Game design and Uplink [A partial review you can use [TM] ]

In the Steam Summer sale, I picked up an upgrade for Prison Architect that also got me the entire back catalog of Introversion. One of those games was Uplink. Uplink is a hacking game; it’s somewhat similar to Hacknet, which is much newer and text based (and in my opinion, the better game), but there’s an odd design flaw in it. At least, I consider it a flaw.

One of the story missions has you hack into somebody’s LAN. Every time you access the main file server, the system admin will sign on and kick you off. The problem is that there’s no way to avoid this, because you need files off the server. What frustrates me is that it’s repetitive and dull; if you know what you’re doing, it isn’t the least bit dangerous, just dull.

I mention Uplink for another, better reason: unobtrusive tutorials. Now, back in the days of yore, I was an aficionado of the printed manual. The SimAnt manual remained in my possession far longer than the game did. Today, that’s replaced by a tutorial. Now, sometimes tutorials can be terrific: for example, the intro to Skyrim is really well done. The idea of being thrust into Big Things Happening feels very dynamic and fresh. Prison Architect’s campaign mode is a fun little tutorial that gives you the basics without holding your hand too much. The same thing is true for Uplink (and Hacknet). There’s plenty to discover, even if you’re not quite sure how things work.

Since this is a review, I should probably tell you whether or not to get Uplink instead of just musing about it. Uplink is a little dated but a quality title. If you’re clever, you can make the game ridiculously easy, but until then you will have plenty of entertaining failures. The story is surprisingly dull, to be honest. In fact, you can miss the story entirely without trying too hard. That doesn’t make it a bad game by any means, and it has enjoyable moments, but the replay value is somewhat minimal.

This War of Mine: The Review You Can Use [TM]

This War of Mine is the hardest PC game I’ve ever played.

I do not mean that it’s difficult, although it is. I mean that some of the most heart-wrenching moments I’ve ever experienced in gaming occurred while I was playing it.

This War of Mine is a fairly simple premise: you control a group of up to five survivors trying to live through a civil war. The specific war is fictional, but it is pretty clear that the game is inspired by the Siege of Sarajevo. As a setting, it’s certainly unusual, since only GTA IV (of all games that I know) covered that conflict with even the lightest touch. You have one goal: survive until the ceasefire.

The actual gameplay is quite simple; it works well on a tablet (only $2.99 as of this post on the Android store!), so on a PC, it runs buttery smooth. You click on a character, then click on what you want them to do, whether it’s cook, work on the shelter, grow vegetables, or bait a rat trap with fertilizer.

The day/night cycle is what makes the game the work. During the day, you stay in the shelter and work on stuff. During the night, you scavenge for supplies, guard the shelter, or just sleep. Each character has a special skill that is of value. My starting three were Bruno, Pavle, and Katia. Bruno was a former TV chef (and a good cook), Pavle was a fast runner (I don’t remember his background), and Katia was a journalist with the ability to make better deals when trading. Other characters have other skills; you can have up to five in the shelter, but the most I ever got to was three. You start with a random three, then gain new survivors randomly.

Note that I said “was” for all three of them. My first full playthrough was a failure. I made it to around 40 days of survival, but “survival” is used very loosely. Only Katia made it to the end, and by “made it”, I mean that all the people she had murdered in order to survive, the friends she saw die in the shelter, and one final raid by criminals caused her to kill herself. Katia spent most of her last week alive trying to treat and save another survivor, who had a horrible illness; he was fatally wounded in another raid.

The most gripping moment in the game, the one that made me stop and think for a moment, was being desperate for food. One of the scavenging locations is a house owned by an elderly couple. Katia snuck into the house to rob as much as she could, but when I tried to steal their food, I surprised the old couple. They initially just asked me to leave, but when I stayed, they got their son. I killed the son and a his father with a shovel, while the elderly lady cried over her dead husband. I killed her too, just on the off chance she might have a little more food. Katia was depressed for almost a week, but we survived.

I’ve killed millions, possibly billions of people in video games. You probably have too. But for some reason, killing the elderly couple bothered me.

I highly recommend this game, both because it’s well designed and very slick, but also because it’s an amazing emotional experience. The music is amazing, yet understated. It’s so different from most war games that it’s worth playing. Purely as a game, it’s remarkable deep, and that’s without the “Little Ones” DLC, which adds children to the game (although I had one in the base game). In one of the nicest touches, if you buy that DLC, a portion goes to support orphaned war children. You can even just use Steam to buy the War Child DLC, which donates $1 to the charity and adds some street art to the game.

