Category Archives: Games

Spore Creatures

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The spore creature editor is now available for trial. The results end up looking like this video clip.

The creature editor (even in the limited free edition) is a joy to use, and the flexibility and ease-of-use is remarkable, considering how hard 3D editing is.

The direct manipulation, the responsiveness of the preview to your positioning, the feedback through sound-effects (the spine vertebrae makes click-click sounds as you elongate or shorten the body blob), and the incidental animation of the half-formed creature makes for a fun toy.

It’s not a game yet, but there is a lot of fun in just watching how the creature creator figures out how to make your blob walk and talk.

BioShock

Finished Bioshock on friday evening – got the happy ending, since I had been saving rather than harvesting the little gatherers. I’m playing through it again, being as evil as possible this time through.

The game has gripped my mind like few other games. The first round of play lasted some ten hours, and my dreams have for the past week been set in sunken cities filled with puzzles and giant diving suits.
A couple of things worth noting:

 
The design aesthetic is very strong. Both the city and the game feel like there was one idea, one mind behind it all. The architecture, the grand size and the narrative all reinforce each other. The megalomania shows in the size of what was built, and the location. Rapture-under-sea is breathtaking to behold. Each new area has a different look and feel. The hospital looks very much like any 3d shooter – tiled corridors and flickering flourescent lights. The mall/theatre district is much more open, much more dramatic in its use of lighting and space. The gardens are lush, alternating close-in areas and open spaces; with plants and flowers obscuring sight lines.
The claustrophobia of being trapped at the bottom of the ocean, with water seeping in everywhere is a good start for a scary game. Adding crazed, genetically modified homocidal maniacs, giant ambulatory diving suits and eerie little girls makes each new area a tense experience.
The sound design is fabulous. The ambient sounds help tell the story – announcements of curfews and news bulletins fill in the back-story if you care to listen. The audio diaries tell the story more explicitly, but I wish they could have been integrated more into the story. The diaries get the story told (again with the awesome sound design), but they are a prime example of telling, not showing. Showing more of the story in-game would require  either flashbacks or setting the story during the collapse, rather than a year later.

The diaries do manage to fill in characters over the course of the game, and they give you many different facets of the story, letting you fill in the gaps as you learn new things.  I felt sorry for the poor Dr. Suchong after hearing yet another experiment failing with him being mauled by his test subject. It seemed like almost all his diary entries ended with him screaming and blubbering.
The Unique Selling Point is that you get to choose whether to rescue or kill charming little vampire moppets. Moral choices in games (pace Black and White): ooh. Significant choices.

Or maybe not. Turns out it all evens out in the long run, so your choice has few consequences for you. Which kind of undermines the whole point.

The game enjoys undermining its own point, so maybe the fact that your choice doesn’t matter is part of the game. Andrew Ryan points out your lack of free will within the game. You must complete various tasks in the game in order to progress. These tasks are not done because you want to, but because you have to. The player lacks free will within the game. Ironically, this whole explanation happens within a cutscene where you have no interaction or possibility of choice at all. Your only alternative choice is not to play the game.
The game is a a finite game, but it uses this to its advantage. It makes the restrictions in the nature of being a game part of the game’s story. It does raise the interesting game design problem: how can you incorporate free will into a story driven game?

Darwinia

Darwinian I finally finished the last level of Darwinia – it was easier than I feared. The second to last level (Biosphere) was much harder. Darwinia was immense fun to play – the mix of indirect and direct control made for great fun. It reminded me of the original Myth, and Lemmings, and Syndicate – but it combined all three so seamlessly. The retro TRON look is just icing on the cake.

Darwinians flock around mindlessly, but pick up the ability to defend themselves after a few upgrades. Later on in the game you can give them armour and gun turrets, which suddenly turns some of the most annoying enemies into swiss cheese. As new enemies are introduced, they force new tactics on you. Armies of little ants can’t be mowed down by gunfire like the enemies you’ve faced early on. You need to ignore the ants and attack the nests. These changes and shifts in balance make exploring the possibilities interesting. The exploration is so much fun because programs don’t cost anything. If something isn’t working, you cancel the program and try again with a new one.

The 1.3 Patch is vital — the early version used a gesture recognition system like Black-and-White. It’s was an interesting idea, but in practice you want a button to press — the stress of battle is not the time to start cursing the pattern recognizer, plus it’s difficult to remember whether the symbol for “airstrike” started from the top-left or bottom right…

The game is coming to Steam, so go buy it when it’s released there next month.

Half-Life2 mod: Minerva

Minerva: Metastasis is a very well done mod that plays out in the HalfLife2 universe. The map is a bit like Silent Cartographer in Halo — an island with a secret base in the middle. Also a snarky god-like voice pops in during the game to offer enigmatic hints. I really enjoyed it – it builds up tension and has some nice set-pieces along the way. It has some great music at key moments, and the quality of the map is really great.

