Friday, August 7, 2009

Red Baron (1990) Review

It’s Armistice day, 1918. “Our boys return home!” proclaim the newspapers, alongside pictures of troops marching through London. I smile as I imagine Capt. Frank, my Red Baron alter ego sitting back with a pipe & slippers, recounting tales of his exploits to an adoring crowd.

I signed up (as Frank) for Red Baron’s fully dynamic campaign in 1916. Bob and Fred before him had met their untimely deaths over the trenches, but I knew Frank would be different. Mainly because I’d noticed that if you die during a mission you can hit “restart” and so live to fight another day.

You start your Red Baron career as a lowly 2nd lieutenant but as you fly sorties over the front and score victories you are showered with medals and promotions until at the rank of captain you are given your own personal aircraft (which can be painted) and the command of up to four pilots.

In 1916, however, that was all in the future. Only through flying many, many missions was I to have a chance of becoming a captain. Red Baron has a number of different mission types, all of them varieties on 1.) Escorting a scout or bomber, 2.) Dogfighting and 3.) Shooting up enemy balloons. These missions vary wildly in excitement levels with “Balloon busting” missions being the most challenging and thus the most fun, as you must shoot down balloons while dodging flak and, usually, a squadron of enemy fighters. Escort missions, by contrast, are nearly always dull. You fly behind the (incredibly slow) plane you’re escorting before a couple of enemy fighters drop in on you, shoot the escortee down. Every. Single. Time.

Breaking up the monotony of these missions is the occasional challenge you’ll receive from a rival fighter ace to a one on one duel. The aces are, understandably, very much harder to deal with than most opponents you face and this, madly, is exacerbated by what I can only assume to be a bug. Despite the mission brief explicitly saying “one on one duel” your opponent always turns up with a squadron of friends. As such I shied away from such duels in the early game, just to keep poor Frank alive.

Also helping to keep the game fresh is the transfer system. You’ll occasionally be invited to join a different squadron (when you reach the rank of 1st lieutenant you’re able to request transfers) and this is always a welcome change, since the new squadron will invariably be equipped with a different aircraft and usually be given a different combination of missions. Frank was unlucky enough to end up in a squadron that seemed to be entirely dedicated to escort missions, leading to the deaths of many bomber crews and recon aircraft.

Even with transfers, however, the few mission types do begin to grate, simply because they’ve been seen so often before. Dogfights are always entertaining but the endless patrol the front missions, in which you fly around a bit and *might* happen across an enemy plane get very dull very quickly. This rather inconvenient truth will undoubtedly be left out of Frank’s tales, along with the six months he spent in a prison camp after a semi-deliberate crash landing, from May 1918 to November 1918, just to get the war over with.

79% - Great fun, pity about the lack of variety.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Extreme Gold Mining: The Post-Morteming

I don't think I did half bad with Extreme Gold Mining. What I put out from a week's worth of work is still further than a lot of my projects tend to get. It's a question of scale - without a time limit or anyone else involved my ideas spiral wildly out of control.

Until I realised just how tight the time limit was, Gold Mining was set to be a massive sprawling Metroid-esque underground Dwarven city overrun by goblins, with the ability to mine out new passages all with the chance of collapsing and physics for collapsing bridges, rockslides, and so on.

Regardless, this is more a discussion about what failed - the level design. The basic graphics and dodgy looking menu screen I'm not bothered by - the time limit dictated that as much as anything. But the problem with the level is that I had no plan. I plonked down the start and end points, and then tried to fill in the middle section almost at random.

The original aim for the level was to create something which people would replay several times - to test out new routes and to try and get a better score (either by being faster, collecting more gold on the way, or both). It didn't work. There are multiple routes, but everyone ends up stuck on the bottom. And getting back up again requires two frustrating wall jumps and about 30 seconds off your time.

One day, I'm hoping to go back and fix up the level by replacing it entirely with something that works much better. It needs to be bigger in general, but it also needs to be much easier to move between levels of the mine. Internal lifts might be one way of doing this. There also needs to be a much clearer progression from start to finish.

