games


Although it’s been out for 10 years, Half-Life 2 has always been in the “pretty good graphics” bin in my memory. Till now. Jeannot van Berlo has re-created the train station in Unreal Engine.

Here’s the original…

2014-04-04_00001

And here’s van Berlo’s version:

hl2-new-trains

Another shot from Valve:

2014-04-04_00004

And van Berlo:

hl2-new-side

I guess ten years has provided an advance or two.

I was just in the game to take the comparison screenshots, and I still think it’s fine, but the Unreal Engine version is certainly stunning.  More detailed, fancier lighting, and a grander scale.  From the screenshots, it looks a little busier– not quite as focused for the eyes– but it’s hard to tell what it’d be like in the game.

This post, though a bit breathless, is extremely interesting. It’s how an upcoming game, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, makes stunning game imagery… essentially by taking a shitload of hi-res photos, then using software to turn them near-automatically into a 3-d model.

Let me guess, we dig up all the graves for coins and rusty weapons?

Let me guess, we dig up all the graves for coins and rusty weapons?

It’s certainly not a time-saver– you have to take pictures very carefully on location, and the whole idea is that assets aren’t very re-usable… you’re modeling an entire church, say, and not just making a tileable brick wall. The nice thing is that the textures aren’t tiled– they have contextually meaningful dirt and shade and mold and whatever. Photorealistic textures still look wrong and artificial if they’re too even, too widely used, or have no apparent flaws.

A quick way to test video game textures is to look at the edges of things. Take this very good work from Arkham City:

Wouldn't you take your gloves off for this?

Wouldn’t you take your gloves off for this?

It’s all photorealistic, but look at the way the combination dial just floats in the middle of the safe. Real things have transitions from one surface to another. There should also be shadows (and maybe distortions in the fabric) under the edge of Catwoman’s glove, and under that weird metallic knob on her shoulder.

Now, in a game, you normally don’t focus on that stuff… really, we want to be fooled. Especially in the middle of action, you can get away with pretty simple models.

If you’re trying to make a game on your own, on the other hand, learning about someone else’s new, better methods can be depressing. It’s hard enough making tileable textures! And god, don’t get me started on foliage. There’s a reason so many games are set in dungeons, sci-fi futurescapes, deserts, and sewers. They’re geometric! It’s still really hard to do good vegetation.

I’ve been replaying Saints Row 3, this time on Hardcore. This involved dying a lot, but it’s still easier than SR2 was on Normal. Except for, of all things, the carjackings. Even the earliest jackings throw three stars of notoriety at you; at early levels that’s too much heat for the player, and I died; and at high levels it’s too much heat for the car, which explodes. I finished all the missions, but I may leave a bunch of cars unstolen.

SR2, SR3, SR4.  The blue hair is a constant.

SR2, SR3, SR4. The blue hair is a constant.

SR2 has its avid fans, and I certainly appreciated the bigger and more varied city. But SR3 is definitely more fun. Plus, I think they went in the right direction, from showing off badassery to developing character.  In SR2 the emphasis was on showing how tough everyone is, with the implication that you the player are tougher, since you beat them all up.  But, eh, badassses are ultimately kind of boring. The writer just thinks of mean things for them to do, and then maybe to humanize them a little bit, gives them a weird hobby.

In SR3, the emphasis is on making the characters colorful. No one in SR2 is as weird as Kinzie and Zimos. Pierce gets a personality.  The villains are more over the top.  By SR4 we can look at the Saints crew with genuine affection, something it’s hard to do with (say) the cast of Skyrim or Fallout New Vegas.

Here’s an interesting look behind the scenes of a somewhat failed AAA game, Singularity.

Mutated plants are never a good sign

Mutated plants are never a good sign

In what will be a total shock to anyone who’s developed a major software project… it was late, in terrible shape, and nearly canceled.  Then they threw something together in ten months of crunch time. It’s a wonder it’s as good as it is.

I actually liked the game a lot.  It’s very pretty, it has a lot of fun toys, the story is intriguing, and it’s bold enough to end with a major mind-fuck. The behind-the-scenes article explains why, nonetheless, it felt like it didn’t quite reach its potential. They just didn’t have time to explore the ideas further.

