Monday, August 9, 2010

Little King's Story Classes

I have been meaning to write about Little King's Story for quite some time now. It is a very fun and distinctive game that resembles Pikmin in much of its gameplay. Essentially, you play the game by calling various citizens to follow your character, the titular Little King, and them ordering them to complete various tasks. As such, much of the gameplay is built around choosing the right balance of occupations among your followers so you have all of the skills you need in order to defeat the enemies before you and clear the obstacles out of your path towards world domination. Unfortunately, one of my major pet peeves of them game relates to how the various occupations were designed. While a few of them are very functional and well designed, there are also quite a few that could be significantly improved.

Probably the best designed classes in the game are the Hardworking Farmers, the Buff Lumberjacks, and the Ripped Miners. Other than the combat classes, these are the three classes that I found myself bringing multiples of on a regular basis. These three classes form the backbone of the exploration, treasure-finding, and problem-solving in the game: farmers dig holes to find stuff, lumberjacks clear out logs blocking the path, and miners eliminate rocks that are in the way. While almost any class can perform these tasks, these three classes do the same job in a third of the time. Furthermore, only they can start work on particularly difficult projects such as massive boulders. So, unlocking these classes serves as a way to open up new areas of the game-world. Furthermore, the Miners in particular can instant-kill a certain rock enemy. I actually wish the farmers and lumberjacks also has associated enemies they could instant-kill; I am fond of that kind of "use the right weapon to defeat the enemy" design. These classes are even useful in fighting certain bosses. Since they mix basic utility with knowing when to bring extras for particular challenges, I really like these three classes.

On the other hand, we have the soldier classes. They are actually very similar to the aforementioned farmers, lumberjacks, and miners, in that they can do a wide range of jobs but specialize at one in particular: combat, in this case. However, I have two general problems with the soldier classes. The first problem is that throwing soldiers at the enemy is just about the only form of combat in the game. The main strategy of combat is waiting for the enemy to become vulnerable, send in the soldiers, then call back the soldiers before the enemy attacks. Having a few more types of combat class with different strengths, weaknesses, and special abilities might have made it a little more interesting. My second problem is that eventually your Grunt Soldiers are obsoleted when you acquire Hardened Veterans, which do everything Grunt Soldiers do, except they have two special abilities as well. Having one class that is a direct upgrade of another is really frustrating. I ended up with a couple dozen Grunt Soldiers I was no longer using spending their days wandering around my kingdom (there was no advantage to spend the cash to upgrade them compared to making new guys into my main army).

On that note, the fact that the carpenters get replaced twice is even more galling. Carpenters as a class are much more limited in scope than soldiers or the workers. All they do is build bridges and staircases at certain points in the game. If I didn't expect to find a build-point, I usually didn't bother to bring one at all. Since the later varieties of carpenter get the ability to build structures the earlier ones cannot, the carpenters mainly serve as a means to make sure the player has built up his kingdom to specific levels by certain points in the game. As the lumberjacks and miners prove, there are much more elegant ways of doing this. To add insult to injury, the third tier Giga carpenters are only required once in the entire game.

Next up are the Animal Hunters, the only real non-soldier combat class in the game. These guys are actually interesting. They do spice up combat a little, and have the special ability to shoot down certain kinds of projectiles the enemy sometimes throws at you. They can also take on flying or elevated opponents that the soldiers can't get at. However, their use is rather niche. If you aren't going to be taking on flying enemies or such, there is little reason to bring them over soldiers. I also find the fact that they can only carry a limited supply of arrows to be a little unnecessary.

Next up are the extreme specialists: the Gourmet Chef and the Savvy Merchant. Gourmet Chefs can only do one thing: instant kill giant chicken enemies. It is actually an interesting niche. Giant chickens are typically rather obnoxious enemies, but a single chef can wipe out an entire army of them by himself. You don't always need to bring them, but they are very valuable in specific situations. Similarly there are the Savvy Merchants, who have the ability to find hidden buried treasure and unlock a certain kind of treasure. Other than making you some money, Savvy merchants are completely optional. Honestly, there is nothing particularly wrong with these specialists, but I kind of wish they had some other use to justify creating more than one or two of either. This is where giving citizens a use other than following the player around would have been nice. Maybe making more merchants could have opened up some shops for the player to buy from?