Ranking the Star Wars games I’ve played

As an ode to the wonderful guide provided by PC Gamer, here is a ranked list of all of the Star Wars games I played.

Dishonorable mention: Force Commander. I played it for about five minutes because the camera controls are wretchedly terrible. It’s an RTS — the camera should be the least complicated part of the game, by far.

10. Rogue Squadron — At the time, I considered it superior to X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter, mostly because my two weakest game genres are flight simulators and racing games. I just wanted to blow shit up in space, and this game most certainly lets you blow shit up in space.

9. Dark Forces — I’m still not convinced I like the game. I recognize it for its merits as a DOOM-clone that went so much farther, and the story is great, but the gameplay itself was lacking.

8. Force Unleashed/Force Unleashed II — I consider these one game, especially since the latter doesn’t add much to the core formula. This is the Rogue Squadron of lightsaber games, and very God of War-esque, but I liked them.

7. X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter — I don’t remember if I ever actually played either X-Wing or TIE Fighter, but I do remember this one. I, objectively, know it’s better than Rogue Squadron. It’s also much, much harder. Still, it’s probably the best space-fighting game Star Wars has produced to date, and if you have a flight stick, it still holds up.

6. Knights of the Old Republic II — The story was absolutely incredible, the game itself a buggy mess, but loads of fun. Characters actually changed as you changed, reacted to you, instead of being fixed archetypes.

5. Jedi Knight — The non-lightsaber parts are brutal and little more than a somewhat nicer version of Dark Forces. Blasters are the least fun part of Star Wars, people. Once you get the lightsaber, though, it’s very solid, and I personally liked the FMV (even if lots of other people didn’t).

4. Mysteries of the Sith — Expansion to #4, introduced new Force powers and a compelling new protagonist, Mara Jade, who was eventually incorporated into some of the novels. A better version of Jedi Knight; I only wish the new powers were retroactive.

3. Jedi Knight II — You don’t start out with a lightsaber, but getting it is more fun, and the sections where you don’t have one are miles better than Dark Forces or Jedi Knight. A fitting end to the Kyle Kataran saga, somebody I hope one day makes it into a movie.

2. Jedi Knight III — As close to an open world lightsaber adventure as you’re going to get, you could play as multiple races, and the lightsaber combat was brilliant.

1. Knights of the Old Republic — This. Game. It is amazingly incredible, holds up well (even if widescreen support is somewhat buggy) and is still one of the best Bioware RPGs ever. One of the most shocking twists I can remember in a video game. If you don’t have a copy, I recommend reading John Walker’s “Bastard of the Old Republic.” It’s a tribute to some of the moral choices that KOTOR offers that no other game has.

Final thoughts on Dragon Age: Inquisition (so far)

As I write this post, I finished my first playthrough of Dragon Age: Inquisition. I’m actually kind of pleased that there’s plenty of content I missed (because the game tricked me, but whatever). I’ve uninstalled it for now, but this is less a function of the game being bad (which it wasn’t) but my SSD being somewhat small. There are choices to be made, alas. I can definitely anticipate a second playthrough; I might even go back and play DA 2 again.

Overall, the game wasn’t overly challenging. That’s not a bad thing; every game doesn’t need to be impossibly hard. Some fights were extremely tough, but most of them were, if not “easy”, then at least very manageable. Of course, I played on the default settings, so your mileage may vary. It did have plenty of meat to it, of course — I ended up with 70 hours or so for my first playthrough, and I can easily see where people could rack up hundreds.

As far as a pure open world, there is something lacking, as the game is a series of set pieces, like Dragon Age 2, but far larger and far more varied. Some of the individual areas are somewhat small, but others offer quite a bit to do. There are plenty of fun call backs to DA: Origins and DA 2; some characters will reappear, one of them playable (Varric, from DA 2). The Dragon Age Keep has you keep track of everything you did in DA Origins and DA 2, and even if you haven’t played them, that’s okay, because you’ll set up things your own way or use a default state.

I can’t reveal too much without spoiling the game, of course. A lot of the characters are terrific and very well done; only one actively irritates me (Vivienne). The banter is very good, but could be more frequent. Plenty of romance options, if that’s your thing. People have written on the ending (well, the post-credits ending), which makes it clear that there is either a) a major story DLC coming (and Jaws of Haakon isn’t it) or b) another Dragon Age game in the future. I liked it, didn’t see it coming at all.

