Saturday, December 31, 2016

Another Star Wars Story

Rogue One
Beware Spoilers

A Star Wars Story is the first installment in the Rogue One trilogy. Inspired by the blockbuster Star Wars movies made by George Lucas it is directed by Gareth Edwards. Set before Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope, It tells the tale of how the Rebellion got the plans to the first Death Star. A key character in this story is Gyn Erso. She is the daughter of the weapon's architect and is the only one who can retrieve said plans to expose a fatal flaw in the station's design.
Right of the bat I'm annoyed by the subtitle. Will every side story need that little bit of extraneous info? This is a story of Star Wars, unlike all the other's you've seen and heard.
Rogue One opens up well enough, evil space Gandalf Orson Krennic, director of the death star program, comes to reclaim the last peon to finish the construction of the battle station. True to tradition the progression of the big project lags behind schedule. Much like every governmental program in history, in any galaxy. Krennic seems amicable at first, but a lie escalates the whole affair into cascade of shouts, violence and death. Unstoppable like a wedding band of a past marriage circling down the drain of a sink, slippery and inexorably as it slips towards its sewery doom. What I mean is that it happens too fast and is really tragic.

Felicity Jones as Jyn Erso

From there the story is pretty straight forward as the film takes the universe into wider focus. Showing the state of the universe. Once again, the Empire are clearly space Nazis. Oppressive, , exploitive, ignorant. It has all the (correct) traits it had in Star Wars: A New Hope. I say space Nazis, but the Empire could quite clearly be some other state found in the world today.

Jedha is the site of an ancient Jedi Temple

Our eye travels to Jedha, a planet whom's culture resembles a mix of eastern and middle eastern, its veiled and robed freedom fighters branded terrorists by the invaders. In the streets storm trooper in parade ensure the populace that they are there for safety and employ justice as their means. Two minutes later there's blaster bolts blurring the lines, rebels shooting rebels, concussion explosions, thermal detonations and a lone child crying out in agony.
All this, only moments before the Empire blows the place up with a moon-shaped drone. Sorry old chaps, all we needed was fuel!
It's a bit on the nose. We all get it.

~

Yes, this is a war movie.
Should come as no surprise, it's right there in the title! But it's quite unlike the prequels. There the troops fighting the war are either throw-away battle bots or throw-away clones. In the clone wars only the heroes actually mattered. In Rogue One the heroes are the throw-away troops (sadly, in more way than one). This rather sets the tone to tragedy. Don't bring you children to watch this movie if you were expecting Jar Jar's silly antics. Don't expect the plucky bantering of Solo vs Organa. Don't expect old fashioned romance of rogues and princesses. Funny lines are rare, involve guns and shooting people and are made by a robot on a suicide mission. These aren't the swashbuckling space adventures of old man Lucas, this is war. This is World War 2, this is the Vietnam War... in space! The rebel forces even look the part. If the movie tried to make a point about war, it even gets a little twist here.

Walks on snow, sand, forest ground and surprisingly: water

Oddly, it also has a few of war game elements to it. One I'm thinking of is one scene set in a tropical beach locale... By the way: add that to the level 'theme list' too after: space, desert, ice, lava, swamp and forest. So this one scene takes place in front of a hangar bay: closed doors, an open space and then some chest high crates for the rebels to crouch behind. Ideal for dishing out potshots with the witless Stormtroopers as they run out from their spawn closets and into the enemy crossfire. This fight takes ages before Empire troops wise up and attack the rebels from one of their three exposed flanks. Akin to virgin players experiencing a round of Battlefield, not aware of their surroundings. A handful of Stormtroopers would have done the job but Command sends in a handful of AT-AT walkers, I guess to show that Rogue One speaks fluent Starwarsian, but more on this later. I laughed out loud when I saw the setup of the scene, because it reminded me of the silliness of simplistic, video game inspired action sequences. It broke my suspension of disbelief. That's not how combat works, especially not in a "war movie".
Sure enough this tactical error on the rebel's part costs them the match, but this foolishness doesn't take away one iota of drama as almost all of them die a hero's death. At least they would have, if I could remember their names and/or character. Their last utterances absorbed by their still unvanquished colleagues, just moments before they too are slain.

Saving Private Ryan is another war movie. It too had nameless soldiers that died in puddles of their own viscera. We did feel for those men, so what's the difference? Well, in the preceding shot we saw them getting seasick, puking, praying, getting themselves ready, fighting nerves. They were human beings, relatable. We would do the same things if it was us in those troop carriers. It makes the troops into nameless but unique characters. Rogue One barely even does this with its leading characters. This is one of its weakest points, in my opinion. For starters, I thought the antagonist, Orson Krennic, was a more interesting character than the protagonists: Jyn Erso and Cassian Andor. The two ambassadors to China, Chirrut Îmwe and Baze Malbus, while not bad on their own, felt tacked-on. Their scenes may have been more believable without their near jedi-like feats and aimbots. The pilot Bodhi Rook was introduced 3 times one third of a time.

Oh.

Also starring: Diego Luna as Cassian Andor, Riz Ahmed as Bodhi Rook, Donnie Yen and Wen Jiang as Chirrut Îmwe and Baze Malbus (source: www.imdb.com)

It feels like we are to care for too many characters at any given time. The focus from Jyn Erso is diffused by the presence of all the others. Cassian, the ambassadors. Then there's the sarcastic robot, the defected cargo pilot, and the extremist freedom fighter. I have to look up their names because I didn't remember them. I feel that some of these could have been cut from the story to benefit the protagonist, because as a result I ended up caring for none of them. No time is given to make them really stand out in any memorable way. You won't find anything close to a blowhard, laser brained Han Solo. There's very little sci-fi fantasy going on here. The only one is Darth Vader, who is a larger than life villain. All the first billing rebels keep it very real. They're very serious and bland, 'gritted teeth' isn't a character trait.
I even have a bit of a problem with Jyn's motivations. At first she wants to deal with neither the Empire, nor the Rebellion. She even states that she kind of likes the order the Empire has brought. Her father dies due to a rebel bombardment. In a turn of events that are now lost on me, she is willing to sacrifice her life for the rebellion. It seems to me that the Death Star's threat is largely overstated in Rogue One. It's weapon of terror, not a weapon of mass destruction - yet, and only becomes so because of rebel actions. We as an audience know it will blow up a planet. That's why we buy the argument why she would make the sacrifice. Jyn doesn't know that she should. I'm not sure what's in it for her other than proving to the Rebellion that she can get the plans. Or revenge for what's been done to her. Or that her father told her so, would he have wanted her to die for it too? Seems like a big price to pay.

Does the rebellion really have that few pilots and squadrons? The Rebellion seems tiny!

In any case 'new' characters are about to fulfill their destiny. Dramatically introduced, shot from the back as they speak, letting us wonder... Ah, CGI versions of Tarkin and Leia on vacation from the uncanny vally, are here to accept the baton. Known quantities are here, because it's Star Wars.
I could have done without the X-wing pilots that were pasted in from A New Hope though, for some reason they specifically shrink the size of the universe. Does the rebellion really have that few pilots and squadrons? The Rebellion seems tiny! The many cameos also shrink the universe.
We could say that the ideas of X-wings and Tie fighters limit the scope too, but I think that isn't as much of a problem. Ordering in bulk saves funds.
This stems from a greater problem with Star Wars as a whole, and that is that the visual and ideological vocabulary of this universe is rather limited. Especially after the Disney acquisition all extra world building from the expanded universe was deemed non-canonical. So we're back down to brass tacks. Logical, how else could you expand upon the existing films? Forget the Ebon Hawk, there's only the Millenium Falcon. But this means we need to stick with what we know: X-wings, Tie fighters, the Imperial walkers, etc. Only small elements expand this vocabulary: like the newly added hammerhead corvettes, which - to my knowledge first appeared in Knights Of The Old Republic - a role playing video game.
Another new element, another tweak, is the black elite death troopers with their distorted voicecomms. So elite that they need to mask their communications from any bystanders? But the sounds they make with the scrambled grunts and wheezes, sounding very much like the combine soldiers from Half Life 2. Talking as if they had swallowed a white noise Morse code machine. It works very well, the result is an other-than-human appearance, which instills fear and makes one uneasy. Nice to see the an addition to the Empire that instills fear (and isn't Darth Vader) next to the comically incompetent regular Storm Troopers. Those almost look out of place in a war movie.

introDeath Troopers, as the name suggests, are scarier than regular Storm Troopers

This is one of the downsides of the Star Wars vocabulary, change too much and it starts to sound different and unfamiliar. It makes some sense to pick and choose from the former expanded universe to see what fits well enough to carry over.
This, if nothing else, is something that could be attributed to the prequel trilogy: it quite literally expanded the universe, there was a smattering of ideas thrown into the mix. Even going a too far some cases (mi-di-chlo-ri-ans).

