Tag Archives: RPGs

Falloblivion and the Weirdness of VATS

(Or, as it’s technically called, V.A.T.S.)

As I mentioned in the last piece on Fallout 3, the game really feels like a Elder Scrolls game. It feels a LOT like an Elder Scrolls game. The way you explore, the way you interact with NPCs, the way that you engage with the maps…there’s a reason I called it “Elder Scrolls 4.5”.  It really does feel like Oblivion, almost without exception.

VATS is the exception. VATS, for those of you (who are you?) who haven’t played a 3D Fallout yet, is the system where you pause the game, pick your targets, and the game shoots for you, with the success based solely on the character’s statistics, instead of your own reflexes and ability. It’s a callback to the turn-based nature of the old Fallout games, where they played more like Baldur’s Gate in that you were able to pause and give orders.

VATS is one of the main reasons I wanted to try Fallout 3. It sounded amazing. Calling your shots and watching it unfold? Awesome, right? No. Not awesome. VATS just feels weird.

First, it means that the game doesn’t really play out much like an FPS, since you don’t have the fire-and-response gameplay cycle. You can try to play it like an FPS, but it doesn’t work. You don’t have down-the-sights aiming, you don’t have aim correction (keep in mind, I’m playing on a console),  and the weapons feel like peashooters, which is a really big problem considering players have strong expectations of what assault rifles, pistols, and rocket launchers are able to do derived from thousands of hours of modern multiplayer manshoots. It’s understandable, since VATS means that the weapons would be totally unbalanced if they hit hard. But without VATS, the game’s just unpleasant.

Worse, though, is that I end up finding disconnected from the environment and what’s going on in it, because the game’s constantly pausing for these slow-mo shootouts. That sense of connection is what makes Elder Scrolls games work. You aren’t “directing”, you’re acting. You don’t tell your character “swing the sword”, you just swing the damned sword. That’s been the case going all the way back to Arena. Bethesda have been progressively learning this lesson over, and over, and over again, and each time they come out with a new Elder Scrolls, it shows they’ve understood and embraced it that much more.

(Plus, the fact that hunting rifle is a better close-up weapon than a machine pistol is ridiculous, yet that’s how VATS works, since you’re near-invulnerable while you’re inside it and there’s no way for them to get “inside” your range.)

What results is something that’s neither fish nor fowl. The “direction” element of VATS that was supposed to mollify fans of the old Fallout games won’t, because this is fundamentally an Elder Scrolls RPG, not a Baldur’s Gate-style RPG, so you don’t have that tactical feel that made the turn-based gameplay of those older games compelling. Yet the game can’t fully embrace its status as a FPS or as a modern, immersive, Elder Scrolls-style RPG, because the game simultaneously near-mandates the use of immersion-breaking VATS while making the non-VATS combat surprisingly unsatisfying.

Don’t get me wrong. That doesn’t make it a bad game. I’m enjoying it immensely. It also doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy using VATS on occasion, though I never really find myself enjoying the non-VATS shooting. It’s just more than a bit of a surprise that something I’d looked forward to trying ended up being less of a blessing than a curse.

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Falloblivion: The Elder Scrolls Four-and-a-Half

Oh, shit, a supermutant! Forget my minigun, I need something with real power…a hunting rifle!”

You probably know that I’ve been doing a long series on the Elder Scrolls series. I’d had to put that aside for a little bit, since I’d been playing Morrowind on a nice PC that, sadly, I don’t (can’t) use anymore. I have access to a PS3 right now, and I’ve been playing some console stuff…but none of it really fit into that framework.

Then I tried out Fallout 3. Finally. After all these years.

It’s like I never stopped. For better or worse, Fallout 3 really, really feels like an old-style total conversion of the post-Daggerfall Elder Scrolls games.

Sure, there are no knights and demons and whatnot, but that’s not what Elder Scrolls’ gameplay flow, the experience, had ever been about. the Elder Scrolls had always been about other things.