Similar to the two trainable specialists are the immigrants, four specialists who move to your kingdom from defeated kingdoms. You only ever get one of each type. I actually really like these guys. While each one of them is only capable of removing a specific kind of unusual obstacle, they do give you give you access to nice treasures and new areas while adding a lot to the flavor of the game. Since you get them automatically without spending money, there is little reason to complain about them being so specialized. I am honestly disappointed there weren't immigrants corresponding to the rest of the rival kingdoms in the game.

Finally, there are the three secret classes found at the end of the game: the Steel Knight, the Rainbow Wizard, and the Doctor. All three of these classes can only be acquired towards the very end of the game after spending a lot of money on various investments, and you can only ever have one of each. To be honest, I really don't like these guys. It feels a little frustrating that I couldn't train citizens of my own choosing to be a Doctor or Wizard. Furthermore, by the time you actually get these characters, you are already pretty much at the end of the game, rendering them rather useless. I think I would have preferred some mid to late game units that could have been deployed in numbers enough to actually mix up combat.

Overall, the game played quite well, but I think there is still a fair bit of room for improvement. Giving classes stuff to do in the kingdom would have been interesting, and more options to make combat more interesting would have been nice. I would really like to see a sequel to Little King's Story someday, or at least someone make another game in the same vein.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Starcraft 2 Terran Campaign

I have been playing the Starcraft 2: Wings of Liberty campaign fairly regularly since release, and I am almost done with it. I think I only have another mission or two left to go. I have been enjoying the campaign quite a bit. In terms of gameplay, the campaign is quite varied with well-designed missions. On the other hand, the campaign's story has felt very slow and directionless. So while the individual missions are fun, the campaign as a whole feels somewhat lacking.

The best part about the missions is that all of them play very differently from each other for the most part. None of the missions have been traditional "destroy the enemy's base" style missions. Instead, every mission has very unique victory conditions, optional objectives, and required strategies. Blizzard really explored the limits of mission design for an RTS, even more so than they did in Frozen Throne. MIssions such as intercepting trains, escorting evacuating colonists, and so on make for exciting missions that can really take advantage of the game's variety of units and tactics. While the game does have its number of "hold out against waves of enemies for x minutes" missions, it does keep them fresh by giving the player various different conditions or advantages.

Unfortunately, there are a couple of problems with the mission design. Almost all of the missions involve rushing the player through various mission objectives. For example, one mission might force the player to reach certain objectives before a competing enemy does while another mission might force the player to deal with explicit time limits. While this design is generally a good thing, since it makes the game tense and exciting, it does get old after a while. Furthermore, most missions are primarily designed to show off and take advantage a new unit that has just been unlocked. Between these two factors, it often means that the player rarely gets to take the time to experiment with units that were received in previous missions. There are a few units that I have only seriously used in the mission I got them from. Other units that don't have an affiliated mission are even worse off.

My biggest complaint about the game though is the pacing of the story. Overall, 20% of the campaign is serious main story advancement while the remaining 80% consists of side missions that don't directly advance things. Despite the length of the campaign, it actually feels like there are a lot fewer major story developments than in previous Starcraft/Warcraft campaigns. It also means that the story plays out very slowly, with some expositions at the beginning and most of the major developments weighted towards the end. While I liked the numerous new characters that were introduced to flesh out the Starcraft world, it feels like only a handful of them received significant development or screen-time. Stetman should have at least gotten conversations like Swann did, and a few more characters could have appeared inside missions.