~

Rogue One is subservient to Star Wars: A New Hope in every way.

Rogue One is subservient to Star Wars in every way. I don't think this movie can work without A New Hope existing. Compare this with last year's The Force Awakens, that movie carries more weight and is allowed to come up with new ideas. In contrast, R1 is slanted towards Star Wars fans, panderingly so. "Remember how awesome this or that was?" So while it can't come up with much new, it can elaborate a bit on vested ideas.
Remember the Force? Here Rogue One sheds a bit more context on how it still exists under the Empire. The line in A New Hope "Your sad devotion to that ancient religion" suddenly makes more sense now. With the passing away of the Jedi, the force has changed from the practical to the mystical, and with the mystical comes religious belief. It validates the common use of "may the force be with you" too. A common use of well-wishing and wishfull thinking, which starts to sound hollow the more it is used, and turns into just something people say.

Remember Darth Vader? Because I simply can't let this post go without mentioning Darth Vader. Neither can any Star Wars movie, really.
I find that the position Vader is put in interesting if a bit problematic. There's a clear discrepancy when it comes to Vader in Rogue One and Vader in A New Hope. In the former he's met with fear and respect because of his acumen, in the latter he is mocked for being a relic and a bully.
In A New Hope it comes as a surprise that he force chokes the general. Didn't this general know that Vader is a big deal? Didn't he see the prequels?
Of course we need to remember that A New Hope (1977) was written as a stand alone. There had been no mention of the Sith. The concept of the Sith didn't exist in the movie. The Emperor might as well been a force-less tyrant. Vader at that time was nothing more but a 'Dark Jedi' in comparison to Obi Wan, a 'Light Jedi'. Both follow the same "ancient religion". Vader also doesn't have much more use than being a strongman for the Empire. A special unit, a powerful tool. A commanding officer, an ace in the hole. He seems valuable, but still expendable. Only by sheer luck does he survive the end of the first Death Star.

DARTH VADER!!¡!

In Rogue One (2016) we have the entire prequel (1999 - 2005) baggage to consider. Vader is regarded as the stand-in person of the Emperor. Which he is in a way - he's Sith royalty. He's the one who should, if all goes as to tradition, replace Palpatine by way of regicide. Therefor he is much more akin to the crown prince of the Empire, if the prequel stated goal of the Emperor is for the Sith to rule the galaxy.
In this story it seems pretty much affirmed that Vader's power is well known. In a callback to Return Of The Jedi, Tarkin even warns Krennic that he is the more amenable of the two, shielding him from Vader's ire should things go wrong with the super weapon.
But then, in Rogue One, he is also shown here in the super unit, strongman role of ANH. Granted, its awesome to behold. Not only that, his opinion matters when it comes to military and political issues. Krennic asks Vader if he is still in charge of the Death Star project - over Grand Moff Tarkin. Who's really in charge here? Did Vader get demoted in ANH for failing to get the plans back, so now Tarkin gets to hold his leech? Did Imperial military command campaign against Vader with propaganda for being a costumed clown? It seems to me that connecting the dots from 'awe-inspiring' to 'ridiculous' could be very hard.
Honestly, I do like how the movie portrays Vader as an unstoppable, unnatural force. Why he should be feared. That red light saber igniting , which it thankfully only does once, is a sign of an impending slasher scene... in space!
Quite a contrast with the 'hands on hips, assessing the mess the boys made on the blockade runner'-vader we see mere moments later in ANH. Presumably the battery on his suit runs low that late in the day. In short, the final Rogue One scene with him is straight out of a comic book. It is awesome, exclamation mark, exclamation mark.

~

Some (battle)scenes feel very much like those in Return Of The Jedi

I was surprised to see the movie ends mere moments before A New Hope Starts. Accept the new cast of characters and keep rolling. The old cast... well I had a feeling they would be expendable and I wasn't wrong. No lose ties means no breaks in consistency. The Death Star is a convenient way to clean up the mess the movie makers made in Rogue One. No stone is left unturned to ensure that none of the new characters make it past the credits and into Episode 4. It's a tease too, since it doesn't blow up any planets yet. That reveal is left to the main attraction.
I liked the plot's simplicity. No obvious plot holes. Nor unexplained mysteries, which would be fine for a "new" story, but would makes this one ask questions that would remain unanswered in ANH. In fact I thought it felt very much like the final part of Return Of The Jedi, minus the Luke storyline. There's a space battle happening as ground troops complete their mission.
Ultimately Rogue One rectifies one of the slights you could make against the story of A New Hope, "why would the Empire let be such an obvious flaw" by answering "It was done on purpose". Which is one of the best reasons to excuse yourself of anything is saying you meant to do it like that all along. In this case: embed a subtle flaw into the Death Star Systems.
To me A New Hope always felt a bit more unique to the rest of the trilogy, and therefor a bit more distant when compared to its sequels. If nothing else, Rogue One helps to tie its spiritual second act to connect with more with the universe it spawned. Makes it feel like a focused chapter in the bigger story.
Just don't think of it as a snake eating its own tail...

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Overwatched

"Name's McCree". The announcement is jawed and chewed, a cigar playing as much a part as the tongue. Eyes a-squint. Behind the gaze, nary a thought. His six shooter by the name of Peacekeeper is loaded with Justice in need of dispensing. Death brings peace, obviously and I get a sour aftertaste - a meal gone bad, rebelling in the pit of my stomach - in the back of my mouth. On the opposing red team the very same is happening. But nobody cares. Blue McCree steps into the limelight together with other enthusiasts from the cosplay convention. Next to him is Steve in angsty teenage powergarb. Clearly practicing for the upcoming stage show, taking on the most dramatic and threatening pose imaginable. The pose is meant to instill some fear into its beholder. Yet nobody cares. That's just Steve, he does it all the time. Steve dresses up like Darksiders and The Matrix. Steve's favourite class in D3 is the Demon Hunter. Steve is a bit of a prat.

Steve Cosplays ReaperSteve sure knows how to work the camera.

Welcome to Overwatch. Pause for the dramatic musical interlude and late title card. So cool. The concept of Overwatch is quite solid. A team based, competitive, hero based shooter, with familiar game modes. Take inspiration from the rich history of ego shooters and model them onto likable, in some cases awe-inspiring, characters. Soldier 76 is a Call Of Duty facsimile, Mercy seems like the StarCraft addicted daughter of the Medic from Team Fortress 2. Tracer is your flanking, Run 'n Gun class. Widowmaker a Kerrigan inspired sniper. Reinhardt leads, Torbjörn does machines.

His name is McCreeHis name is McCree.

As hinted at, Overwatch cannot escape comparison with Team Fortress 2. It also can't by proxy of Blizzard sibling Heroes of the Storm, to DOTA. Coincidentally: both of those are Valve games. Sadly for Blizzard, both of those are, as of now, still better games than Overwatch. From a gameplay perspective, and tonally, Overwatch falls closer to TF2. The former has a murder of static hero characters, the latter has a handfull of editable classes. These heroes are Overwatch's main drawing factor. Whereas gameplay surely is the main attraction for TF2. Well, next to the hats that is. The gargantuan divide between the two is their setting. TF2 left much to the imagination whereas Overwatch has a universe that is quite pronounced.
 