Overall, I enjoyed the game; it’s maybe 90% as good as Origins and 110% as good as DA 2. I recommend it, highly; it’s more fun if you’ve played the first two, but it’s also a pretty fair entry point even if you haven’t.

Early thoughts on Dragon Age Inquisition

I’ve started playing Dragon Age: Inquisition over the last couple of days. I’m not going to talk much about the plot, but I figure a brief discussion of the mechanics won’t hurt.

After the prologue, you find yourself in charge of something called the Inquisition (you don’t say). In order to support this enterprise to give everybody in Thedas a comfy chair (or so one assumes), you complete missions to build up your army. Sometimes, you send people out on timed missions (ala Assassin’s Creed or, if you remember, Mass Effect III) where you have to come back later.

Sticking to the Mass Effect III thing (you’d think they were made by the same developers!), the combat is more complex than DA 2 but not as complex as DA Origins. I think that’s a good thing — a lot of the complexity in Origins was, to be frank, useless. Lots of spells/skills were nigh useless or had only limited utility. You get stat boosts as you unlock new skills/spells, which adds a nice element of strategy. Do I go for this seemingly innocent passive boost, which features a +3 to Magic, or go for a bigger fireball spell?

There’s crafting (because of course there is), which isn’t as well done as Skyrim, but still good. I’m sure there’s lots of other things that are new, but I haven’t found them yet.

So far, I like it. There’s a Mass Effect/Dragon Age 2 feel to the combat, except you can pause and issue orders more directly. We’ll see how it turns out!

Final thoughts on Assassin’s Creed Unity

I finished Unity yesterday. On my new PC, it ran beautifully — there was a tiny bit of stuttering that a patch fixed. Good stuff.

The game itself, however, was something of a mixed bag. It did combat very well; in a comment to a friend online, I remarked that the hardest Assassin’s Creed games were the first one and Unity. Everything in between was relatively easy. I loved the way they simulated Paris; the whole “let’s jump around to different islands!” gameplay from Black Flag and Rogue was a bit stale. AC really excels at cities — they should stick to cities from now on. None of the new gadgets was earth shattering, but I did like the way they incorporate gear and gave Unity a more “RPG” feel. Another big favorite was the new way they handle major assassinations — they give you a playground (so to speak), a couple of possible ways to gain an advantage, and then they turn you lose. No eavesdropping missions (for which I am eternally grateful) or insta-fail stealth missions.

As for things I definitely didn’t like: Ubisoft is based in Montreal. You know what’s in Montreal? French speakers. Lots and lots of French speakers. What language does everybody speak by default, in Paris, during the French Revolution? Hint: It isn’t French. They didn’t even have French accents — some of them were blatantly cockney, in point of fact. At least they tried Italian accents for AC 2 and its direct sequels.

The co-op missions are a nice touch, but you can’t unlock some of the game’s skills without them. I don’t like playing with people I don’t know. Sure, you can solo the co-op missions, but there’s no downgrade in difficulty. Some of them almost make it mandatory to be in two places at once. Have co-op missions by all means, but please don’t make them required to unlock everything.

The whole Initiates companion app died a painful death, as it deserved. GTA V had one, but it was entirely optional and added little to the game (or took little away). Some of the Unity chests couldn’t be unlocked without their stupid app, though. Also, the microtransaction stuff was REALLY off putting. Anybody who pays for “Helix credits” deserves to have their license to game revoked. If I pay $60 for a damn game, why would I pay hundreds more just to boost when I’m playing multiplayer? Which I don’t play? Nothing is locked behind the Helix wall, but I just think it’s silly to even ask for stuff like that in a AAA release.

I’ve left the story out so far. It’s the part of the game I struggled the most with. For an Assassin’s Creed game, there were hardly any twists to the plot. There’s one major one at the beginning and one in the middle, but that’s about it.  The lack of “modern day” segments in the game also hurt, in my opinion. I liked the overarching storyline and thought it connected the series together. Granted, Unity was supposed to be an entry point for the franchise, but still, I can’t imagine too many people bought Unity who’d never purchased the game before. Some of my favorite characters in the game just weren’t there to interact with. That was disappointing. I think the series has suffered a bit in direction with the departure of Desmond Miles. He was another connecting thread that’s gone now, replaced by a faceless protagonist I don’t like.

