Thursday, February 21, 2013

Goodbye to 1up

When I was eight or nine(possibly a few years older, I can't quite remember) during the early 90s, my father bought a few issues of EGM. They were a glossy magazine that showed these intense and incredible look at videogames that you didn't see in the likes of Nintendo Power or Game Pro. It intimidated me and fascinated me then, later when I was in high school in 1999, I subscribed to EGM. It was a huge and incredible resource to read. When EGM pushed for 1up when it first came out, I have to admit that I ignored the site, as the flash intro was too much for my terrible internet connection. I didn't pay too much attention until several years later, around 2006 or 2007, and I got a MP3 player and looked for things to go play on it. I noticed that EGM and 1up had a podcast network, and listened. I walked 5 miles to get to class(largely for exercise and to save money) and that took about an hour and forty minutes, plenty of time to listen to a podcast. Listening I found myself loving the amusing banter and insightful discussion about games, even when everyone got on tangents I was enchanted. It made an overly long walk a wonderful thing, and not simply an empty time hole. I tried to watch the 1up Show, but my internet connection was still terrible and could not play it well. The few episodes I saw convinced me that if there was a way to make a good TV show about videogame news and reviews then this was it. However, after EGM and GFW(formerly CGW) closed, and around the great culling of staff in 1up, I was actually sad that I wouldn't hear from many of these people in the podcasts; the podcasts were wonderful. The CGW team was a must listen, and the flagship podcasts were always a great listen, Retronauts was always illuminating and fun even if the hosts insisted that they were simply saying random things about the games, and a special call out to the Oddcast in in order here ad it always made me laugh; I can't even remember all the titles of all the podcasts that I listened to so I feel bad for not naming all of them.

I attended community college for a few years listening to those podcasts, with a slight bit of frustration, as I never actually could afford any of the current gen consoles(PS3, XBOX 360, and Wii, for reference), though I had a decent PC at the time and could at least enjoy PC games(to the limit that my poverty would allow). So while I have fond memories of 1up, they're tinged with frustration and regret from being unable to do as much as I could have wanted, employment in my home town was scarce, I could only do so many small jobs for relatives until there was no more work, and nothing really got better. Now I have a future ahead of me that will pay well, though it's still going to leave me filled with regret, I've missed most of this (long) generation, and 1up closed down before my money problems ended. This is where I feel that I should utter a curse to how unfair it all is. And well I should, it is unfair. The only thing that I can really do now is try to move on, buy the old systems and the best games for them, and keep reading. Thank you everyone that worked hard at 1up in it's life, you did something amazing.

