Friday, October 28, 2016

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Road Trip

One of the big selling points of Final Fantasy XV is its concept of the road trip.  Four dudes, dressed up like an emo rock band, are cruising around the countryside getting in to all kinds of adventures.  It's not bad idea, but it isn't a terribly original one either.  In fact the road trip, as a core component of the gameplay, has seen a lot of use in recent years.

Take Oregon Trail for example.  No...not that old educational game where you're in an enclosed ox-driven wagon.  I'm talking about the reinterpretation featuring a family of survivors traveling across the USA in a station wagon.  It borrows a page from the novel "World War Z" by Max Brooks in that what remains of humanity, after a zombie apocalypse, has taken refuge along the western seaboard.  In large part this is due to the Sierra Nevadas providing an excellent natural barrier against the wandering hordes of undead.  It's a free flash game, but there's also a paid directors cut that breaks with the one-to-one emulated design of the original and instead adds some new features like boss battles and assorted mini-games.

While still in early access, Jalopy puts players in the driver's seat of an automobile called the "Laika," apparently a real life nickname for the "Lada Riva."  Regardless, it is definitely the people's car, and roughly analogous to the Volkswagen "Bug" in terms of ubiquity and reliability...or perhaps I should say unreliability.  The goal of the game is to limp, nurse and cajole this hunk of scrap metal across several countries in Eastern Europe shortly after the fall of the USSR.  Despite being a major eyesore the Laika is quite customizable.  Parts can be salvaged off wrecks abandoned along roadsides, or else purchased at shops with spare cash made from the sale of "contraband" (cigarettes, booze, medicine, etc.) also found over the course of the journey.

The world of Mad Max might be a place of fire and blood, but it also has a pretty big map.  So much so, getting from one end of it to the other can be an adventure unto itself.  Players don't have to worry about repairs or maintenance thanks to "Chumbucket," a deformed side-kick mechanic who reminds me of the character Ephailtes from the movie "300."  However, the player still needs to manage the gas gauge and upgrades, plus the car can still get smashed up by marauders requiring a pull over.  There's plenty to run into as well, including roving warbands, enemy enchantments, world-ending dust storms, or just some poor wanderers trying to find a little water to drink.  Needless to say, it's a wasteland full of adventure.

Now granted, none of the games I just mentioned have the exotic monsters  found in Final Fantasy XV, but some do have RPG elements baked into their design.  What's more Max wears black, albeit less stylized than most J-Pop fashion trends.  Also like Mad Max, there's a car mechanic in FFXV (a "she" instead of a "he") though still deformed...just in different ways.  So while the road trip idea could work for Square-Enix, their recent track record is such an abysmal mess of poorly made video games I wouldn't be at all surprised if players find themselves squarely in the center of Big Nothing...New, that is.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Another Destiny

I'm kind of surprised that there still aren't any novels set in the lore-rich universe of Destiny.  It strikes me as being especially odd considering how many Halo novels there are now.  We are talking about the exact same developer for both games here, Bungie Studios.  I've heard some people claim that the grimoire cards are a substitute for the lack of any books, but to be honest those little snippets of background information feel like excerpts from a much larger story (one that is never communicated during the actual game).  It's an unfortunate situation because the limited plot and characters developments in Destiny leave much to be desired.  The entire thing is akin to a junk food snack, something to play when you have a hankering for a blend of FPS and RPG.  For me the question at launch and continuing to this day is, where's the meat?  Despite being out for over two years now, there isn't a whole lot for players to sink their teeth into.  Sure the shooting is highly polished, but it comes across as rather pointless when the only motivation for doing so is some vague, mystical mumbo-jumbo.  It's especially aggravating when one considers the setting, which is ripe for storytelling.  The concept of a fully colonized solar system provides an excellent foundation for all kinds of epic sagas and high adventure, and yet Bungie continues to squander the opportunity to do so.  Perhaps there is a reason for it though, one that goes beyond the realm of video games.  There's a recently completed trio of novels out now that basically tackles the same setting as Destiny except way better.

The "Red Rising" trilogy by Pierce Brown takes place in a distant future wherein humanity has become highly stratified.  So much so, each cast has a particular color associated with them to show where they stand in the social hierarchy.  At the top are the "Golds."  Roughly equivalent to royal families, they believe themselves to be the pinnacle of human development (both mentally and physically).  Directly under them are "Silvers" and "Coppers," who deal with the economics and bureaucracy of running an interplanetary empire.  Further down are a variety of specialized roles, such as the "Blues" (who handle space travel), "Yellows" (that apply medicine), and "Grays" (a combination law enforcement and armed forces).  Elite troops are referred to as "Obsidians," although they do not lead others.  Only gold can occupy the command structure that makes up fleets and armies, and this is where the uniqueness of the setting comes to the forefront.

Borrowing a page (or several dozen) from Dune, the author makes a point of demonstrating how technology has been bent and molded to suit the structure of society.  Case in point, spaceships only ever have one bridge (command center) because gold philosophy demands that all power be focused on them.  The best personal armor and armaments are reserved for gold use only.  Highly destructive weaponry is forbidden because it diminishes the importance of gold fighting prowess.  When two rival Golds face-off it more often than not takes the form of a duel.  Ship-to-ship combat revolves around boarding operations because capturing one of these pricey vessels brings far more prestige than simple destruction.  Additionally, the victor has a prize to impress his peers with and thus enhance his or her standing within the social elite.  Sure a lot of Grays and Obsidians might perish in the process, but by gold logic they are nothing more than expendable assets anyway.  On top of that, lower ranking colors are obligated to transfer loyalty in the event that their commanding gold is deposed.  In this Darwinian command structure, the ideal is the "iron gold," an ruthlessly determined individual who does not shy away from adversity or waver in the face of a challenge.  Golds who seek pleasure and indulgence over temperance and self-discipline are labeled "pixies," while those deemed of inferior disposition are called "bronzies."  In order to hold the reins of power a gold must attend the academy on Mars.  Without going into spoiler territory, let me just say it's a school that asks a lot of its students.  Those lucky few who graduate with honors become "peerless scarred" and are given important posts in political and military spheres.  Of course, all this becomes subject to change when a small group of individuals decide they want to bring down they system from the inside.

