Friday, May 27, 2016

Stellaris Memes

Stellaris has bugs.  It also has plenty of room for improvement.  Even so, I can't help but laugh at some of the criticisms people post on message boards across the internet.  Rather than single anyone out though I decided to make a few memes based on some of the more boneheaded comments out there.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Optimus Maximus

There's a regrettable tendency for professional game reviews to neglect optimization when critiquing a game.  That's not to say they ignore it entirely, but I tend to only see passing mention of it (usually in relation to graphics).  It's unfortunate because a lot of games that have come out over the last year or so really feel neglected when it comes to performance.  Exceptions exist, Dark Souls 3 ran surprisingly smoothly at launch.  However, titles such as XCOM 2, Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak and Soma all wallowed in sluggishness for weeks after launch.  Meanwhile Hyper Light Drifter still could use a frame-rate boost, Banner Saga 2 needs better load times, and Star Citizen is undergoing a major upgrade to a more accurate 64-bit framework in preparation for launch.

The same is true for most Unity Engine games.  Until version 5 came out late last year there was practically no support for multi-core CPUs.  Kind of shocking when one considers most PCs on the market today are dual-core, quad-core, or (in my case) eight-core chipsets.  Not so quick aside, my desktop at home uses the AMD FX-8120 "bulldozer," somewhat famous for being able to render, upload and play HD video simultaneously without maxing out the processor.  It's great for multi-tasking, but can be rather embarrassing when running games that don't support multi-threading.  Seriously, playing Kerbal Space Program was like using a forklift to haul a fanny pack. On the plus side KSP recently got a huge boost to performance once the developers upgraded to Unity 5.  Now, I know programming for multi-core chipsets can be a pain (look no further than developers on the PS3 for examples of frustration), but the extra effort can, and will, pay off.  Look to Naughty Dog Studios' work on the Last of Us and Uncharted for some impressive results in action.  Going back to my original point through it's kind of amazing how few development teams put in the effort to make their games utilize the hardware available to the fullest.  On the other hand, it's possible to go too far with this stuff.

I was recently watching some gameplay (with commentary) of Stellaris and noticed an annoying tendency for lone enemy ships to throw themselves piecemeal at an overwhelming invading force when their homeworld was threatened.  Apparently this "bug" is the result of optimizations made to the artificial intelligence.  In order to save on CPU resources the A.I. in Stellaris focuses on large fleets to the exclusion of individual spacecraft.  Hence, a single ship is governed by extremely simple behavioral routines which leads to some rather dumb actions.  Apparently flying solo means leaving your brain with the nearest armada as far as the AI goes.

So to wrap this up, I think optimization is a good thing in general, but it is possible to go overboard.  Speaking of which I've seen user reviews on Steam claim games are complete garbage just because they don't run buttery smooth on top-of-the-line machines with the settings cranked up to the max.  Sorry to say this guys, but if you ride on the cutting edge of technology sometimes you're going to get nicked.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

No Treasure for Old Dragons

Back in the day I used to own a couple of those boxed sets for the table-top RPG Dungeons and Dragons.  One in particular was a spin-off of sorts called Council of Wyrms.  Players were expected to take the roll of dragons and to help stimulate their imaginations several foldout posters were included in the box showing a variety of subspecies grouped into three distinct categories (chromatic, metallic and crystalline).  On top of this players could choose from physical, magical or psionic based classes.  It all looked very interesting, but sadly I never managed to scrape together a group of friends to try it out.  Perhaps because of that I've always had an as-of-yet-unsatisfied craving for video games that let the player be a dragon.

Obviously titles like Dragon's Dogma or the Souls series don't really fit the bill because even though dragons are integral to those stories players never actually get the chance to control one directly.  Similarly Skyrim or Breath of Fire don't exactly work either due to the player character being human for the most part.  On the other hand games where (technically speaking) the player is the dude riding on the dragon's back usually satisfy my criteria because functionally it's the same as long as the player controls the dragon directly.  So, now that we've narrowed things down a bit lets look at some examples.

The Spyro series is probably one of the most famous games that matches the sub-genre I've just outlined.  Unfortunately, I could never really get into this franchise.  Maybe it's the Saturday-morning cartoon vibe that turned me off to it.  Regardless, I can confidently say cute purple dragons aren't my thing.

Moving from 3D to 2D, there's an old top-down, bullet-hell arcade shooter called Dragon Spirit that ate a lot my quarters growing up.  It was kind of cool in that players could get power-ups that granted their dragon two or even three heads, thus doubling or tripling the firepower.  However, I always felt like the dragon was way too fragile.  Dragons are supposed to be well-nigh forces of nature yet in Dragon Spirit a few hits from anything is all it takes to crash and burn.

