Feb 262015
 

If you have heard anything about The Order: 1886 it is probably that the game is short. A person willing to stare dry-eyed at the screen and mechanically mow down the dozens of enemies thrown at em can apparently finish in five hours or so. With rather frequent breaks for food, playing with a cat, and occasional snark-tweets, I managed the feat in about eight. This is not important data in my view; it didn’t take me that much longer to blow through Wolfenstein: The New Order and several other games I have loved. Admittedly, I’m in the lucky position of being able to spend $60 without much regret on a game I don’t value. It actually rather pleased me that The Order was so short, because it did so little with the time it had.

The part of The Order that will be broadly identified as “gameplay” is a pedestrian cover shooter with a familiar array of weapon options. This motif already sets the game up for some trouble, because the knight-heroes of the game are generally on the offensive and cover shooting broadly tends to tilt the other way. This creates a tension similar to what Mitch Krpata felt when playing Gears of War 2, where the character of the action seems at odds with the narrative surrounding it. In most of its segments The Order exacerbates this problem with the structure of the encounters. In most cases firefights take place in a set arena, with the knights coming in from one side and the enemies dripping in from the other. Most arenas have no way to flank, and many have no way to be flanked, so the structure encourages hunkering down except in the rare case of running out of ammo. To diminish the possibility of this outcome, the entry points are helpfully strewn with extra weapons.

Galahad’s frailty also pushes the player to hold position rather than advance. Enemies seem to have great accuracy and Galahad can quickly be picked apart from a distance. Worse, enemies equipped with shotguns can generally two-hit kill him, with each hit producing a powerful stun. In most encounters an ocean of ordinary mooks is punctuated by one or two of these shotgunners, who must be frantically shot before they knock Galahad out of cover or nail him outright. To encounter one of these while attempting to advance is invariably fatal, all the more reason to crouch behind the nearest bit of chest-high cover.

I enjoyed the game most when it broke out of this pattern. In the high point of the game, a rolling battle at the United India Company docks encourages forward motion and flanking, at least in a macro sense, in a way that makes it feel like an assault even though many of the individual encounters are characteristically defensive. Unfortunately, after this bit the encounter design really falls apart, and eventually the game just throws up its hands and tosses Galahad into a big room with a bunch of enemies and calls it a day.

Narratively the game is an even larger disappointment. This is something of a surprise, as it is a story about nigh-immortal knights fighting werewolves and vampires in a steampunk alternate history Victorian London. Unfortunately, all that stuff I just mentioned gets only the slightest exploration. The mythical monsters show up only to be unceremoniously lit on fire, shot at as they charge straight towards Galahad, or occasionally fought in QTE-heavy boss battles. Their attitudes about their nature, the characteristics of their secret society, and their reasons for occasionally just showing up fully transformed are never examined. London is full of zeppelins and steampunky devices, and automatic weapons have shown up a few decades early, seemingly without any transformative effect on society.

The game plays coy on any major changes to history that may have resulted from the empire having access to a force of nearly immortal soldiers. For instance, the existence of the United India Company and a few other bits of information suggest that America is still a colony, but certain things Lafayette says indicate that both the American and French revolutions occurred and succeeded. Lafayette’s presence in the game’s timeline is itself a mystery, given that he only receives his immortality juice halfway through the story.

The psyche of the knights, too, is largely unexplored. It seems that the Blackwater they drink from the grail comes with some cost, but this is only alluded to in the vaguest terms. By the accidents of the story’s fairly pedestrian twists it transpires that Galahad spends most of the game killing fundamentally good and decent people (he kicks things off by killing a bunch of escaped mental patients), but if this disturbs him he offers no sign of it.  While this spares us the irritation of playing another charming mass-murdering sociopath a la Nathan Drake it does give the impression we’re playing a genuinely, irredeemably horrible person. The Order also lacks even the modest amount of active characterization that Uncharted puts into its non-combat moments. Drake’s constant quest for glinting treasures and his complaints while climbing are thin gruel, but they at least give him dimensions beyond Angry Murder Man, which Galahad doesn’t really receive.

