Friday, September 21, 2007

Brief: Team Fortress 2 Beta

Last week, I pre-ordered The Orange Box on Steam, and as part of the deal, I was able to begin playing in the Team Fortress 2 beta on September 18. I'll admit that I'm a former Team Fortress Classic addict, and I've been looking forward to this title for seven long years. Valve's video marketing campaign - which showcases the personality of each character class - has only served to whet my appetite, so it was with great anticipation that I logged into a game of 2Fort on Tuesday at 12:30 AM.

I think it's much too early to write a full critique of the game; I'll save that for later. But right now, I'd like to write down some of my thoughts about each class.
  • Scout: Scouts have an enormous speed advantage over all the other classes, able to outrun even sentry gun flak. Double-jumping is extremely useful and really sets the Scout apart as a choice offensive runner. The baseball bat is just as fun to use as it looks.

  • Soldier: Soldiers are a lot easier to play in TF2 than in TFC, because handling the new rocket launcher feels a lot more intuitive. I haven't yet mastered rocket-jumping, but I have a feeling it might unlock more potential for this class. Currently, the Soldier's offensive capability is outmatched by the Demoman.

  • Pyro: Although extremely limited at long ranges, the Pyro is ridiculously powerful in close quarters, just as promised. The flamethrower wreaks havoc in crowded corridors, and it can often decide the fate of skirmishes into enemy bases. Keep a Pyro at every choke point, and watch your back for jets of fire when you turn corners.

  • Demoman: Somewhat overpowered. And currently my favorite class to play. Two weapons with explosive ammunition and versatile range? Sticky bombs that cling to walls? A bottle of whisky with which to club people? What were they thinking? Nevermind - I like the way they think.

  • Heavy: The Heavy has been nerfed a bit, now that he lacks an armor gauge in addition to his large amount of health. Still very useful on defense and a great counter to the Pyro or Demoman. However, the Heavy really shines in conjunction with a Medic. Offensively, this duo is nearly unstoppable, and it's the best choice for securing vulnerable capture points.

  • Engineer: Dispensers are now a much greater asset at critical defense points, serving the role of both medic and resupply. Sentry guns are more vulnerable than before, but a smart engineer can maintain them without much trouble. Players are still puzzling out the best locations for teleporter entrances/exits - as in TFC, they will probably have an enormous impact on map-specific strategies.

  • Medic: Probably the most necessary support class for any successful team strategy. The Medic has been completely reinvented for the better - the Medi-Gun is reminiscent of the Recovery Pack from Tribes 2, except that it's much more powerful and easier to use. Even against overwhelming force, a single Medic can completely turn the odds in his team's favor.

  • Sniper: The sniper rifle no longer uses a click-release method for building up power. Instead, your shot becomes more damaging the longer you remain zoomed in. This feels a lot more realistic, and it balances the class a great deal. The Sniper is still the most effective class at long ranges, although it probably also takes the most skill to play.

  • Spy: Finally, they've done justice to this class. With the ability to disguise not only his appearance but his very name, plus the ability to cloak for short durations, the Spy is the envy of chameleons and secret agents everywhere. Ideal for disabling sentry guns (with the Electro-Sapper) or taking out key players at key moments with an instantly-lethal backstab (Medics, watch your back).

I'm sure my opinion of each class will change as I put in more hours of gameplay. I've yet to play all six maps, but I'm looking forward to learning them backwards and forwards. Who knows - I might even build some maps of my own.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Design Review: Prince of Persia Classic

About the Game
Prince of Persia Classic is a total re-imagining of the classic 8-bit platformer, Prince of Persia. Following the success of Ubisoft's 2003 third-person action title Sands of Time and its 2005 sequel, The Two Thrones, the franchise has been redefined in popular consciousness as an action-heavy epic, centering around its cunning, acrobatic protagonist: the Prince. In his previous two outings (let's forget Warrior Within), the Prince was revealed to be a complex character whose psyche is divided between the intrepid hero we all know and love and his darker, more sinister half. Prince of Persia Classic borrows its art design from these more recent entries, but the story and gameplay remain true to its arcade platform roots.