  • It’d been about exploring the countryside, and carefully mapping out the ruins of ancient civilizations contained therein.
  • It’d been about encountering bandits and monsters, and either getting the drop on them or fleeing in terror if they got the drop on you.
  • It’d been about making choices for how you want to handle your problems, being given quests that end up testing your moral outlook, and getting a wee bit frustrated when you ran across a problem that your specific skill choices just wouldn’t allow you to solve.
  • It’s about plumbing the history of a bizarre environment, and peeling back the layers of worldbuilding only to find yet more layers.

THAT is Elder Scrolls. And, yes, THAT is Fallout 3. Same damned thing.

For those about to grab their pitchforks, though…that isn’t a bad thing. I was never really that attached to the old Fallout games, but I knew enough about them to realize that they were themselves a conversion of the sort of gameplay that you’d find in an old top-down RPG in the vein of Planescape:Torment or Baldur’s Gate. You had turns and squares and stats and countryside and towns and encounters and all of that. Sure, it had guns and rads, but it also had everything else that’s defined that genre since the Gold Box games.

Remember, genres in games have absolutely nothing to do with setting. You can have a fantasy shooter like Panzer Dragoon, a steampunk FPS like The Order: 1886, or a historical sandbox like Assassin’s Creed 2. The setting genre and the game genre are only connected if you want them to be connected.

So, before you get all shouty, think about it. So what if Fallout 3 is basically an Elder Scrolls game? It’s still an RPG. It’s just a different kind of RPG.

All that said…there’s still VATS. And, yeah, VATS is the one thing that makes modern Fallout weirdMore in the next post. I guess the series is back on. It’s just taking a bit of a radioactive detour.

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Star Wars: The Old Republic Impressions

(Yes, yes, I’d promised more on Daggerfall and how cheating makes it better.  I’ll get to that.)

So I got one of those “try our game free for seven days!” things from EA/Bioware for Star Wars: The Old Republic. (“SWTOR” to its friends.)  Immediately interested by that. Unlike pretty much every massive-multi game under the sun these days, there’s no option to play SWTOR for free. World of Warcraft and Rift are both free up to 20, and pretty much everybody else is completely free-to-play. Not SWTOR. This was as “free” as it was going to get.

Okay, yes. It’s restricted. But the restrictions are interesting: you can only go to the first few areas, you can only go up to level 15, and you can apparently roll as many characters as you see fit.  Put those together, and you have a demo encouraging you to see a good broad cross-section of the early game. Not a bad idea. In a modern MMO, that’s often the best bit.

So after ensuring I had enough space and download data free for that groaningly huge client,  I downloaded it, fired it up, and selected my first class: in this case, a female Republic Soldier. Had to be that: I found out that that character’s voiced by Jennifer “Femshep” Hale, and I’m always up for hearing her growl at people.

Then I set out to recreate my Shep, and that’s when I found out the first thing about SWTOR, which is that playing other Bioware games is not a good indicator for SWTOR’s graphics. Yes, they’re better than WoW, but I was expecting something on the same level as your Dragon Ages or Mass Effects. This wasn’t even in the same ballpark. I’m pretty sure the faces in DCUO were more detailed, and that one was a console port!

Doesn’t matter, though. Minor detail. And after making a “good enough Shep”, I started up the game proper, and discovered three things:

  1. It’s a Bioware Game;
  2. It’s an Everquest/WoW-style MMO; and
  3. Those two things are really weird together.

Not “bad”, mind you. But weird. The game is the oddest hybrid. You do some classic Bioware conversation stuff, and then go do some WoW-style exploration and combat, and then go back to turn in the quest and do MORE Bioware-ing, and it’s seriously a bit jarring after a while. It feels like I’m playing two different games that kinda-sorta have something to do with each other, but not quite.

The conversation bits are definitely the high point. They really do flesh out your character and make you feel special, and the idea of having  “locked off” areas that are focused on telling the particular classes’ stories was an excellent notion that other companies should definitely emulate. You’re invested in the story from the get-go.  The Republic Soldier story felt a little generic, but still decent.

