Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Saturday, January 24, 2015


Protection from external harm has been an integral part of warfare from the bronze age to the modern era.  And while it has been marginalized (with the exception of helmets) for the last several centuries, recent advancements in light, yet resilient alloys, have allowed for a slow resurgence of personal protection in the form of tactical vests.  Video games too feel like they have been taking armor into consideration more and more recently.  Unlike movies and TV wherein armor has been (and still is for the most part) purely cosmetic, video games have had a much wider number of interpretations.

Obviously there are a lot of games that have embraced the one-hit-kill model (side scrolling shooters are especially known for this).  On the other extreme there are hardcore tank simulations.  Titles like War Thunder and World of Tanks embrace realism to such a degree that a successful hit against an enemy tank would be difficult to ascertain if not for the aid of onscreen text.  Granted this is true to real life in that during World War 2 the term "knocked out" was used to refer to tank kills in lieu of other words like "destroyed" or "neutralized".  An apt choice of words since depending on the fate of of the crew inside, a knocked out tank might return to action after being hit or at the very least be salvaged later.  Oftentimes, externally, the damage would be difficult to notice by the the untrained eye because it might consist of little more than a fist sized hole someplace on the hull or turret.  Every once in a while a damaged tank might cook-off its ammunition or fuel resulting in a dramatically fiery end.  However, with the introduction of explosive reactive armor and anti-personnel mines attached to the outside of the vehicle, a tank successfully repulsing an attack might very well look more visually impressive than one failing to do so.

Moving from vehicular armor to personal protection let me highlight some of the more creative takes in video games.  Ghosts and Goblins has suits of plate steel bursting off the main character whenever he gets hit forcing him to make due in his boxer shorts.  Gladiator has a similar concept except the mechanic tracks the effect to specific parts of the main character's body rather than the whole suit.  Silly as it is, I have to admit I prefer this system to the bland abstract damage reduction system that most RPGs use.

One other interpretation of armor that I'd like to briefly touch on is in the form of an alternative to the bog standard health meter.  Rather than a traditional life bar, games such as Mark of Kri or El Shaddai have bits and pieces of armor break off whenever the wearer takes damage.  In this way it acts as an elegant method of representing HUD elements that would otherwise hog up valuable screen real estate.  Again, this has no bearing on how real body armor works, but I happen to like this system all the same.  The Darknuts from The Legend of Zelda in particular have to be the quintessential example of this mechanic from a gameplay standpoint.  Stripping away the armor of these powerful adversaries makes them more vulnerable, but in doing so they become faster and more aggressive having been freed of their protective burden.
On a final note the survival horror genre could defiantly get some mileage out of more detailed representations of armor.  Just imagine Issac Clark struggling to keep those long pointed necromorph talons from burrowing through the gaps in that RIG he always wears.  After all, even in a futuristic sci-fi setting I can still see suits of armor having vulnerabilities in places like the visor, armpits or knee and elbow joints.  

Friday, January 16, 2015

Cross of Iron

Back during the early days of the PS2, a little known strategy game came out entitled Ring of Red.  It was a Konomi production, and featured an alternate history in which technology went in a decidedly diesel punk direction.  Over the course of World War 2 traditional tanks were phased out of mechanized units in favor of AFWs (short for Armored Fighting Walkers), a derivation of the real military acronym AFV (or Armored Fighting Vehicle).  The actual game's focus is on 1950s Japan which has been divided into two nations, one north and the other south, along communist and capitalist ideologies.  So, basically what actually happened to Korea except in the Land of the Rising Sun.  It's a fun game with deep mechanics, verisimilar animation, and an interesting setting.  Sadly, a poor quality localization combined with a low polygon counts kept the game from gaining mass appeal.  That said, I think it really deserves a second chance in the form of a sequel...or better yet a prequel!

Let me start off this idea of mine with a two word summery, Nazi mecha.  Now, I know what a lot of people will think, "You can't play as the Nazis!  They're the bad guys!!"  Valid point, but let me finish my pitch and maybe you'll see how it could work.  Two issues I had with Ring of Red were the repetitiveness of enemy types and overwhelming superiority of the player controlled AFWs.  Taking the role of a Wehrmacht field officer in 1939 would "lampshade" those otherwise glaring points.  Historically speaking the early part of World War 2 saw Axis forces making mincemeat out of pretty much any and all opposition...and there was a lot opposition; Poland, France, The United Kingdom, America in North Africa and of course Russia.  No shortage of enemy variety here.  The plot could follow a three act structure (Act 1: Fall of France, Act 2: The Desert War, Act 3: Battle of Kursk) with a prologue tutorial taking place during the Invasion of Poland and an epilogue bonus series of missions featuring the player and his buddies participating in Operation Valkyrie (the assassination attempt against Adolf Hitler).  In a pulp twist though the player could fight they're way through Waffen SS grenadiers to the "Wolf's Den" for a final showdown with the Führer himself in some kind of prototype super-weapon (think this, but in AFW form).