The violence itself isn’t even used as the focus for anything. There’s certainly a lot of it, and plenty of material for metaphor in the Victorian era’s brutal imperialism, racism, and classism, but The Order doesn’t seem interested in doing any of that work. While the game is happy to use color and texture to contrast the sumptuousness of upper-class life with the grinding poverty of Whitechapel, it never draws the line that connects the knights’ full guns to Whitechapel’s empty pockets.

The violence doesn’t even seem to accomplish anything in terms of the narrative. The game’s story is serviceable, as far as it goes, but as happened with every other aspect of this game, the plot happily introduces elements it has no intention of resolving or even really examining. It ends with a major boss battle against an underling, leaving nearly every storyline of significance to either Galahad or the world at large hanging, to say nothing of minor mysteries like the unknown man who appears with Perceval and Nikola. That the game is obviously setting up a sequel is somewhat annoying; that it does so by failing to reach any satisfying conclusion of its own story is worse.

I’m not sure that making the game longer would be any remedy. I wouldn’t say The Order overstays its welcome in its short duration, but it never gives the impression that it’s going anywhere. The Order never seems all that interested in its own world, plot, or gameplay. It’s content to introduce ideas and play around with them a little bit, but never really gets after the core ideas or lets them connect with each other. The Order is beautiful and well-acted, and its construction is technically proficient, but these achievements seem to have been the developer’s only ambitions. Another five hours of hunkered-down arena fights and beardy men yelling at one another won’t fix that.

One Epic Knight

 Short Take  Comments Off
Nov 132014
 

Status: Tried every potion and unlocked about 50% of power progression

Most Intriguing Idea: Creating a balancing act between hitting things and dodging them.

Best Design Decision: A clear hierarchy of empowered states.

Worst Design Decision: Jumps can be needlessly twitchy.

Summary:

I’ve had Temple Run 2 on my phone for the longest time, but a recent update caused it to stop reading saved data entirely so I looked for a replacement. On Brad‘s advice, I picked up One Epic Knight, and I’m glad I did. Infinite runners in the TR vein have lots of action but few interesting decisions beyond how much risk the player is willing to incur in order to get a few more coins/gems/whatever. One Epic Knight improves on this by cleverly using a set of powerups and different kinds of obstacles. Picking up a weapon allows the player to destroy monsters (but doing so consumes the weapon), while a shield allows the player to kill enemies and break most of the game’s obstacles (including many walls), though this consumes the shield. Grabbing a turkey leg allows the player to destroy an unlimited number of obstacles and enemies but only for a short while. Collecting four mana crystals allows the player to auto-race through the dungeon, gathering money, shattering anything e encounters, and jumping across every gap with ease. I appreciated this last the most because some jumps require a bit more precision than seems fair.

These abilities don’t just count as a “get out of jail free” card for avoiding death. Because each obstacle broken or creature killed increases the player’s score multiplier, there’s an incentive to actually run into things. However, the player won’t encounter enough powerups to just smash into everything in sight. So the player has to balance the benefits of using up eir shield against the risk that e’ll need it soon. This doesn’t lead to a lot of deep strategy (basically you want to use powerups immediately early in a run and start to reserve some later) but it is more mentally engaging than TR ever was.

Verdict: Recommended

Sep 302014
 

For the most part, Destiny‘s story is very bad. The game’s setting, a soft echo of Warhammer 40K where most of the absurd/fun bits have been excised and “Chaos” has been replaced with “Darkness”, is a major disappointment, but one that at this late date can’t really undergo significant change. What can, to some extent, be fixed, are the narratives that live in that world. Although it only has one real plot, Destiny has three different strands of story going on, none of which work especially well. Still, the game’s design makes some of them work better than others and it’s worth examining that as a way of assessing how the story might grow and improve.

The first story, the one the game is trying to push throughout its campaign, is that the player’s guardian is doing special and important things that are altering the balance of power in the system, and it is an unmitigated disaster. The story missions do not create any arc of conflict between the protagonist and any of the forces present in the system. The missions seem to exist only to enforce a structured tour of the solar system and the enemies living on its various terrestrial planets. The only thing resembling a unifying plot is the occasional appearance of a mysterious robot who seems to represent an additional force in the system separate from the Light of the Traveler or the various minions of the Darkness. However, “mysterious stranger semi-helps the hero for unexplained reasons” is barely passable as a side-plot; it’s appalling as the basis for a media project that’s supposed to have a decade-long lifespan.