Monday, February 4, 2013

EVE divine Cybermancy warps the FPS into an intersting shape

A fascinating cyberpunk science fantasy is the backdrop for E.Y.E. Divine Cybermancy, Streum on studio's first commercial release. The setting is an unusual mix of cyberpunk and space opera, the player is a psychic cybernetic space Templar belonging to Secreta Secretorum, an organization devoted to fighting the Metastreumonic-force(a malevolent psychic force that spawns monsters that are hostile to humanity), whom awakes with amnesia in a cave; he is plunged into a convoluted power struggle between the stellar federation and the Secreta and within the Secreta itself. The plot is hard to make out due to a bizzare translation, but considering the voices are speaking gibberish based on real languages and how distant and strange the setting is the flawed translation actually contributes to the mood.
The art direction is classic cyberpunk, dark megacities with tacky billboards pasted everywhere, and everyone is dressed in paramilitary garb or an improvised combat outfit of some sort. The color scheme of the game is dark near monochrome and helps build the desolate mood, but is also a good example of why not to have a dark near monochrome color scheme; far too often I asked myself “is that the floor or a pit,” or “Is that an enemy there? There's a street light there and I can't even tell.” The player has a flashlight that they can use, but it has the power of a candle, and it fails to be terribly useful. Generally a “dark future” shouldn't be taken to mean that the future has bad lighting.
Character growth is limited by two factors, experience and money. Experience levels up the character, which gives three skill points for the player to invest in their character's stats, and money that can be used to buy new weapons, psychic powers, cybernetic implants(which add new abilites), improve the character's cybernetic argumentations(which can add to stats or reduce energy costs for various implants among other things), or research new technologies(which is passively done once paid for) to unlock new upgrades powers or abilities. Research is hampered by the requirement of items to be found for fundamental research; these items drop randomly with uneven frequency of drops, many players(including myself) could play through to the games true end(which requires at lest three playthroughs of the game) and have a number of avenues of research not performed due to several missing research items. The drop system for research items while interesting is terribly implemented; it might have better idea to simply allow the player to research whatever they wished from the start due to the amount of time that it takes to research and the scarcity of many of the items being rediculous. Higher level cybernetic argumentations are also exorbitantly expensive, a level four(out of ten, higher levels require research in various technologies) of a cheaper ability can cost as much as a powerful psychic ability or cybernetic add-on. The payouts for missions and slaying enemies are paltry for paying for the more expensive research and argumentation upgrades; playing higher difficulties is encouraged somewhat by having higher payouts, though difficulty rapidly becomes absurd when trying for a decent payout.
The variety of options available to the player is immense, allowing for much customization of a character. The game has “classes” which are actually titles given depending on how one invests their character's stats. Other than being an interesting thing to have, there is little use for this. The developer established interest in making special abilities for the different classes, but this seems to have been abandoned. While there are many options available, unless the player has the correct set of abilities or sufficient knowledge of what to do, the player may fail to progress in a mission. Level design is severely hampered by the color scheme; for example on the mars mission I found myself unable to navigate toward any of the objectives at first, and took several hours trying to bypass the interceptor airships while not getting lost in the first canyon. Most of that time was spent building my stats by doing side missions, not realizing that there was a higher ledge that I could climb and use to bypass the interceptors because I could not make it out. A first run character will likely end up following the “equilibrium fist”/”Equilibrium Lord”/”Gray Master” class path as they will try to adapt their character to whatever objectives they can actually locate. However once the player knows the layouts of the maps in the game, they will be able to more successfully build a character to one specialty or another as they can actually locate the paths for their chosen specialty. Not finding the objective is normally an acceptable thing to befall the player if they fail due to their own lack of ability, but if it is due to the game construction being inadvertently obtuse then this is inexcusable.
The game in very well thought out with good ideas behind it. The only real source of problems if that the game suffers from some balancing issues; though this is easily explained by the small team the developer Streum has; and the color scheme, while very atmospheric detracts from the player's ability to understand the environment. That may be intentional obstructionism by the developers, but the added difficulty in seeing the environment is excessive. I often cursed the game for being far too dark to actually see what was going on. Despite these flaws the developers executed a very ambitious and interesting game. Character progression is enjoyable, fundamental art direction(save monochrome dark palette) is excellent, and the game structure is fitted to the story in a way that is fascinating and makes playing the game over far more enjoyable. My final wishes are that we could have more of the game; more maps, more character options, more enemies, and perhaps even some bosses to fight. Once I found myself at a high level, I found myself pining for something new to try my character on; I would have liked to see a psychopomp boss at the true end area to fight, though there was no such thing, I would expect that the team had insufficient resources or the desire for that(if ever there was to put in some immense baroque multi-staged boss in a FPS in a completely justified manner, it was then and there). From the quality of the efforts put into this game, I hope Streum manages to make more quality inventive games like this in the future. I don't see any activity on their website indicating any current game projects and EYE was put out several years ago, but I remain hopeful that they are at work on something worthwile.
EYE wiki for reference. It's a little sparse on essential information on the game though.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Memories from the Wind Fish