After playing with her for a while, I rolled an Imperial. Two, actually:  A Sith Inquisitor, which seems to be a popular class, and an Imperial Agent, which is getting rave responses. WOW.  I now understand why there’s a huge faction imbalance. The Republic soldier story was fine, but is simply outclassed by the Imperials. The Imperial stories started off engaging pretty much from the get-go and have just been getting better. THAT’S the Bioware that I remember and used to love.

The MMO bits, though…just not quite sold yet. Yes, it’s early. MMO combat is notoriously simplistic at low levels.  Maybe it gets a lot better. But it’s still the old “go here, kill a thing, collect another thing, bring it back, enjoy your loot” experience that everybody’s familiar with. It’s odd, too, because Blizzard has been working really, really hard to get away from that sort of thing. Ever since Wrath of the Lich King, Blizzard’s been using their “vehicle” mechanics and environmental phasing and a whole lot of other tricks to try to mix things up a bit.  Other companies have been trying to mix it up, too, with the standout being Trion with their various dynamic gameplay elements in Rift. Not Bioware. They’re bringing circa-2007 gameplay to the table in 2012. That’s surprising. They know things have changed.

So, yeah, odd hybrid. Neat storytelling (though the morality system’s kind of suspect) married to the sort of traditional theme-park MMOing that we all kinda got sick of at least three years ago. It’s not obnoxious, and I’m looking forward to seeing more of it.

I doubt I’ll buy the game, but I am appreciating the experience. I’m going to make a point of rolling every class, if only to see how they all start out. I won’t necessarily finish the first “planet” on each, but I do want to see what they’re about.

Then it’s back to Daggerfall and Skyrim.

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Eric Swain and Genre “Elements”

So Eric Swain is kicking off a gigantic discussion of genre in gaming. It’s really neat, and rich enough that I’ll have to think about it for a while before I really come to grips with it.

Granted, I disagree with his attempt to structure genres through a sort of biological “phylum/kingdom/species/whatever” sense. I don’t think it’s an analogy that’s really necessary here.I’m also definitely not sold by his argument that things like leveling in RPGs are just “tropes”. The RPG bit I’ll get to in a sec, but I simply don’t think the word “trope” is useful or helpful in this case. It’s just too slippery to be used in defining ANYTHING. It’s like trying to define something with the word “synergistic”. Ergh. No.

But it’s still really interesting, and a perfect starting point for discussion. There’s one bit that I wanted to highlight.

In broad strokes, a game has mechanics, it delivers its focus through the interactive dynamics of those mechanics, to that focus, context is applied and from the result a meaning can be derived and extracted from the work. In no other medium is this a consideration…

…Video game genres though don’t need [the sort of stretching you see in other media], because a first person shooter is fundamentally different from a point and click adventure, which is fundamentally different from a real time strategy game, which is fundamentally different from an open world RPG.

This is really, really important. GAME GENRES ARE NOT ABOUT SETTING. No, really, they aren’t.  I don’t think they’re even about classifying games, either.

No, here they are, in a pinch, put quite simply: a genre in game design is a particular set of related gameplay mechanics.

That’s it. It’s not complicated. It doesn’t really require heavy classification.  They do have to be related, of course, and the process of experimental game design is always bringing up new ones and sunsetting old ones.

Note what I didn’t say, though. I didn’t say “a type of game”. I said “set of  mechanics”. That’s really important. Trying to say that any particular game is “an RPG” or “an action game” or “an adventure game” or “a strategy game” (to use the four uber-genres that Eric is using) isn’t helpful or useful.

It isn’t helpful or useful because almost no game focuses purely on a single set of related mechanics. Games are almost always mixtures of genres. There’s a bit of this, and a bit of that, and a whole lot of something else. Some are purer than others, but precious few are completely pure examples of genre mechanics.

