Friday, June 26, 2009

Death is Forever

I've played a good number of roguelikes over the last two decades. While NetHack was probably before my time, I was fascinated by Rogue's randomly generated dungeons and I played a large amount of Moria, which, with a town over the dungeon that you could return to, would provide pretty much an exact ASCII template for Diablo. I've completed ADOM twice. What I hadn't done, at least not for a long time, was play these games the way they were originally designed to be played.

In pretty much every roguelike, death is supposed to be final. While you can usually save your game in order to return to it at a later stage, loading the save game deletes it, so you can't go back to it later. If you die, your character is gone forever. That was the idea, at least - due to the simple nature of the games, if you were smart enough to be able to change directories in DOS, you were probably smart enough to figure out how to create a backup of your save game so that you could restore it if your character met an untimely end.

Hobgoblins with clubs are cheap

Recently, I've been playing a version of Dungeon Crawl, a simple roguelike, that uses graphic tiles, making it far easier on the eye if you're old like me and your imagination doesn't work as well as it used to. It has far too many races and classes, but it otherwise adheres fairly close to the classic Rogue template. So, a while back I decided to see how far I could get without the luxury of a backed-up save.

The most obvious observation is that a lot of your characters die on the first level, before they've managed to find any useful equipment or level up enough to gain a reasonable quantity of hitpoints. In fact, they die so often that I soon abandoned my original idea of giving each new character a unique name, and the leaderboard soon started to fill up with doppelgangers (including one amusing case where a character was killed by the ghost of a previous version of himself).

Named goblins are cheap

These first level, five minute deaths aren't a problem, though, you just fire up the game again and hope for a little better luck next time. What really hurts are the losses of characters who have managed to get to level 4 or 5, find a half-decent weapon and discover what a healing potion and remove curse scroll looks like. Death still comes very quickly to these characters, if you get caught in an open area, encounter a tough monster you cannot run away from or just take an unlucky critical hit. I'm still not sure whether the game is unfairly difficult because of the lack of balancing that comes with random layouts, or whether players like myself have just become so conditioned to expect game balancing that we feel we should be able to wade into anything the game throws at us and emerge victorious. Either way, the loss of half and hour or more's play with nothing more than a line on the leaderboard to show for it is a frustrating experience, and usually enough to put you off trying again immediately.

Anyone with a runed scythe is cheap

Eventually, one of my characters, a human fighter, did manage to survive past the first few levels, acquiring a hard-hitting magical sword and a suit of +1 plate mail which drastically increased his survivability. Despite a few scares with a named wizard and an ogre (thank heavens for teleport scrolls), he managed to survive all the way to level 8, and to the first few levels of the Orcish mines, an area I didn't even know existed. At this point, however, I became curious as to what was further on in the game, and very nervous at the thought of losing the only character in the last 30 or so attempts to survive past level 5. After another narrow escape from a swarm of killer bees, I couldn't take the pressure any more and backed-up up my save.

Regenerating hydras are... well, you get the point

Bolstered by the ability to retry an situation until I succeeded, I managed to descend through the Orcish mines, all the way through the Elven Halls and into the Lair of Beasts before I started to tire of the simplicity of the character I was playing. After you find a decent weapon and set of armour, you often end up going long stretches of the game without wanting to change equipment, and as a warrior I was unable to read any of the spell books I was finding. Magic users seem to be far more interesting to play in the later game, but it is far more difficult to keep them alive when starting.

What did I learn from this little experience? Well, the unforgiving nature of most roguelikes is a bit of a two-edged sword. With save backups making the game far more forgiving, the games tend to feel too simple once the novelty of finding some decent items and killing some tougher monsters wears off. On the other hand, with death being the end of your character, they can be far too frustrating for modern gamers to take. Still, if you haven't played one in a while, I recommend giving one a go again, and try playing them the way they were intended to be played. It's an interesting experience, if not a particularly long lasting one.

So here's the question for you: what is the furthest you've ever managed to get in a roguelike without having to save-cheat?