Even if the game had a half-decent plot, it has no characters to breathe life into it. The protagonist is voiced in cutscenes as blandly as possible, presumably so the player can project eir own personality onto em, but the player is never given any means for conveying eir vision for the character to the game, not even something as simple as later Mass Effect‘s Paragon and Renegade events. The player can of course take up with various factions, but there’s nothing more to this than wearing an emblem, and nothing about choosing one faction precludes or even complicates shifting one’s support to another one. For whatever reason, the player cannot even take ownership of any space within the game — e has no home base to control or decorate, and personal customization options are limited to shaders by the infrequency of decent loot drops and the expense of upgrading good armor. Banal, expository dialogue and terrible voice direction rob Ghost, the main supporting character, of anything resembling a personality, and no other character exists for more than a couple of lines. The protagonist has no presence and nobody to play off of, so the story, such as it is, has no soul.

Having a plot and characters would not have prevented the story from ending up as a disappointment, however, because it represents a fundamental conflict between narrative and design. Destiny tries to give the player a typical FPS power fantasy and fails decisively because that storyline is embedded in a persistent, shared world. These characteristics mean that the player can have no real impact on the system. Killing the Winter Kell on Venus has no effect on the organization or presence of Fallen forces there, nor does killing Sepiks Prime affect the Fallen on Earth, nor do the events on the Moon or in the Black Garden have consequences for the Hive or the Vex. Rather than segregate players into different instances based on mission progress, everyone gets dumped into a single shared environment that must therefore remain constant regardless of the story they’ve been playing (this despite the game’s sharp gatekeeping with regard to character level). Destiny‘s weak single-player narrative has no hope of selling the idea that the player has done something important or noteworthy because its static world insists that nothing has changed.

So that disposes of the game’s plot, such as it is, but it doesn’t cover all of the game’s story. There are two other narratives embedded in Destiny that it conveys a little better, in part because they are better fits for a persistent, fairly static world.

The weaker of these is the story of the guardians protecting the last human city from the encroaching forces of the enemy. In terms of its core problems this story has a lot in common with the game’s explicit plot: the main players don’t actually exist in the game. Bungie has never had any talent for depicting societies outside the context of their militaries and it shows painfully here. What is humanity in Destiny, beyond a matte painting of haphazard buildings? Who are the Awoken, aside from a tiny group of people in a throne room? Even the quasi-military force lacks any personality and has little sense of shared purpose; its officers are nothing more than vending machines with a few completely disposable lines of dialogue and the Speaker has no actual wisdom to dispense. If the various human factions have any kind of philosophy they wish to live by they never share it in the game. Ultimately, there is no sense of what is being defended, which knocks a hole in this narrative well below the water line.

What keeps it afloat, barely, is the design of the game. Destiny does an indifferent job of incentivizing cooperative play; difficulty in missions and strikes seems to scale up in some non-obvious way based on the number and level of co-op players, making a fireteam seem less advantageous than it probably should be. Out in the open world where this scaling is inactive, however, players tend to informally and dynamically assist one another, especially during public events. Protecting a crashed warsat, taking on a Fallen walker, or preventing Vex sacrifices (and yes, even exploiting the infamous loot cave) encourage players to instantaneously form groups with a common cause. Even in this sense the angle is not sold perfectly: the public events lack variety, there are no human outposts to defend anywhere, and various bounties (quests) encourage selfish play in patrols, events, and strikes. Nonetheless, these moments of instant alliance are one of Destiny‘s key strengths and something that could be accentuated with little added content or tuning.

These leaves us with Destiny‘s best story, which is about the effort to understand the world. One of the few interesting things about the game’s setting is that the humans (and even the ghosts, who in principle should share some of the Traveler’s knowledge) seem to know very little about their enemies, or even their own past. A great deal of the game involves efforts to grab artifacts and information from old human installations, ancient human AI, and facilities belonging to alien races. Here, the absence of a current human society and characters isn’t a real impediment because it’s a story where the mysteries are central. The races as a whole, and the places where they are found, are the actual “characters” being encountered. This plays well with the evocative storytelling that Cameron Kunzelman identifies as one of the game’s strengths.