Sometimes the genres present in a game work together, and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes it’s brilliant, like the mixture of music and action in a game like Child of Eden. Sometimes it’s a wee bit dubious, like the mixture of RPG and FPS in the multiplayer component of Modern Warfare. Sometimes it’s just bizarre, like the platforming elements in Sierra’s old (and entirely underrated) Manhunter series. It’s the mixtures that often make a game interesting.

That’s where the word “element” comes into it. (Wondering when that one would come up? There it is.) We implicitly recognize this when we use the word “element”, even if we don’t always recognize what we’re saying. When we say a game has “action elements” or “adventure elements” or “puzzle elements”, what we’re really saying is “these are sets of related mechanics that are present in this game”.

When we say that there are “RPG elements” in a game, we aren’t saying that it’s a pure RPG: we’re saying that  a particular set of mechanics are present in the title. That’s why I disagree with Eric on the “level” thing; the presence of “leveling” in a game is the presence of, yes, the sort of mechanics that we label as “RPG” mechanics. That doesn’t mean setting, or whatever the hell a “trope” is supposed to be these days; the fact that Modern Warfare doesn’t feature elves or swords or spaceships or what-have-you means nary a thing when it comes to discussing its RPG elements. Not tropes, gameplay.

That’s where I part ways from Eric. Eric’s definition seems to be top-down. Mine is bottom-up. He’s trying to classify from a set of “super-genres” downward. I’m pointing out that genres are something that evolve more than anything else, and that they work a bit like DNA: what makes games special and interesting are the ways that they combine, mutate and bud off the sets of related gameplay mechanics that we call “genres”.

It’s also why the complete loss of a genre is devastating to the medium; it’s taking away from the ways in which games can evolve. Fortunately, it doesn’t happen often. Even adventure games, that poor, benighted genre that so often gets confused with RPGs—and don’t think I’m not going to go off on THAT thing soon—are still a going concern thanks to the vitality and freedom of modern  open platforms like PC and mobile.  Sure, it’s small, but small and open go together really, really well.

(Ditto with the “scrolling shooter” genre: if you think that one’s dead and buried, you haven’t played Jamestown yet. Besides, Cave’s on iOS now.)

I’ll read Eric’s future pieces with great interest. And, to be fair, this is only based on a quick reading. I may realize that he’s making a completely different point once I start going over his arguments in more detail. But I still wanted to get across what I think the word “genre” really refers to…

…After all, I wanted you to be ready when I finally start going off on what the word “RPG” really means. It’s gonna be fun.

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Modern Warfare 3: Leveling Like Fiends

So. Modern Warfare 3.

(So this is the WordPress site. And this is the new entry.)

I was really impressed when Steam made the offer for people to try the multiplayer bit of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 for free this weekend. I hadn’t bought the game, nor was I really interested in doing so. I’d always sorta thought that I should play it, though, if only to know what the big deal is. I’ve had much the same reaction to Skyrim, and the fact that I really didn’t understand the Elder Scrolls enough was one of the big reasons why I decided to play through them, and why I’m doing the #CraigPlaysArena thing. I’ll probably be starting Skyrim as soon as I finish Arena, and play through Daggerfall at the same time as I’m playing Skyrim.

(Might actually do some comparisons there, come to think of it; Oblivion and Skyrim are an easy comparison, but Daggerfall and Skyrim? Now that’s interesting.)

Besides, jokes about modern multiplayer military manshoots aside, I don’t actually have anything against military FPSes. I enjoyed the first Modern Warfare’s single-player campaign enough, and the Battlefield 3 demo was pretty compelling. So why not try Modern Warfare 3 out? It was free, and it seems like people find it pretty compelling. And they’re right. It is compelling, but not for the reasons you might think. (More on this later.)

You’ve almost certainly already read all the reviews, and picked up on the basic setup. They’re basically accurate. You’ve got a bunch of people running around, generally in teams, shooting guns at each other, getting points when they shoot someone and respawning when they get shot. Unlike older shooters or more abstracted games like Team Fortress 2, guns tend to be extremely lethal in MW3. You just can’t soak that much damage. If anybody gets the drop on you for more than a second or so, you’re probably done.