I do think the game captured Revolutionary France quite well. The major players in the Revolution are all there. Danton is largely left for co-op mode and Marat is simply the topic of a couple of side missions, but you get all the Mirabeau, Robespierre, Napoleon, Marquis de Sade, and other figures you can handle. I wish they would have done more with the actual historical figures, like Lafayette (who is referred to but never encountered). The Committee for Public Safety, the raison d’etre for most of the Terror, is pretty much just Robespierre and a tiny hint of Saint-Just. You get very little idea that there are wars going on, but that I can live with.

Arno Dorian, the main character, takes too long to show actual personality. His interactions with the female lead, Elise, are his strongest connection to any other actor in the game, but they only come in spurts. Speaking of Elise, she’s one of the stronger female characters in AC universe and a good counterpart. I liked her quite a bit. Arno himself is too… empty, I suppose. He has one defining trait: love for Elise. Everything he does (and he does a lot) is for her, directly or indirectly. He’s better than Connor (the worst protagonist in the AC universe) but he’s not particularly memorable. The supporting cast is good — the Marquis de Sade is played up quite a bit — but without a strong central character, the storylines aren’t as firm. I almost wish the game were about Elise, not Arno.

The side missions were very good, and helped flesh out Paris a lot. The murder mysteries were a lot of fun; the riddles were challenging (I had to have help on some) but not unfair. The crowd plays a huge role in the game and it’s very well done. The controls could still use some work. There’s a lack of precision in some very tense moments when doing parkour stuff and the camera work looks like a diseased ferret is running it. It will jerk around during combat; the camera works okay in open space, but inside a building, it’s not very good. It’s just too low.

The DLC, in some ways, was actually a big improvement. We see Arno forced to play off a support character that isn’t Elise and he doesn’t do horribly. The guillotine gun was a fun weapon and I liked the raider system (where if you kill the leader of a gang, they run). I hope that makes it into the next game.

All of this might make it sound like I didn’t like the game. I actually did. The gameplay was smooth and the mechanics that didn’t involve climbing are much improved. I had a blast just fighting in the streets and I couldn’t take on gangs of twenty guys without dying. I had to be more strategic. The stealth system has never been better. There were genuinely emotional moments from time to time. The overall package is very fine. The weaknesses of the game range from annoying to very frustrating, but nothing that made me throw up my hands and quit. Some elements were painful enough that I don’t want to play them again. There was also one particular storyline that really bothered me.

Bad stuff happens to Arno at one point in the game. He decides to get drunk. Okay, fine. He’s French. He loses his watch (which belonged to his dad, who was murdered). That sucks, Arno. So he proceeds to scour this town and kills just massive numbers of people to get his watch back. It turns out that during the night, a friend of his found the watch, and hung on to it. So, he killed (and I do stress KILLED) dozens of people, not because they attacked him, not because they were Templar, not even because they were bad for France. He assumed his watch was stolen so he chopped people up. Then it wasn’t stolen. And nobody ever speaks of it again.

Ubisoft, in general, does a very good job of setting up context for the assassinations. You have to kill person X because he’s a bad dude or is a traitor or something. Maybe the motivations are a little gray. That’s fine — I want realism, and few people are big enough bastards to just get killed without anyone caring. But Arno’s decision to slice through most of a town because his watch was never stolen… that bothered me. If I want random violence, I have Saints Row. If I want slightly less random violence, I have GTA. But I expect Assassin’s Creed to be far less random.

Perhaps the best way to sum up my opinion of Unity is to put it into context. I could have sworn I’d ranked the Assassin’s Creeds in the past, but I can’t find the list, so here’s the new version.

8. AC III — For me, Connor kills the game. He’s just so, so bad as a protagonist and always complaining. The setting (Colonial North America) was good and I liked the supporting characters and there are some cool new features; it’s certainly not a bad game, by any stretch, it’s just my least favorite AC.

7. AC the original — The original handled the moral ambiguity of the series much better than any successor except one. It just doesn’t hold up well. It’s much too linear and there isn’t a lot to do outside of the main quest. Still, without this game, we have no franchise, and I did like Altair.

6. AC Revelations — Constantinople had a ton of class and I loved watching mature Ezio and how the game felt different as a result. The replay value isn’t as good and the tower defense stuff was extremely stupid. The plot itself is a bit forgettable.