This is also a story that the mechanics tend to reinforce. After level 20, as mentioned previously, progression becomes a question of what armor the character possesses rather than what deeds e has performed. That concept stinks for defining a league of heroic paladins, but it’s an excellent system for a society of tomb raiders. Defining characters by the items they are able to pluck from the ruins of the past or the grasp of their enemies plays perfectly into Destiny‘s world, where that past and those enemies are known only by the artifacts that guardians retrieve from them.

Destiny could, of course, do more to sell this story. The choice, or need, to put the information the player ultimately retrieves in an online grimoire is a crippling blow to this narrative. Also the guardians don’t get to do much in pursuit of it besides shooting things and hoping loot falls out, and the absence of non-military humans (cryptarchs in the field) is an impediment. Patrol missions or public events more attuned to the ideas of this story could help sell it better, as could the addition of some gameplay elements more specifically attuned to solving puzzles and mysteries rather than just shooting everything.

Destiny‘s writing has been justly excoriated by most reviewers, but even with truly masterful plotting and dialogue, the power fantasy that story is selling would never really work in the context of the game’s static world. The more ambient stories of defense and acquisition, which do not rely on world dynamics and mesh well with the game’s systems, are better narrative focal points for the game that Bungie actually made. While it is too late to rebuild the core plot around these ideas, some relatively minor tweaks and additions could strengthen them to the point where they could carry the game and form a basis for future installments.

Sep 222014
 

In perhaps the biggest game of the year, one of the things players are spending a lot of time doing is shooting, for hours on end, into a cave. They’re not doing it for fun; I’ve tried it for just a few minutes and I can confirm, it’s incredibly boring. But, it’s also productive, in the sense that it gets players more of what they want, what they in fact need if they want to progress. So quickly, before it gets nerfed, gaze in awe upon the wonders of… The Loot Cave.

How does something like this happen? Well, it’s the result of RPG design elements that range from pedestrian to outright bad.

Let’s start with the pedestrian elements, which relate to world design and mob spawning mechanics. The Cosmodrome levels are a troubled design in that the world almost entirely lacks a structure that rationalizes the dispositions of enemy forces. Unlike the other worlds that are full of various installations for enemy races to defend, the earth areas are just a bunch of junk and ruins laying around all over the place. Fallen are camped out in some of these areas and Hive in others, but there are few details to explain why any group of enemies is in any particular place. The Cosmodrome, more than most other parts of the game, seem like an area that’s just there so players can shoot things.

However, as in every area of the game, the enemy forces are scattered thinly across the world, so as to provide ample safe spaces for pausing and zones for executing dynamic loading. If a player clears an area of targets, it can be quite a hike to the next place where there’s anything to shoot, and in Destiny, if there’s nothing to shoot there’s essentially nothing to do. The sparrow alleviates some of this, but presumably either playtesting or early design iterations demonstrated that this was insufficient, so Bungie came up with a very aggressive respawning schedule.

The video above is proof enough of this, but experience shows that the cave is the rule, not the exception. If you wipe a mob, their replacements will show up within a minute or less. It can get really absurd: at the entrance to Skywatch I have killed the tiny group of a captain and two vandals repeatedly just by ducking around a corner. There’s a complex on the moon I’ve never been able to really clear because emptying it out takes me far enough away from one of its spawn points that another group of vandals shows up immediately, and clearing them gives enough time for the servitor to return.

To provide a (thin) rationale for the appearance of reinforcements, every world has been dotted with tiny caves and mechanical rooms: dead ends that spawn hordes of enemies. Some specific thought and balancing has gone into these spawns. That’s evident from, for example, the way the mob composition changes when a character is close to the cave in the video above. Low-level characters (who might well be in this area) could be rushed and killed by the thralls without warning if they’re too close. The acolytes are more survivable in these circumstances. Thus, there’s an exclusion zone preventing thrall spawns when a player is nearby. Still, the reasoning behind distributing and spawning enemies in this way reflects some really basic and boring level construction.

