Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Demon's Souls: Battle Log

I beat my second boss. My game timer is at something like 8 hours. I've played the same level at least 20 times. I watched YouTube videos about how to beat that boss. And then I worked out my own strategy involving 100 arrows, about twenty minutes of patient battle, and a conveniently positioned parapet.

This was not a matter of hitting the glowing red spot with the appropriate item (gained in the level!). This was not a matter of memorizing the attack pattern. Or of twitching fast enough. It sure as fuck wasn't a matter of wading into battle, mashing buttons, and dealing more damage than I absorbed. This is the first time I can remember beating a seemingly-impossible boss by thinking, "What would I do when confronted by a 30 foot tall knight?"

I'd hide my ass where he couldn't get to me and pepper him with arrows until he died of internal bleeding, that's what I'd do. And that's what I did.

And I had fun working it all out. As frustrating as it was to die over and over again, it was made tolerable by an excellent decision on the part of the designers.

You don't have to watch any goddamn cutscene before fighting the boss. Okay, that's not quite right. The first time I fought him, there was a ten or fifteen second cutscene that showed me the layout of the room and the secondary threat (a bunch of archers; whom you should take out first). But every subsequent time I entered the knight's tower, there wasn't so much as a moment of transition. So instead of having to watch half a minute of "isn't he scary and full of polygons" intro each time I walked in, it was straight to the fight.

On the other hand, the fucking targeting system is driving me downright batty. In order to target an enemy, he must be fully exposed. And by fully exposed, I mean that he's fully exposed to the camera, not to your character. So if you spot a guy's arm sticking out as he lays in ambush, there's no effective way to target him. Furthermore, the range is restricted to something like fifteen meters from your character to acquire a lock--but an enemy can be probably a hundred meters away before the lock is broken. The autoselection of the next target is also somewhat weird--it never seems to target the closest guy, but rather the guy closest to the center of the screen.

Relatedly, there's no way to walk backwards with your shield up without that you've locked on to somebody. This is really annoying if, say, you walk through a door to find half a dozen guys waiting for you. Sure, your shield's up... but you can't retreat without turning around and exposing your back. And since the door jamb, door, and wall are between you and your enemies, at least partially obscuring them, locking on can often be quite difficult.

In most games, these targeting foibles would be simply annoying. In Demon's Souls, they're fucking fatal. When many enemies can slaughter you in two or three unblocked hits, it's unforgivable that you can't retreat with your shield raised unless you happen to beat the targeting system into submission. I once died because the camera locked onto, of all things, a goddamn unreachable set-piece dragon flying overhead... instead of one of the two knights standing in front of me.

But the lock-on system is the first real flaw I've found in this game. Unfortunately, it's pervasive and supremely annoying.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

First Impressions of Demon's Souls

[This isn't a full review. This game is definitely going to take me a while to finish. So I'm going to review it in stages.]

If you have a PS3, and crawled out from under your rock at least a week ago, you've heard about Demon's Souls. It's an action RPG developed by From Software (who also did Armored Core: for Answer).

This game's main claim to fame is that it's hard. Oldschool hard. Battletoads, Contra hard. A lot has been said about this already, so I'll just link you to my favorite analysis from gamasutra. Go ahead and read that link, because I'm not going to bother to explain the mechanics of the game when it's already been done so well. I'll wait for you.

Finished? Great. My impressions of this game after about three hours of play:

The difficulty is not the kind I was expecting. The game doesn't demand that you have ridiculous reflexes; it just demands that you take it seriously. This isn't WoW, and you don't advance by charging into battle mashing buttons. You do advance by carefully inching forward, fighting one guy at a time, choosing the right weapon for the battle, and listening to the wisdom of previous players. For me, this is refreshing, since it's how I play games anyway. It's a game that requires patience above all things; so it doesn't surprise me that the pro reviewers with deadlines, and 14 year olds with ADD, find this game punishingly difficult.

Combat hurts. I physically wince every time somebody hits me. Each sword strike means using a scarce healing item at least, and losing hours of gameplay at most. For instance, I'm writing this right now because some sort of huge spider boss killed me within about ten seconds of entering its room. This was after I spent an hour working my way to its lair. I'd need to spend at least ten or fifteen minutes, and fight several formidable foes, in order to try again. Doing a little writeup sounded far less stressful.