Currently in beta for the software I used to make this game is the option to compile the code as a web-friendly Java applet. Once this is released I intend to update the game and put out an online version; given the simplicity of the game it seems much more suited to an online environment.

So this proposed list of changes, as I see it, would be:
  • Replace the level with something properly planned out. The level needs to flow much better and be easier to navigate.
  • Engine tweaks - Removing the midair slowdown would make jumping while at low speeds easier.
  • More consistent graphics - Replace all counters and fonts; especially on the title screen.
  • Original Music - I'd at least want to replace the Kirby tune with something less copyright-tastic. Possibly I need to learn how to make some 8bit/chiptune music.

If anyone is interested, the game was made in Multimedia Fusion 2 ( Rather than typing out code, the interface is mouse driven. It gets pretty complex, so I wouldn't say it's an easy alternative to a programming language. But you can certainly be doing fun and interesting stuff with it much faster than you could with most languages out there. Some big indie games have been made in it. Knytt, Within a Deep Forest, Tormishire, Noitu Love, The Underside, A Game With A Kitty. The list goes on, and that's only the platform games.

The next time I get the urge to make something, I fancy doing different things. Some sort of RPG based around procedurally generated content, perhaps...

And thus my brain is back to formulating impossibly large projects again.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Hermit says mean things about: Mirror's Edge

Mirror’s Edge was a very good game. Visually stunning, outside of the 2D cutscenes at any rate. And I loved the free-running – the game made control simple, and then could concentrate on making the level design itself interesting and complex.

But I’m not sure I’d want to recommend it to people. Because for every awesome moment of gravity defying jumping there was a section made of utter fail and bullets. Consider this a bit of a rant about MEs combat, as well as some thoughts on what would have worked much better if they’d put a bit more thought into it. I've avoided much talk about the non-combat gameplay or the storyline, as it was the combat that really ruined the experience for me.


“There’s a murder, Merc!” exclaims Faith over her Bluetooth mobile phone thing. “I’m tracking down the murderer!” More sighs from Merc on the other end. “I’m going to bring this evil murderer to justice!” continues Faith down the phone, while she repeatedly punches a dead police officer in the face. “What’s that, Merc? ’Do some actual delivery work’? No chance, I’m on the trail of a murderer!”

Faith’s moral outrage at the murder of some bloke she hardly knew is hilarious. Not least because by the time you reach the crime scene at the end of level 2, chances are you’ve already killed at least one police officer.

Admittedly it isn’t entirely Faith’s fault. The rooftop speed police take their job very seriously. “There’s someone up here, sarge. They’re running around, sarge! What’ll we do sarge?” “Running? Not on my watch! Shoot to kill, lads! Free doughnuts for the one who takes her down!”

For the first level or so the designers remembered they were supposed to be making a game about running. You’re able to actually escape the police, and it feels like a triumph. Only then Faith’s magical Red-Paint-O-Vision kicks in, highlighting officers with a red glow that means “If you don’t kill this one he’ll shoot you in the back and totally mess up your jump. And then you’ll fall and die and have to go back to that last checkpoint. You know the one. It was way back over there somewhere.”

The game tries to give you a variety of combat options. Disarming opponents sounds like a winner; you steal their gun and knock them out. It’s a non-lethal takedown even Bond would be proud of. When it works, at least. Even if you complete the QTE-style disarm, you have to contend with the painfully long animations. Looking cool and flashy is no good if you end up dead.

Every time Faith disarms someone, she briefly thinks she’s back on her primary school Baton Twirling squad. “I’m gonna win!” thinks 8-year old Inner Faith happily, as the machine gun she’s stolen spins wildly up into the air. Meanwhile, three SWAT men shoot her repeatedly in the face with shotguns. Usually the gun you’ve nicked falls out of the air at just the right time to hit your rapidly collapsing self on the head like a cartoon anvil.