One of the most distinguishing elements of Ring of Red is its use of infantry in support of AFWs.  This feature would also be well served in a World War 2 themed game.  Aside from German infantry armed with standard issue "Kar" rifles, "Potato Masher" gernades and MG 34 (or later MG 42) portable machine guns, there were a variety of anti-armor upgrade weapons such as panzerfausts, panzerschrecks, schiessbechers and early in the war anti-tank rifles.  The bolt-action rifles could be swapped out for MP 40 sub-machine guns, and toward the very end of hostilities StG 44 assault rifles.  Exotic weapons that were actually used could give each side some interesting special abilities to work with.  Examples include the Goliath Tracked Mine, or for Allied forces, things like Russian anti-tank dogs.  I'm also fond of the idea of an American flail tank re-imagined as a close combat AFW.  Instead of white phosphorus though I'd go for functionally equivalent flamethrowers, since chemical weapons were never used in the European theater of war by the Axis or the Allies.

AFWs would retain the same basic roles as they had in Ring of Red; four legged heavies standing in for self-propelled guns, flexible mediums that are well suited for anything, close quarters "anti-AFWs" filling in for the spot held by tank destroyers, and of course the flightless bird shaped light AFWs with their fast speed plus anti-infantry armament (possibly flak too).  Taking a moment to discuss aircraft, Ring of Red features none because of an in-game agreement between super powers after the invention of the atomic bomb.  However, in a prequel there's no reason not to have Stukas come screaming in for dive bomb attacks or P-51 Mustangs make strafing runs.  I think it would be cool to radio in air support either to provide cover or strike ground targets devoid of anti-aircraft protection.

Customization for AFWs could get a major feature expansion allowing for upgrades to armor thickness/coverage, engine horsepower, and offensive weaponry.  Rather than attaching ammunition types to select crews, going with pre-mission loadouts would give players greater agency before starting combat operations.  Couple this with more detailed damage models (rather than the abstract hit point based system that was used) and choosing shell types could be truly interesting.  Say for example armor piercing to knock out specific subsystems versus high explosive to cause more widespread damage.  Then there could be shrapnel rounds to lay waste to infantry, smoke canisters to decrease enemy accuracy, and star shells to negate night combat penalties.  Incendiary could work like a "poison" status effect, inflicting relatively light initial damage but considerably more than normal over a long period of time.  Lastly, sabot shot can act like a one time super attack.  Instead of the weird ninety second overheat countdown that applies to all AFWs in Ring of Red, I'd much rather see limit timers based on logistic concerns like gun barrel wear, ammunition supplies or fuel reserves.  I enjoy the one-on-one nature of AFW skirmishes.  That said, it would be awesome if nearby AFWs could lend a hand in the form of indirect fire such as mortars (like the awesome Karl-Gerät), artillery (like the deadly Pak 88mm) and rockets (like the hilariously sounding Nebelwerfer).

In Ring of Red each AFW has three different squads each consisting of entirely male or female soldiers.  In this hypothetical prequel, I'd much rather see a half-dozen or so fire teams consisting of a man and woman each.  For example a long range sniper/spotter pair, a medic/engineer support duo, or an assault combo made up of a shock-trooper/flammenwerfer.  Obviously lots of other teams should become available as the player progresses such as anti-armor teams, sharp shooter teams and machine gun teams.  Not to mention certain nation specific units like British commandos and Russian assault engineers (who wore steel body armor!).  Instead of charging up special attacks by cycling troops between vanguard and reserve positions, I think some kind of command point system would add a nice layer of resource management to the mix.

Obviously, a current gen version of Ring of Red would benefit greatly from a graphical presentation standpoint.  Not just more detailed textures and higher polygon counts, but also detailed physics based damage effects, surround sound, and a sleeker interface.  Personally, I'm fond of a slightly watercolor-over-pencil-sketch look since I think it would suit the game's last century time frame, but that's just how I picture it in my head.  One other thing that's needed is a new title...something that hearkens back to the original, but doesn't have a "2" at the end...

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Three Stories for Three Worlds

Elegy for a Dead World has to be one of only a handful of games to launch months before the announced date.  For better or worse it slipped onto the Steam store last December without much fanfare.  In truth it isn't really a game, so much as exercise in creative writing.  While I would say it does an excellent job of inspiring would-be-storytellers, reading other people's stuff is a bit tedious.  I'll echo what many have already said in that the browsing and presentation experience needs to be refined.  Those issues aside, I did pen three stories, one for each of the three worlds, which I like to plug here on my blog...if you don't mind.