Some special mention needs to be made of the Zeratul missions. While it was definitely a good idea to give the player a chance to take a break from the Terrans to enjoy some time with the Protoss, that entire story arc consisted of vague prophecies, serious plot and character retcons, anti-climatic introductions to long-awaited villains, and attempts to redeem established villains using the subtly of a wrecking ball. In other words, it contained all of my least favorite things in one short story arc. Can't Blizzard write a story without retconning their past works these days?

For the upcoming Zerg and Protoss campaigns, I hope that Blizzard continues the good work as far as mission design goes, but tries to add a bit more of the central story to the missions as a whole.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Lost Planet 2 stage design lessons

One of the games that my brother and I have been playing a lot of over the last few months is Lost Planet 2, the third person shooter made by Capcom. The game's strong emphasis on co-op gameplay makes it a great game for our purposes. However, the game definitely has its mix of great stages and poorly designed stages. After a while, I think I have noticed a few patterns, which could be taken as lessons to be learned for future games.

Ironically enough, mission 1-1 is one of the hardest stages in the entire game, particularly at higher difficulty levels. This is entirely due to the final segment of the stage, where the players have to seize and maintain control over a mine. There are two main causes for this difficulty. The first is because of the open layout of the mine; it consists of a large open central area surrounded by multi-level structures with lots of open doors and windows. Essentially, every enemy in the mine area can easily get opportunities to shoot at the players, meaning that the players have to deal with all of the enemies at once, making it easy to get swarmed or surrounded. Second, the game asks the players to maintain control over four control posts at once for a certain amount of time. Because of the spacing of the control points and constant reinforcement of enemies from multiple entry points, this is very difficult to do with even two people. It feels like this part of the mission more or less requires four players in order to be easily feasible.

This second point is seen again in mission 5-1, where the players are asked to once again maintain control over certain control posts for a certain amount of time; this time it is two control posts located in different rooms separated by several corridors. In our case, my brother and I were each able to guard a room, but it was a very difficult fight for us, since powerful enemies constantly stream in from three entrances into each room. Based on these missions, it feels like missions that require maintaining control over multiple places at once vary in difficulty a lot more significantly based on the number of players than missions that require simply advancing forward. This is probably because these missions force players to split up, which is more punishing for two players than for four. I have no idea if it is even possible for a solo player to tackle these (disregarding AI helpers).

Perhaps a more positive and interesting way the game takes advantage of its co-op focus is in its stages with multiple routes. Most stages in the game are very good at having at least two routes to get from one room to the next. For example, 4-1's first area consists of a multistory building. Many floors in this building have two or even three stairways leading to the next floor. This opens up a lot of room for strategy. The players can all go down the same path and try to combine their firepower, or they can choose to split up, take different routes, and flank the enemy. This multi-route design even lets players split up to clear out enemies and independently secure objectives if they so wish.

On the flip side of the coin is the final section of mission 4-1: a narrow choke-point leading into a large area where there are multiple heavily armed mechs ready to shoot anyone passing through the choke-point. To make matters worse, the only weapons capable of talking out the enemy mechs are on the other side of the choke-point. This kind of design comes up in about three or four places in Lost Planet 2, and it really is inexcusable. In all of these occasions, the only choice is to make a beeline for the usable mechs or good weapons and pray you can find some cover before the enemy fire tears you to shreds. This kind of area layout gives an overwhelming advantage to the enemies, and can quickly become very frustrating to the players.

On a final note, I really liked the co-op cannon segments of the game. In these, all of the players need to to work together to man powerful weapons against giant enemies. While one player is aiming the cannon itself, other players are manning anti-aircraft guns to hold off threats, fighting off enemies who have boarded the player's vehicle, or working to power-up the main gunner's next big shot. These battle can be frantic, complex, exciting, and very epic. Unfortunately, I gather that they aren't very fun when one player is playing solo. That is a real shame. Unless the game designers can write AI that can actually behave the way a player wants them to in such a complex situation, this is going to remain a trade-off when choosing between making a primarily co-op vs single-player experience.