To say overwatch has excellent character design isn't a sleight against TF2's characters, because they are iconic and well thought-out. No, I'm not just talking about recognizability of the silhouettes. The actual character designs also show some sophistication. Watch some of the character specific shorts Valve made and you'll get the point instantly. The sniper is a bureaucrat with a sniper rifle. The honest Brawn of the heavy is the perfect counterpart for the sly intellect of the, Frankenstein-like medic. The Demoman design, a rambunctious Scotsman, sidesteps any racial stereotyping with some creativity.

Context matters.

Less specific nature of characters, such as those of TF2, pushes them a bit into the direction of a blank slate - which makes them more approachable. In contrast, Blizzard wants to nail every stereotype as hard as it can. "Name's McCree", his diction is terse, there's no such thing as a chatty gunslinger. Gunslingers smolder menace in silence and need to have the linguistic effeciency of a telegram. Each hero spurts the one liners you'd expect. All of which are said in a vacuum. The characters aren't aware of their colleagues. By comparison Call of Duty: Black Ops 3's heroes, called specialists - yes they have them too - do party banter. So why can't Overwatch's?
These characters are similar to those in Capcom's Street Fighter, each has their own global origin. Yet they do not have the associated cultural link. indian Dhalsim is a yoga master. Japanese Ryu embodies a Ronin lifestyle, Chu-Li wears Chinese garb and does kung fu. Guile is the American family man. Overwatch's Pharah wears metroid armour avec arm-mounted rocket launcher, obviously she's from Egypt. I'm sure the link is clear... Uhm. The Chozo? Ah, Pharah-oh!
For fear of stating the obvious, Street Fighter has a Japanese perspective on the world, and Overwatch has an American perspective on the world. Yet Blizzard has many, many (international) world class creative talents. The flaw of Overwatch's setting is borne out of excess whereas it could have benefited from restraint. It needs some 'less is more'. Why? My real problem with Overwatch lies with the way how gameplay is completely severed from its setting.

Tracer and Widowmaker have a momentThe Overwatch Cinematic Trailer is full of nice little pictures.

The game, not very clearly, has a host of less than good-aligned characters. Like Reaper and Widowmaker. But the game doesn't really acknowledge the absurdity that villains are fighting besides the, presumably, heroes. Said good guys are also killing other good guys. The teams themselves have no polarizing element that sets them apart on the battlefield, save for their differently coloured name and outline (UI fixing a problem character design doesn't). Other than that there's no real telling that these are rival factions. Their goals and motivations equally nebulous. Why is defending McCree shooting attacking McCree? Both are claiming justice as their motivation while fighting over a payload on its way from A to B. Presumably the organisation known as Overwatch was created to safeguard the world, like our real world UN, from terrorists like Reaper. So I think it it safe to assume that all these characters are just mercenaries and that, regardless of how lofty their motivations, they are all villains. Or maybe this is just another instance of American policy where it doesn't matter why you have the war.
Rumour has it that Overwatch is all that's left of Blizzard's aborted Titan project, which was rumoured to be another MMO concept. Could it be that faction based gameplay (say: horde vs alliance) was dropped and now anything goes? This also means that whatever reason for conflict there once was, is gone, yet conflict remains.

justice
ˈdʒʌstɪs/Submit
noun
 
1.
just behaviour or treatment.
"a concern for justice, peace, and genuine respect for people"
synonyms:     fairness, justness, fair play, fair-mindedness, equity, equitableness, even-handedness, egalitarianism, impartiality, impartialness, lack of bias, objectivity, neutrality, disinterestedness, lack of prejudice, open-mindedness, non-partisanship.
 
2.
a judge or magistrate, in particular a judge of the Supreme Court of a country or state.

Overwatch has a universe that is really only useful for a trailer. TF2 has could be seen as what happens, or happened, during cold war times where 2 sides of a conflict would be doing very similar things aimed towards the other. Expending gigantic efforts to prolong a stalemate. A zero-sum game of two perfectly balanced parties where neither can get the upper hand - and so the game is played indefinitely - which explains why the game is allowed (do not read as 'granted by an authority') to be played/happens again and again. A more cartoonish take of Orson Welles' '1984'. A capture the flag game mode revolves around "the intel" without ever naming what the intel actually is. Valve could have gone ahead and explain that the intel are the plans of the deathstar, but the game is served just as well by just "the intel", the characters also acknowledge this. All they know is that it needs to be kept. There's only one of them and the enemy can't have it. Grunts as tools, in this instance the players, they are kept unaware because it simply doesn't matter. All the game needs is something to fight over. It's the notion of just because that links it to the often absurd nature of armed conflict. Particularly fitting as the setting of TF2. Its characters are just one amongst many. None of them make any special claim to fame, none of them goes beyond the call of duty.
But Overwatch plays with none of the concepts at its premise. The game seems like it just wants fancy characters to shoot at each other. They could as well not have bothered thinking up a universe for them.
Black Ops 3 has the same problem: factionless characters fighting each other in opposing teams, but solves it by framing death matches as simulated training programs. The game is presented as a video game, which makes it pretty honest.

His name is McCreeHis name is McCree!

Overwatch adheres to the Big Bang Theory style of funny, where funny isn't actually intellectually stimulating.

One of the most severe shortcomings of Overwatch is that it isn't self aware. Funny though the character designs may have been intended. Each of them only hit one note. His name is McCree. See how that's funny? He's a gun-slinging cowboy, just like in those movies where they all sound like that. She needs to raise her APM... because she's Korean. See how that's hilarious? She repeats it every 2 minutes. Maybe even just to make sure you get the joke. Overwatch adheres to the Big Bang Theory style of funny, where funny isn't actually intellectually stimulating, but just an out of the blue reference that is supposed to contrast or compliment with the current context (I had to strain to come up with that explanation - because there very well may be none). But It usually needs the support of a laugh track to signal when the funny bit happens. His name is McCree, and "justice won't dispense itself". Ha... What justice is that again? The only conflict I can see between characters is because they aren't on the same side for some reason. Is difference of opinion (come to think of it, not even that) a crime that requires justice? I think McCree has seen a few too many westerns and is imitating Clint Eastwood while high on psilocybin and sarsaparilla.

The characters themselves don't care either. His name is McCree... and that's all he has to say on the matter. That's all anyone on the team has to say about it. Other than hitting all the cliché one-liners you'd expect: "it's high noon", "much obliged". I didn't hear "this town isn't big enough for the two of us" yet, but I suspect the line is recorded with cleched jaw seriousness and is archived on a secure server somewhere. In fairness, I'm picking on McCree because he's such an easy target, but every characters received the same treatment. There's no true comic relief, yet it's desperately needed because its subject matter is absolutely gruesome. Unfortunately this game has no wit to it. It just has cool art design.

What it also lacks is good level design. Granted this is a beta but the maps lack sophistication. Sight lines, sniping spots, flanking routes, all these may come with future maps, but the ones I played were very basic. What's makes the maps even worse are their bottlenecks. Fights often result in a prolonged stalemate while everyone is cornercreeping to take potshots till someone forces a breakthrough by activating an ultimate skill.

Steve doing workA rough approximation of what Reaper's Death Blossom skill looks like.

Reapers ultimate skill is called 'Death Blossom'. Where he does The Matrix and people fall down in a series of one-hit-kills. Many ultimate skills resemble hacks or cheats from other FPS games. Reaper pronounces "Die, Die, Die", like the dirty terrorist he is. If you play Overwatch you'll probably hear it more than a few times each match. In no way will it ever become repetitive, boring, dull and trite. Not even after playing the game for one whole hour straight, I know because I tested it. His name is McCree. Who cares.

Each match is ended with the once-in-a-lifetime bookmark moment in Overwatch history. Nobody cares. I'm sure it won't lose its luster.

