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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.

The (fairly) Definitive List for all XCOM Fans!

March 17, 2008 6 comments

I blogged before about XCOM: Enemy Unknown, a game released in 1994 which is still today heralded as the first (and so far only) example of a real time strategy (RTS) game which combines turn based strategy seamlessly to make a very accessible, enjoyable game. Easy to play but at the same time, involves a great deal of thought to get right.

I will start off with the direct clones, games that, either as a result of an open source community or a big software house have tried to recreate the magic.

Isomer

IndieDB link , Project link

A new isometric style strategy game heavily influenced by XCOM currently in development by an indie team. It features world exploration and survival elements with the player controlling alien forces hell-bent on conquering human worlds for their vast resources. The worlds are large, teeming with catacombs and life, procedurally generated with gameplay inspired by classic XCOM and dwarf fortress style games.

This is a project I am involved in and as a result I have snuck it in at the top of this list ;)

XCOM: Enemy Unknown

Steam link

A reimaging recently released by Firaxis which started off as a modern remake of the classic original UFO:Enemy Unknown but then evolved into a unique direction. Having played it there is almost nothing I can say against it. XCOM:EU is a fun, almost nostalgic jaunt through the XCOM universe I so enjoy with some modern twists. In many aspects the original has been simplified which is my only mild criticism, however what is there is so refined as to almost bring giddy glee to me whenever I play. I highly recommend.

UFO2000

(Project link)

Perhaps the original, the one that started it all. The majority of the work was done by a Russian programmer who did a magnificent job of laying down the basic framework. With the 0.2.x builds, you could randomly generate a terrain and populate it with soldiers playing a very basic hot-seat style multiplayer game. Since then, a great deal of work has gone into this project to improve and expand on this framework. It has become a fairly stable multiplayer game with its own hosted server which is normally always populated and even has its own (rough) league table based on the completed games.

The only problem I have is that, in an attempt to shed all non F/OSS content, they have dropped the requirement for the UFO: Enemy Unknown graphics. What this means is that you can play with an entirely community made set of artwork / weapons. This is great in some ways and a lot of people have contributed both terrain, weapon sets and armour artwork but this is the project’s greatest problem at present. There are so many different weapon sets you can choose from (as well as armour and graphics) that the game feels as though it has abandoned its routes in the xcom universe. Personally I feel that the game should stick to what it is good at (being a multiplayer UFO:EU clone) and have these community driven skins/models on a completely different server.

This is definitely the most mature project (it supports both UFO: Enemy Unknown AND Terror from the deep graphic sets) infact, most telling is what is currently NOT supported:

  • Single player mode.

Having recently added flying units and deloyable aliens such as the Floater, Ethereal and Snakeman making this clone the most feature complete around at present and definitely one I would strongly recommend.

UFO: AI (Alien Invasion)

(Project Link)

Is another fairly recent project that has come forwards in leaps and bounds in the last few years. Based on the open source Quake 2 (known internally as the id Tech 2) engine, the team behind UFO:AI have spent considerable time making the maps modular and converting this first person engine into a RTS style one. While at the low level, the engine is still a FPS, the camera has been dramatically modified as to is the engine’s ability to handle dynamic map production through the stitching of smaller map units. I have played a few of the builds the team has released in the last few years and overall I am impressed.

Unfortunately the game suffers from a very jagged feel, unit movement and shooting phases do not feel fluidic and it is quite hard to beat the aliens who seem to have an unfair advantage coded in. Given the limitations of the engine they started with, they have made huge progress but I am unconvinced this project will mature much further.

X-Force: Fight for Destiny

(Project link)

This is one of the clones of Ufo: Enemy unknown that I really enjoyed playing, although very rough around the edges you can see the amount of planning that has gone into this game and it is fun to play. The moot point is that the native language of the development team is German, this would not be an issue if it was not for the very poor job someone did translating some of it (the rest of the clone is still in German.) There are several key things which make this game quite enjoyable, firstly the game is uniquely different, but easy for a XCOM veteran to pick up and play with minial adjustment, and secondly, the way in which destructible terrain has been implemented. In a way it feels a lot more like Apocalipse but in the UFO: EU universe which makes it quite entertaining. I have not tried the more recent builds but this is one I would definitely recommend you try.

