. This version had greatly improved graphics, sound and music.  It also allowed for custom mech designs, but the changes made to the setting never sat well with me. I much preferred being an Inner Sphere gun-for-hire, rather than part of the eugenics obsessed Clans. I've never been a fan of the later robotic designs either. Clan mechs, in particular, have always looked impractical because of the huge amount of space dedicated to their weapon arrays. Nitpicking aside the series did make a return to its roots...twice. Overall the Battletech universe feels a lot like Frank Herbert's Dune novels, taking place in a distant future, where humanity has expanded out to the stars, only to fall back into a second dark age. Feudalism has returned on a planetary scale and mech owners are the new nobility. It's hard to criticize Mechwarrior because it was a bizarre mixture of pioneering and pilfering. Needless to say, I think the setting started off strong and slowly eroded in quality, until finally hitting rock bottom with mindless online frag-fests like Mechassault. A revival may very well be underway with the upcoming Mechwarrior: Online, but that's the future and, for now, we're talking about the past.

HERCULAN (Humaniform-Emulation Roboticized Combat Unit
with Leg-Articulated Navigation) or HERC for short, is 
probably the most forced acronym in video game history
Metaltech: Earthseige was a Sierra/Dynamix title set in a not so distant post-apocalyptic future, where machines have rebelled against their human creators in an attempt to seize control over the Earth.  Sounds a lot like the Terminator movies, doesn't it?  Well, that's pretty much right except rather than using things like infiltrator units and time travel devices, the "Cybrids" (as they are called) prowl around in giant robots called "HERCs."  Humanity's counter for this is human operated HERCs of their own made out of scrap, salvaged off wreckage.  There were some cool ideas in this game.  You could make a variety of HERC chassis and customize the weapon load-outs. Additional pilots could be added to your roster allowing you to form a squad.  The passive/active radar detection system added to the feeling of playing cat and mouse with your numerically superior advisory.  Salvage also brought the concept that you wanted to cripple (rather than outright destroy) enemies so as to harvest the most machinery possible.  Unfortunately, the concept was never fully realized because the game simply used generic salvage points, rather than specific pieces of equipment or technology.   Also, the setting presentation was kind of generic and suffered from a bland atmosphere.  Plus, the obvious advantages of air superiority seemed strangely ignored in-game.  Odd, given the fact that HERC carryalls and deadly Cybrid VTOL aircraft, both  make appearances in the opening cut-scene.  Earthsiege got a sequel and a spin-off series (Starsiege, which later became the online Tribes FPS).  A turn based strategy series entitled Mission Force: Cyberstorm also came out, but the POV was a constant overhead hex-grid which failed to convey the feeling of giant robot battles.

"The next day, the dawn was a brilliant, fiery red"
Ultrabots, or Xenobots as it was also called, had a lot in common with Earthsiege, just swap out Cybrids with War of the Worlds style aliens and your 90 percent of the way there. Granted the mech designs were totally different than the walkers that appear in the original H.G. Wells novel. What makes the game worth mentioning is that fact that it nailed the post-apocalyptic atmosphere a lot better, as well as a unique power relay mechanic. The concept being, these mechs don't generate power internally, and instead must draw it from the main base via energy transmitting towers. Hence, destroying your opponents grid could be a logistical deathblow since bots can't last long on battery power alone. Three basic designs made use of this mechanic. First, a fast, yellow chicken-walker scout equipped with some unique tools at the player's disposal such as decoys, mines, EMC, and a cloaking device. Next, a blue humanoid design which packed a lot of close up punch and served as the main battle line unit. Last, a slow, red scorpion looking machine that could lay more power relays and had camera guided missiles to boot. You could also swap control from one unit to another on the fly while the rest
What you see is what you get
would follow simple instructions set by the player. Sounds like fun, right? Well, first off, the A.I. was not good. Second, the objective of every mission was to destroy the enemy base. However, the worst offender was the fact that the three bot designs I mentioned above are all there were. Even the enemy used the exact same designs, with each model the exact same color for both sides of the conflict! From a story perspective, I guess it made sense, but from a gameplay standpoint the lack of adjustable weapons and only three mech designs sent this particular title to the bargain bin quickly in most software stores.

To be continued in part 2...

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Sci-fi Needs Gelatin Badly

Rather than have this blog post rapidly degrade into a semantics argument about the differences between sci-fi and fanasty, I'm going to focus on an example of how the genre could be more like titles such as "2001: A Space Odyssey" and "Solaris" instead of the sloppy goop we get way too much of these days.  Of course, this blog is about video games so we'll limit ourselves to that medium of entertainment.

Now, I know a lot of gamers out there probably hear the words hard sci-fi and automatically translate that into really boring.  Sometimes this is true.  After all, science keeps us from doing really cool/fun stuff, right? That's why Mass Effect and Star Wars are awesome and the crap I mentioned in the first paragraph sucks, right?  Well...lets look at a recently released sci-fi video game, shall we?

Dead Space is an iconic third person horror/action game set in a science fiction backdrop.  Plausibility is an important aspect of both horror and action in that the more things stick to reality, the more tension can be produced.  So, the more realistic the backdrop the more exciting it will be, abstractly speaking.  Sadly, the setting in Dead Space never really tried to emulate reality any more than Star Trek: Voyager did, and it's my opinion that the series suffered for it.  Namely, most of the liberties the designers chose to take were completely unnecessarily.  Shockpoint FTL travel...why?  Aside from being unexplained, it reduces the feeling of isolation.  Some kind of conventional concept proven form of propulsion like a fission pulse drive would have been so much more evocative for the setting.

Aegis VII could have just as easily been replaced by an over sized ball of rock floating in the Kuiper belt or the Oort cloud (if you want to get really remote).  Titan Station can remain unchanged, and if you need an ice planet for the role of Tau Volantis the real moon, Enceladus (also in orbit around Saturn), would work perfectly fine.

As for the magic MacGuffin markers and their effects, why not give them some plausibility in the form of xeno nano-machine factories?  Or better yet prion generators.  Another possibility would be that the Markers emit Strangelet particles. Regardless of which sounds best, any of the above would be preferable to the vague defined energy field that does whatever the writers want it to do.  In other words, rule of cool doesn't always apply because awesomeness is subjective.

I guess the point I'm really trying to make is we have plenty of unknowns in the world that can be explored in science fiction. Game developers might think they have to throw reality to the wind to make the futuristic game they want to make, but the truth is it's just plain old lazy design.  If writers can tell stories working within the constraints of poetic verses, then sci-fi setting creators can show actual science a little more respect.