Another event you'll grow painfully accustomed to is the "play of the game" replay. During which a feat of strength, judged by the algorithm, is displayed to all participants of the game. The feat is set to a really heroic sounding score which indicates that something once-in-a-lifetime has occurred. When I say heroic, I really mean it, it's so heroic that the next Medal Of Honor game will only be able to top it by having Nazi soldiers pause in their combat to salute the player character whenever The Star-Spangled Banner plays on the soundtrack. Masterfully paced, it has both the weight of the unstoppable giant and the speed of greased lighting - which is so vividly evocated on the screen that you'll want to find your graphics card's warranty.
But after a few matches you realize each match is ended with the once-in-a-lifetime bookmark moment in Overwatch history. They are all the same. His name is McCree. Each match is ended with the once-in-a-lifetime bookmark moment in Overwatch history. Nobody cares. i'm sure it won't lose its luster. Make them all the same because otherwise some kids will feel left out when they also do not get the good ending. In a game I played the heroic ending was a killing spree of 2. Which instantly undermines the effect and made it seem much more like mommy enthusiastically clapping. It also made me feel like I was riding a tame theme park ride that assumes it's your first time riding it. Isn't this fantastic? While in reality, you've rode it the entire weekend and you're on it because of the view on Widowmaker's ass.
Play of the game also signifies the discrepancy between its team play concept and its ego-feeding rewards. The PotG makes it seem as though the player on display did something special. But in reality the algorithm only seems to detects spectacular kill streaks. Yet the objective of the game is not to score lots and lots of kills, but to get the payload to its destination. What's even worse is that the defeated team may also receive the PotG. Which alerts players that the game isn't even about playing the objective at all. Yet another sign that this game is only really about fancy characters shooting each other.

Overwatch feels light, loose, flashy and fast. On the scale of sugar rush it feels properly Nintendo.

Overwatch is another Blizzard anime game that tries to appear happy Go-lucky but takes itself way too serious. A bit like Starcraft 2 did. Sure it's expertly crafted: the characters, though cliches, do feel really unique and the range of gameplay the game has on offer is pretty impressive. The game feels like it aught to in all it's arcade-like glory. It doesn't have that heavy movement feeling you'd expect from a serious shooter, nothing really hits hard - but it feels light, loose, flashy and fast. On the scale of sugar rush it feels properly Nintendo. But it doesn't offer the statistical depth, the player customization, gameplay modifiers progression horizon of other games. Yet.
I realize I'm critiquing a beta. The amount of room for improvement is substantial and gives a big hint at the game's potential. If it'll live up to that potential is another matter. I'm sure it'll get a ton of progress bars. I also get the feeling Overwatch has been added much sugar, colours and attitude to make it palpable to the widest possible audience, coating the bitter pill that is team play and has done it up to the point where it's mostly sugar. After playing Overwatch, like the latest binge of sweets I had, I felt really quite bad.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

What's Next For Nintendo?

 
To be, or not to be, that is the question.

Last week, on September 30th, Nintendo discontinued its Club Nintendo customer loyalty program. A week before this date I was instantly reminded, by an official Nintendo e-mail, of all the leaflets I had collected since the dawn of the Game Boy Advance era. Enclosed with the games they came with, they held all the 'stars' that made up the currency of this loyalty program. These could then be traded online for Nintendo branded tchotchkes. A few nights later I was staying up late, scratching strips of gunk with a 50p coin till I was blue in the fingertips. I had to toss about half of my vouchers because they had expired half a decade ago! Ultimately, the net result was 2200 stars which I readily traded for 2 digital downloads: Wario Land and Metroid 2. Both were made for Game Boy and were quickly downloaded to my 3DS. The whole experience felt rather novel, liberating too. But it also felt like a sign of the times.

As you may have noticed, gaming giant Nintendo has recently entered a state of transition. The middling hardware sales, the retrospective outlook of the company, the recent passing of Satoru Iwata. Though the quality of the games it creates remains high, it seems the company can't get a break. A cynical mind would say that, after the unexpected success of the Wii, it would seem only logical that this giant would eventually stumble over it's own loamy feet. I agree that success can come from a flash in a pan and that recreating it may be next to impossible but Nintendo is too experienced to just fumble its business and perish.

So what could be next for Nintendo?

Nintendo used to innovate. They brought the analog stick, adapting it for 3D gaming; the rumble feature, introducing haptic feedback; the handheld market... and more recently, some would say infamously, the motion controller. The latter opened up an interface that required minimal button input and with it opened up gaming to a wider audience. Personally, at the time, I couldn't help but feel a little puzzled why Nintendo had made a console that was hardly more powerful than the GameCube. The only immediate advantage I felt with the Wiimote and Nunchuck was that the combo didn't make me feel as though I was cuffed to a controller. That feeling never quite changed until I played Super Mario Galaxy. A game that made me believe Nintendo still gets it. What they didn't get was what was happening with the Internet: Friend codes, paid software tied to hardware instead of player accounts... Were they too proud to ask for advice? Time and time again, the headstrong nature of the company seems to have lead to about as many negatives as it did positives.
Case in point: the WiiU. First and foremost proof that brand recognition will not guarantee sales. At least, brand recognition is how the name was intended. I like to imagine WiiToo was on the boards as wel. How the public may have perceived this brand is patently obvious: it was confused. "How is a Wii different from a WiiU? This one has a remote that one has toy version of the iPad, and we already have an iPad. What do you mean this Wii can't run WiiU games?" Queue more brand confusion with games made for the New 3DS and won't run on the 3DS. Have you ever tried explaining a parent that the new 3DS is called the New 3DS? I have yet to master the art of speaking in capital letters. I imagine it's the same with Nintendo, Iwata was the only one to pull thàt particular trick. Needless to say, Nintendo's naming convention is needlessly messy and conservative in times where Android phones and iPhone iterations are numbered, there's no danger in putting a number at the end of a name. Children won't put off because it reminds them of math class and in any case: parents do all the shopping anyway.

I don't think I'll ever fall out of love with my Game Boy Advance SP. This was another go at the 16bit era. This was a nineties gamer's second youth.

I'm of the opinion that hardware has become a liability to the big N. Don't get me wrong, I love the quirky Nintendo branded boxes in my home. Especially the handhelds are some well-designed pieces of kit, I don't think I'll ever fall out of love with my Game Boy Advance SP. The hours spent with Advance Wars 2, Metroid Fusion, Fire Emblem, Wario Land 4, the list goes on... Sterling memories! This was another go at the 16bit era. This was a nineties gamer's second youth. Yet they remain as just memories.
A point could be made that all of Nintendo's best games are in the past. Until they commit yet another classic to history. But what I mean is that we should focus on the Art of Nintendo and not on the Tech of Nintendo - because they haven't been on the cutting edge of technology since the Super Nintendo.

I'm going out on a limb here, but it seems sensible to me for Nintendo to drop out of the hardware business. At least to the extend they are trying to remain inside of it today. It even seems sensible for Microsoft, and to a lesser extend Sony, to do the same. But they are sitting a bit more comfortably in the Tech Green Zone, so for now the pressure remains solely on Nintendo. Couple this to the trend that we, us that deal in games, software, are ever shifting away from a product economy and into a service economy - just look at Steam. Nintendo hasn't been blind to this, given the strides they are (trying) to make with the e-shop. E-shop by the way, is an equally, or should I say: typically, old sounding idea when compared to e-mail or e-music. In times were everything is electronic anyway. The added 'e' is a meaningless additive that only seems meaningful to a company that thinks there's a difference when in reality it has become the norm. That 'e' is superfluous. A bit like the WiiU, but at least they have got the right idea.

This right idea may very well be the Nintendo NX. Widely considered, by the wider gaming press (not this blog) to be yet another Nintendo Console. Queue some e-hand-wringing: will this be another failed collection of taped-together GameCubes with an attached gimmick? Just look at the WiiU, Lolz! People seem to take to these newfangled tablets, so let's stick one in a controller, instantly voiding the appeal and flexibility of a tables (which does away with buttons). Then void their portability by tethering them to a console with a connection so finicky you need to stay withing a 6 meter radius or the controller becomes little more than a dinner tray. Finally we'll demand game developers use this innovative technology into their unique concepts to realize their full potential in times where The Sequel is both the best idea ánd what gamers expect!
Fruit juicers may well become the next technological fad, so expect the Nintendo OrangeBox with innovative, juicy juicing gameplay. Out with the wiggle, in with the wrangle! I can already see Wario wringing coins out of poor old Syrup. Attach the Wiimote on top of it so it becomes a steering wheel! silly old Nintendo, can't you see that all you have left to innovate in gaming hardware are badly ported mainstream gimmicks? Everybody else is innovating for you, because that's all they do: they specialize. The irony here is that Oculus is putting two and two together, they are using 2 technologies Nintendo pioneered with varying success. Namely, the VR headset (the virtual boy) and the motion controls (the Wiimote). Nintendo simply cannot compete with tech specialists. And even Oculus are coming up with new software because of their gimmick. They are outgimmicking Nintendo's gimmicks with Nintendo's old gimmicks!

