Monday, November 2, 2009

Borderlands

This game is great. So great, in fact, that I've had almost no desire to do anything else but play it for the past couple weeks. This is the kind of obsession that only Half Life 2, Ocarina of Time, and Diablo 2 have rivaled. Obviously the similarities to Diablo are worth noting, as Borderlands was designed with Diablo as a (or the) chief influence.


If you're not already aware, all 2 of you, Borderlands is a first-person shooter like Call of Duty or Halo, except for it's also a cooperative RPG like Diablo, complete with hit-points, leveling up, and collecting loot. Loot comes in the form of weapons, energy shields, ammo, grenades, and money... used to buy new weapons, shields, etc.

This is all golden, which is to say it's solid, well done, and a ton of fun. The way this game and games like it stay fresh and are so addictive are:

a. The gameplay is tight and fun to play. Controls work great, level design is generally pretty good and interesting, and the game is further evidence of why first-person-shooters are so popular...shooting things is fundamentally satisfying.

Especially when they explode.

b. It's multiplayer. The game is able to be played with up to four players online or over system-link... even two-players can play split-screen, albeit offline.

c. Your character is customizable. Like any good RPG, you can choose how your character progresses as he/she levels up. You can select abilities that cater to your favored play style, whether you want to just pump up your critical hit power to dish out 5000+ damage per headshot, or act as tank, maxing out your damage taking ability while still inflicting major carnage with a shotgun or whatnot. This makes the game highly replayable and greatly enriches the multiplayer aspect.

d. Loot. Going along with customization, there are so many different weapons, each with their own stats, special functions and aesthetics, it's rare you see the exact same one appear twice. While you may not end up using 1% of the weapons you find, that makes finding that unique awesome exploding shell sniper rifle all the more fulfilling.

e. Oh, and it looks good too.


So what don't I like about the game? As a matter of fact, I have a number of gripes with Borderlands. Mostly my disappointments with the game are my own fault. In my mind I had built up unrealistic expectations of the game, which I should have known wouldn't be realized exactly as I had imagined and hoped...especially years before the game was released.

You see, I saw this magazine on a shelf about two years ago.


I was intrigued, so I picked it up and read this cover story, which seemed to described a game with a procedurally created open world. I imagined the city called New Haven perched on the edge of a vast desert wasteland stretching as far as the eye could see. Venturing out into the wilderness in a vehicle, bandits in their dune buggies would unexpectedly attack from distant encampments, requiring you to fight them off as you cruise. You might come across a canyon infested with baddies where you'd get out of your vehicle and fight your way up to some loot, maybe discover an item that begins a quest, leading you out on another adventure across the landscape.

The screenshots portrayed something along these lines. Didn't they?




So now that the game has gone through two more years of development and undergone a complete graphical makeover...most of those early expectations seem to have been lost by the wayside. I was saddened by the fact that the game wasn't an open world game, but a rather linear series of zones enclosed on all sides by walls, both visible and invisible. The lay of the land isn't procedurally created as was originally intended. The different areas of the game (or should I say different canyons) are always the same layout, same enemies, same everything. The only things that are random are the items you find.

Did you see that one screenshot up there with the bug just about tipping that buggy over? There isn't anything even remotely like that in the game! You as much as nick a bug and they explode in a shower of blue goo and hit point values.

Notice those interesting crags off in the distance there in the last shot? Far off canyonlands, maybe a structure fading into the haze? In the real game, you'll never be able to go there. Even try, and some random inexplicably placed turret gun will blast the hell out of you. Sometimes there's a drop off at the edge of the map, indicating maybe you'd just die from the fall...you're not even allowed to do that! Before you even reach the edge, BLAM! you're toasted by rockets from every angle!

You may have also noticed that the scenes on the salt flats are shot from a fairly low angle, the horizon is often blurry or just obscured by dust. I foolishly imagined that stuff was probably just obscuring distance beyond the action portrayed in the screenshot. I was wrong, of course, the dust is just obscuring the fact that the zone ends ten feet behind the action. Probably some effing turrets ready to shoot your head off.

But the screenshot that really made me tingle with excitement and glee was this one:


Woooah, crap, that's pretty awesome! I understood this thing was supposed to be like a big pirate ship in a sea of sand and salt. Assaulting it meant driving your way to its base, shooting your way through enemy vehicles, hopping some platforms or something and boarding the colossus while it lumbers through the flats.

Imagine my disappointment when not only do I find the "salt flats" is just a name for a slightly larger zone than the rest, but that massive rolling crane machine is now unmoving, just sitting there. Bandits have even built up a little camp around it...not very exciting, even if it does look pretty cool...

Now my complaining isn't simply that Gearbox, the developer of Borderlands, gave us bullshots that don't accurately portray their game, but that there was so much potential that went untapped. Obviously there were internal discussions that went on among designers, programmers, artists, and animators about every one of these points and logical/technical/budgetary reasons why they didn't include them in the final game. They're an experienced development company that spent countless hours working on this game, trying to make it the best it can be to please worthless whiners like myself.