5. AC IV: Black Flag — These next few are very, very close. My #1 and #2 are very clear in my mind, but the next three could be in almost any order. Black Flag took everything that was good and original about AC III and improved upon it. Edward Kenway was a fun protagonist, the naval aspects were amazing, and the Freedom Cry DLC deserves some major props. I wish it had a major city in it, though. Havana is okay, but it’s probably the weakest main “city” in the series.

4. Unity — I just wrote 1000+ words on it. So, yeah, read them again, I guess? If you forgot?

3. AC II — Ezio was so entertaining as a main character. Renaissance Italy was a perfect setting too. Familiar, yet not so familiar that the characters seemed played out. Some of the missions might be a little frustrating from time to time, but the overall package is exceptional.

2. AC Brotherhood — The direct sequel to AC II. It does everything AC II did, but better. So many fun twists to the game are introduced and the chance to explore Rome was easily worth the price of admission all by itself.

1. AC Rogue — You only get to be a Templar in one game. It is the Brotherhood to Black Flag: you take an awesome game and make it much better. The protagonist, Shay Patrick Cormac, starts out as a little bland, but as the story develops, he very quickly makes his presence felt. The North Atlantic was an outstanding setting and had tons of character all by itself. Looking at things from the Templar side was so different, yet so familiar, that I just loved it.

We’ll see where Victory ends up next year.

Final thoughts on Madden NFL 15… for now!

EA released a patch that fixed a lot of issues; that’s all to the good. Here’s a few words about Madden, after two full seasons (and two Super Bowl wins):

— Sack-a-palooza is still present, but it’s toned down somewhat. My players (Jabaal Sheard and Barkevious Mingo) typically lead the league in sacks, but they aren’t routinely making bitches out of all time sack records. That’s a positive.

— They finally fixed QB accuracy so that bad QBs throw badly. Instead of going five games without an interception of the opponent, I’m now getting 1 to 2 on average. My season high was 4 (I forget who the QB was, but somebody bad).

— The game is much more stable; in fact, I can play multiple games in a row without the game freezing up. You still get molasses about once or twice a game, where the frame rate slows to a crawl, but it’s less often.

However:

— The AI is still way too conservative at passing. I see 3rd and long screens maybe five or six times a game. It holds on to the ball too long (resulting in sack-a-palooza). Even QBs like Peyton Manning rarely throw an outright bomb; if they get big plays, it’s because a medium depth pass resulted in a huge YAC.

— DB-receiver battles have been broken for a long time. My own bombs only succeed (with a Johnny Manziel 96 THP) off of play action. This despite Josh Gordon. And my rookie, who’s 6’4″. In a jump ball situation, the DB almost always wins; that’s why in my slider set I’ve got AI INTs turned way down.

— The draft seems to be more of a crapshoot. It might be my schemes, but I’m rarely getting rookies above the mid to high 70s. Could be my draft position, I suppose. Scouting doesn’t seem to help very much, because you can’t get enough scouting points to unlock number ratings. I’d rather the system be more logical. Go back to the way it used to be; instead of scouting points, let me scout a fixed number of players each week, and if I scout a player so many times, give me virtually everything on him.

— Player progression, however? I love it. I never realized how much I hated the old random Madden system until it was gone. “Oh, your QB is a six time MVP? He’ll go from a 77 to… an 82! What’s that you say, you’ve shattered all the QB records? Better make that an 83, stud!” You get XP based on weekly practices (many of which are purely simulated) and in-game performance. You apply the XP to the stat of your choice, based partially on secret “hidden” factors (I’ve had some linemen pick up run blocking easily; others not so much). Speed for a running back is difficult, for a WR nearly impossible boost. Team goals, awards, winning the Super Bowl — all of this helps.

— Negotiating contracts is a pain in the ass. The game rarely gives you enough information to negotiate. It isn’t even clear how much you have to spend. The players give you horrible feedback, usually just “it’s not good enough.” They mean they want a higher bonus, but they never come out and see it. Very frustrating.

— Owner mode, which makes you rely on the cash you earn from the game, is actually a welcome change. Again, information could be better, but it’s great to see on-field success giving you more cash to sign your players with.

If they do another patch, I really want: more stats in the game (they include drops, but only for each individual game, never as a season stat); a clearer interface with better feedback for contract resignings; contract renegotiations; and maybe further improvements to AI. I’m not delusional enough to expect scouting be revamped.