Games have always been Nintendo's saving grace. The fox may lose its hair, but not his cunning. That is why I think the NX is not a console but an idea. More concretely: all of Nintendo's games presented on a unified platform free from hardware restrictions. Run NX on the WiiU, 3DS or PC.

Nintendo's wealth lies in ideas and intellectual property rather than its material and tech. So they should focus on games and their gameplay ideas without the required USP. Without constant innovation, tech becomes old fast, even more so as time goes by. So why bother? Nintendo realized this when they made the Wii. But today even the gimmick has become old hat. Both their unique console (best when it was the SNES) and unique interface (best when it was the N64) method have become yesterday's news. Everyone has caught up and surpassed the tired giant.
However, they are still on point when it comes to games. Games are, and have always been Nintendo's saving grace. The fox may lose its hair, but not his cunning. That is why I think the NX is not a console but an idea. Or put more concretely: all of Nintendo's games presented on a unified platform free from hardware restrictions. Run NX on the WiiU, 3DS or PC. Maybe even Android or iOS. If Nintendo seems to be aware of the software modding scene with Mario Maker, they must be aware of the emulation scene (see: the Dolphin emulator, to name just one). They must be aware of Steam's success. They must realize that their vast, and frankly: stellar, library of games is a goose that will lay its golden eggs indefinitely whether they make hardware for it or not.

Nintendo must be aware of Steam's success. They must realize that their vast and stellar library of games is a goose that will lay its golden eggs indefinitely whether they make hardware for it or not.

There are more signs that this may become a trend, Xbox will share its platform on Windows 10 on PC, the idea has existed since Xbox Live was first presented. The concept of Crossplay is no longer an idea that endangers a platform, but something that strengthens it - we'll be able to see how it plays out when Street Fighter V shares its player base with both PlayStation and PC players.
But take heart, dear gamer, all this does not rule out new Nintendo hardware. Just not a separate line of spending that would pile the costs into Nintendo R&D, and thus take away from game development which is their primary strength. They may even partner-up with a computer company. After all, even Microsoft and Sony made their consoles in the image of the PC - the real difference is in the platforms they run and these will become more complex and less hardware dependent over time.
Nintendo, learning from past mistakes, wouldn't be a company that would refuse another manufacturer's hardware twice, would they? A Nintendo Branded Vaio? Stranger things have happened. And all things considered it's a vastly more preferable scenario than letting a heritage sink as if a ship, once so beautiful that the inheritors didn't even dare renovate it to keep it afloat.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Mind of the Beholder
Part 5

Looking for group!
Pictured: Ranger, Wizard, Hunter, Guardian, Berserker, Gardener, Ring Bearer, Esquire, Paladin.

Most of the role playing games I like have a class-based and party-based system, a fact that must colour everything I write in this series. They're in the Hybrids I like, MMOs I dabble with, the old D&D Infinity Engine Games I remember fondly, and the modern RPGs they influenced. They're in the Japanese RPGs I am tangentially interested in, the occasional Pokemons, some pixel based Final Fantasy games, an archaic thing called Dragon Quest, the brilliant Nintendo masterpieces called Fire Emblem and the RPG that turns boys into men, Dark Souls.
A subset of western RPG are the European RPGs, a rare and interesting breed. Woefully underrepresented on my played-list, even if I started with them as far back as Rage Of Mages. I still need to play any of the Witcher games and I could have spend a few more hours with our own Larian games. As far as mainstream RPGs go I'm still very much a fan of what Bioware and Obsidian put out. The same goes for Blizzard. I was infatuated with Guild Wars, a game I can't keep thinking about when playing its successor. The monumental RPGs of the last 15 years define much of my tastes in RPGs today and all of them had their own take on the class system.

Role playing games literally fill my days. The RPG I'm currently working on at Larian Studios has me involved in the modest roles of Graphics and User Interface Designer but the fact that I get to work on an actual Computer Role Playing Game that topped the Steam best-seller chart for weeks is enough to make me gag with pride.
The thought that kicked off this series of Mind Of The Beholder was the fact that Divinity: Original Sin is a Classless RPG, which a rare beast to me. 'What is a classless RPG?' I asked myself. I thought the term sets wrong expectations, maybe 'free flow class system' would be more accurate if it allows for characters to use skills and embody traits from both Warriors and Mages. Literally mixing classes. In a classless system the expectation is that words like "Warrior" or "Mage" and the structure they represent would be expunged. I am splitting hairs. Admittedly, most role playing games I stick by, play with this idea. Not by chance, I like such systems.

Defining a class cordons off parts of gameplay. But what happens when those boundaries aren't there? Change is the spice of life so it stands to reason to allow for more freedom. RPGs run the gamut, some games allow complete reclassing, dual classing, multi classing, etc. But even classes themselves could become more flexible. Why not have a sword-wielding Mage? After all, it doesn't take much effort to think of all the magical tricks that could apply to a sword. Why stop there? There's plenty of precedence too: Link wields a sword that shoots magical bolts. this Quan Chi fatality, Mesmers, Guild Wars' illusionist swashbuckler, use swords as a magical conduit. Drizzt Do'Urden dual wields a pair of scimitars, he even named them. Gandalf dual wields a staff and sword. I dual wield a fork and knife on a daily basis.

Drizzt, the Drow, the legend Rangers, like Drizzt Do'Urden, are famous for their dual wielding.

Character Class?

A character's class could be described as its role or profession in the world and is defined by traits, restrictions, rules, playstyle; A Warrior wears heavy armour and wields melee weapons and shields in close combat. The Warrior is usually suited for absorbing damage, taking hits on behalf of the party as he is most resistant to physical abuse. Or he takes the one to take the slow but sure approach to combat, low damage but high survivability. Depending on the system, a Warrior could also be cast in a ranged or melee DPS role, focusing on dealing damage instead. The particulars of classes often depends on the fiction or context they inhabit.

In many cases classes are derived from the fiction. From Tolkien to Gygax to Miyazaki. The class descriptions are a result of the stories that birthed them. Sometimes classes can be problematic for story reasons. I had a hard time believing Mass Effect's Shepard would be an adept, given the amount of grief Biotics get and the rigours they endure during training. It seems very unlikely that Shepard could get a similar training given his possible origin stories. He also doesn't suffer any from the side effects from Biotic implants. Dragon Age: Origins did this more convincingly. Every Race/Class combination had its own unique origin story that explained them in the fiction. And why there are no Dwarf Mages. It gave the character a motivation to get involved with the main story. Likewise with Star Wars: The Old Republic, where each class starts out in its own corner of the universe, with a unique storyline. Subsequent Bioware games haven't bothered as much with explaining its classes.

On the whole, Bioware class systems are very much inspired by classic D&D. Luckily they aren't the only developer thinking about classes. To name but one, Squaresoft was equally inspired by D&D and rethought classes for their Final Fantasy game and called them jobs. Each character could become whatever job and grow stronger in said job. At any given time, the player is allowed to switch jobs or resume an old one. This new job would start the character from scratch, but the old job would retain its level and benefits gained would carry over. So it became possible to use Warrior perks as a newly reclassed Mage. The more high level jobs, the more character perks.

Final Fantasy job system Final Fantasy V's range of jobs, props if you can name them all.

Nintendo has its own take on the job system in its brilliant Fire Emblem series. Clear and simple as most Nintendo games are, it has base and advanced classes. Each receiving perks. For instance, a character that starts out as a Chevalier receives two class specific perks. It advances to the Paladin (mounted, speed, magic resistance, swords and lances) or Great Knight (mounted, physical defense, swords, axes, lances) class. Each of which yield their own pair of perks. Those perks persist through reclassing. Some of which counterbalance deficiencies from other classes. But it is the characters that makes the system stand out. Each of them has a natural inclination towards certain roles, collecting perks helps unlock their full potential. These inclinations and perks are inheritable, something to consider when you pair up characters and encourage them to have some offspring. Fire Emblem fully encourages the player to experiment.