Actually the one big surprise in the article was the reference to multiplayer, because: there was multiplayer??  Apparently AAA games feel that they must have a multiplayer option now, which is madness.  Gaming is so fragmented these days that I can rarely play anything with my friends… our old TF2 crowd still gets together for a few hours once a week, but it used to be daily.  They’re all off playing different things.  There will be a flurry of interest in a new game’s multiplayer for maybe a few days; if you pick up the game later in a Steam sale or something, there’s no one around to play it with.  They could have dropped the multiplayer entirely and had more resources for deepening the single-player game.

I finished Saints Row 2. At least, I’ve done all the missions and I’m pretty sure I don’t want to go back and finish the remaining side activities. Unlike in SR3, there are six levels of difficulty and they get hard without getting more fun.

Bottom line: I’ve played it for 55 hours, which is pretty good for $3.74. Plus now I understand all the back references in SR4.

Biggest plus: Stilwater feels larger and more varied than Steelport.  SR3 is prettier, but SR2 has more to explore… a university, caverns, completely inexplicable Roman ruins, a trailer park, a sprawling shopping mall, Chinatown, public housing, weird stuff like this:

You want to sleep with the electronic fishes?

You want to sleep with the electronic fishes?

Oh, and Rebecca Sanabria’s voice acting (female voice 3 for the Boss) is still great.

Biggest minus: it’s harder than SR3 (and way harder than SR4).  Some of the missions are really nasty and have ungenerous checkpoints… the worst are the ones where you have to follow someone within a time limit; enemy cars will just swarm you, and the cars are not as maneuverable as in SR3.  I don’t think I’d want to play it again… on the other hand, it makes me want to pick up SR3 and SR4 again.

And one dumb thing: you can buy music in the game.  With game money.  It’s dumb just because it’s tedious… toward the end I had plenty of cash, but no desire to go through a bunch of menus buying individual songs.

(Also, in general the game is, understandably, less polished than SR3.  E.g. Insurance Fraud is one of my favorite activities, but it’s hard to finish the high levels because there aren’t enough cars.  They must have found a way to greatly increase the traffic density in SR3.)

Found this at Mefi– the eight types of fun, and how they relate to tabletop RPGs.  The author uses it to explain why different people enjoy different types of campaigns, or different rulesets.  Go read it!

Just for fun, I thought I’d go through the eight types as they apply to video games, and rate how important they are to me.

A mirror.  In Mirror's Edge.  Pretty sure there are edges too

A mirror. In Mirror’s Edge. Pretty sure there are edges too

1. Sensory Pleasure – how much things tickle your eyes, ears, and whatever other senses are available.

Rating: A.  I want games to be gorgeous; retro games are a big turnoff.  Music isn’t very important, but I do respond to good voice acting.

2. Fantasy – immersion, role-playing, feeling that you’re part of another world.

Rating: B-. I do love a good world, and if it’s pretty original (a la Jade Empire or Mirror’s Edge or Vampires: The Masquerade: Bloodlines or Fallout 3), all the better. But I’ve also played in some gorgeous maps (Rage, Skyrim) that leave me kind of cold. They’re well done and yet something is missing.

3. Narrative – how much do you need a good, involving story?

Rating: I have to divide this up.  Plot: A.  I have to care about something. The counter-example is Rage, where there’s no reason to care for any NPC or the PC; or Far Cry 2, where I lost the desire to do scumbag missions for scumbags.  Characters: B+.  I love a good NPC; the PC can be more bland.  Story: C.  It generally doesn’t bother me when the story is stupid.  Stupid stories, like “Get away from the zombies!”, are fun if you’re in them.  Contrariwise, game creators attempting to be arty (Braid) are probably in the wrong line of work.

On the other hand, it’s amazing how much some work in this area can make a game shine.  I’m playing The Secret World right now, and it’s full of fetch quests.  But they lavished attention on the writing, the voice acting, the NPCs.  It’s ten times more interesting than the farmer who asks everyone in the MMORPG for help killing giant rats..