So pretty quickly you find disarming a bit hit and miss. As in the police hit Miss Faith in the face a lot while she does it. So you turn to the other part of your arsenal. Fists and feet. Now, usually, if someone punched me in the face or kicked me in the groin, I’d at least get hurt. But either the police are made of steel or Faith punches like a girl.

Most enemies require four or five hits to take them down. And if you try and punch the same enemy too much he gets some sort of temporary invulnerability. Then he smacks you in the face. And by god, do you feel it. None of this “Oh, did you hit me in the face? I didn’t feel a thing”, but more “Oh god you hit me in the face!” And while Faith staggers around like a drunk, all the police are quite free to shoot you repeatedly. It’s a recurring theme.

Eventually, you’ll get your hands on a gun and not die in the process. At this point you’re usually set to get through most combat situations. The dodgy bullet time mechanic is no good for lining up shots or nicking guns like it should be, but it’s handy for retreating to the nearest cover to let your health recharge. Other than that it’s a case of strafing and aiming, hoping the auto aim guides the bullets home before you run out of ammo.

The problem with the combat is that it breaks the flow of the game entirely. Mirror’s Edge is about speed and momentum, but every combat section brings this momentum to a halt as you go through the annoying process of dodgy combat. It gets worse in the second half of the game where the tedium of fighting outweighs the actual fun running sections. By the final level it’s all combat, with obstacles like air vents put in only to ensure you don’t carry weapons from one battle to the next.

It seems clear that the combat was added in later, probably due to some fear that the game wouldn’t do so well without people to kill every five minutes. If anything, the combat has been picked up on again and again in reviews as a real weak point. It adds nothing to the game. With some thought, though, it might not have been so bad.

A loading tip screen suggests stringing moves together with combat. But despite pulling off a flying kick from a running wall jump, it did no extra damage. The officer did his usual stagger, shook it off, and still required a volley of punches to drop. Combining running and combat like this would have diminished that sense of there being two separate games at work in Mirror’s Edge, and perhaps improved the experience as a whole.

From a design point of view, the police shouldn’t be treated as enemies to defeat. They should be seen as obstacles to overcome, just like a string of jumps or a gap to swing over.

Why not give Faith a charging headbutt so she could knock a policeman over and keep going? Or let Faith use that move in one of the loading screens, where she throws one policeman into another and runs off? Why not include boxes or shelves that you can knock over as you run by to slow down any officers running after you? Faith’s abilities should be about delaying her pursuers long enough to escape, not leaving a trail of bodies.

I expect there was some thinking along these lines. But it’s a shame that like so many other games they pushed for a Christmas release. A release date in less crowded times would have allowed for some much needed polish on these frustrating sections, and could well have resulted in better sales. Here’s hoping they take this on board for a sequel.

JavaGame thoughts, written far too late at night and making barely any sense.

If I've learned any one thing following the "Make Something In A Week" competition on the CSC forums it is the importance of progression as a gameplay element. It sounds absurdly obvious but, partially due to time constraints, I didn't even consider it during the week I had.

JavaGame is a completely one trick pony, with the simplest excuse for a gameplay mechanic that it is possible to have. I was fully aware of this when I submitted it and expected plenty of comments pointing this out.

I got them, but not quite as I was expecting.

Hehe, a bit too easy to win, Java.
Still fun at first, though -Davik

This comment intrigued me, mainly because it's not actually possible to WIN JavaGame in its current state. You weren't supposed to. The idea was purely that you could select places to rob and gain money from this, the closest this got to being fun was the dilemmas, where you selected an option that, while not being completely random, was never certain to be the right one.

I, mainly for a joke, added Fort Knox to the target list, making it ridiculously unlikely to give you a positive dilemma outcome and giving you some very large amount of money if you successfully robbed it. This was in no way intended to be your goal; I didn't imagine anyone would see it as anything other than a silly addition, much in the same way that they saw the "Spam PCG Chat" dilemma.