Characters can serve more uses, for variation, for play styles (ranged combat vs melee combat), lore flavour (a party made up out of evil aligned classes). A class can be a job or role put on a character. A Necromancer conjures up different character image than a Cleric would. Of course those aren't set in stone. Obsessed with the undead, nefarious, self-loathing, eye twitching, nocturnally perverted... all realistic traits for a Cleric, putting those traits on a necromancer may provide an interesting twist on the player's expectations. Putting Malicia and Devotio together in a party where they need to cooperate sets up a comedy that writes itself: Hating each other at the onset, but then becoming fast, complimentary-role-filling-friends after they vanquish the ultimate evil. Each character is a tool in the shed, each challenge in the game could use a selection of these tools, which when put to good use form a sum greater then its parts. Cooperation is key.

Malicia in action Guild Wars 2 has a spectacular take on the Necromancer class.

Obsessed with the undead, nefarious, self-loathing, eye twitching, nocturnally perverted... all realistic traits for a Cleric, putting those traits on a Necromancer may provide an interesting twist on the player's expectations.

It's hard to mistake a Warrior with full plate armour for spellcaster. There are a lot of associations that go with the usual typecasting. Putting a type on characters also helps explain what they are supposed to do. It also makes it easy to explain what its options are. Focus on the weapon in your hand, or focus on the shield in the other. Or go hog wild and ditch the shield to use both hands for weapons. It's also easier to role play. It's easier to get that a Wizard is book smart and a Warrior would know thing or two about weapon smithing. Compartmentalizing reality is something we do naturally and it's no different in games. But there's merit in subverting the player's expectation. It's what makes Pratchett's Discworld novels such fun to read: A Wizard university where it's exceptional to care about books, a Wizard with no affinity for magic, an elderly Barbarian blind to his own age, a society where everyone eyerollingly knows what the deal with ceremony is... in this universe that turns the fantasy genre upside down, the long lost heir to the kingdom, pure as morning dew, strong as an ox and thick as treacle - the usual starry eyed golden boy we find in every fantasy is the subverted element.
It takes much more creativity to come up twists on known formulas than to copy them. One of those being the usual trinity suspects. But the trinity is a system, not a class definition, and it could be made to work with whatever classes you can invent. Who says a Warrior should draw enemy attention when a Jester, or even a Bard, seems much more suited.

As much as I am a fan of the trinity, I do think there's something to be said about breaking it. Especially the healer role is somewhat problematic, it's arguably the most valuable role but the least spectacular to play. It could be expanded to give it a bit more sheen. Either adding defensive skills or an entirely different take on the support class like Guild Wars (respectively: Monk, Ritualist and Paragon), make it an offensive class where its projectiles heal teammates like Wildstar or make it a Mage with an affinity for healing magic. But there's ways around getting health back without a healing class. Which is perhaps the best way forwards. If something doesn't work as well as intended there's merit in replacing or cutting it. In the case of Dragon Age: Inquisition, the healer was replaced with a limited stack of potions. This also prevents the party from healing back up to full in-between encounters. Reintroducing some risk to exploring. This seems to have been inspired by Dark Souls, which puts the fear of dying back into players because of its relentless difficulty and limited healing mechanic. Note the word limited mentioned again, I'm seeing a trend. All of this makes it easy for a game to qualify as hardcore. Otherwise, when healing is available on tap, each encounter has to be potentially lethal. The difference is that in the one you could die from a thousand papercuts, the other could provide a more puzzle like set of encounters where players need to formulate a battleplan. Obviously, I'm more partial to the latter.

If I want to talk about solo play and the god-character in context of this post, I really should mention a single player RPG, right? How about Fallout 3. It didn't have something called a class but specialization would occur anyway. This answers my earlier question of what happens when there is no class structure: I would effectively make my own "assault rifle class". My custom made AR class also had other specializations bolted on top, he was a pretty good hacker! So some solutions could result from hacking, and they may have had a different outcome that the other, more standard, solution of shooting until the conflict comes to a natural end.

Fallout 3 box art Fallout 3's box art made quite clear this wasn't a game to take lightly.

However there was no way to hack, charm or buy your way out of a fight with super mutants. Which exposes a sore point in the system: one has to make and end up with a character that can overcome all obstacles. Or to put it differently, the game has to provide multiple solutions to a problem for a wider range of play styles. However, in a world of limited budgets, limited hard data storage this means either the game has to become relatively more simple or the player has to become, de facto, a god among mere mortals. Which is a way of letting the player brute force his way through the game. Personally I think it also breaks immersion, doubly so if the story casts you as a plebeian, inexplicably rising above the rank and file or worse still: it can make the game boring. While god characters games have to tone down the challenge. Death in a god character game is a problem. Obviously once your character goes down, the game ends. In a party based game there's more leeway, it doesn't finish the fight for the entire group. A downed character can get revived. It also opens the door for perma death, in which a downed character is gone forever. The perma death of a god character is a possibility as well, but it's pretty hard to weave it into the game's narrative if the game ends with it. The only real possible drama is when the player realizes he's wasted a life, possibly his own.

A Warrior using a wand? A Jedi Knight using a blaster rifle? Preposterous! Is it?

A salient problem with class-based structures is player freedom and flexibility. A class will often get skills that lack any ties to the weapon the character is wielding, which means this weapon becomes irrelevant as it basically gets demoted to 'something to hit the enemy with when not using skills' or is just another piece of gear to boost stats. This takes away from the character's uniqueness, leaving nothing but a vessel for whatever range of skills it carries. In most cases, classes get a limited set of equipable weapons. A Warrior using a wand? A Jedi Knight using a blaster rifle? Preposterous! Is it? Why not tie weapons to the greater web of mechanics?
A half-way solution is to specify skills that require X or Z weapon, but this also works against class flexibility - because X or Z skills is then linked to the sword-class, or bow-class. It's easy to see that weapons replace classes here, making them, in essence, one and the same. I would argue that weapons should have an impact. Just like Blizzard took a page out of the action game playbook with Diablo 3, RPG makers may consider taking inspiration from the unique weapon attack cycles in games like Darksiders or Dark Souls even if only for variation.

This is where the classless RPG could provide a solution where, ideally, all the skills have to be usable by all configurations of outfits and weapons. Skills that are weapon agnostic. Taking inspiration from Skyrim's infamous sword swinger. Let's say there exists a skill called 'Sweep Attack' that denotes the character use its weapon in a wide 120° arc in front of it. This could apply to melee weapons - resulting in a wide sweeping attack and hitting everyone in the arc. It could also apply to ranged weapons where it would mean the character fires a volley of arrows in an arc over a long distance. It could even apply to magical staves or wands where it casts an arc of magical fire or ice, burning or freezing enemies caught in the cone-like attack. This would make this skill truly classless since every character, no matter what its build or weapon, could use it.
This also means that weapons could slot their primary function or effect into skills, transforming them in a way. A magical projectile skill could gain a knockdown effect if a blunt weapon were used or become a fireball if a magic wand with a fire damage type is wielded. Weapons as part in the greater web of connected game mechanics, rather than an appendage that just needs to be there.

Dragon Age: Inquisition's Tank MageThough not classless but vehemently anti-min-max, Dragon Age: Inquisition let me play a Tank Mage anyway when I specialized my Mage as a Knight-Enchanter. Oh, the Irony!

As with all things, a classless system should have balance and proper restrictions. For instance to prevent Mage Tank Syndrome where players min-max their character for maximum offence and maximum defence. Another argument for limited skill bars, balanced stat allocation and a party with members specialized for their role in the gameplan. Additionally the power versus defense trade-off could be explained in the fiction.

Your energy is mine. Guild Wars has a class that manipulates the enemy's energy.