Spoilers for The legend of Zelda Link's awakening from here on.
The first Zelda game I played was Link's awakening, which was an unusual first, most people start with the original or Link to the Past; but even though I had an unusual start into the series, I still loved that game. As I played I saw in some old ruins that you had to go to to search for clues or a key or something, you discovered a stone relief on the wall describing the island as the dream of the windfish, a legendary creature that was said to sleep in a giant egg upon a mountain in the back of the island. Being young, I took the message as being true(and it was) with no doubt toward its authenticity. That was a grim and sad thing for a boy to think of. I was fond of that little world, and thought it an ill thing for it to be a dream, something that will shatter when the sleeper wakes. Eventually I did make my way to the final boss, and defeated the final nightmare keeping the windfish asleep. Soon the instruments that I gathered to wake the wind fish, the sleeper that dreamed the island, started to play and the island began to fade. Moments before the last nightmare pleaded for me to stop, but I continued on regardless, and saw that island disappear piece by piece. People I had met, monsters I had fought, disappearing from existence.
What a melancholic feeling struck me, it still grips me today when I recall the game. Was that really right, to shatter a dream world, filled with people and things, and was there anything other possibility for such a situation? Being a game of finite scope there wasn't any other way possible; however even though such a possibility was absent I thought about what could be done had I the ability to do so. Any such speculation was pure conjecture, but it was conjecture that I still thought about none the less; however I realized that such a bizarre situation would require a bizarre solution:some sort of magic to incarnate the memory of that dream which faded away, something that would take a deity's level of power. However, again this is idle speculation; thinking about how to in a fictional world how to save a fictional town that ceased to be. I don't think of it as a waste, though, as it would be sad to not feel about such a thing. Even the simplest story should be able touch us in some way, and a game shouldn't be any different. If anything we should be more assuredly attached to games as we spend so much time with the game, as if it were another person; it's only natural that we'd get attached to them; and to see them end or take a tragic turn should fill us with sorrow. The more time we spend with people or things, the more emotion we tend to invest into them. So I feel guilty and sad about that island, even if it was only an illusion twice removed from reality.

Friday, January 4, 2013

"Soft" barriers in Terraria game design

Terraria is an interesting game in how the boundaries are "soft". The player is often not stopped by an insurmountable indestructible wall that disappears after some arbitrary deed in accomplished; their progression is stopped by difficult enemies, time-consuming mining or construction of bypassing architecture; this makes the player feel the need to go back to an easier area and gather up materials and equipment to ensure that they can survive the difficult new area. As the player travels the surface they will find deserts containing somewhat more powerful enemies than that of the starting area; the corruption, filled with dangerous flying enemies and gaping chasms; the jungle, with tall cliffs and swarming with powerful jungle bats and piranhas; and oceans at the end of the map. Directly below the surface there is the underground, accessible by finding a tunnel down,digging a shaft manually, eventually most players will be digging tunnels transverse from shaft to shaft. This under ground transitions from the near surface to the underground, and then a cavern layer. If the player keeps digging and following tunnels downward, they will reach the underworld, a hell-like area filled with the hardest enemies in the normal mode.

The player starts out with a minimum of equipment, an ax, a short sword, and a pick all in copper quality; however this is woefully inadequate for transversing the more difficult areas. In the first stage of the game the player tries to build a crafting base, then search for metal ore and items near the surface. Once the player has exhausted the starting area of goods, they will then plunge into the underground to find ore to forge weapons, tools and armor; to uncover useful items that cannot be forged but are none the less useful(such as the cloud in a bottle which allows the player to double jump); and very importantly the underground is where the player finds heart crystals that are broken to produce life crystals, which in turn when used increase the player's health by 20 points. The player will find rarer ores(from copper to silver to gold) more often and more frequent heart crystals the further down they go down into the underground, preparing the player for more difficult areas. After sufficient plundering of the underground the player is well equipped to go to the more difficult areas in the world; before this point the player would while technically able to progress through the more difficult areas(the desert is probably the most likly to be passable at the start) but would have been stymied by the strong enemies in combination with the difficult terrain; with the stronger armor and utility items the player is more able to survive and progress in the more difficult areas. Once the player has sufficient armor and health the first boss, Eye of Cthulhu, can spawn to fight them at night. Facing this boss is a sort of arbitrary signal that the player is ready to progress into the corruption and jungles, and should do so at this point.

