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Bringing the Puzzle into the mainstream

April 3, 2008 Leave a comment

I was having a long overdue clear-out of my cupboard and I found a few interesting things I have managed to accumulate over the last few years. The one bit that peaked my interest the most was the box for Red Alert: Counterstrike. This was the first (and worst) expansion pack for Command and Conquer Red Alert, still inside the box was the manual and the coded communication. For those of you who do not remember (or never played this game) to the right is a picture of one side of this coded communication.

The encoding was very simple, it was Morse code, if you deciphered it, you would be told how to access the built in (and secret) hidden ant missions which were not alluded to in the actual game. It got me thinking, when was the last time gamers were really challenged with puzzles in mainstream games? RPGs in general almost always feature quite unique and challenging puzzles. The n64 versions of the Legend of Zelda series of games had some of the more varied and fun puzzles but there are many more examples of such games. This is a genre that has Incorporated RPG elements as one of its key gameplay points. How many new RPGs actually utilise puzzles to challenge the player? Most newer RPGs seem to believe NPC or item hunting around the game ‘world’ map to be the height of puzzle solving, whilst this can be fun, it does not even remotely compare to RPGs of old.

Lets take a look at the main genres in PC gaming and see how they are (or are not) innovating.

Real Time Strategy games in general have no puzzle solving within the gameplay. That does not mean they are brainless mass-mindless-click games however, more modern RTS games like Company of Heros or Supreme Commander do require the player to carefully think through their next move rather than rely on tank rush tactics of old. Games like Company of Heros have value added features which require the player to complete each mission whilst meeting some modest requirement (e.g. no less than 5 tank losses or inflict 300 casualties) but these only serve to give the games some limited replay factor, they do not encourage the player to think much. The unfortunate downside to many of the more complex RTS games is they suffer greatly from their own complexity. This is most obvious in Supreme Commander where the great requirement for micromanagement seriously detracts from the fun gameplay.

First Person Shooter games are some of the worst culprits when it comes to innovation. More and more game companies believe that the answer to their next shooter is to build a new engine and rehash gameplay from previous titles. Whilst in a lot of cases produces some excellent games (Crysis, Call of Duty 4, Bioshock etc) in terms of innovating or bringing something new and challenging to the genre, they tend to fall flat. There are a few notable exceptions thankfully and by a strange coincidence they mostly appear to use the early ID engines or Id tech 4 engine. It all started with Quake back in 1997, a (for then) stunning true 3D game which became the most touted reason to buy a (or upgrade your) computer that year for gamers. What it did well is, apart from being an ego shooter, there were secrets which were challenging to find as well as a number of func_triggers that either had to be shot (or touched by the player) in order to allow them to progress in the game. This along with the introduction of pseudo physics gave players a new dimension to think in when playing FPS games and was in stark contrast to pseudo 3D games like the original Doom series.

Doom 3 on the other hand was a different story, featuring a (then) revolutionary FPS engine, it sought not only to stun gamers, but also to add a little bit of uniqueness to the genre. It was a lot of fun to play but in a lot of ways it’s desire to innovate fell short of the mark. Whilst obtaining UAC PDAs was a new take and added to the immersion in the UAC universe (hunting for codes to Supply cabinets was interesting) it didn’t really present any new challenges to the seasoned FPS player.

Prey, a game based on the Doom 3 engine on the other hand had an excellent concept – one of spirituality. Unfortunately this game seemed to have dropped out of the lime light fairly soon after it’s release which is a shame, but it presented a Doom-esque game whilst presenting a fair few challenges. The protagonist is an American Indian who has the ability to move through some objects / force fields with his spirit, which, the player can swap into and then back to his physical form. This coupled with the physics defying walkways gave the game a fairly unique feel seperating it from the realms of the generic Doom shooter clone.

S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is also worth mentioning here because, whilst it does not have any puzzle solving quests in the traditional sense, the game itself can be thought of as an FPS game crossed with a RPG Mystery. It is by no means the first game to have alternative endings and although all seven of them can be broken down into two categories, there was something very fun about unravelling the mystery. It takes effort to go after the side quests in order to achieve this and it is very easy to by pass altogether. This is an example of an FPS story told well, it is a story that unfolds very slowly based on player effort and interpretation. Other games tend to just unravel their stories based on the player’s progression which is by no means as effective (although F.E.A.R is an except to that.) S.T.A.L.K.E.R. could have done so much more though, for example introducing PDA style journals inside their existing system to add atmosphere. The existing system of, you kill someone/find a body and automatically download the information (including stash locations) is a bit too automated. Something like this has to be carefully implemented in order to add to the game rather than give the player reams of pointless prose which they (mostly) will skip like the copious books in Morrowind and Oblivion. A good example of where this journalised PDA system could have been put to good use would be in the X18 lab (With the poltergeist) with all the keypad locked doors. I would have loved to read a paragraph from the dead scientist’s PDA rather than just hearing a brief voice clip telling me the code.

Of course now we come to Portal. The reason behind Portal’s phenomenal success (it was initially viewed as a fun side-mod to Episode 2 by Valve) was that is was completely different. In a way, it was more of a tech demo with a story than a game in itself, but look at the critical response it had from users and reviewers. If nothing else, the amount of fun and enjoyment Portal gave to a wide gaming community speaks volumes for the need for more puzzle elements in modern games.

I wanted to talk about RPG games as well as some other genres, but I can not really find any examples which add greatly add to this discussion. I will however make them the focus of a future post on this topic.

A puzzle does not have to be a scrambled message on an extra bit of paper shipped with the game, it could be far more subtle, it could be a geometric puzzle (wonderful examples in Zelda, Ocarina of Time), it could be a story driven puzzle which gives secondary story arcs (like STALKER) or event a RPG style event driven puzzle. The point I am labouring to make is that there are a huge variety of ways games puzzled and challenged us before graphics became the driving force behind game development. I just hope we will start to see some mainstream games which present more of a fulfilling challenge than we have seen in the last few years.