That’s the first thing I noticed about MW3: getting shot just isn’t a big deal. Unlike games like TF2 or Counterstrike, you respawn almost immediately. You have a bit of time to watch a replay of the other guy taking you down, but you don’t need to do it. You can just push the “f” key and get immediately back into the action. You respawn so quickly that there really doesn’t feel like there’s much of a penalty for dying at all. At first you’re cautious, but you soon shrug it off.

Granted, the old Modern Warfare games had “killstreaks” as incentives to try to protect your sorry hide. The more opponents you dropped without dying, the more neat toys you could play with: missile strikes, gunship attacks, and even tactical nuclear strikes that kill everybody in the level at once. And, yes, that does still exist in MW3. But, as the other reviews have pointed out, you don’t need to worry about that if you don’t want to; you can just pick a different “package” of streaks that don’t reset on death, and you can run merrily into the streams of bullets without a care in the world.

Running back into the fight isn’t a disincentive for playing bullet sponge either. The multiplayer maps in MW3 aretiny. Insanely tiny. It’s hard to convey just how small they really are. The typical TF2 map is gigantic in comparison, and as for Battlefield 3 maps…well, there just isn’t a comparison to be made. BF3 deliberately builds its gameplay around managing players’ time spent travelling to the fight. MW3 doesn’t do any of that. Getting back to the fight and mixing it up again takes, literally, maybe 15 seconds or so.

The only thing that might slow you down is that there are tons of little nooks and crannies and turns in the map that have to be navigated, but even those seem custom-designed to make players constantly encounter each other, often by accident. Since the guns are so lethal, I quickly learned that taking these twisty little corridors without constantly checking corners will likely get me ventilated. I still had to do it at speed, though; unlike the more deliberate pace of a Counterstrike or Battlefield, slowing down in MW3 seemed to be foolhardy at best. The spawn points for players seemed to be constantly moving, too, making it far more likely that a “lane” of conflict was going to change over time, and increasing the number of these near-immediate surprise encounters.

Put all that together, and you have near-constant engagement, without the peaks and valleys of tension and engagement that you normally get with this sort of game. It’s fine, it’s definitely a design choice, but it does mean that long-range weapons just don’t seem to have much of a point. The best weapon setup doesn’t seem to be an assault rifle at all, but a pair of machine pistols. Sure, they’re inaccurate at range, but proper play of MW3 seems to avoid engaging at range. There aren’t even a lot of “ranges” to do it in.

The various game modes do mix it up a bit. There are a lot of them, to MW3’s credit. Most really do boil down to some variation on “hunt opponents and destroy them” or “take and hold territory”, though. I didn’t play all of them, granted, but the ones I played all revolved around that theme, and the focus is clearly on a mix of team deathmatches, “domination” matches (territory-holding) and the new mode “kill confirmed”. Everything else feels like a bit of an afterthought.

It’s this latter mode, Kill Confirmed, that really stands out. The premise is fairly simple: if you shoot someone, they drop a pair of easily-visible dogtags. You don’t score the kill until you “confirm” it by getting the tags. If someone on the other team gets their ally’s tags, they “deny” you your team’s kill and the points that come from it. Whoever is first to collecting about 75 or so of these tags wins. Sounds simple enough.

Thing is, that slight change really does improve the game. You can’t just sit there and shoot people. It doesn’thelp. You have to go in there and take a risk to get the tags, and you can be damned sure that any teammates of the guy you just shot are going to be going for those tags too. You can and do end up with clusters of these tags from BOTH sides, as players rush up and get cut down trying to pick them up.

KC encourages a sort of “cover-and-retrieve” style where players try to cover each other and suppress the other side so that they can get in there and grab the tags. It practically mandates teamwork and staying together, because a “lone wolf” can and will get cut down before he can grab the tags. It discourages fixed standoffs and favors group mobility.