The game begins with a short cutscene to explain the situation: the Vizier has designs on the Princess, so he sets up an hourglass which allows her exactly one hour to choose between execution and marriage. Meanwhile, the Prince has been imprisoned, and must escape the dungeons in order to rescue the Princess. Taking control of the Prince, you must navigate your way through dozens of deadly traps, jumping puzzles, and sword-fights, all within the established time limit.

The controls are deceptively simple. Movement requires no button-mashing; a few nudges of the thumbstick translate into small steps, jumping rolls, backflips, and ledge-grappling leaps of faith. Traps often require you to gauge the distance of your jumps, as do the various switches which open and close gated doorways. Each level has an obvious exit which must be unlocked by pressing a switch, usually located in a very difficult-to-reach area. Traps include ground-spikes and guillotine-gates, both of which are deadly and difficult to avoid. If the Prince dies, you will lose a bit of time from the clock and start over from the beginning of the level or the last checkpoint.

Combat requires only two buttons - attack and parry. Enemies will parry the majority of your attacks, unless you catch them off-balance with a counter-attack. It is possible to sword-lock with an enemy, in which case you must rapidly press the attack button to prevail. Alternately, you will occasionally cross blades with your opponent and exchange places with them. You can sheathe your sword once you've engaged an enemy, but it is usually impossible to avoid a sword fight once it's begun. Consequently, most of the combat in the game is inescapable.

What Works
Visually, the game is quite striking, appearing much like previous Ubisoft Prince titles in palette and texture. The backdrops and ambient lighting are significantly more detailed than you'd expect for a $10 Xbox Live purchase, and although it probably won't cause any jaws to drop, the variety is enough to keep the game appealing for the few hours it will take to play it through. The character animation is great, for the most part, though combat can appear jerky for reasons I'll explain later.

The level design is generally very challenging; perhaps overly so, in parts. The game will force you to take measured steps to avoid being instantly killed by traps, while placing harsh time constraints on you in the form of slowly closing gates. The difficulty is what you'd expect from a game with this legacy, and the designers did a great job of using just a few basic tricks and traps to build a lot of interesting, head-scratching scenarios.

Thankfully, the punishing one-hour time limit won't technically prevent you from completing the game - once your time is up, a short cutscene will play indicating that the wedding is about to start, but then you will be free to continue, albeit less a few Live Achievements.

What Doesn't Work
Combat is an absolute mess. The attack/parry sword-fighting system sounds great in theory - after all, it worked wonderfully in Sid Meier's Pirates! But in Prince of Persia Classic, it's as if they couldn't decide whether the combat should be a mini-game or a straightforward action affair. For whatever reason, the attack and parry buttons don't translate to immediate results on-screen; they queue up commands to be executed in order (without any UI feedback as to what that order may be). This would be fine if enemies weren't capable of changing their commands mid-swing, deftly switching from parry to attack while the Prince clumsily executes his action queue, ignoring your input.

After a while, it becomes obvious that you must press one button at a time, to prevent from queuing up actions, and pray that your input registers in time to follow the action on screen. Sometimes you will enter into a pretty exciting exchange with an enemy - attack, parry, counter-attack, parry, counter-attack, parry, etc. In such cases, the game should reward the player for exercising fast reflexes, but in fact, these exchanges always end with the enemy switching actions mid-swing and breaking your parry for a successful hit. Feinting after a counter-attack is not possible for the player, so why should it be possible for enemies?

On the whole, sword-fighting is extremely inconsistent, and it appears to be more dependent on luck than skill. The control problems are compounded by the fact that pretty much every enemy you face enjoys twice the amount of health as you, and even worse, enemies never behave the way their animations indicate they should. For example, one of the enemies is a lumbering giant who wields an enormous mace. His attack animations are slow and cumbersome - he'll often raise the mace over his head and smash it down in front of you, followed by a lengthy recovery animation. In any other game, this would present an opportunity for the nimble Prince to deftly leap in for a quick strike against a much slower opponent. But when you attempt any such counter-attack, the giant will jerkily break off his attack recovery animation and instantaneously smack you in the face. Why go through such pains to give the impression that this enemy is slow, when he is in fact Sonic the freaking Hedgehog in disguise?