4. Challenge – how hard is it?  How do you win?  Whats the best strategy?

Rating: B-.  I do like getting good at a game, but I’m far from someone who needs to maximize their build and beat the game on Megadeity.  Plus there’s some things I’m really bad at and don’t want to see in your game, like having to toss slow projectiles at fast aerial targets.

Game designers can easily ramp up the challenge to infinity, and make it unplayable for everyone except for teenage twitch artists.  I prefer an interesting challenge, like getting through a Portal level, or getting through a Dishonored mission without killing.

5. Fellowship – relaxing with friends.

Rating: depends on my mood… A to D.  I love co-op games… I loved co-op mode in Left 4 Dead, and I’ve spent hundreds of happy hours with my friend Ash in Borderlands.  I’m still playing TF2.  But I’m also quite happy with solo games.

6. Discovery – exploring, finding new things, going to the ends of the map.

Rating: A-.  If I like the game, I will wander around the maps, look at all the flavortext, maybe grab all the collectibles.  This (rather than #2) is where I really appreciate the conworlding.  Dishonored is a fascinating world to explore; Skyrim is just a really well-done bog-standard fantasy kingdom.  On the other hand, game designers, a bunch of identical whatsits scattered at the edges of the level does not scratch this itch.  Riddler trophies, that works, because each one is different.  Every last CD in Saints Row 2, not so much.

7. Expression – wanting to contribute to the game, express your own vision, make things.

Rating: C for most games– there’s approximately zero you can really bring to Arkham City, for instance, and that’s fine.  But Second Life is no game at all except for what I and others bring to it, and I like that a lot (A+).  I do like games that allow customization of the PC because I’m shallow that way.

8. Submission – you want to lay back and just lose yourself in a task that’s not too hard.

Rating: depends on the mood; probably B+ overall.  I’ll put hundreds of hours into a game I like… sometimes it’s fun to be Batman and beat up the old gang of mooks, or be Faith and dash over the rooftops.  But I do get bored eventually, which is part of why I never finished a game of Civ 5.

One thing the list leaves out, or that I can’t shoehorn into any of these categories, is cool toys.  It’s probably another A.  The combat and stealth mechanics in Arkham City, the portal gun, the gravity gun from Half-Life 2, the rewiring in Gunpoint, the parkour in Mirror’s Edge, are all just fun to do.  Contrariwise, the weapons in (say) Mass Effect 1 were interchangeably boring.

After finishing Saints Row IV I had a taste for more gangbanging, plus a curiosity about some of the earlier stories referenced in the game. So I picked up Saints Row 2.

Boss! Why does Earring Guy get the rifle with a missile sticking out of it?

Boss! Why does Earring Guy get the rifle with a missile sticking out of it?

It came out in 2009 (for the PC), but feels older. (Consider that Fallout 3 was already out.)  The graphics are good, but the city has a weird washed-out feel to it.

If like me you’ve played SR3 and/or 4 and wondered what SR2 is like, it’s what you would expect: like a less polished predecessor to those games.  Same basic idea as SR3: make a character, start with nothing, eliminate rival gangs while earning cash and respect with side missions of widely varying plausibility, and take over the city.  It’s nice to have an entirely different city to play with, as well as different opponents.

In some ways it’s harder.  SR3 would have activities with 3 difficulty levels; SR2 has six, and I’ve rarely gotten through all six.  Ammo is more expensive and runs out quickly– one mission I finished by the skin of my teeth, knocking down some helicopters with my last bullets.  Diversions like Insurance Fraud are harder simply because there are fewer cars on the streets, so it’s hard to get combos.  Friendly Fire shops are strangely scarce, as are autosaves in missions.

Planes are hell to fly.  (They are particularly confusing because the controls page only mention 4 controls, whereas there are actually six.  For reference, to take off you need to hit shift to accelerate plus S to lift the plane.)  The cars don’t handle easily either– they’re hard to keep on the road.

