Friday, February 24, 2012

Dark Sector

This game is a rather forgotten piece of history already despite being just some years old. Pretty much a victim of poor marketing. It was brought to my attention through another blog, and since it's still largely available for next to nothing, I decided to give it a shot. On the one hand, yes, this game is yet another cover shooter with all the typical cliches. Yet on the other hand, it is a game with one particularly cool superpower for the protagonist.

Most shooters these days have one distinguishing feature from all the other shooters. One. The quality of the game is up to the use of this feature and combination of level, weapon and enemy design. The pony called Dark Sector has a trick called the glaive. It's a spinning throwing weapon that gains a multitude of uses during the game.

In the very beginning this thing just flies straight forward and is overall crappy. Towards the end of the game, the glaive does a lot more. It can be used to pick up items which makes it a form of telekinesis. It gains a power throw, which does quadruple damage but requires precise timing from the player. The power throw is particularly satisfying as it usually cuts enemies in half or severs heads/limbs. It can be imbued with elements from the environment for some added effects such as electrocution. Finally, the player can control its flight path. By the press of a button, the camera moves behind the glaive and the player can control it. This way the glaive can go past covers, cut down multiple enemies and do some serious precision work. Guiding a power thrown glaive is one of the more satisfying power trips I've had recently in games.

What makes the glaive a successful weapon is how it allows the player to be rather creative. It not only allows creativity, but even demands it. The game even has somewhat non-trivial puzzles where the glaive needs to be used. The game also conveniently limits the use of firearms so the player really needs to use his cool superpower. The explanation is very Metal Gear, but who cares. Firearms still can be used, and the protagonist always dual-wields a pistol with his glaive, which makes it the most usable firearm in the game. Ammunition is quite scarce. While the game is clearly a cover shooter, it also reminds me of superpower games such as InFamous and Prototype.

The game lacks somewhat in production quality and originality.  The characters and plot are crap. Still it does one thing well enough and has the sense to end before it starts to repeat itself too much. I would suggest this game solely for the purpose of seeing the glaive in action. It is simply one of the coolest weapon designs in ages.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Final Fantasy XIII-2

Following up my take on Final Fantasy XIII, now is the time to talk about the anticipated sequel. The reason I had expectations for this one was that I really enjoyed a lot of the mechanics of FFXIII but they did screw up with the game's structure. When work started with the sequel, the developers promised certain important changes. They also chose to retain the fighting system. So I got this game as soon as it was available and spent an entire weekend on it. Since then it's been a week of quite intense gaming, and now it is done. For now anyway, there's DLC on the way. Let's see what they did right and what went wrong.

1. Area exploration

The single biggest complaint about the main title was its area design. Three quarters of the game was just one long corridor, and a narrow one at that. There were not any side quests until very late in the game, and all of those were the same (kill X). FFXIII-2 is different indeed. Its areas are wider; they have multiple paths and lots of things to discover. They also have people. People who, like any RPG player will know, will give side quests. Granted, there is absolutely nothing spectacular about the areas of FFXIII-2. They are simply reminiscent of the old era, especially FFX-2, the other true sequel in the history of the series. This serves as an important reminder that sometimes the way forward is backward. It does help tremendously that the developers still have an eye for beautiful scenery which makes the areas really gorgeous to behold.

Traveling between areas is fast. The game has a time travel theme and the characters can freely travel between different places and times through a gate matrix. There's typically more than one version of each location from different eras and they share most of the details. While this can be seen as laziness in area design, the solution is quite alright and there's still enough unique areas. Some quests also involve visiting the same area in different times. Maybe the only complaint would be that there are not many cases in the game where changing something in another era causes a change in a second era.

2. Character development goes Pokémon

It's been known for a while that the game only features a cast of two playable characters, and the third slot in the party will always be filled by a monster. Monsters can be captured, trained and fused together. Sounds a bit familiar, no? It's somewhat less Pokémon and somewhat more Shin Megami Tensei though. With monsters in the equation, the game has two parallel character development schemes. The main characters level up in rather straightforward manner using a system quite similar to the main title. Slightly more streamlined perhaps. Monsters on the other hand level up using specific material items which are dropped by enemies. Although the main character development system does have some tricks for the power gamer, the monsters are the real power gaming element in this system.

The Paradigm system from FFXIII is mostly intact. However, monsters only have a single role. The party can have active three monsters which can be used in paradigms. This means that the third party member is limited to three possible roles instead of six. The system designers have actually even made the choice hard for players because monsters learn a bunch of important abilities that either of the main cast do not. The series has usually had rather omnipotent characters who will at some point be able to do everything, but in FFXIII-2 the player always has to give up something when choosing their monsters. It's still somewhat underplayed, but a fresh change either way.