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Tekken 6 Release Date

Namco have announced the release date for the console ports of Tekken 6: the game will release in North America on 27 October 2009, with releases in Europe, Japan and the rest of Asia "shortly thereafter". That's much later than I had expected, I was hoping that the previous estimate of "Fall 2009" would be early September, but as it stands, we will probably only get the game in November.

That's a pretty slow conversion considering the arcade game was released in Japan in November 2007 (admittedly, the console version is not based on the original arcade release, but rather the Bloodline Rebellion update). What has taken them so long? For one, they've needed to port the code to the Xbox 360 now that the game is multiplatform (the arcade hardware it runs on is very similar to the PS3, so very little work would have been needed for the PS3 version). They've had to add online play, but I'm assuming that the Tekken team would just have purloined most of the Soul Calibur team's netcode. Namco had previously talked about wanting to add new modes to increase the game's longevity, maybe this was what was taking all the time?

Well, at E3 this year, the new mode was revealed to be Scenario Campaign mode, a rudimentary beat-em-up in the style of Final Fight. This really isn't anything new, as there has been a mode like this in every game since Tekken 3, with Tekken Force mode in T3, Tekken Force Assault mode in T4 and Devil Within mode in T5. These modes have always been at best a novelty, briefly entertaining, but nothing you'd return to over the core fighting, and videos of this mode in action lead me to believe that it will be no different. The only redeeming feature of this new mode is that it can apparently be played co-op, and games like this are usually far more entertaining with a friend. We'll have to wait until November to find out, though.

Friday, June 19, 2009

A Homeland Need You To Protect!

Last week I wrote a post about browser-based strategy game Evony's rather suggestive ad campaign (I'm not sure why I feel the need to link to it, seeing as it's probably no more than three presses of the Page Down key away). However, this morning I saw another ad for the game:

Yes, the doe-eyed lady with the imperiled cleavage is no longer, replaced by an angry man in a helmet. I would claim responsibility for this change, as blogs with readerships that can probably be counted on a single hand are often catalysts for marketing shifts, but, alas, I still have a reasonably firm grip on reality.

Clicking on the ad takes you to a new sign-up screen:

The new sign-up screen features angry helmet man, and does not appear to cycle. At least, it didn't in the ten seconds or so I stared at it before I got bored, took the screen cap and closed the tab.

It does at least have some translation issues (can things be in Engrish if the developers aren't Japanese?), although the use of block capitals has saved them from the irregular capitalization that marked their previous ads.

Still, if you feel the need for a campaign you really should fight with, head on over to Evony. Or rather, don't. Check the comments for more details.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

One-Dimensional Angry Men

I read an article about this year's E3 where the one of the developers at SCEA Santa Monica (the studio behind the God of War series) mentioned that they wanted to add a bit more emotional depth to Kratos in God of War 3, to try and make him a little less wooden. I'm not sure I like this idea. I've read plenty of game articles criticizing action game heroes for being one-dimensional, but I'm actually rather in favour of this.

One-dimensional angry man Kratos

The primary reason for this is that one-dimensional heroes suit action games. I mean, your main interaction with the games that star these heroes is to shoot things in the face, or tear enemies limb from limb. Kratos's seemingly implacable rage at everything perfectly suits the unrelenting brutality that characterises most of God of War's gameplay.

One-dimensional super soldier Master Chief

Do we really want to hear Marcus Fenix enter into a thoughtful discussion at to whether violence really is the best response to the Locust threat? Do we want Ryu Hayabusa to try and thwart another interdimensional assault on the world through means that don't involve slicing legions of demons into small chunks? I don't think so.

The single-minded purpose of these characters may leave them one-dimensional, but when done right, it can be a pretty awesome dimension. And awesome is what action games are all about.

One-dimensional surly meat-head Marcus Fenix

I don't think there is any shame in focusing action games on their strengths. In Halo 3, Bungie take a sly dig at themselves regarding this: when the Chief rescues Cortana from the Flood-infested ruins of High Charity, Cortana asks him how he planned to escape, to which the Chief replies "I was going to shoot my way out - just to mix things up a little".