It’s also much further down on the laffs scale. I’m working on the Brotherhood, which features a couple of fairly brutal murders, by the opposing gang leader and then by the Boss (i.e. the player). It’s nothing compared to what Niko Bellic does before breakfast, but it’s just as well that they downplayed the nastiness in SR3.

It has its humorous spots, but nothing quite as over-the-top as Prof. Genki, Zimos, the mascots, or giant Johnny Gat heads.  (On the other hand, one of the diversions is called Ho-ing, where the Boss takes on some sex work.  Sound effects only, but, well, perhaps not one of their better ideas.)

I gave this inspirational speech and then did all the work myself

I gave this inspirational speech and then did all the work myself

Is it fun? Well, with the caveat about difficulty, yes. It’s like getting DLC for SR3, which isn’t as brilliant but makes up for it in volume. Plus I’ve got Rebecca Santabria doing the Boss’s voice again, which is worth the price of admission. I really missed her brashness and charm in SR4.

Not “the best”, since I skipped a number of AAA games, including Bioshock Infinite and GTA V, as well as indie hits like Gone Home.

This relationship is doomed

Moral: never stand up to a blue-haired woman in a purple suit

Saints Row IV: Big dumb fun like III, but with enough new elements that it’s new big dumb fun.  One reviewer said something like “GTA pretends it cares but doesn’t; SR pretends it doesn’t care but does.”  Which captures something true, I think.  The characters and their interactions and backstories are much better done than one would expect for a comedy game.

The game even made me pick up Saints Row 2, which so far is better than I expected– though it is definitely less polished: since then Volition has scoured away the less fun parts as well as most of the actual criminality.

Follow that line!

Moral: don’t always follow the line

The Stanley Parable: I didn’t devote a post to this when it came out because it’s almost impossible to write about.  For one thing, I think you should go in with zero spoilers– so stop reading, if you haven’t played it.

It’s very funny and really really clever.  I find I’ve put almost 5 hours into the game and demo, which is pretty amazing for a game where you can’t shoot anything.

It’s a metagame and a game about the gaming experience, of course; it doesn’t necessarily say anything deep about gaming, but it says it with great verve, originality, and playfulness.

There is no medicine mechanic, so I don't know how that wound healed up

Moral: never be a pal or mentor for Lara

Tomb Raider: Sometimes making a sequel that’s darker and deeper is the right way to go.  It’s great to have a female protagonist, but even greater to have a human protagonist.  Lara makes almost every other game hero look like a cardboard cutout of a sociopath.

Awful quicktime events, though.

Moral: never be a female in a Dishonored game

Moral: never be a female in a Dishonored game

The Knife of Dunwall– i.e. the Dishonored DLC.  I thought playing as Daud might be a bummer, but it actually adds depth to the story and world, and made me get Dishonored in a way I hadn’t the first time.  At first it struck me as a steampunk version of Deus Ex, and the chaos stuff bugged me.  I think no-combat is now the way to go– it makes you take your time and explore both the world and the lovely level design.

The main game looks at first like it’s fallen into chaos recently, as if the big culprits are those who killed the Empress and framed Corvo.  The DLC makes it clear that the whole world is fucked up at a deeper and more interesting level.  It doesn’t question Corvo’s role exactly, but I do: how could Corvo not be aware of the torture chambers, the rat plague, the cruelty of the whaling industry, the repressive priesthood?

Here’s a fascinating article which examines how Corvo falls short of the British 18-19C honor system… but perhaps exemplifies the Mediterranean one.

Honorable mention: Gunpoint, which is great, with an intriguing puzzle mechanic and a light touch.  It was basically a one-man job, and as a result, I think, it feels just a bit unfinished.

Somewhere in there: Remember Me.  Plus points for an interesting world and a truly fascinating power– altering memories; minuses for not concentrating on that, and instead implementing a flawed combat system.

I spent an awful lot of time in Arkham Origins, which seems like an attempt to redo Arkham City while skimping on the writing and acting. It’s fun being Batman again, but they closely imitated AC in the wrong areas.  E.g. they nail the gothic architecture, without understanding that AC’s smaller city area was divided into areas that reflected the supervillain de l’heure.