Clearly I was wrong. Both Legandir and Davik took Fort Knox to be your ultimate goal and the reason for playing the game. I had no mechanisms to prevent the player from trying to rob Fort Knox from the start, it was just quite unlikely, though certainly not impossible that they'd succeed. Davik and Legandir both succeeded and said the game was too easy. They expected Fort Knox to be a long term goal, unattainable at first, while individual heists were the short term goals.

Gamers clearly expect their games to have a specific goal, viewable but not attainable from the outset. They assumed that this goal was Fort Knox and were somewhat perturbed that they could rob it from the outset, with nothing to stop them.

Having seen this I'm going to make a small but potentially far-reaching change. I'm implementing a rank system, where the player must meet certain targets, having an amount of gold, for example, to go up a rank. Going up a rank will unlock more "difficult" locations, different cars and more skilled team-mates. The difference now is that while players can see the presence of the locked targets through an entry in the target selection list showing "locked until rank #whatever" they cannot rob this target, the long term goal, unless they fulfill the short term goals first, i.e. getting enough money/successful capers/successful dilemmas to go up a rank.

This is what gamers expect and, I think, will make the game appear to have a lot more substance than it actually has. There's no particular challenge in completing a caper but they will do so to attempt to fulfill the goals they can see in front of them.

In my head I've likened this (fairly minor, really) change to my moving the spawnpoints of dasbooty, which was proof of how a carefully implemented change can completely turn around the feel of a game/map.

Don't get me wrong, JavaGame is never going to be great. It'd just be nice if it could be a little greater than it is currently. :p

Monday, February 16, 2009

Hermit writes pointless stuff about: FEAR

Did I just bring bloghammer back from the dead? It would appear so. How apt then that this post starts talking about dead children. Anyways, Cutts asked me over the weekend if FEAR was any good. Given that some folks may not have played it back in the day, I thought I’d throw down some ideas about why it’s still worth playing in this modern day world of STALKER and Far Cry 2.

No one wants to be the New Guy. The New Guy usually dies. But here you are, freshly transferred into the US Government’s First Encounter Assault Recon (I see what they did there) team. The FEAR team investigates weird happenings, and they want to drop you smack bang in the middle of an event so paranormal it makes Ghostbusters look like a film about a man in a sheet.

Enter Armacham Technology Corporation. These geniuses not only decided that a clone army controlled by a psychic commander was a good idea, but also that the commander should definitely be a raving madman. Inevitably, it’s all gone belly up and Paxton Fettel, professional loony psychic, has got his brainwashed soldier mates to go round and shoot everyone. It’s essentially Order 66 from Star Wars, only the Emperor didn’t eat the dead Jedi afterwards. As far as we know, anyway.

It’s not all bad news though. Basic Training has clearly done a bang up job, giving you awesome gun skills and the ability to kill a man with your fists alone. And your reflexes are off the charts, apparently. You never find out what these charts are, but you’re so far off them you’re almost back on them again. You’ve learned the secret of medkits, and are able to swallow the entire contents of a box in the midst of a firefight in order to cure what ails you.

You’re also the main character, which improves your chances of survival somewhat. And thankfully it’s only your jerk sidekick Jankowski (Pronounced: dick head) that calls you New Guy. You’ve got a name. It’s Point Man. Take that, two dimensional marine characters from every other FPS!

Your FEAR team leader, Betters (As in “I’m Betters than you, Maggot!”) ships you, Jankowski, and your forensic expert Jin off to an abandoned warehouse where Fettel’s signal has been located. The poor bloke got chipped like a household pet. Soon enough though you’re separated from Jankowski, and Jin starts making an awful lot of “I need to go back to base to do some lab work” excuses. And so it falls to you to find out what the fuck (Betters says fuck a lot) is going on.

FEARs genius lies in the way the story and gameplay work around each other. Its very first point of order is to establish why we have to fight our way through hundreds of enemies who look the same. We accept from the off we’re dealing with a battalion of military clones, and can now quite happily get on with the highly entertaining job of killing them in slow motion.