I think there is a lot about Lost Planet 2 that shows that a game built around four player co-op does have significantly different level design considerations than a game built just for single-player. As a big fan of co-op games, I do kind of wish that there were more games like Lost Planet 2 out there.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Communication and Interaction in Fable 2

It has been far too long since I have last written a blog entry here. I have finally sat down to revive this blog with a post about a game that has been out for a couple of years: Lionhead Studio's Fable 2. I finally got around to playing it for the first time over the last week, and it was actually a fair bit better than I was expecting based on some reviews I have read about it. Unfortunately, one of the key selling points of the game, the ability to interact with the common characters throughout the world to earn their love or their fear, just fell flat. In practice, the lack of any real communication and the ability to only interact with faceless NPCs devoid of characterization makes it feel like the whole game world, including the player's own character, feel empty and lifeless. Fable 2 doesn't create the feeling that there are actual relationships between characters.

The fundamental problem with Fable 2's interaction is that it is impossible to actually talk to people; all you can do is use emotes called Expressions to get vague ideas across. Every NPC in the game-world seems to have their own base impression of the hero based on a combination of his renown (a value built up by doing quests), his alignment, and his appearance. From there, it is possible to further manipulate the impressions of the NPCs by taking various action, primarily Expressions, around them. For example you can pose heroically to impress people. NPCs will then occasionally make voice-acted comments as the hero walks by based on their personality traits and current impressions of the hero. However, at no point in this process do the NPCs and the hero actually interact in any significant way. It just feels like the player and the game-world are just talking at each other rather than engaging in anything substantial. It isn't even possible to tell which specific man or woman is actually doing the talking when they are in a crowd.

The biggest reason this interaction feels so hollow is because the people filling the game world really are hollow and lifeless. They are nothing more than names pasted onto three to six character personality traits, a handful of likes and dislikes, a generic character model, and a generic voice. I wouldn't be surprised if most of them where cranked out by a random NPC generator program. Furthermore, all of those statistics are devoted to determining how the NPC reacts to the hero performing any given Expression. All these NPCs are capable of is wandering around and reacting to Expressions. At the same time, none of them really stand out at all. They have no interesting personalities, they all look the same, and, worst of all, they are all equally frivolous in their emotions. Just by having my hero put on some nice clothes, half a city fell in love with my hero. Why should the player even care what the NPCs think of the hero when the NPCs are nothing more than generic background characters?

There are several honestly interesting characters in the game who are part of the story and the games various quests, such as Barnum, Hannah, and Garth. Unfortunately, these few interesting characters are completely segregated from any interaction. They generally have no reactions to the hero performing Expressions nearby, and they can't even be killed (one quest giver still offered me a job after I shot him in the head a couple dozen times). You can't even lock onto them to check their stats like you can with every other character in the game. It is really frustration that the only characters in the game that I actually care about don't really care much about my character.

The whole problem is compounded by the limitations of the Expressions. The Expressions are grouped based on how they influence people, and these groups include Flirty, Scary, Rude, and Fun. Pretty much all of the Expressions represent conscious performances put on by the hero to influence people's emotions and impressions. What is missing are Expressions that actually express the hero's own emotions. For example, it is possible to point and laugh at people to piss them off or humiliate them, but there is no crying emote to express sadness. This actually comes up in the handful of cutscenes where the player is asked to use Expressions to interact with story characters, such as when the player is attending the funeral of a slain monk. Without the ability to actually express the hero's own emotions, it is nearly impossible to engage in anything resembling a conversation. While the game does offer up Expressions for the player to use in such situations, trying to figure out the meaning of any given Expression in the scene's context is often very difficult. As such, the player's own character feels just as hollow and lifeless as the NPCs filling the world.

In the end, I never really bothered interacting with the NPCs of Fable 2 much during my go through. The game didn't give me much real motivation to do so. The NPCs and Expressions just felt too much like a mechanical puzzle to be cracked than anything with actual emotional payoff. In order to succeed with this kind of thing, you need to breathe life into the NPCs and treat them like actual characters, not just set-pieces.