I was worried about Saints Row when the publisher went bankrupt, but apparently Volition itself was preserved, and they took what was going to be some DLC for SR3 and turned it into SR4. Which sounds like it could be lame (like Arkham Origins’ idea to tell Batman’s pre-Batman days as a set of combat maps), but turns out to be a lot of fun.

The president in fake Steelport in her alien princess outfit

The president in fake Steelport in her alien princess outfit

The story starts a few years after SR3, when the Saints leader (i.e. you, or in my case me) has become President of the US. Then aliens invade, under British-accented overlord Zinyak, and throw you into a simulation of Steelport, the setting of SR3.

The re-use of Steelport threatens to make the game a rehash of SR3… except it turns out not, because within the simulation you have superpowers. And surprisingly, that’s enough to make it feel like an entirely different game. For instance: you can drive around all you like, but you won’t, because sprinting, jumping and gliding are faster and more fun. And the combat superpowers change combat quite a bit.

The missions vary rather unpredictably in difficulty– there are a few very hard fights, as well as a jumping-sprinting mission that was pretty annoying (there’s one overlong jump in it which I kept missing). I found that the most reliable superpower is the freeze blast, which you get early– it’s great for immobilizing some of the really jumpy enemies; you just have to learn the dance of freeze-then-shoot.

The game freely borrows from all over– the waking-up scene from The Matrix, the ’50s simulation from Fallout 3, the loyalty missions from Mass Effect 2, various old-skool side scrollers, plus earlier versions of Saints Row.  There’s even a mission which satirizes stealth missions.  But all of these are done well and add some needed variety.

SR3 was essentially an open world game, where the goal was to take over Steelport, confronting each of its gangs in turn.  The emphasis was on fun, and it never threw too much story at you.  It had fun characters, and the voice acting for the player character was exceptional, but the Boss was, in fact, the one character that was barely there.  Which was fine, as you could interpret her the way you wanted.

SR4 gives a good deal more personality to the Boss.  There’s some explicit discussion of whether she’s a sociopath or a puckish rogue, there’s some conflicts with underlings, there’s her strange devotion to Johnny Gat.  This was fine with me, as Volition’s concept of the Boss accords all right with mine.  Neither of us are interested in exploring the actual mentality of a gang leader.

Another difference: it’s way more unified as a story.  One villain, one goal, and where you were encouraged to just mess around in SR3, finding mission hotspots on your own, in SR3 the side quests systematically lead you through them.

I finished it tonight; I’ve got over 40 hours in it, mostly very satisfying hours, but I probably won’t replay it multiple times, as I did SR3.  Not that there’s something wrong with it; it’s just rare that I get as involved with a sequel as with the original.  (Arkham City is the big exception.)

Overall, SR3 and SR4 are really solid, fun games.  They don’t take themselves too seriously, they don’t attempt a realistic simulation of everything; at the same time, you’ll probably end up genuinely enjoying the little band of minions you’ve accumulated.

My one quibble is that I could have used quite a bit less Steelport.  They’ve changed it in clever ways (e.g. all the city’s signage is now demoralizing messages from Zinyak), but many of the side missions explore other worlds, and I’d like to have had more of that.

I finished Arkham Origins last night… well, it was verging on early morning.

This is how I inspire Gotham

This is how I inspire Gotham

Overall impression: AO is like someone was told to closely study and imitate the greatest game of all time, Arkham City, and they did. It’s very much like AC, it nails the art style, it even extends it in some ways, it’s fun being Batman again… but it has little flavor of its own.

I have a bunch of complaints, which I’ll present in handy bullet point form.