So, the cave behaves the way it does because of pedestrian RPG design. Why do the players behave the way they do?

This gets into the outright bad design choices in Destiny, which are focused in the loot system but are a bit more comprehensive.

First, let’s talk about incentives. Why do the players want loot? Every RPG player in the history of ever has gathered loot and improved gear as much as possible, but Destiny makes equipment upgrades absolutely critical. After level 20, the only way to level up is to obtain gear with “light”. This means that progression is no longer a question of what the player does but what the player has. I think this is a questionable system for a number of reasons, but what’s relevant here is that the only way to improve a late-game character is to continue acquiring ever-more-powerful gear. Consequently one should expect level 20+ characters to obtain that gear in the most efficient way possible.

Unfortunately, enemies do not drop loot very frequently. Through most of the story content I would say I got a drop every 10 minutes or so, with large stretches of getting nothing. Drops tend to be streaky: on a second run through a story mission I got a cascade of loot, but patrolling Mars once I went half an hour without seeing anything (including a huge firefight in a Cabal base where only one kill even dropped ammo).

This pace is actually not so bad early in the game, when regular leveling ensures that almost everything found is better than what’s already equipped. It’s less tolerable at 20+. Even at level 20, I dismantle more than 9 in 10 drops immediately; this ratio can only get worse as I progress. Given the frequency with which engrams give weaker loot than their color suggests, the process of getting drops must get deeply dismal as time goes on.

Compounding this is the fact that drop frequency and quality doesn’t seem to scale with enemy level or strength. This is a general problem with the game: on my first patrol of the Cosmodrome I (at level 3) got into a fight with a level 7 dreg and eventually took him down for 20 experience, the same amount I would have gotten from a level 2 dreg. This being the case, why would I ever challenge myself that way?

Well, for loot maybe, but in terms of number and quality of drops that doesn’t scale either. Of the few blue engrams I’ve seen, almost all have been dropped from normal dregs of level 10 or below. Majors don’t reliably drop anything, and outside of public events the best I can remember seeing pop out of one was a green engram. I won’t positively state that there’s no loot scaling at all, because I don’t have the numbers in front of me, but if I can wax something like 4 Vex majors and 2 Fallen ones in a firefight on Venus and not see so much as a heavy ammo drop then whatever scaling exists is not doing enough. I’m not particularly interested in the PvP, but anecdotally it seems that the drop distribution is depressing there as well.

In this context, the principle of efficiency suggests that the best thing to do is to kill many low-level enemies as rapidly as possible. In the video above the player runs past everything inside the building, as well he should, because taking the time to engage in those firefights is a waste. Most likely not one of those enemies would have dropped anything, and fighting them would take away time that he could be using to endlessly slaughter a stream of hapless mooks in hopes of the RNG coming up purple.

Destiny’s design puts every incentive on the side of doing boring things rather than interesting ones, because it refuses to reward the time and effort needed to do cool things. The Cosmodrome levels are pockmarked with deep caves containing fairly high-level Hive majors and I would never recommend anyone try to fight them because not only are they big bullet sponges but also it’s pointless to fight them in the context of a late-game leveling system that prioritizes loot over experience. Mars and Venus have interesting locations that I would never recommend anyone visit unless they had a specific bounty, because the more difficult enemies there require more time and resources to defeat, and offer not the slightest sliver of hope for better rewards than that sad little level-5 mob in the Cosmodrome.

Doubtless the Loot Cave will be nerfed in a future update: the respawn schedule will be dialed back, or its exclusion zone expanded, or some other kludge will be applied so that the sad spectacle of high-level characters taking potshots at a cave will cease. The underlying issues that give rise to it, however, are what Destiny’s designers really need to address. Destiny makes boring farming productive and interesting exploration and combat wasteful; player use of the loot cave is a positive and correct response to the presented incentives. Bungie’s pedestrian approach to level design and spawn dynamics made the Loot Cave possible. Their misguided approach to late-game progression and loot drops made it inevitable.