Project Xenocide

(Project link)

This clone has wowed with spectacular renders and very grand plans, unfortunately this project started life as a kind of Geoscape (the real time strategy part of UFO: Enemy Unknown) tech demo and a few years on that shows. Whilst the Geoscape looks quite mature, the extent to which the tactical aspect has been developed can been seen in their 2007 tech demo video. This is not a serious clone at the moment because it is missing the most vital part of UFO:EU. It would be interesting if the team from Project Xenocide merged with the UFO 2000 team, although that is unlikely as it is clear they have their own plans for the Tactical element of the game. Sadly at the moment all they are is a fairly dull tech demo.

UFO Pocket PC

(Project link)

This is more of a port than a clone although technically the latter is the case. The Russian team (seeing a trend here? :D) have out of nowhere completed a very comprehensive clone for the Windows Mobile Pocket PC platform. I barely use my PDA but I tried it out and was pleasantly impressed. In my mobile was Pocket PC (its Symbian) then I would carry thisw around with me everywhere, the port is that good. The only minor niggle is the look system for the soldiers. Due to the touch screen only having a left click implementation, turning your soldiers is a bit cumbersome.

Whilst a lot of the GUI/ management screens are unique to this port, the game itself has been remade with astonishing accuracy. This is definately one to try if you have a Pocket PC.

UFO: Extraterrestrials

(Project Link)

Definately one of the most polished clones, this game is a commercial offering set in a similar universe (although not the same to avoid royalty costs to the present holder of the XCOM trademark) to the originals. The Geoscape and Tactical elements are almost identical but with a variety of subtle differences. I got bored about half way through this game as it seemed to lack any real innovation. Whilst graphically it is very good, the combat seems a little meek compared to the vicious bark of the original Heavy Plasma rifle. That being said, it has a variety of game modes and the aliens are not stupid requiring a cautious commander versed in tactical thinking.

I really like the way combat is depicted on the Geoscape, whilst in the original time ‘stopped’ during an interception whilst your interceptor battled the UFO in the popup screen, the battle takes place in all its glory right on your Geoscape which I was very impressed by. There is no doubt about it, this is a game to buy as it will provide hours of enjoyment.

The Altar Games : Aftermath, Aftershock, Afterlight

Of course, no list of XCOM universe remakes would be complete without a nod to Altar Entertainment and their trilogy of games. Aftermath came first and, whilst it was a clone of UFO:EU it has a completely different storyline which is actually quite good.

The game starts in a movie theater with a strange dust floating in the projected light, the camera tilts and you everyone is dead, suffocated by strange, alien spores. The game starts by telling you ‘yesterday’ and alien craft arrived in orbit, all communication failed and it began unleashing spores into the atmosphere. There spores blanketed the world and suffocated most of the human race. Only a select few remain. (Enter player)

The Geoscape is very different to classic UFO:EU/Xcom games in that, you start off with a small sector of the globe under your control. This is your base, you must expand your territory as you go along by completing missions and ridding nearby sectors of aliens, both mutants and the intelligent ‘grey’ like species which look suspiciously like stectoids. As you gain territory, you come across other humans who can join your ranks as soldiers. You also perform UFO intercepts and raiding missions (although you do not learn how to enter the UFOs till later.) Overall the game is extremely enjoyable and the best of the three games from Altar, however it is crippled later on by the aliens developing a second stage to their technology which is so powerful, even an experienced play could have difficulty getting more than a 1:1 kill ratio (aliens for your soldiers) which any die hard fan will agree is too hard, especially given the scarcity of volunteers.

I must mention the Geoscape interception of UFOs which is done in a unique and fun way. The battle is not controlled by the player but in the form of a brief (20 second) video of the dog fight your interceptors have with the UFO(s). This is both fun and exciting as there are a number of different outcomes which all have their own video sequence.

I only briefly played the second two games from Altar as I found them very boring and without any real redeeming features after a few hours. I do recommend Aftermath but not the other two.

I want to finish by mentioning the games that are set in the XCOM universe, but are either a completely different genre.