Because believe you me, the game is stressful. Each corner I turn, shield raised, causes a little heart palpitation. Each new enemy, anxiety. Each fight, terror. Each death, despair.

And it should be stressful. The whole point of an RPG is to get into the head of a character, and this is the very first computer RPG to get me to do that--and it's done it in just a couple hours.

I mean, if I handed you a rapier and a buckler, and told you to go through that door and kill an eighty foot spider... wouldn't you be scared? Wouldn't you give me the finger as you made haste for less hazardous environs? That's pretty much how I feel about that spider boss at the moment.

Some things annoy me.

There's no pause. Press start, and you get a menu overlayed on top of the live game. I found this out at an inopportune moment. It's acceptable, overall, since quitting and returning drops you back into the same spot with the same game state. And it definitely adds to the immersion, since you're never safe unless you're actually safe. But it's still inconvenient if, say, somebody comes to the door or the cats are fighting.

Weapons are scarce. Enemies don't drop them. There is no equivalent to chests or boxes, so you don't find weapons littered about. The merchants I've found so far don't even sell the starting weapons for all the classes. This sucks, since I want a spear, and can't find one. In a game so intent on making me feel like I'm really crawling a dungeon, why can't I pick over the equipment of my vanquished foes?

If your network connection hiccups, the game automatically quits. You can start it right back up, but it's really damn annoying.

The vocabulary of messages you leave for other players is only barely acceptable. Most dangers can be indicated. But it's impossible or difficult to convey any sort of tactic or strategy. There is no vocabulary for: "the AI pathfinding doesn't know to walk around the railing, so trap him in the corner and pummel him."

On the other hand, and I never thought I'd say this, I'm totally thrilled that there's absolutely no story to speak of. I mean, there's a setup and backstory for the world. But there's no developing plot. I never feel the need to rush, since the thing I'm enjoying is the thing I'm already doing.

And before you think the lack of a story is a bad thing, really think about it. The point of playing Contra is to play the game. The game itself is fun, from the first level all the way through the end (that I never reached). If Contra inserted a MGS4-length cutscene after each level, you'd merely view the levels as barriers to seeing the next piece of your movie. Like a soap opera fan forced to solve differential equations before being allowed to see the next installment of All My Children.

But without even a shred of a story, Demon's Souls allows me to savor the gameplay. Your experience of the gameplay becomes the story. For the first time since I played Dungeons and Dragons, I really feel like an RPG is about me.

You wanna know what happens in Demon's Souls?

Lemme tell you about this time I killed like five of these really tough orc things, at the same time, by herding them into a lava pit with my halberd...

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Rainbow Six: Vegas 2 (PS3)

I loved the hell out of Rainbow Six: Las Vegas. It was excellent. An FPS for the thinking man. Slow, stealthy, methodical work was rewarded. And if you simply charged into battle, you were invariably slaughtered. So when I saw Vegas 2 for $20 at WallyWorld, I snapped that shit right up.

I'm terribly disappointed.

The basic formula is the same as the first game: you're the leader of a three-person assault team. You're responsible not only for the standard FPS fair, but also for commanding your teammates.

You indicate commands using the X button (on PS3). If you point the crosshairs at the ground or a cover object when you press X, your team moves to that position. If you aim at a door and press X, your teammates "stack up" beside the door in preparation to storm and clear the room. Press X while aiming at a bomb or similar plot device, and they'll go tinker with it.

This works really well in the first game. You can push forward through a space by commanding your team to cover, then leapfrogging past them while they cover you. Room clearing is a blast, as your team will open the door and toss grenades (flash or frag) before storming the room.

Unfortunately, they broke it horribly in Vegas 2. The controls are the same. You have roughly the same options. And yet your team's AI is so downright retarded as to be nearly worthless.

At one point, I was working my way through a parking garage. On the ground was a puddle of water and a parking cone. Both of my teammates walked through the puddle, touched the cone, and became completely stuck. None of my commands to follow me, nor to take a specific position, seemed to work: they just stood there doing the chicken dance. Only by telling them to move to a point about six inches away, and five minutes of bread-crumbing their way, did I manage to get them moving again. This happened routinely.