  • The voice actor for Joker tries to match Mark Hamill without really getting there.  This is not what you should do with an iconic performance– you should find your own way instead.  He even sings a song over the credits… not well.  It doesn’t help that the writing never hits the heights of AC either: Joker is not very funny.
  • There are some very annoying boss fights– particularly Deathstroke and Bane.  I guess I dislike the mode of “ordinary damage does no good; you must only use these particular maneuvers”.  At least there’s no annoying cooldown.
  • Man, I hated one puzzle where you have to use the glue gun very quickly.  If you aim and fire, you just do not have enough time.  Finally I realized– this game was optimized for consoles, it doesn’t require aiming– use the 5-5 quick combo.  And that worked.
  • Mad Hatter returns… he gave an annoying fight in AC, and here he has his own dream sequence, which highlights one of the persistent problems of AO: it’s linear to the point of bugginess.   E.g., there’s a place where you have to run to a wall, in a spot you can’t stay on long because it’s periodically electrified, and use your explosive gel.  Except 3/4 of the time, you hit the gel key and he gels the floor.  Finding the sweet spot where the Batdoofus will actually gel the wall is frustrating and makes you wonder if they actually had QA.
  • They also return, ill-advisedly, to the 2.5-d sequences of Arkham Asylum, and there’s points where the controls go wonky and the game takes your attempt to jump a gap as a command to plummet to your death.   General rule of thumb, designers: don’t kill me for a mistake which the character would never make.  Rocksteady realized this, turning accidental leaps into graceful recoveries with the batclaw.
  • Similarly, there are a lot of places where your abilities should work, but don’t– e.g. walls that you can’t grapple up.  I know Batman’s abilities make level design hard, but it can be done– see AC.
  • I realized only very late that you only get the Sonic Batarang for a very specific challenge– complete a predator scene without being seen. And I’d already gone through most of them.  There is, by the way, often no feedback on whether you’ve been seen, so you can’t replay the encounter if you finished it and got spotted invisibly.
  • The plot is a bit meh.  AC’s plot doesn’t stand up to rigorous analysis, but at least it had panache.  I never quite understood the Joker-Bane relationship, and they never explained where Black Mask was.  (The game implies he’s dead, but we see him in AC.)
  • The overall setup promises an intimate glimpse at eight villains, but few of them have as much character as AC’s Penguin, Poison Ivy, Mr. Freeze, and Two-Face.  They’re almost all just dudes who show up for a boss fight and have no agenda of their own.
  • I dunno, whaling on cops is just a smidge disturbing.  Batman is supposed to be noir, and while noir may feature corrupt cops and an edgy hero/cop relationship, they’re usually not fair game for beating up.
  • No Catwoman.  (Though there’s a cute reference in the GCPD.)  It’s a pity, because AC really benefitted from having an additional playable character, and such a fun one.

Hard to get used to, but defensible: combat is much harder than AC.  The biggest change is subtle: the mooks hit you a tad earlier, which is just enough to screw up my AC-honed skillz.  If you wait till the “gonna attack” symbol is big, it’s too late.  You have to hit faster, or evade.

In the same category, it’s weird that there are some places that are too tall to grapple up to.  It makes sense that the line isn’t infinite, but it’s an unexpected change from AC.

Some good stuff:

  • After a punishing fight with Bane, he turns into a Titan.  I was expecting an even more grueling fight… but it turns out to be a predator encounter.  Awesome: the last boss fight requires stealth rather than power or gadgetry.  The single best design decision of the game.
  • Oracle does return.  The whole Gordon arc is pretty good.  He’s maybe maybe too stubborn, but after all it’s just one long night in Gotham, he’s not going to change quickly.
  • Similarly, we see more of Alfred.  Though the dude is right: even Batman has to eat.  If Batman has time to respond to random crimes in progress, he has time to grab a turkey leg and a beer.
  • If you let him, Anarky will jaw at you forever.  Although I can’t approve of the terrorism thing, he actually makes some good points about Batman’s weird insistence on going it alone, and his complicity in keeping a corrupt system pretty much the same.
  • The shock gloves feel slightly cheesy, but hey, they’re fun.  As the combat is harder, it’s great to have something to equalize it.
  • The crime scene re-enactments are one of WB Montreal’s few extensions to the Rocksteady basics.  It’s a nice mechanic and I’d like to have seen more of it.
  • The Quincy Sharp appearance at the end is cute.

That’s enough for now.  I’m not sure if I’ll do all the Riddler challenges this time, but the extra challenge maps do beckon, and there are a few loose ends to tie up in Gotham…

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