Clancy: The XCOM Story

(Project link)

This is a WIP first person shooter mod for Half Life 2 set in the XCOM universe. It appears to be a linear story driven campaign in the fairly early stages although the project has a great website and introductory video which I highly recommend. Ever since seeing the damage the UFO did in Half Life 2: Gary’s Mod I have been longing for a XCOM mod. This *could* be the answer, we shall have to see.

If nothing else, I highly encourage you to watch their preview movie on their website. :)

XCOM: A Last Hope

(Project link)

This is a multiplayer first person shooter, also utlising the Half Life 2 engine. It looks as though the mod creators are aiming at an XCOM themed Counter Strike style game and although very much a WIP, they have released several builds. This is not one that I have tried, but it does look interesting if in need of graphical polish.

Although in truth, I should really add Terror from the Deep and Xcom Apocalipse to this list, as well as the other games officially released by the XCOM franchise, but to be honest they do not really feature on my list. The reason for this is Terror from the deep, whilst it has a lot of interesting tweaks / additions is just UFO:EU with a fresh coat of paint for me. Xcom Apocalipse is a great game, but I treat it as a new game (like the Altar series.)

So that is it, for the moment! If I have missed any games out feel free to comment and berate me :)

UPDATE : 05/06/08 :

Corrected a few spelling mistakes. Also, UFO Pocket PC appears to have gone offline. The domain at which it was hosted is not longer available which is a shame. It was definitely something worth trying out if you owned a pocket PC.

UPDATE : 24/06/08 :

URL problem seems to have corrected itself. Pocket PC UFO is back. :)

UPDATE: 31/10/12 :

After quite some time and given the amount of traffic this post recieves, I’ve added some new recent projects that any self respecting XCOM fan will enjoy trying out. :)

Retro gaming…

February 25, 2008 1 comment

Sometimes it is easy to forget the games released a few years ago that defined a generation or genre of games. Take for example the Doom, Quake, C&C, War/Starcraft series (and many other notable games) that to this day are unrivaled. More and more games are repeating the same tired methodology of taking an idea that has worked in the past and simply slapping a next generation engine on it.

That is not to say that games like Call of Duty 4, Crysis, Doom 3, Generals, Bioshock, Battlefield etc are not great games in their own right, its just sometimes one has to look back at those old classics and realise (in my faux-American persona) ‘Gee… they don’t make them like that any more.’

One of the best examples of games that refuse to roll over and quietly sleep in the history books is UFO Enemy Unknown (or XCOM UFO Defense for my American Visitors.) This is one of the only games that I pick up and play all the way through every six to twelve months.

This game has undoubtedly aged – it was released in 1994 and set in the not too distant future (1999.) You are XCOM, a global defense force charged with protecting the earth from the unexpected and unknown visitors from the sky. There are two modes, a management mode called the Geoscape (real time) where you manage your bases and intercept UFOs and a Tactical mode (turn based) where you deploy your troops to storm crashed/landed UFOs and protect the populace from Alien terror missions.

The graphics are very basic – no hardware acceleration (although the manual cautions you that you may have difficulties playing the game with only 2Mb of RAM) and the very low resolution of 640×480 (VGA). Strangely, you get used to this. The graphics are beautifully designed with aliens that do look frightening (especially when your soldiers make contact in the night) and very visceral. Everything about this game is well thought out and give the impression of absolute freedom. There is no linear path to the game and you can play in any way you like which was unprecedented at the time (and still not matched.)

I recently spotted a first person shooter remake based on the Half life 2 engine. Lets make no mistake, if the team pulls this off it will be incredible. There are a number of remakes floating around, but I will make that the focus of a future post.

Sadly the sequels to UFO Enemy unknown were disappointing. XCOM Terror from the Deep was essentially a rehashed version set at the bottom of the sea. While there are some nice tactical additions to the game, apart from being harder and a lot less forgiving than the original, it is fairly dull and uninspiring. Xcom Apocalipse was enjoyable but the key to this game is not considering it a sequel but a stand alone game.

In summary, if you have not played any games from the XCOM series, you are lacking in your computer game exposure. I highly recommend you play the original, either via dosbox or VirtualPC. Alternatively, there are ‘Windows XP versions’ of this game floating around with a program that slows down your PC to make the game playable, these can be found on abandon-ware sites.

UPDATE: The Win9x version does not work under Vista.

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