Since monsters are less flexible, they have been made more potent in their single role. A monster's power is ultimately decided by its stat growth, its unique abilities and its Feral Link, which is a kind of a super move reminiscent of old Limit Breaks in the sense that the meter accumulates over time and the power can be released once it's full. The system has clear winners which will ultimately become the most powerful monsters in the game. However, monsters have different growth patterns. Fast-growing monsters are much cheaper to develop into their full potential. The very best monsters on the other hand grow very slowly and are a huge investment. They are mostly available in postgame.

Even monsters that are not the most powerful in the bunch have their uses through infusion. Each monster in the game learns a certain set of abilities which include both role-independent passive abilities and role abilities. Most of these can be transferred to other monsters through infusion. This means the true power gamer will not simply hunt and train the very best monsters, but also a lot of other monsters who can learn useful abilities. The system is much easier for the player than the system in Shin Megami Tensei titles (which is a topic for another day), but it has a lot of possibilities. Generally it's quite fun to hunt for various monsters in search of good abilities to pass on.

Overall, while the system does not have the depth of SMT demon fusion, it is an enjoyable way to boost the party's power. The process is pretty streamlined and creating a solid monster doesn't take that much farming because fodder monsters can be trained with less powerful store-bought materials. Creating a monster with all the greatest abilities is still a rather big effort but a near-perfect one is more than enough and takes a lot less time to develop. It is also good that monster development is not tied to keeping them in the active party. This makes it much more convenient to train lots of monsters, even weak ones.

For the next game though, I really would like to see more complex main character development. It's been a lackluster in both the main title and this sequel. In the main title, weapons and accessories were a bit trickier to develop but in the sequel there isn't really much customization or gear tuning to do.

3. Difficulty, once again

With most of the building blocks solidly in place, the game's looking pretty good. The one core problem of games in the series has always been difficulty. To put it really simply, they are easy. FFXIII was a curious exception and was, in fact, pretty hard. Some earlier games in the series have also featured rather hard postgame challenges. Unfortunately FFXIII-2 falls under the "way too easy" category. The final boss was surprisingly difficult, but everything else in the main story was just easy. This is made a bit ridiculous by the fact that the game actually has a separate easy difficulty. They could have easily made the normal difficulty a bit harder. Hell, they are even allowing changing difficulty during the course of the game. There is, therefore, absolutely no excuse for making the game too easy.

This time around, the optional bosses are not that much of a threat either. The toughest two do take a while to beat down even with a high level party, but they don't provide much of a threat. I am really hoping that somewhere along the line of DLC releases, they are going to release some fucked up bosses that actually demand the player to carefully develop a strategy and monsters to fit it. You made a solid game, now please provide more reasons to really optimize.

4. Some of these trophies... 

This is a rather quick complaint. To perfectly complete the game, the player needs to collect one fragment (important key items) by playing a slot machine. A lot. They also have a couple of trophies that need the player to do rather boring stuff, and way too much of it. Fortunately all of these are doable by rigging the controller with some rubber bands, leaving the game on and going away to do something more productive. Still, game makers, is this really necessary? By today's standards? I guess it's some sort of tradition that every now and then a JRPG just has to have something that is best done by leaving the game to play itself but this doesn't fail to baffle me. Just saying.


The lack of difficulty is really the only bigger fault with the game. Could be that the lack of good HD console JRPGs has clouded my judgement, but I really enjoyed FFXIII-2. It succeeded in many ways to capture the essence of what makes JRPGs good and it was a true Final Fantasy. Most importantly, it was a blast to play and I already miss it. I liked the story, and surprisingly even the characters in the end. I just hope that Square Enix takes the hint and this will be the direction they are taking new titles in the series.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Bioshock 2

As usual I am late with most games. We are already waiting for the next Bioshock, but I just played the second one. The original Bioshock was the first first person shooter I played on my PlayStation 3. The game was highly streamlined System Shock 2 in good and bad. Bioshock 2 is a somewhat streamlined sequel. The game is more linear and the plot was not as good as the first one's. However, design of the game mechanics has improved in several ways. In this sense it's a rather typical sequel: less interesting story-wise but more fun to play.

1. Plasmids

Plasmids are highly streamlined magic. Using them is no different from using guns from the user interface point of view. Bioshock uses the controller's shoulder buttons as most shooters do. The left side is for plasmids, the right side for guns. The trigger shoots the plasmid/gun and the top button either changes to the next or opens a plasmid/weapon selector if held. The game pauses during selection, which I think is a solid compromise. Overall, switching and using plasmids and guns is really effortless. Bioshock 2 allows simultaneous use of both since the character can hold any gun in just the right hand.