For Mother Russia!!!

February 15, 2008 2 comments

It seems the last couple of days have been filled with exciting game news. EA have officially announced their intention to release a Command and Conquer Red Alert 3 game. Almost seven years on from Red Alert 2, this game has been on the drawing boards over at the Allied Tech Center for a number of years.

Firstly, I can’t think of a reason not to welcome this news. The Command and Conquer series is a popular RTS-for-the-masses type of game which broad appeal. If EA manage to pull of a good sequel then I will be the first one quing up on the release day. However, from the early indications, it sounds as though EA might fall into the trap of making the same mistakes they made with C&C 3.I personally am a huge fan of both the GDI/NOD C&C universe and the ‘Timeline gone wrong’ Soviets vs Allies of Red Alert. When I got hold of C&C 3 I was initially impressed by the visceral graphics and the big names in the FMV cut scenes… but this quickly cooled when I got into the single player missions and found them dull, uninspired and really lacking in any strategic depth. The inclusion of a third race made for an interesting and exciting game play change particularly as their tech tree was completely different (exactly as one should expect.) However EA made the mistake of making them ‘War of the Worlds’-esque which made player hanker for larger, towering, practically indestructible creatures. Instead, the Scrin were given watered down units which had just enough resemblance to make players think ‘War of the Worlds’ but neither looked, sounded or acted menacing enough. C&C 3, for me was a big disappointment with tedious micro management and a complete lack of sophistication making the single player experience dull.

Now lets look back to September, 2000 when Red Alert 2 was released. In many ways it was a great step forward from Red Alert 1. Graphically it was wonderfully polished, the introduction of better and more exciting super weapons and an array of imaginative unit types and tech buildings really shook things up and made for a highly enjoyable experience. The Yuri’s Revenge expansion pack did a great job at introducing a completely new type of playable faction as well as a variety of tweaks whist keeping the much loved ‘tank vs tesla coil’ approach intact. The biggest downside to Red Alert 2 is that it looked far too much like a cartoon and although there was a greater scope for strategy, it was largely overlooked due to poorly balanced units like the Prism tank or Kirov Airship.

There is a lot of talk about how EA are going to introduce a third side to spice up Red Alert 3 etc etc. I think this is primarily what will be their down fall if they are not careful. In the beginning when the first C&C and Red Alert were released, there was a clear divide between them. C&C was set slightly in the future with a completely fictional universe, units and resource. Red Alert was completed different in that it took the same RTS elements, but brought in a realistic (i.e. factually accurate-ish) universe. That differentiation was good but now it seems, especially with what EA did with Red Alert 2, that they prefer the to set their games in a far more fictional universe. I have nothing against this concept (Terror Drone FTW but units like the Squid/Dolphin take it too far) I hope they do not ruin RA 3 like C&C 3.

The biggest criticism that has always been brought against the C&C franchises is that they are prone to tank rushes. Command and Conquer Generals knocked that on the head by beautifully tweaking damage levels by unit type. No longer could a single rifle soldier take down a heavy tank or a building (given enough time) nor could an aircraft unload several bomb loads at an Infantry unit only to have them get up and look around as if they had been taking a nap. If I was in charge of making Red Alert 3, I would make it a mixture of a Red Alert 1/2 technology universe (minus Yuri’s faction) with the Generals damage engine focusing primarily to game-play rather than making it look pretty. To quote Abe Simpson “Just don’t screw it up.” :)

Image credit = http://www.commandconquer3.com/alien_units.html, http://mo.cncguild.net/index.php?page=soviet_units

America’s Army : “MEDIC!!!”

January 19, 2008 Leave a comment

America’s Army, a free game based on the unreal engine (v2.0, later 2.5 hopefully v3.0 soon), designed and developed by the US Army as a rather (unapologetic) recruiting tool. This statement to one side, I have to admit to being a huge fan of the game and used to play it religiously a couple of years back. Its ‘accurate’ simulation of military situations and tactics was a far cry from FPS games at the time and provided a nice grittier version of war / small unit combat than counter strike and similar games and as a result it sucked me in.

 

Later patches added specialist units such as medics. Before a player could select this class however, he/she was required to complete a short tutorial which aimed to provide real (if brief) information as to how to provide battlefield aid to wounded soldiers. This was supposedly followed up by a test that the player was required to pass, however rather than question any of the (superfluous) information given to the player, all that was required was for the medic trainee to run to three fallen soldiers and deal with them based on the severity of their condition. This is displayed prominently as a health bar.

Nether-the-less Wired has a story about one Paxton Galvanek, a America’s Army player who used the basic training received in the game to provide emergency aid to a pair of car crash victims.

Galvanek said he learned about controlling bleeding from playing section two of the “medic” class training in America’s Army, a game developed by the Army as a recruitment tool.

“I have received no prior medical training and can honestly say that because of the training and presentations within America’s Army, I was able to help and possibly save the injured men,” Galvanek said.

For years since it’s inception, AA has been plagued by stories / parental and public concerns chiefly surrounding the game making kids ‘better criminals/murders.’ The game developers and community have come out to counter these claims (just read the long FAQs) claiming that a computer game is in-fact, a far cry from reality. Ironic this then is it not :)

New Games!

December 8, 2007 2 comments

Sometimes is pays to work in retail, today I bought 3 games (each originally £35) for £18 … Woohoo! Two have been on my list for a little while so I am quite looking forward to Geeking out tomorrow. I will try to put in a few relevant / thought-out posts in the next few days, if I don’t quite manage then I hope you will understand and forgive me. :)

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