Red Rising isn't exactly the same as Destiny, but it's suited to the medium in which it was created (literature, instead of video games).  That said, there are a lot of aspects to the setting that wouldn't be out of place in a first, or third-person shooter.  For example, there are energy guns ("burners"), super-swords ("razors"), stealth devices ("ghost cloaks"), and regenerating health ("Aegis shields").  Generally speaking, the nomenclature is much better than Destiny as well, with names and terms borrowed from Greco-Roman history.  The various planets and moons of our solar system are also depicted correctly with respect to gravity (might sound like a nit-pick, but it's something that always stick with me).  Red Rising also has an easily relatable conflict, none of this nebulous light versus dark.  It's a class struggle along the length and width of a social pyramid in which everyone below the tippe top is miserable, doubly so for all the folks at the very bottom.  Oh...I almost forgot to mention that there are no robots in the setting for the simple reason that Golds want to dominate everyone else.  They have no desire for mindless automatons.  Instead the prefer to demonstrate their self-imposed superiority by forcing others to obey them out of fear and envy...and that's ultimately why the Reds, the bottom most cast, are fated to rise up against their oppressors.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

War and Peace

I'm going to start this post off with an anecdote from World War 2.  Pacific theater (1942), the Imperial Japanese Navy is planning an invasion of the American held Isle of Midway.  In order to test the feasibility of their plan, Imperial Navy high command arranges a war game aboard the battleship Yamato.  Senior officers take their respective roles, while a junior officer assumes control over the opposition (in this case, the United States Navy).  Early on in the simulation, American aircraft carriers launch a surprise attack from the north-east resulting in the sinking of three of the four Japanese fleet carriers committed to the operation.  A referee overrules the result claiming that such an attack would be impossible because the Americans could not have know Japanese intentions so early in the battle.

The feeling among the naval staff at the time was that the simulation had failed to capture the reality of the situation.  In actuality it was spot-on.  During the real Battle of Midway, American aircraft carriers were able to launch a surprise attack from the north-east thanks to a partial decryption of Japanese naval codebooks.  Three Japanese carriers were knocked out of action in rapid succession from initial airstrikes with the fourth and final fleet carrier falling victim to the same fate due to a follow-up dive bomber attack soon after.

This war story doesn't have anything to do with video games directly, but there is a new game out on Steam called Children of a Dead Earth that is tangentially related.  If you're not familiar CoaDE claims to be an accurate simulation of what warfare in space would be like.  I've seen a fair amount of criticism directed at this game because of its design goal and central premise.  While we could argue over the theoreticals, I don't see why a simulation using proven mathematical formulas and basic applied physics would be any less accurate at depicting warfare than pushing counters around a map and rolling some six-sided dice.

Now, I should stress that my knowledge of computer programming is pretty limited.  I've only ever coded in Basic, Fortran, and a bit of Turbo Pascal.  Having confessed my relative ignorance though I'm going out on a flimsy limb to say a lot of people who claim to know how to code really don't.  A few months ago, while watching a twitch stream of Kerbal Space Program, one viewer asked about the ETA for the next update.  The streamer's response was to say the bug fixing process would take a long time because (according to him) correcting one issue in programming creates many more.  My response is simply this, only if you are doing it wrong.  Even though I'm a total armature I know enough to understand the importance of structured programming.  It can be tedious and at times and feel like a creativity restraint, but when the time comes to squash bugs the entire process is much quicker and easier.  More than once, I've seen KSP development blogs that go on about some nasty bug that was difficult to track down and isolate.  The layman's term for the cause of these kinds of problems is Spaghetti Code.  I'm pretty confident in saying that KSP has a bad case of it.  A lot of different programmers have worked on this game at different times, some of which were more skilled than others, and while steps have been taken to clean up "legacy code" (basically an eloquent way of saying "poorly planned mess"), I think the best course of action would be to simply start over from scratch.

Doing so would allow Squad, or whoever the developers are now (it seems like most of the original team has jumped ship), a chance to address long standing issues with the game - floating point precision errors, the lack of N-body physics models, and most of all the dreaded Kraken.  A number of improvements that are impossible in the current Unity engine could also be implemented.  The Kerbin system could be fleshed out and expanded.  Internals for parts and astronomical bodies would be great to see.  I'd love it if the damage modeling system allowed deformation (a.k.a. soft body physics) as well.  If you look at how long each update is taking, despite the relatively limited scope of new features) it's clear that there needs to be a sequel, one that incorporates everything learned from the original in addition to a number of excellent ideas from the mod community.  Instead of early access, it would be nice if this hypothetical successor came out the door as a fully fledged campaign (complete with a proper beginning, middle and conclusion) in addition to the sandbox mode we all know and love.  After all, if we can have a well made space war game why can't we have a nice new peaceful space exploration game too?