Sands of Time established a new precedent for third-person action games, offering unbelievably tight controls that allowed for artful acrobatics or jaw-dropping special attacks with just a few flicks of the wrist. It's obvious that the developers were hoping to achieve the same with Prince of Persia Classic, given just how many different context-sensitive commands are mapped to the analog stick. But the Prince moves too fluidly - he's got slippery shoe syndrome.

It's very frustrating when you've just completed several consecutive, perfectly-timed jumps, only to front-flip off a sheer cliff to your doom - merely because you moved the analog stick 1mm too far to the left. A simple game warrants simple controls. The A button already makes the Prince jump and roll, so why map it to the analog stick? This is redundant, and I find it hard to believe that many players would find it useful.

I will hand it to the level designers - the game presents some great challenges in the form of switches, locked gates, and traps. But a few of the puzzles in the game stand out as unreasonable and unforgiving. For instance, one encounter requires that you sheathe your sword and run headlong into the enemy, but the game provides no clue that this is an option. At another point, you're forced to jump blindly over a cliff to cause a magical floor to appear - this is in a game that severely punishes leaps of faith.

Even more unreasonable is the game's tendency to string a number of difficult puzzles together, without giving the player the relief of a checkpoint. This puts unnecessary strain on the player, because if you repeatedly fail the third in a string of puzzles, you're forced to take your chances with the first two puzzles all over again every single time. This gets old very quickly.

Fix this Game in Three Steps
So how can this game's design do justice to its production values?
Read on!
  1. Restructure the Combat- Redesign sword-fighting as a mini-game, ala Sid Meier's Pirates! Preserve the tactical nature of combat by allowing high/middle/low attacks and parries. Reward quick responses with an opportunity for acrobatics and counter-attacks. Tighten up enemy animations so they won't give the player the wrong impression about which action is coming next.

  2. Fix the Controls - Remove the ability to jump and roll from the analog stick, preserving it for simple movement only. Separate the roll command from the jump button, so the two actions won't be confused. Reserve the R-Trigger button for grabbing ledges, ala Shadow of the Colossus, so that climbing up and down from platforms feels a bit more natural.

  3. Rethink the Puzzles - Before implementing a puzzle, ask yourself how the player can determine the solution without resorting to trial and error. Add more frequent checkpoints to compensate for areas with tricky, consecutive puzzles. Avoid adding superfluous gates and triggers which only serve to confuse the player.

Despite its flaws, Prince of Persia Classic is worth playing if you can muster up the patience for it. From a design perspective, it could use some fixing up, but its a refreshing change to see a platformer return to the roots of the genre. Of course, if nothing else, the past fifteen years have taught us that games should present a challenge without being too punishing. Prince of Persia Classic demonstrates an awareness of this principle, but it nevertheless clings to some of the ideas that made the original platformers so needlessly frustrating.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Design Review: Children of Mana

About the Game
In Children of Mana, you play as one of four characters - Ferrick, Tamber, Poppen, or Wanderer - chosen by the Sword of Mana to save the world from a villain who would would unleash the power of mana in the service of evil.

You must fight your way through monsters on five different continents in order to secure the precious Mana Stones and defeat the 'malevodons' which guard them. The people of Illusia are counting on you to protect the village, the Mana Tree, and the newborn goddess herself.

Outside of the Mana Village, you will spend most of your time hacking and slashing through a random assortment of small maps themed after the five continents. Both the main quest and subquests rely on the same process: travel to one of the five continents and complete 4-12 randomly selected maps. During the main quest, you will typically fight a boss at the end of this process. During subquests, you will never fight a boss.

To travel to these continents, you simply exit the Mana Village to the World Map and click on the proper continent. Each continent is really no more than a button that initiates a small bit of dialogue followed by a sequence of random maps. There are no villages besides the Mana Village, and there are no natural connections between the maps you will explore on each continent.

To complete these maps, you need to find the hidden Gleamdrop and place it within the Gleamwell (also hidden). Each map is enclosed and continuous, meaning that there are no exits other than the Gleamwell. Every map therefore has the same objective - uncover the Gleamdrop and take it to the Gleamwell. Combining the two will teleport you to the next random map. You must complete maps in groups of 4, after which point you will be given a break to save and change equipment. Typically, you will fight through a total of 8 maps before the quest is over.