Another 2D game, this one from the side perspective, is Thanatos.  It's an old Commodore 64  game that played like a mix of Choplifter and Wings of Fury, except instead of piloting a helicopter or Grumman F6F Hellcat you're a dragon.  For better or worse, I never owned a C64 so my exposure to this game was pretty limited.  Another exclusive to that home computer I did get to play over at a friends house was Dragon Riders of Pern.  Based on a long running series of novels, this particular game was broken in to two distinct parts, a text-based strategy section and...well...let me explain the background for this setting a bit.  Dragon Riders of Pern is actually sci-fi in that the "dragons" are genetically engineered by a bunch of space Amish.  Every so often the orbit of Pern brings it near a bunch of gigantic filaments drifting in the void of space.  This "thread" (as it's called) is extremely toxic to carbon based life and can fall to the ground with devastating effect.  An entire country could be laid to waste unless the thread is destroyed as it descends through the atmosphere.  How can it be destroyed?  With fire!  Hmmm...what flies and breaths fire?  You guessed it!  So getting back to the gameplay, it's basically a poor-man's version of Missile Command except the player is tasked with torching squiggly white lines with a dragon rather than intercepting ballistic nuclear warheads with an anti-missile system.

Speaking of copycats Dragon Seeds is basically Monster Rancher except with a variety of different dragons instead of...well...other kinds of monsters.  Then there's Dragon Strike, essentially a clunky flight-sim wherein dragons take the place of conventional aircraft.  Although in some cases the opposition can be other flying creatures such as wyverns or manticores.  The player has a recharging breath weapon at their disposal, as well as a trusty lance for aerial jousting.  Despite the obvious parallels it doesn't feel at all similar Joust.  There is a game called Atomic Battle Dragons that does, but since it's a mobile game I don't think it merits discussion.

The PS3 near-launch title Lair attempted to do some experimental things with the Sixaxis controller that sounded good in theory, but didn't work in practice.  Maneuvering dragons through tilt controls made the game essentially unplayable and even when the developers patched in analog controls the camera and story still stunk.  It's a real shame because Lair had some nice looking dragons, as well as smooth transitions between air and ground combat.

There's all kinds of weird outliers I could mention.  Take the Panzer Dragoon series for example.  It has dragons but drops any semblance of fantasy in lieu of a futuristic atheistic.  Another example is Drakan which might have been interesting if the visuals weren't so bland and generic.  The list of be-the-dragon video games goes on, but there has never been one that really nails the feel of being the alpha predator of mythical beasts.  That said, I would recommend one game without hesitation, the pseudo-arcade title TROGDOR!  It's not good, but it is silly...and better still completely free.  So even if you don't like it no loss...except maybe a few minutes of your time.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Mixed Bags

This blog post might seem like a continuation of last week's entry, but instead of focusing on one thing a particular game got right I want to open it up a bit and talk about the strong and weak points regarding a trio of kickstarted projects I've been playing recently.

Banner Saga 2...where to start?  The music and artwork in this game are spectacular.  The setting and characters are fantastic.  What little voice acting there is in the game is also top-notch.  The false dichotomy choices drive me nuts though.  Several times throughout the game saying "yes" or "no" nets the exact same results.  Why offer a choice at all if it doesn't matter?  Worse still some of the multiple choice events feel an awful lot like a standardized test in that the options only come in the good/bad variety.  So, rather than roleplaying you're just trying to pick what the developers thought was the optimal decisions.  Despite various enhancements, some of the novelty of the combat system has also worn away since the first game.  I've seen forum posts around the net suggesting that the Banner Saga would be better off as a novel given the actual gameplay isn't especially compelling.  It also doesn't help that Banner Saga 2 isn't a proper sequel so much as the middle episode of a three part story.  I get that it had to be broken into a trilogy for financial reasons, but until all three parts get stitched into a single seamless product this indie title will (in my eyes) remain a odd hybrid of early access and episodic content.

Another game I want to talk about is Hyper Light Drifter - again, beautiful art style and music.  The combat is also enjoyable once you get into the mindset that drifters are glass cannons.  I even liked the purely visual storytelling, but herein lies the game's biggest weakness.  If you're going to convey a storyline without text or dialogue, then it has to be done elegantly.  Plot points need to be distilled into their most comprehensible form.  Unfortunately, Hyper Light Drifter is overly obtuse even by Dark Souls standards.  For example, the opening sequence should have established what a drifter is and a bit about the world they live in.  Instead, we're treated to a bizarre dream sequence that is pretty much guaranteed to have players scratching their heads.  If I can play armchair developer for a moment, here's how I would have set things up:
In search of a cure for his/her illness, the drifter journeys to a remote land.  There, the drifter encounters the Anubis (black jackal) entity that offers a cure in exchange for some help.  
Boom!  It's a simple setup that can be communicated easily enough through images.  From there events can become vaguer and more open to interpenetration because regardless of further story developments the player will still have a solid foundation to fall back on.  As it stands though Hyper Light Drifter doesn't give the player much in the way of motivation.  I guess the dudes you're fighting are bad, but weren't drifters supposed to be "seekers of knowledge," not "dispensers of justice"?  Indecently, it doesn't help that what little in-game backstory there is has to be derived from the tedious task of decoding messages on monoliths hidden throughout the environment.  Overall, it comes off as a beautiful mess of a video game...that should really run at 60fps rather than 30.