A vastly more annoying problem is your team's behavior while they're following you. They're constantly sticking themselves out around corners, exposing themselves to enemy fire and ruining your element of surprise. Similarly, on several occasions that I was crouched below a waist-high window, planning my next move, they broke the glass and jumped into the room only to stand there while the tangos rained bullets on them. Perhaps "follow" means something different in the tactical world, but I was pretty sure it meant "stay the fuck behind me", not "take any random position within fifteen feet of me."

The only place the AI worked consistently was in room clearing. Otherwise, I found it far more practical to just leave them hanging back and clear areas myself. This is unacceptable in a game whose most basic premise is realistic tactical planning and teamwork.

Even putting aside the AI, there are huge programming flaws throughout the game. The most annoying is the terrible sound programming. To start with, character voices are mixed so low as to be inaudible--and they frequently overlap with radioed briefing info, rendering both incomprehensible. Of course, if the voice in question is some whimpering civilian, you'll be able to hear him literally throughout the whole level. And, your character's voice is mixed so loud that anything she (or he) says drowns out nearly all other sound in the environment.

Gunshots and explosions often make dull "thud" sounds instead of their regular sound effect. This is obviously some attempt at realistic muffling, as it sounds fine most of the time. But occasionally, the system will decide that sounds should be muffled even if the only thing between you and the shooter is a potted plant. It's kind of disorienting to have a string of automatic gunfire go from deafeningly loud to nearly silent just because you duck back behind a corner.

In a synergetic clusterfuck, the physics and the sound conspire to annoy the crap out of you on a regular basis. The way this usually happens is that some lightweight item (a box or a tin can) gets trapped in the level geometry, vibrating wildly. This vibration then causes an endless, rapid-fire string of "thuds", "thumps", and "tinks". Which, naturally, is mixed so loud as to drown out gunfire.

These sorts of glitches are kind of par for the course in modern physics-driven games, so I can forgive them--even if they happen far more frequently here than in any other game I've played. What I can't forgive is the bloody fucking terrible enemy voice acting. The deliveries are wooden and emotionless, aside from the cursing, which is over the top. I almost wonder if they just had the programmers record the enemies' lines.

The voice acting is bad, but it's made orders of magnitude worse by the repetition. I heard the same damn conversation about a joke (which is never told) at least fifty times--I didn't start counting until the third or fourth level, and I stopped counting at 35. Most other dialogue I heard a similar number of times. And these aren't spread out, either: at one point, I heard that dialogue about the joke as I planned my assault on three consecutive rooms. And I don't even want to talk about the noises the bad guys make as they die, or the commentary of those around them. I'll just say that I heard "that bitch owed me money" so often that I'm pretty certain the solution to the credit freeze is to employ terrorists as loan officers.

The developers also added a ranking system that wasn't in the first game. At first, I thought it was pretty cool, since there are lots more weapons available this time around. And then I realized I couldn't care less. While the guns aren't all quite identical, they may as well be. Since the game's built on a realistic premise, all guns kill in just a couple shots, and all of them are at least basically accurate. Likewise with all the armor you can unlock: none of it will actually prevent you from dying. And the XP requirements for the weapons are extreme, requiring you to play through the game many times to unlock the high-end gear.

I suppose the ranking system is really geared toward multiplayer. But I can't imagine Rainbow Six being fun online. The whole premise of the game is that you're smarter, better equipped, and better informed than the enemy. You're vastly outnumbered, but you have the element of surprise. Playing against people would put you all on a level playing field, turning Rainbow Six into just another FPS.

Which reminds me that the developers totally fucked up the level design in this iteration. The first game was so enjoyable because, for the most part, you worked room to room, clearing each of terrorists before moving to the next. If you did it right, you could play whole levels without the bad guys ever getting a shot off at you. And then, to keep you from getting too cocky, the developers would throw in a straight open firefight. These were few, far between, and were the most tense moments in the game.

In Vegas 2, they throw out that formula. Instead of methodically working through interior levels, you're forced to frenetically rampage through open outdoor levels. Yeah, there's still plenty of cover, and so you don't just run and gun. But, the tangos know you're coming, and often start shooting before you've even seen them. Vegas 2 plays more like Gears of War than it does the previous game in the series.

All in all, I can't really recommend Rainbow Six: Vegas 2. If you played the first game, you might enjoy it, but you'll more likely be frustrated by it. If you didn't play the first game, Vegas 2 will sour you to the whole franchise. Just play the original.