This "second tier" after the ores of mundane metal is marked by the availability of new gear and ores to find. The player defeating the first and second major bosses causes demonite to be dropped in large amounts from the slain bosses; the second boss, the Eater of worlds, also drops shadow scales which is an ingredient for the Demonite armor, pickax and hammer. The process of summoning the Eater of Worlds to fight involves smashing shadow orbs buried at the bottom of the chasms in the Corruption which also creates the chance of summoning a meteor to strike. The meteor always hits a location on the surface away from the player, and transforms the area it hit into meteor ore, another second tier ore; to mine this ore the player need to have created a golden or better pickax. The Jungle is an alternative path that doesn't require a golden pickax, the player can use jungle spores from the underground jungle along with gems and stingers from dangerous hornets and vines from Maneater plant monsters to make jungle armor and equipment. Another possibility sans the pickax is that the player could go to the Dungeon, an area guarded by the third boss Skeletron who can kill instantly any player that enters the dungeon before defeating it at the entrance(yet he is still technically avoidable by a swift player with a sufficiently fast and agile character), find weapons in the chests that lay there and use the bones dropped from the skeletons as materials for Necro armor. However Skeletron is a strong boss, and this creates encouragement for the player to find other second tier gear first. The player can transverse all the way to the underworld and mine hellstone and obsidian to make hellstone armor and equipment; however this requires a nightmare pickax(this is the demonite pickax). After gathering sufficient gear that the player wants to progress, they then need to face the final boss of the normal mode. This boss, the Wall of flesh, is very difficult and requires either a large amount of preparation to defeat; the wall of flesh scrolls over to the player who must stay ahead of it or face certain death, and the Underworld consists of outcroppings on rock poking out of lakes of lava, so the player need a plan of travel to win. There are many solutions to this, drinking obsidian potions for lava invulnerability, somehow jumping from outcropping to outcropping usuing equipped mobility items, or the simpliest solution which is simply constructing a bridge long enough to keep the fight a straightforward running battle. The victory over the wall of flesh causes the world to enter Hard mode, with new equipment and ores avalible.

In Hard mode a third tier of ore can be mined, cobalt, mithril, and adamantium. The progression here is simplified from that of the second tier, and like that of the first tier, cobalt ore can be mined only by a Molten pickax(this is the Hellstone forged pick ax) or better; the mithril by a cobalt drill or better(for the third tier drills replace pickaxes), and adamantium by a mithril drill or better. Also in hardcore mode souls now appear as a drop from enemies, these are required to make the game's best equipment(for armor and weapons this is exalted equipment, and are forged also using cobalt, mithril, and adamantium versions of the resulting item to be forged). The souls required for most of this are dropped from three hard mode bosses, each a powered up form of a previous normal mode boss. The player only has to forge the summoning item for a boss and then use it in hard mode, and can fight the bosses as soon as they have the required materials to make the summoning items. The limiting factor here is that the bosses are immensely difficult, and forging third tier equipment is very useful and would a benefit to any player that takes the time to gather up the stronger armor. It's also likely that any player that is aiming to forge exalted equipment is already forging equipment from cobalt, mithril and adamantium.

It's worth noting here that there is very little "one way" game design decisions here, and what ones there are usually enforced by in game forces and not invisible programming walls. Entering the dungeon before defeating skeletron isn't impossible, but causes him to chase the player in an attempt to kill them. There's also the difficulty gates in the form of stronger enemies, as the player's stats outside of HP and MP is determined by equipped items that make players searching for greater stats search for better materials to make equipment. This is in turn limited by what tools the player has, starting with nightmare ore requiring a golden pickax; the player can sequence break but must do so with strong limitations on their equipment and items as a result.

This post written with the help of The Official Terraria Wiki to correct anything I may have misremembered