In the end it's impossible to remove specialization from RPGs and we shouldn't strive to. You may as well take the role out of role playing. Better to take the concept and run with it, the more creative the better. As with the theoretical classless system I mentioned. I like systems that lets one class bleed over into the other. I like the way a class or subclass can direct the way you play a character. I like the odd classes too. Final Fantasy Four Warriors Of Light had a Salve-Maker class, Fire Emblem has a Bride class. Think about Blue Mages, Red Mages, Mesmers, ritualists, wayfarers... any game that has odd classes able to play a vital part in a game's gameplay surely points to a game with interesting and creative systems. I like how certain classes are able to focus on specific elements or abilities of the enemy. In guild wars a Mesmer drains the energy pool and directs the enemy spell casting behavior. At the time, I hadn't seen the like. All of these mechanics, and those like it, are symptomatic of a system that offers more depth than the plain "A Warrior absorbs damage". Of course it doesn't exclude this basic function, dealing damage is a primary gameplay element and taking damage is pretty much a given. But allowing the player to pick apart all the different gameplay details and manipulate them is the hallmark of a system complex enough to accommodate it. A system made for player interaction and creativity. Something to aspire to.

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Monday, May 4, 2015

Mind of the Beholder
Part 4

Something about simplicity
This is no mere ponder.

There once was a plumber. A simple, practical man, his overalls a second skin which come in handy whenever he needs to get down to business. Ready to collect his due anytime, anywhere - even if he needs to knock a few heads. Never does it tarnish his sunny demeanor. He's not just some plumber, he's the royal plumber. He cleans out all the pipes, in all the castles, in all the lands. He'll never stop, even if his employer gets kidnapped by a capricious giant turtle dragon that shoots fireballs. He scoffs mushrooms to bulk up, gets high on psychedelic flowers, dons a cape to fly like Superman, wears the corpse of a raccoon to use its tail as a flail. He stomps all the wildlife in his way for coin, because there's no such thing as a free lunch and his favorite shrooms are expensive. He's out to slay the dragon and save the princess like Saint George. You know of whom I speak, it's-a-Mario from Nintendo.

The man, the legend. Crush your enemies. See them driven before you. Hear the lamentations of their women.

The universe Mario inhabits is related to our reality in the same way an acid trip is and even though it may not make sense, it makes perfect sense as a game where rules rule. They've barely changed: navigate this spacial maze, run and jump, collect coins, splat enemies, defeat the dragon and save the princess. Easy to understand, the crazy world Mario inhabits doesn't get in the way of game logic.

There once was a hero of no repute and no description. He filled in the blanks and did not worry, he worked things out as he went along. He wanted to swing a sword. He'd swing it until he'd become the best Sword Swinger in the whole world. Then he realized the sword swinging was rather ethereal and couldn't deal very well with the realistically fleeing A.I. of the world's inhabitants so he made a career switch to swinging a bow and arrow. A resounding success! When our hero discovered he could perch atop a boulder and snipe giants with impunity he used realism to break the rules governing this universe. He also discovered that the world more or less dictated the way one was to behave and that it didn't make any qualms about breaking its own rules. Rules such as a prison having keys for all but one cell door, ironically this happened to be the only occupied cell. The hero's mission was to bail out the occupant with coin, which he did, but then the guard joked that he'd let him go 'eventually', little did any of us know the key must have been destroyed and this was an obvious bail-out racket. Or else all of this makes little sense.

The man, the legend. Crush your enemies. See them driven before you. Hear the lamentations of their women.

We are all sentient machines that explain. The highly interactive world I thought a game like Skyrim would portray is a pipe-dream. Bethesda had to ship the game at some point and I think they did right with Skyrim, even though some elements drove me up the wall. I'm all for an interactive world. I'm all for far-reaching consequences. It stands to reason that if you poison a town's water supply, anyone who drinks from the well gets ill. Yes, this has been done before, but I've yet to see it as mere possibility. Not as part of a task where the game supplies a button to click to apply poison to the water. Entirely different still if the game mandates through a quest text, that the well needs to be poisoned and all that's required is that:

  1. The player get the necessary 10 ingredients from slaying glowing rotworms
  2. Synthesize the poison by clicking the Synthesize action button supplied with the quest
  3. Apply the poison by clicking the well

This final example is usually found in a game that is built for questing and not for interactivity. It's also as exciting to play as flipping switches. On the other hand, having to feed my companions in Ultima 7 was, while funny at times, a chore. I could lead to interesting situations in a highly interactive world, but if feeding is abstracted to the following isolated actions it becomes annoying:

  1. Either collect ingredients for food or earn currency to afford it
  2. Spend either to obtain food
  3. Put the food into the player character

While realistic, it's not fun to play unless it ties into other meaningful game mechanics. In this case, if the food is there to prevent a debuff, and I assume this applies to NPCs and not just the player's party, why can't I poison the well so that I can prevent the removal of the debuff? A game not only has to simplify reality, it has to do something interesting with the result.

Because of their time investment, their associated cost, their hidden complexity, their demanding nature, it seems apparent that MMORPGs may be getting pushed (back) into a niche unless they can solve one or more of the listed issues.

The checklist quest I mentioned before is typical for MMOs. They have a reputation for supposedly being easy. But I feel as though I've made a grave error when I mentioned this before: MMO's are more complex than they let on. Especially at the highest level, where every feature comes into play. I recently continued my stint in Star Wars: The Old Republic and was momentarily lost in its complexity even though I had played it for months before. MMO's demand hundreds of hours which in turn lets players nestle themselves into its web of mechanics and mini games. By which I really mean that the MMO player interested in endgame content isn't casual, but very hardcore. Complex is a way to describe how a raid boss fight is conducted. There's little to sneeze at because this is essentially the multiplayer equivalent of a Metroid boss fight.

Wildstar Boss fights are usually impressive Wildstar's boss fights are some of the best in class.

Because of their time investment, their associated cost, their hidden complexity, their demanding nature, it seems apparent that MMORPGs may be getting pushed (back) into a niche unless they can solve one or more of the listed issues. Wildstar's entire success hinges on its ability to appeal to the most hardcore MMO player base. How the genre is to succeed while having to rely on a shrinking audience is worth a guess. But sure, having a MOBA styled PvP map seems like a worthwhile effort.

I thought it curious how hardcore an MMO can get, considering the trend of other big releases. Diablo 3 is a lot simpler than its predecessor. The Elder Scrolls games have lost some of their rules over time. Dragon Age, as seen in the previous post, has been dramatically and ruefully simplified. However, not all of it is bad. Simplification usually happens for good reasons. I buy coffee in its ground-up form rather than as beans. This saves me the hassle of grinding them up myself; I'm not hardcore enough to enjoy grinding.

In general, there's nothing wrong with streamlining. Less is more. But quality of life isn't the only argument for keeping things simple. For instance, Guild Wars is proof that limiting the skill bar in a party based RPG can have great gameplay value. At the time this set it apart from games that would plaster the screen with floating skill bars. With limited options, the player must select the right ones. Synergize skills, build a party with a game plan then test it against the game's challenges.

Guild Wars' hotbar Guild Wars' skill bar, 8 slots is all you have to work with, better make the most of it. This includes an Elite skill, distinguishable by the gold trimming.

This is the reason I was excited to hear that Dragon Age: Inquisition would also feature a limited skill bar. Eight skill slots is all you have to work with. Eight skills to be carefully selected from a wealth of strategic options. Eight representatives of a tactical plan, each character fulfilling a role in a large master plan that will foil the schemes of the arch-villain du jour. Sadly, I later learned that DA:I doesn't have the wealth of strategic options I would have liked. It still has the trinity roles, but each role only has a handful of skills - leaving some out in favor of others doesn't even factor into it. It is possible to combine roles to a fair extent but suffice to say that the game has a very narrow focus.

Dragon Age: Inquisition's hotbar Dragon Age: Inquisition has a limited skill bar but you won't be able to fill it long before the game's finale. The setup in the screen is that of a Knight-Enchanter, its gameplan is to conjure magical armour while it wades into combat wielding a magical sword. That's it. Strategic choices are quite limited.