Last up is Darkest Dungeon.  Unlike the previous two titles I just mentioned, I've really soured on this one.  Whereas Hyper Light Drifter and Banner Saga 2 grew on me the more I played, the constant grind of Darkest Dungeon has turned me off to the game entirely.  I can deal with the late-game brutal difficulty and unforgiving randomness, but at some point having to spend huge amounts of time grooming characters for one long-shot at the final area became too tedious for me to bear.  A failed expedition yields nothing and even a successful one still requires further grinding.  It's a real shame considering I totally dig the narration, evocative graphics and crisp sound effects.  I almost feel like this game needs a story mode that has a linear set of missions.  Of course the adventurer roster and dungeon layouts could still be randomized, but players would only have to do a fix series of things in each of the four zones before tackling the last area.  Basically, I'm asking for a tighter, more focused version of Darkest Dungeon that finishes in under 20 hours.  That might be too short for some, but to me it's about as long as the charm lasts.

I'm sure some will read this and think I'm being way too harsh.  These are indie games made by tiny dev teams working with an extremely limited budget.  That said, the issues I mentioned in all three cases really did hamper my enjoyment of the strengths.  It's especially frustrating because I can see the potential here.  Each of these three titles could be proof that a small, dedicated group of artists and programmers can make one for the ages (with just a little help from the fans).  As is though Kickstarter is looking more and more like an interesting experiment that ultimately isn't going to pan out.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

One Hit Wonders

A title of dubious merit typically bestowed upon musicians, "one hit wonder" simply means an artist who only created one widely renown piece of art.  In the context of this blog post though, I'd like to take the term a bit further and use it to refer to video games in which they do one aspect of the medium extremely well while simultaneously producing mediocre results in every other regard.  Let's look at three examples, shall we?

GALAK-Z is a 2D side-scrolling rogue-like that borrows heavily from 1980s anime space operas such as "Gundam," "Space Battleship Yamato," and "Robotec" ("Macross," if you want to get technical).  Sadly, it does very little to elevate itself above those franchises in terms of storytelling or visual design.  Even the procedurally generated levels lack variety due to there only being two possible tile sets.  The controls, while responsive, can feel counter intuitive to the uninitiated.  The progression system is a bit overly harsh at times too.  Where this game does excel is in the A.I. department.  Supposedly the developer farmed out the artificial intelligence design to an academic institution.  If so I hope to see more of their "scholastic" work in the future because this is one of the best examples I can think of when it comes to computer-versus-player experiences.  Not only does this game boast stealth done right, the A.I. controlled enemies have superb pathfinding and a wide variety of tactics depending on the unit type and situation.

I'm just going to come out and say it, Star Wars: Battlefront is a bad game.  I know it has fans, but the truth is the pre-order and DLC shenanigans were exploitative.  There's no single player component, and the multiplayer was limited to just four maps at launch.  The gameplay wasn't particularly true to the fiction either, with blasters that are far too accurate and hero characters that just sort of give up and eventually blink out of existence rather than expiring in some kind of dramatic fashion.  The one bright spot in this overpriced piece of schmuck bait is the graphics.  It looks really pretty with all those photo-realistic textures.  Every detail matches the original trilogy perfectly (so much so, you could probably fool some out-of-touch "Star Wars" fan into thinking that the screenshots are old set photos).    

Last up is Minecraft.  Programmed in Java, this has to be one of the least optimized top-sellers in the history of video games (at least until XCOM 2 came out).  Crudely animated mobs, pixelated textures and blocky environments are par for the course - ditto for the sound design.  There's not much of a story either.  What this game does have going for it is interactivity.  Practically everything can be manipulated, molded or reworked by the player in a variety of interesting ways.  The world that the player inhabits is also endless and varied thanks to a terrain generation system that has a wide variety of biodomes.  When it comes to open-world sandboxes, Minecraft is the biggest both in terms of breadth and scope.

"Vanilla Ice."  "MC Hammer."  "C+C Music Factory."  These are just a few examples of one hit wonders in the music industry.  I'm sure there are some who would disagree with my opinions on pop music in the 1990s.  I have no doubt that the same is also true for the choices I made regarding video games.  To any would-be critics though, I say this; just because a video game only does one thing well doesn't mean it's a bad game.  After all, even a song by a one hit wonder ca still be a good song.