As you fight your way through each map, you'll open up chests with weapons, armor, items, and gems. Weapons and armor are linear upgrades - they are associated with a single stat, so you will always know an upgrade by its higher number. You are limited in the number of usable items you can carry, but the healing items are critical to surviving in combat. However, gems are the most valuable loot you will come across, because they can significantly alter your statistics, abilities, and attack power. Later in the game, finding gems will become the most compelling reason to continue playing, as there are 180 gems to collect in all.

What Works
First and foremost, the production values for this game are fantastic, living up to the high standards set by previous titles in the Mana series. The sound and music are nice, but the 2D artwork is colorful, nuanced, and beautifully-rendered. The character designs in particular are both expressive and memorable, which really helps to draw out the player's sympathy.

The controls are another high point. Movement and combat feel very tight, and the 2D physics are novel and well-implemented. Monsters don't just reel from blows, they knock into other monsters, causing chain reactions. This eases the monotony of combat somewhat, since the physical result of your attack varies depending upon your immediate surroundings and the number of enemies you are fighting at once. This also adds tactical depth to combat, because a poorly-timed attack can cause enemies to bounce back and throw you off balance.

The collectible gems are probably the most interesting new feature of Children of Mana, as they provide the player with the customization options that weapons and armor lack. You are able to synthesize gems in town, unlocking more powerful ability bonuses with various caveats (larger size or stat penalties). In theory, this would flesh out the rather static abilities of the four playable characters, but in practice, only a small handful of gems are truly worth using.

What Doesn't Work
There are four types of weapons in the game: the sword, the flail, the hammer, and the bow.

SWORD: The sword provides your bread and butter damage. It's has a good range, allows for rapid attacks, and generally does a lot more damage than the other weapons. Holding down the attack button will generate a shield which deflects arrows and ranged attacks.

FLAIL: The flail has two uses. You can either swing it around in a large arc, doing decent damage to anything within a certain area, or you can use it to catch and pull items or enemies toward you. In some instances, you can use it as a grappling hook to pull yourself past traps.

HAMMER: The hammer should be a powerful weapon, but in effect, it does much less damage than the sword, because of its slow speed. You must use the hammer to break certain objects on the map which block your way, and using the hammer on an enemies is like shooting billiards - they reel and bounce for several seconds.

BOW: The bow is the weakest weapon in the game. In theory, its range would keep you out of harms way, but in practice you get hit a lot more because you can't dodge or shield against attacks while trying to aim. The bow is also very slow firing and does mediocre damage.

The game allows you to equip two weapons at once, each assigned to its own button. This allows you to perform some interesting combos like grappling an enemy with your flail and then smacking him with your hammer. However, nothing - and I mean nothing - is going to be as effective as just slashing the holy heck out of enemies with your sword.

You will only ever use the other weapons when you are confronted with a pittance of scenarios - traps or breakable rocks.
Rather than spicing up combat, these things feel like interruptions to the flow of gameplay, and you will quickly become annoyed at having to switch weapons every minute just to get past the same obstacles scattered throughout every map.

Legend of Mana offered many more weapons than four and managed to balance them by varying accuracy, damage, and speed. Children of Mana tries to simplify the weapons into four essential tools, but the result is that the player is forced to select the same tool every time he is confronted by a particular type of obstacle. Choosing a weapon therefore requires no strategic or creative forethought - it is merely a chore.

The magic system in Children of Mana is utterly broken; ironic for a game with 'mana' in the title. Before you leave town, you have the option of selecting only one of eight elemental spirits to accompany you. In combat, you can summon this spirit to the playfield by holding down the B button. Once summoned, you can either leave the spirit alone or approach it. Approaching it will provide a beneficial effect such as healing you or enchanting your weapon. Leaving it alone will cause it to cast an area-effect attack spell in a geometric pattern specific to each spirit.