I think the reason for the eight skill slots has everything to do with controller design, the game's UI is a dead giveaway. A controller has four (face)buttons, each of which is assigned to its own activated skill. Swap this initial set of four with another set of four using a trigger and you end up with the total of eight skills. I can't call this a console compromise because the classes were built from the ground up to function with only a few skills, but it does influence the game design taking it a far away from Origins - this was also its main source of criticism.
Dragon Age: Inquisition thoroughly simplified the character building by removing attribute point management - Dragon Age: Origins still had this - and has chosen to put the attribute growth on the passive abilities in the various skill trees. This ensures that if you go down the skill tree of a tank build where lots of hit points are a concerned, enough attribute points will be added to constitution, which governs the HP pool. This takes away user error, but one could argue it also takes away user choice.

I have slagged on god-character RPGs a lot in these series. But, admittedly, Diablo 3 does it rather well. It's where it slaughters demons by the hundreds. This is a class based game, each with its unique style and limited skill bar. The player is allowed to swap skills on the battlefield. Different problems, different solutions. Sadly, the game doesn't really take advantage of this: the players only need to build an effective damage dealing character so there's a tendency towards cookie-cutter builds. Here the game becomes too simple for its own good. Even if Diablo dictates what happens in the action RPG genre, there's plenty of wiggle room for competitors.

Diablo 3's hotbar Diablo 3 has a limited skill bar, skill selection is mostly governed by personal preference rather than the game's challenges.

It also removed attribute point management, Blizzard did the logical thing by removing a mechanic that just led to Min-maxing. Which is the phenomenon in which players maximize the primary statistic on a character, ignoring less useful stats. Using the game rules and simple maths it's possible to figure out at what stat allocation a character is at peak performance - once known, why deviate from it? In this case you could end up with a warrior with 265 strength, 15 dexterity and 15 intelligence. The requirement on melee weapons and damage output would typically be based on strength, so why add points to anything else? An image comes to mind of a barbarian who can twist open a jar of pickles in one go but can't tie his own bootlaces. I usually feel min-maxing is a bad thing too, because it allows the player to sidestep part of the game design, particularly if it isn't very sophisticated. I think Blizzard did the right thing. Diablo isn't an RPG in the classical sense so it doesn't hurt the game.
Note: During the writing of this text, the Paragon system patch was released in the ramp up to the Reaper Of Souls expansion. This allows max level characters to put paragon points into certain stats to specialize the character even more.

Diablo's story is insanity incarnate. Typically Blizzard, who continue to publish a sort of fantasy anime with a western Warhammer-esque esthetic. Featuring overconfident characters with megalomaniacal vocabularies, wielding words like "misbegotten" as if they were never used in a Blizzard game before. It's really quite funny: Sanctuary is the sort of place that's a one-to-one conversion of real, I use the term loosely, life monotheistic beliefs and superstitions, in a what if it was all true way. This is the setting's most relevant point. An earth-shattering, eternal conflict between good and evil where mankind is victimized, slain, enslaved and ultimately championed. Both forces of good and evil are heinous - only humanity has the right mix of salt and pepper to rise above the conflict - a sentiment I can appreciate. Vanquish demons and angels alike and so remove the conflict that poisons the world. Encapsulated in this caricature of delusions is the solution to it: stomp it out with extreme prejudice. Should you feel a little down on the whole premise there's the materialism needed to stoke your rage, loot fixes everything.
 
A bit of a shame, really. The game could be more thrilling if the pace was turned down a bit, and the enemies tougher, smarter and fewer. Anyone would argue this would make the game less 'Diablo', who am I to argue. Maybe there's another game to scratch that itch.

Diablo 2 didn't have class flexibility (skill trees, no respec) and an even more limited selection of active skills. Hotbars weren't yet current and the game forced the player to only use the two mouse buttons. Skills could be hot swapped by using the F-keys, it was clunky and hard to use. Its sequel fully incorporated modern interface design and made the game much more approachable. Diablo 3's gameplay received a similar treatment. Something as simple automatic gold pickup removes the tedium of having to... "aim and click" the cursor on a few coins then wait for the character to complete the move and pickup routine. Much more satisfying to watch the coins fly into your pockets, like a reverse gold fireworks, and it all happens without forcing you miss to a beat of the action. And let's also be honest: in a game where any sort of grind is involved wasting time is anathema.

Diablo 3's health orbs Health orbs, shown as red spheres, keep the pace of the game up.

Another noticeable evolution in the Diablo formula is the use of health and mana potions. The first two games had the, presumably unintended, phenomenon of potion chugging, meaning you could 'cheat' your way out of tough spots by using health pots which would restore hit points over a very short time. Chugging one after the other would make the player character near-invincible until they were all spent. In Diablo 3 this was corrected by putting a long cooldown on the use of potions. To compensate, slain baddies now drop health orbs which, like gold, are magnetically absorbed and replenish some health. Notice there's an added bonus for gameplay here, bosses are able to spawn additional baddies that drop health orbs too, making the fight less punishing and potentially more interesting as the developer can count on the fact that health replenishment is available during the fight. Which they cannot if the player has a limited and uncertain amount of potions. Not forcing a restart once health runs out relieves some of the stress while learning the fight too. This kind of regenerative health also makes it almost impossible for a player to get hard locked into a situation where he has neither potions and money, in which he has to restart the game, rerun the level, or grind more mobs for more - all of which are generally a bad experience. Taking a page out of the Zelda and God Of War playbook, health orbs fit rather nicely with the absurd premise of this game and its action gameplay. It's also easier to suspend your disbelief when an abstract idea like 'health orbs' are involved then it is to accept that a character instantly consumed a vial of liquid or in the case of Skyrim: an entire roast pig. Solving this is easy enough: take away the basis in reality is to remove the illusion-breaking issues that clash with said reality.

Many games use the eat-to-heal mechanic. Think of the Bethesda games. Worse yet, think of early World Of Warcraft, where the player character would always have to sit down, eat and drink in between fights to heal up. It coupled the unrealistic idea that food heals wounds with the realistic idea that eating takes a long time. Inanely absurd! It was one of the early signs that this game was not for me - it encouraged me to pull out hair, nails and eyes while waiting for the animation to finish.
An example of a game where I can get on board with the concept of food and cooking is Guild Wars 2 where it is one of the available, and optional, disciplines. The food it yields provides a temporary stat buff. This game's professions even provides a real sense of experimentation as the player is allowed to match ingredients to discover new recipes. It feels more playful than tedious.
When it comes to healing, GW2 adheres to the modern idea of rapid health regeneration, or even resuscitation with a severe stat penalty, once combat has ended. Numerous games use this to bypass the manual healing a player would usually have to do by casting a healing spell, then wait for it to come off cooldown, then to recast it till the character is back at full health. Needless to say, this bogs down pacing and creates tedium.

Guild Wars 2 is full of good ideas, but lacks some of the ones that made the original such a unique design.

Like its predecessor compared to its contemporaries before it, Guild Wars 2 is special and may as well have "Detox MMO" for a subtitle. The reluctance to waste the player's time with grind and nonsense is part of the developer's design philosophy. It doesn't have any signpost quests but area based, timed missions the player just wanders into while exploring. Participating is optional and the rewards are according to player performance. It has flexible classes. It doesn't have a library of skills, its skills are tied to weapon types which in turn also dictate playstyles. Toggle between two weapon sets for adaptability and combos.

Guild Wars 2's hotbar For comparison's sake and symptomatic of how this game is played: Guild Wars 2's skill bar, 3 slots for the main hand, 2 for the off-hand, a healing skill, 3 class skills and 1 ultimate.

It has a personalized story that defines your character as a personality and not just as a player avatar. It uses a handful well-defined hero characters as anchors to the world instead of endless anonymous quest givers. It doesn't have separate PvP and PvE gear tracks. It doesn't have a sub fee. Sadly though, it takes a step away from being a Role Playing Game and towards being an open playground theme park. It doesn't have the 'poison the well' interactivity, but it does have spontaneous events that make the world appear more alive than the competition's. However, it also doesn't have the trinity and its mechanics, it doesn't have its predecessor's companion system and its open ended party building. These last two points have a pretty big impact. What makes having a party so valuable? Well, I really should make a separate post on the topic.

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