Plasmid mechanics are quite simple but their effects are, all things considered, fairly varying. There's your basic lightning bolt, fire and ice stuff, but also more clever stuff like decoys, security beacons and a lot of stuff I didn't even try out. This is actually a bit of a problem in the game: combat is pretty straightforward and often some of the finer tricks are not much more than a waste of time. This was especially true in the first Bioshock with its ridiculously low number of different enemies but it's not much better in Bioshock 2. Maybe on a harder than normal difficulty there might be more need to use some of the plasmids.

2. Hacking, trapping and gathering

An important part of the System Shock legacy is the ability to hack any and all machines encountered be they security turrets, vending machines or electric locks. This way it's possible to turn Rapture's security against the enemies. In the first Bioshock this was not that useful though. More often than not, the enemies in an area are quite dead by the time the player can get into position to hack the security systems. The hacking minigame, while not bad, was also a bit fiddly. Bioshock 2 improves hacking by two important changes. First of all, the hacking minigame has been toned down into a rather simple reaction test which now happens in real time on the normal game screen. Second, they've added a gun that shoots remote hack darts, allowing hacking attempts from a distance.

Instead of focusing on the hacking mechanics themselves, the design clearly puts more emphasis on purpose of the hacking. These changes succeed in making hacking more purposeful at the expense of making it less complex. It's a solid trade-off and the game's better for it. The new mechanic still forces the player to focus on their hacking attempts for a few seconds and that is all that's really needed from it. If they blundered anything, then it has to be the alarms for failed hacking. Hacking the same device again after raising an alarm ends the alarm right there if the operation is successful this time. Makes it a bit too easy to get out of trouble I think.

The game also features different ways to build traps. Trap plasmids and trap ammunition for weapons. Let's just say that like hacking security, these did not have much utility outside special occasions. Most notable occasions in the first game were fights with big daddies who were the toughest opponents in the game and didn't become aggressive until attacked. This gave the player actually some time to plan how to build their traps. Against normal enemies, it's always the player who takes the initiative. Using traps against them was not really worth the effort.

Bioshock 2 added a new scenario that makes hacked security and traps more useful. The player can now adopt little sisters after defeating their big daddies, and have them gather adam (a resource for buying gene upgrades) from corpses. This gathering operation has the unpleasant side-effect of drawing in a whole bunch of adam addicts, effectively starting an ad-hoc defense mission. These are in fact pretty tough because there's going to be a lot of enemies, way more than even the biggest enemy groups in the game. Finding a good position, laying traps and placing miniature defense turrets to complement hacked security are highly necessary to stay in good shape. Fortunately the little sister herself is immune to damage and is instead interrupted for a while if attacked.

At first these gathering operations were in fact a bit frustrating because they were a huge drain on resources. Later in the game when better equipment becomes available they get quite enjoyable. The switching of roles from attacker to defender gives utility to weapons and powers that otherwise might not see much action.

3. Yet another reverse difficulty curve

Granted, I often explore in hope of powerups, but nevertheless, almost all games get easier towards the end. Bioshock 2 is far more being an exception. The game is clearly at its most difficult in the beginning when the player is armed with only rather weak weapons or weapons with some other deficiency which makes them harder to use. Running out of ammunition and/or health packs is a real risk. The breaking point is somewhere around obtaining the shotgun which makes short work of basic enemies. Towards the end of the game it turns from a decent challenge into an all-out power trip where enemies don't stand half a chance.

In Bioshock 2 particularly, it seems resources just get more and more abundant as the game progresses but enemies do not really become that much more powerful. Money is an especially powerful resource in the game as it allows purchase of relatively scarce ammunition and first aid kits. The end result is that with better equipment the player can at the same time save more resources, but also the availability of resources becomes greater. The loss of several first aid kits in a single fight can be shrugged off later, but is really aggravating in the beginning.

I know it's tricky to balance a game because players are different and most of the time, designers can't really demand everyone to bring their A game. But I'm not particularly good at first person shooters, and I didn't do any massive scale optimization during my play and still the difficulty curve went down like nothing else. I do not think anything would have changed on a higher difficulty except I would have been more frustrated in the beginning.


Although the situation has improved from the first game, the biggest problem with Bioshock remains the lack of  enemy types. There's more now, but they are still more or less killed the same way: point and shoot. The game doesn't really require the player to use any creativity with their plasmids or other tools. The game could use more situations that actually demand different approaches. Other than that, Bioshock 2 is pretty well designed. It has great gameplay for a console shooter, decent weapon design, streamlined yet interesting superpowers in the form of plasmids and it even improves beyond its predecessor.