It’s a nice example of how a little can go a long way. A headcrab is scary when it pops out at you in a tight corridor. A few dozen headcrabs are scary if you are stuck in a lift with them (think of the huge lift at the beginning of HL1) — but this mod plays it quiet. A deserted warehouse is creepy. A deserted warehouse with a dead headcrab in it and an unknown number of live ones is terrifying — even if the actual number of live headcrabs turns out to be one.

Most of the action is focused on combine forces, not zombies or headcrabs, so you get a nice variety of tactics to fight against. The AI is good enough to give rise to those emergent little moments of genius. Towards the end a few bucketloads of soldiers land and start tromping through the base. The multitude of corridors means that the direction of attack isn’t certain. I ended up in a dark little room off to one side, and watched in amazement as a platoon jogged right past me, heading for their destination. As long as I didn’t draw attention to myself, they carried on. They weren’t psychic. They didn’t turn and attack for no reason. A sweet little moment.

Anyway – go and download it — you’ll need to restart STEAM in order for it to pick up the new module after you’ve installed it.

Brothers in Arms

Finally finished Brothers in Arms: Road to Hill 30 – interesting and nicely balanced length and difficulty. The quick interface for giving your squad commands works well: point at a target and click the right mouse button, and the context determines the command given. The biggest problem is that the click is modal — you have two teams to command, and which team gets the order depends on which team you have selected in the lower left corner of the screen. Unfortunately I can’t see a better way to do the command targeting without adding another button to the mouse. It would be nice if the current selection was a little bigger than the tiny icon in the corner.

It’d also be nice if the team were smart enough to know not to run in front of the german machine gun nest, but I guess the problem is that sometimes you do want the team to draw fire away…

The command system is almost too simple, since there are only two verbs: “go” and “shoot”. Still, when the bullets are flying it’s easy to give the wrong command. The game gives you lots of interesting puzzles to apply your commands to. Early battles are tutorials, with handy fences and walls for you to hide your flanking maneuvers. Each fight becomes a simple chess game: fire team to that fence, fire to supress, move assault team to flank, fire to finish enemy position, move up to next obstacle, repeat. Later battles are a lot more open and free-form, where your tactics and eye for positioning become the deciding factor. Flanks aren’t as obvious. They also require the occasional headlong rush to solve. Interlocking fields of fire makes flanking impossible without taking casualties.

This isn’t as much a chess game as Full Spectrum Warrior. Especially in later battles, where the enemy AI tries to flank you while you are doing your thing.

The narrative is thin but realistic — the squad leader voice-over mumbles on about the friendships and the horrors of war. The missions all fit together nicely (i.e. take a town, then defend it against the counter-attack), but the characters in your squad remain cardboard cut-outs for the most part.

games with physics

I like the game Gish for its squishy physics play. I also like Half-life 2 (but not just for its physics, though they are fun too)

I just found N – the ninja game – basically Loderunner with physics. Frustrating and funny. Download and just watch the game play itself. See the ninja get chased by heat-seeking missiles, sliced by lasers, blown up by mines, with full conservation of momentum and gravity applied to the fried and exploded little bits of ninja.

Edge magazine also recommended this little gem: The Tower of Goo. You have to build a tower out of goo-balls. The goo balls form semi-rigid struts as you drag them around. Overbalance your tower and the rubbery structure slowly starts to topple, at which point you start to try to counterweight it to right it. Eventually the whole thing topples too far. There is no penalty though – you can just keep building on top of the ruins. The sounds the little goo-balls make as you drop them in place make the experience that much more fun. It reinforces the action, gives you immediate feedback – a core component in a pleasurable experience.

Republic Commando vs Brothers in Arms

Star Wars: Republic Commando is fun, but ultimately not very challenging. The recharge and resurrection of your team ends up making the game a test of stamina and rejuvenation rather than skill. The team commands are easy and fun, but the fact that everything is pre-programmed for you makes it a game of connect-the-dots. You can only place your team members where you are intended to. The game stops you making mistakes. It’s like playing with the training wheels on.

Brothers in Arms is playing with the training wheels off. Confusion, the fog of war, mistakes are all part of the gameplay and the challenge. The game can be frustrating but it (mostly) plays fair, making your failures primarily your own fault. You can’t play this game as a run-and-gun shooter. Planning and coordination are required to succeed. Find, Fix, Flank and Finish. The initial levels act as a gentle tutorial that get you used to commanding troops to support each other.

The user interface is pretty clever, but it takes a little getting used to. It is all too easy to almost finish a level and end up slaughtering your team due to an errant click — you meant to say “fire on” rather than “move next to” the machine-gun nest. The satisfaction of completing a mission with your squad still alive is so much the sweeter for the challenge. The command interface is fairly similar to the approach used in Republic Commando, but with fewer affordances to cue you to the “correct” selection.

The lack of health packs, ammo bonuses, in-game music, not to mention the screaming and the blood makes for a game that sits well alongside Spielberg’s movie and the Band of Brothers series. Gritty and gruesome.