I am just bummed that they had to play it so safe, make the game so claustrophobic, and trim so much creativity out of the experience. It's a real shame.

Did I mention that I really, really enjoy this game?

Two thumbs up.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Aminations

I've been saturating the "other" blog with my poop enough already. Here's some quick little test animations I've been doing with flash...just to see what I can do.

rmm

SUV

shooty

dinopoot

wut

Photobucket

Just kidding, I didn't do that last one.

Basically they're all scenes from the GREATEST MOVIE EVER TO BE MADE.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Spontaneous Essay on Exploration, Adventure, and Story in Videogames


Today's videogames are mostly all about action, story, and character building. There are very few if any good games out there today that focus on exploring unmapped territory, forging your own paths, and fresh adventure. Certainly there is plenty of great value in stirring (mindless?) action and great stories that can be told through videogames, but the thrill of adventuring in unknown lands and discovering secrets unique to your experience is priceless, and rare. Some modern games claim to do something like this, but few I've come in contact with do it in all that compelling a way. They usually lose their way while attempting to deliver their essentially conventional story.


MMORPGs sometimes offer this thrill for me, mostly because of the initial unfamiliarity with the environment and the sense of danger there oftentimes is when traveling to a new location. The first time I played Ultima Online I was dropped into a new world and with almost zero linear direction or assistance, I was off to do whatever I wanted. Whether it was adventuring with some random dudes, finding a cave or mountain pass somewhere and exploring, hunting animals or monsters in the forest and selling the hides or meat to merchants in town, it was my choice, and it was fun.


Later, for a few months, Everquest offered me some of this style of fun, it being also a new world with which I was not very familiar...but it was inferior to Ultima. The experience was more rigid, the world less malleable, and the options were more limited. This more or less defines my attitude towards the MMORPGs of today. They're expensive and not for casual consumption, and interaction with the countless other human players all doing the exact same thing as you kind of cheapens the experience.




Another common problem that gets in my way is the integration of story in these games. Most I've played give you little or no in-game story elements, making the overall experience feel stale and lifeless, as with UO. Also, most often the story that is offered is just played out before your generic avatar. He/she's entirely interchangeable with any other person on earth, making the story that much less genuine. Other, non-online RPG games have this problem, such as "Oblivion". It may be fun for a little while, but it's just so sterile, unexciting, and profitless. There has to be a balance between these two aspects I'm talking about: story and the freedom of exploration.

Some of the earliest Nintendo games were, either accidentally or intentionally, excellent examples of this balance, despite the lack of depth (come on, they were NES games...) The worlds they presented had texture, there was a basic but interesting narrative, and they even had memorable characters. Those characters, though, were just generic enough that it felt like you were the one adventuring and experiencing the story.


Zelda 1 was almost an open-world sandbox game... you could go into just about any dungeon in any order, with a few exceptions where you needed a certain item to cross a river or something. Otherwise, though, the only thing really limiting you was your skill as a player. Naturally, the more hearts you gained and items you collected, the easier it was to progress and overcome the game's obstacles, but rarely were they absolutely necessary for you to proceed.

Metroid is another example. The game is still fairly linear; there were plenty of places where you had to upgrade your suit and weaponry to progress, but the overall experience was a more organic and natural way to explore the environment and overcome challenges than is usually seen today. The main reason for this is likely the standard emphasis on story-based progression in today's videogames. We've come to expect it in most games and it seems like everyone assumes it's absolutely necessary.


For example, raise your hand if you've played The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time... okay good. Say you were playing through Ocarina of Time and found out after completing the second of nine or whatever dungeons in the game that Sheik is actually Zelda... Congratulations! You've discovered the chief twist only 30 minutes into the experience. What else does that story have to reveal to you?

I know this is not Ocarina of Time...but it's much prettier.

When the focus is on the story, story elements must be revealed in a linear way building up to the climax, and the easiest way to present them in that order is to force the player to proceed through the game in a linear fashion. Even sandbox games like Grand Theft Auto 4 have you doing this, because they are concerned about telling you a story, not letting you create one yourself, or even letting you discover it yourself.

My ideal adventure/exploration game does not throw out the idea of offering a compelling story, but it necessitates presenting it in a different way. Having a game focus on the principles I value in such a game, while at the same time featuring a main hero with a history, genuine character development, and his/her involvement in a plot reaching a satisfying conclusion, can be tricky, to say the least, but it's most certainly doable.

This all being said, it's not like I can say this definitely isn't being done today. I've yet to play Fallout 3, for example, which seems to be aiming for something like this, and does, whatever it does, well. I did play Fable, but wasn't very impressed, so I can't say that Fable 2 looks all that promising... An interesting way of presenting a story is found in Left4Dead, with story elements being found scrawled on the walls wherever you go...


My most fervent hope for the genre is that Nintendo brings it back to the franchises that began it all for me; Zelda and Metroid. Nintendo has been focusing on "innovation" for a long time, so why not try innovating their way back to their roots? How about you come up with a way to present this long lost form of art and entertainment to today's gaming audience?

Of course, this is an unrealistic wish, so I'll probably just go off and do it myself with my own material.