Most fights are very similar on paper. It’s a piece of paper with the word ‘PLAYER’ scrawled in the middle and the word ‘ENEMIES’ at the edge, with a dozen or so arrows drawn from one to the other. The game keeps fighting interesting with the carefully crafted combat areas which allow for a variety of tactics and make for some awesome visual fights.

One such section takes the tried and tested “sniper alley” design, whereby snipers are on the rooftop and in nearby buildings, and it’s your job to get them before they get you. To make it interesting, FEAR replaces the mundane sniper rifle with a laser gun which vapourises all the fleshy parts of the target. It’s the design philosophy all over; why headshot someone when you can turn them into nothing more than a cloud of liquefied organs and a pile of bones?

The enemy radio chatter really makes the AI seem that much smarter. "Flush him out!" they cry as one of them tosses a grenade. "He's trying to flank!" yells another if I try and outsmart them. "He took down the whole squad!" cries that final soldier once I've killed all his buddies. I could just put a bullet in him. Instead I slow down the passage of time itself and leap into the air. The last thing he sees is my boot, as I break the unfortunate clone's neck with a midair scissor kick. That's just how I roll.

When the last enemy drops the place is always in a real mess. It’s that Matrix moment in the lobby but in videogame form. The bullets stop raining and the last few chunks of masonry fall from the walls. Then you run round nicking everyone’s ammo and looking for telephones, only these phones aren’t connected to a guy in spaceship in a futuristic sewage pipe.

The quiet periods between battles are the sections which drive the story; there’s usually an answer phone message or PC data from which you glean a little more insight into Armacham’s totally shady dealings. The plot has been written to work perfectly in bite sized chunks like this; through the drip feed of info you gradually learn the truth, without the plot becoming a bloated mess of conspiracy nonsense. At the end of the game, it does all make sense. Or at least as much sense as a game about an evil girl and clone soldiers can make.

And then of course there’s the matter of the little girl. You’ll be quite happily walking along minding your own business when it all goes weird. Your radio picks up crackly interference when paranormal stuff is going down. When stuff starts to get freaky even Point Man gets a little scared; He’s too manly to scream but he’s not above some heavy breathing exercises.

Alma is essentially that girl from The Ring, if instead of a videotape she’d made a game. Lights go out, stuff falls of shelves and Alma tends to whisper stuff in your ears a lot. That’s in a creepy way rather than an “Awesome, there’s a girl whispering in my ear” way, before you say anything. The game does everything it can to freak you out.

And it works, too. First time I reached “the ladder” must have been about 1 in the morning and I thought it was a good idea to play with the lights off. Had to calm down with some Theme Hospital after that. I don’t want to give away actual examples for fear of ruining their impact, but suffice to say anyone who has played FEAR remembers the ladder in question.

It isn’t a psychological horror by any means. After a while you learn the rhythm of combat to scares to combat, meaning you can almost guess when the next scary bit is coming. And the setpiece nature of the scares means that on replays you’re expecting them. But for shock value the game really does well first time through.

The nasty split between Monolith and Sierra wasn't kind to FEAR's legacy, sadly. Sierra churned out two expansions and various consoles ports. The expansions were perfectly serviceable, but their stories weren’t nearly as interesting. Extraction Point deals with your attempts to get a lift back to base after the first game ends, while Perseus Mandate delves into the origin of the clones some more. FEAR2 ignores these games anyway, and they’re considered some dodgy alternate reality.

So, if like Cutts you’ve never played FEAR, go buy a copy. It’s brilliant. Oh, and if you’re an FPS developer, play FEAR and ask yourself why your melee combat isn’t as awesome as this.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Film update

My love for the cinema has been brutally savaged by the utter dissapointing messes that were the, completely unfunny and therefore faliures, Tropic Thunder and Pineapple Express. And now I hear (HtLFa) Alienate People is crap also.

Why does the universe deny me the pleasure of being able to see a truly great comedy at the cinema?

Sunday, July 27, 2008


Off on my holiday, so no time for a review. Have just seen Dark Knight and Wall.E and they are two films that have redetermined my love of cinema. They really are very, very good.