Unfortunately, the healing effects are weak compared to healing items, and weapon enchantment is too short in duration to ever make a difference. Furthermore, the area-effect attack spells are far less damaging than simply flicking your flail around, even when the element you've chosen is in opposition to the monster's element. This is partially due to the silly geometric patterns which more often miss enemies than hit them. In the amount of time it takes to summon your spirit and wait for its spell to take effect, you can easily dispatch any monsters in range with your sword. Combined with the caveat that you can only take one spirit with you at a time and that bosses are unphased by spells, magic is too severely limited to ever be useful.

Equipment is another aspect of the game that should have been interesting but instead feels like a nuisance. Armor pieces are no more than linear upgrades, increasing a single stat by slightly more than the previous piece. Because each armor piece is tied to only one stat, there is no room for choice or customization. After a few hours playing the game, acquiring new armor becomes more annoying than exciting, because it means navigating the UI and changing out your old piece. Since there is no room for customization and no drawback to upgrading, why not handle this automatically rather than burdening the player with the responsibility?

Aside from the main story, there are two types of sidequests available to you in Mana Village. The first type is assigned to you by the colorful characters around town. Talking to them at various points in the game, you will be enlisted to solve their (actually quite interesting) problems. The stories prefacing these quests are usually very unique and well-written, so it's a shame that completing them is an exercise in repetition. This entails hacking your way through 4 to 8 random maps and then returning to town. You will never fight a boss or have a special objective on these quests - mindlessly slashing your way through hundreds of Rabbites just magically solves everyone's problems.

The second type of quest are those assigned by a contracting company run by Dudbears in the village. This is perhaps the most tacked-on, untested feature in the game. Upon completion, 'jobs' reward you with special items, which are specified at the outset. The trouble is that you have to pay the Dudbears in order to take a job. And not just a small fee; we're talking about parting with very large quantities of cash, just so you can slash your way through a bunch of random maps and be rewarded with a mediocre item. Not only that, but these jobs are some of the longest quests in the game - meaning 8 to 12 random maps full of tough enemies. And like all sidequests, you will never actually resolve the story objective specified - no bosses, no cutscenes. When you return to the village, the Dudbears will give you a one-line thank you note from the client who posted the job. Usually, it's something along the lines of, "Thanks!"

Fix this Game in Five Steps
So how can this game's design do justice to its production values?
Read on!
  1. Balance the Weapons - Include a larger variety of weapons, ala Legend of Mana, and vary their usefulness by altering damage, accuracy, speed, and range. Remove the annoying weapon-specific obstacles and traps littered throughout the game, thereby allowing the player the freedom to use his favorite weapon consistently.

  2. Diversify Equipment - Include a larger variety of equipment, and make each piece affect multiple stats rather than just one, thus introducing advantages and drawbacks to upgrading. Accommodate diverse styles of play by providing multiple paths of statistic upgrades for armor, accessories, and weapons.

  3. Make the Spells Powerful - Lift the tactical burden from magic-users by making all magic attacks full-screen or auto-targeted, ala Seiken Densetsu 3. Improve the effectiveness of elemental magic vs. enemies of opposing elements. Extend enchantment duration to 5+ minutes. Allow the player to use any mana spirit at any time.

  4. Lose the Random Maps - Build a discrete, continuous landmass for each continent, composed of several dozen branching, organic, interconnected maps. Provide the player with an explorable map for each continent, and pinpoint active quests and dungeon markers on this map. Generate themed randomized dungeons from a multitude of small room templates, connected by physical doorways. Generate enemy encounters from randomized templates suitable to the theme of the dungeon or play area.

  5. Cohesive Side Quests; Boss Fights - Create discrete paths for side quests, entailing checkpoints and a final destination on the world map. Create a templated boss fight at the final destination of the quest, or in lieu of a boss fight, create some conversation on the field to provide some closure. Reward the player amply.

The Mana series has long gotten away with couching formulaic game mechanics within a bed of high production values and epic storytelling. Children of Mana attempts to defy this convention, but instead of moving forward, Square-Enix opts to simplify gameplay to the point that the player becomes redundant. This just proves that you should be very careful when trying to break down an already simple formula into something more essential. Even in a hand-held game, players don't want you holding their hands.