It’s the best mode in MW3 by such a huge margin that I found myself not wanting to bother with the other ones. Even Domination, a mode that’s quite similar to the sort of attack-and-hold gameplay that I like in competitive multiplayer and TRULY enjoyed in the latter days of the Battlefield demo, just didn’t really feel as alive as Kill Confirmed. If other designers have any sense, they’ll be adopting something like it for their own games. It was compelling enough to want to keep coming back to, even if other modes might give out more experience.

Ah. Yes. Experience. Now we get to the tricky part. What most reviews of MW3 don’t mention is that the game features a LOT of RPG-style leveling. You raise your own “rank” (read: level) which gets you access to more weapons and more game modes. It gets to the point where you hit max level (rank 80), gain a “prestige” point, spend it, and then do it all over again. I’m not making this up. Modern Warfare encourages you to level up over, and over, and over again. I saw people with ten Prestiges. Warcraft players don’t level that much.

You level up all of your weapons, too, which adds various skills and attachments that make the weapons more valuable. DRASTICALLY more valuable, in fact: a lot of weapons start off practically unusable, and become incredibly powerful over time as you improve them. Assault Rifles that start off being usable at best become death lasers with infrared sights. Machine pistols that start out as suboptimal to the point of being frustrating become so enormously lethal that you get the sensation that you broke the game when you level them up and start dual-wielding them. It’s almost disappointing, to be honest. I didn’t feel like I was really getting better at the game; I felt like the game was just MAKING me better.

The “perks” are the worst of this. Yes, they’d been around before, but I’d never really experienced this aspect of Modern Warfare. Get perks, and you can run longer, shoot straighter, shrug off grenades, be invisible on maps, call in more airstrikes, and pretty much everything else you can think of. Most are “utility” abilities and not direct damage boosts, but the game is lethal enough that you don’t need damage boosts. These “utility” abilities are what keep you from getting shot, or get you to shoot more of the other guy. They boost your kills, and boost your scoring, and damned if I didn’t feel like I was cheating when I went up against people who didn’t have as high a rank as I did.

(I hit level 40, by the by.)

You get XP by winning matches, by losing matches and making it close, by completing objectives…but, mostly, you get XP from achievements. All that gamerscore stuff that most people ignore? Well, in Modern Warfare, that all feeds into your rank, and therefore your effectiveness. I found myself quite literally grinding achievements because I wanted to have a high enough level to get a more effective gun. Then I grinded out kills on the gun so that I could get decent attachments for it. (Then I went back to using Akimbo machine pistols because it was more effective anyway.) The careful, careful weapon balance in a game like Team Fortress 2, the kind that ensures that the “vanilla” weapons are just as effective as anything else, the kind that just makes the other weapons fun instead of required….yeah, that ain’t what Modern Warfare 3 is about at all. Later weapons are strictly superior. Later perks are strictly superior. Older players are strictly superior. They’re basically forced to be.

I wanted to know what made Modern Warfare 3 so compelling. I found my answer. It’s the compulsion of rpg-style leveling. It’s getting just a little more XP on that bar. It’s that rush where you get a “ding” for getting a new level and feel like you’ve accomplished something. (In MW3, it’s more of a rock riff, but close enough.) It’s the desire to get just one more level so that you can open up that new gameplay mode, or area, or weapon, or ability. And once you’ve opened them all up, it’s about returning back to the bottom and doing it all over again.

I’m not sure if that counts as an extrinsic or intrinsic motivator, since these things DO feed back into gameplay. I’m also not sure if it really counts as an RPG, since it doesn’t feel like there’s any real element of differentiating between player and character skill; it’s just that players are temporarily crippled until they put in their time. I might return to that idea later.

I had been really compelled by MW3 this weekend. It mystified me. I played a ton of it, and while I wasn’t playing it, I was thinking about it. Once I realized what WAS compelling me, though, it stopped just as mysteriously as it started. Sure, I’ll miss some really fun bits, like playing Kill Confirmed on some of the better-designed maps, and at least now I know what the fuss is about. But the compulsion is gone, and I already have enough RPGs to play.

If I want to grind, I’ll grind something with a story.

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