One-dimensional whirlwind of death Ryu Hayabusa

I don't mean to imply that I don't want to see multi-faceted characters in video games; I think it's great when developers do successfully integrate these into their games, particularly in RPGs and adventure games, where they can contribute additional interest to the game's storyline. However, just like there can be more merit in focusing gameplay as there would be on diversifying it, there are times when a single-minded protagonist suits a game's style better than a more layered one would. A one-dimensional hero also doesn't stop a game from telling an interesting story, as games like God of War and Halo have shown.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Save the Queen!

I've been seeing quite a lot of ads for browser-based strategy game Evony on Metacritic and various other websites. Here's the main ad they run on most pages:

Right, I know what you're all thinking: the letter "Y" is threatening that woman's cleavage, and I must help her out!

I know that sex sells, and that there is no shortage of CGI artists on the internet churning out images of fantasy women in revealing tops, but the focus of the ad still seems somewhat inappropriate.

At least it is free forever, so in 2046, when micropayments are so rife that we can't even click on a hyperlink without the credit card implanted in our skull deducting a small fee, you'll still be able to save that woman's bosom without charge.

Anyway, clicking on the "Play Now" button takes you to a sign-up screen, complete with one of three images.

Are you strong enough to Rule the only two hot chicks at the renaissance fair? They aren't stopping there, though:

This woman wants you to be TOUGH in the hopes of CONQUERING her. Or perhaps Bohemia, Burgundy, or Franconia. It's not really clear. But the best one is still coming:

This lady is positively yearning for you to play now. If she yearns any harder, her dress, which already seems to be secured only by static cling, is going to fall off completely.

Interestingly enough, none of these sign-up screens actually give you any inclination as to what the actual game looks like. However, if you go to the game's informative and bosom-free website, you can discover that it looks like this:

It does have a girl in the status window, but that appears to be your avatar and it seems unlikely that she will gradually disrobe as you grow more corn or harvest more lumber or mine more gold or whatever it is that you do in the game.

You could argue that without the buxom ladies I would never have even clicked on their ad, so the strategy is at least somewhat sound, but they didn't make me want to sign up and play the game, which I guessed correctly would be a browser-based strategy game when I saw the first ad. In fact, the only reason I clicked on the ads was from sheer incredulity at the ad campaign. Had I actually been wanting to play a browser-based strategy game, a few gameplay related screens, like those that Travian runs on its web ads, would have been perfectly sufficient.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Colonization: Old and New

I recently purchased (deep breath) Sid Meier's Civilization IV: Colonization, Firaxis' remake of the original Sid Meier classic. I was a huge fan of the original Colonization, I think I enjoyed it more than I did Civilization, I liked the more intimate scope of the game.

The good news is that the remake is just as enjoyable as the original game was. The interesting thing, however, is that it's not really any better. Yes, the graphics are in a far higher resolution, but they don't really convey any information that the original's didn't, and the original's chunky pixel colonists had a certain charm to them. Gameplay-wise, it's fundamentally the same, pretty much everything you do in the new version you could do in the original. There are slightly more options for automation, and the diplomacy has marginally more complexity to it, but these are not major aspects of the game, and I didn't really need to use them.

This is particularly notable when you consider the length of time between the two games - Wikipedia informs me that the original was released in 1994. That's the same year the first Warcraft came out, and I'll bet if you compared that to a more modern RTS it would suffer horribly.

If this sounds like an indictment of the new game, it isn't meant to. Truth be told, I'm pleased that Firaxis adopted this approach, rather than adding additional unneeded complexities to a game which didn't need them. If anything, it should be high praise for the old game, a game which was so well done when it came out that essentially the same game dressed up in the Civ IV engine is still something that I'd still want to play today.

Seeing the screens side by side, I do notice that the new game is much browner than the old one. Despite them both using the same wooden background motif, the old version still manages to have bright, vibrant colours, while the new version has a more muted palette, in an attempt to give it more of an air of historical authenticity.

I suppose that the move towards more realistic graphics has resulted in modern games in general being browner and greyer than their predecessors, but perhaps that is a topic for another post.

Friday, June 5, 2009