"And It will be for Us" is the first story I published in the game.  It takes place on Shelly's charred orange world.  For this one I went with the freeform option, but chose to hew close to the sun-ravaged visuals and underlining themes of a hubris driven societal collapse.  To make it stand out I threw in a bit of a twist with some scientific bits to give the tale some weight.  The ending, I hope, will haunt readers.

"The Tindalos Paradox" takes place on Keats' rainy purple world.  Unlike the overall theme of love, loss and the suffering artist, I kind of went off the rails and wrote a story about the marooned survivor of a failed rescue team.  Everything is presented (in fiction) as transcripts of audio logs left behind at some unspecified time in the past.  The conclusion is a lengthy dialogue between two individuals inspired by the works of H.P. Lovecraft.

Last is "An Elegy for Me" on Byron's icy blue world.  This was the final story I wrote and, as such, is a bit of a meta commentary on the game.  It's also the shortest in terms of word count, and the only of the three stories in which I used one of the templates provided by the dev team.  The layout of the world made this a tough nut to crack for me.  That said, how much the reader will enjoy it depends on their susceptibility to self-effacing humor.  

On a final note, I just want to mention that the achievements for this game feel a bit ridiculous.  Getting 1000 commendations for no less than ten different stories about one world sound pretty much impossible.  When the average story gets a couple commendations at most, I would be genuinely surprised if anyone gets one, let alone all three achievements.  

Friday, January 2, 2015

Scores Always Lie

A+, two thumbs up, Buy-Rent-Skip, four out of five stars, 60% approval rating, 7.5/10, on a scale of Big Mother Truckers to Super Mario Brothers it's a Streets of Rage.

These are the kinds of rating systems that review websites and publications offer up on a regular basis.  They are then processed by aggregated review sites like Metacritic and the final results are spewed out in the form of "83" or some other number out of a hundred which, devoid of an explanation, tells the consumer absolutely nothing about the game itself.  In fact the only thing that can be garnered from review metrics is a vague idea of how reviewers felt about a specific game.

Recently on the Giant Bombcast there was a discussion regarding game cost vs longevity.  The conclusion was jokingly that Giantbomb should dump it's current review system and instead just have a screenshot, price and minimum-hours-to-complete label.  While this might sound like a silly suggestion it actually conveys more meaningful information that the star rating system currently in use.

Yes, it's a bit uncharitable, but as many people have pointed out before me the video game industry really only operates on a 7 to 10 scale.  Anything less than that is considered shovelware, and not worthy of a review score.  The one exception being Angry Joe, who really does use the 1 to 10 scale as intended.  Exacerbating the problem are inflated or bombed aggregated user metrics.  Most readers know what I mean; people who are on a publisher payroll, or else are friends/family of the developers.  These "user reviews" are written up like vaguely positive comments in order to push the game higher up the charts.  Counter to this is all the one's and zero's with equally unhelpful statements along the lines of "It sucks!" or "I hate it."  Of course there are reviewers who take the time to do a more in-depth analysis, but even these can come off insincere.  Classic examples include a non-trivial
number of Gametrailers' video reviews wherein the majority of the time is spent complaining only to conclude with a 9/10 rating.  Or conversely having nothing but glowing praise but then end with 7.2/10.  Unsurprisingly, the comment sections of these sorts of reviews tend to fill up with critics of their own.  The key difference being they're not criticizing the game, but rather the review, the person who wrote it, the website, and in some cases the industry as a whole.

The simple fact of the matter is, what makes a good game is highly subjective.  I'm sure we can all agree that inconsistent frame rates, lock-ups and inaccurate collision detection are all terrible, but even something as undesirable as glitches are not universally agreed upon as being a bad thing.  I can think of a few people who prefer Red Dead Redemption and Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim in their hilariously buggy form to say the current patched and polished versions.  Even what defines a clunky interface is not easy to get a consensus on.  I can't stand the button layout on Metal Gear games, but have no issue with old survival horror titles.  I'm sure that I'm in a small minority on this one, but I think fixed camera angles and tank controls suit certain aspects of the genre rather well.  Obviously others will rightfully disagree...

So, what's to be done about review scores?  Nothing really except to get rid of them entirely.  The medium has advanced to the point that they have long since outlived their usefulness to consumers, particularly when compared to "Quick Looks" and "LPs."  If you're like me though and still enjoy browsing reviews now and then, I think the best course of action would be to sum it up with one sentence using words like "play it," or "don't play it," along with conditional phrases starting with "if," "unless," "assuming" and so on.  That way you can get a quick impression of the overall review without cold impartial numbers or having to slog through an a several page essay.