Ted's RPG Rant

A place to rant about RPG games, particularly the Temple of Elemental Evil. Co8 members get a free cookie for stopping by. Thats ONE cookie each, no seconds.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

What Makes a Good PC Game part Deux

Or is it part 3? I forget.

Some time back I wrote about the issue of what, imho, makes for a good game. I will recap it in some detail since I want to draw on some of the same themes. I gave as an example of a good game my perennial favourite Ultima 5, since among other strong points, the plot affected the game play - solving quests actually opened up the game, gave you more options, and advanced the plot. As an example of a 'bad' game (in this sense) I mentioned Starcraft, a game which I twice started and simply could not get through, despite enjoying RTS games and having spent many long hours on various incarnations of C&C, Age of Empires and even the Warlords: BattleCry Demo (and its predeccessor, but that was turn-based). The reason was I couldn't get through Starcraft was simple: it was too repetetive. Every level was either a) build a base, defend it til you could build a force to wipe out the enemy, or b) wipe out the enemy with a finite force and no base. Level after level was strategically identical, and the plot made no impact on that, it was all just irrelevant window dressing.

I bring this up because I have been playing a bunch of my old games lately, now I have a nice new computer to enjoy them on. I started with BF 1942, got that out of my system (didn't play a campaign or anything, just a bunch of maps, mainly 'Battle of Britain' - love to fly!) then moved on to Jedi Outcast (played it through - killed Desann with a bowcaster by bouncing the bolts into his back so he couldn't block them with his sabre. Cheesy bastard, serves him right). Last night I finished the sequel, Jedi Academy, and today I installed MoHAA and am already well into the Bocage (love that game. Some of the levels are endlessly replayable.) Anyways, thats what I want to talk about - Jedi Outcast.

Generally speaking, I never pay top dollar for a game - partly because I can't afford it, partly because I rarely if ever have any hardware that can run the latest game, partly because I rarely see any game where-in I think "I've GOT to have that!" If I do buy games I get them in the bargain bin (thats how I got ToEE - serendipity, eh?) or I play mods and demos. Well I used to before I started modding - nowdays I make things rather than play them, usually, but thats a seperate issue. Jedi Acadmey I got for the unbelieveable price of $9 just a few months after it came out - I just stared, thought "That can't be right?", then quickly grabbed it. Jedi Knight, the original (well, Dark Forces was the original, but I never played that through because it was so inferior to Jedi Knight, which I already had, that I didn't bother - a shame since DF was ground-breaking, but what can you do?) I originally played the Jedi Knight Demo many years ago - played it to death, I might add, over and over - so I actually went out and bought the game, one of the first games I ever bought. Heh - Demos work. I even bought the sequel, Mysteries of the Sith, after it had gone out of print by ordering it online, having it sent to a friend in the US (because LucasArts wouldn't ship international) and she sent it on to me. Legend of a woman :-) Married an Irish guy last I heard... but I digress again.

The thing about Jedi Knight is, prior to it, I didn't play FPS games at all - I never saw the point, I remember a friend of mine showing me Doom years ago, wandering around in the dark killing monsters with various weapons, and I played it for about 3 seconds and thought, "whats the point? So what?" I much prefered the challenge of an RTS and stuck to them.

However, when I played JK it was completely different. Apart from being of a very high quality for its time, whacking Storm Troopers with a light sabre made sense to someone who grew up watching Star Wars, in a way that other games didn't (even Half Life, when I played it, did not hold my attention, even though I loved both CounterStrike and Day of Defeat). I was almost imediately hooked by both the game play and the puzzles of the JK Demo (lvl 9, the Fuel Station, probably the best level in the game and VERY long for a Demo) and was soon completely hooked on shooting stormies, hacking them up with my sabre and using the Force on them. From there I moved on to LANs, playing Rogue Spear and CounterStrike against my friends, and then to BF 1942 and Call of Duty: I was hooked on FPSes as long as there was some compelling reason, like driving a tank or fighting classic WW2 battles (abstract monster killing or overpowered weapons still do nothing for me - Unreal Tournament, Quake and Half Life all leave me cold).

Now, here's the kicker: the level design of Jedi Knight, like StarCraft, is very repetitive. Just as StarCraft's maps fall into 2 categories, so too (imho) the overwhelming majority of JK's levels fall into 2 camps - what I call 'up the tower / down the tower', and 'along the canyon'. In fact, its really only 1 category, it just comes in either a horizontal or vertical mode: the player gets railroaded along a path, and has to solve various little puzzles to advance (the Baron's Head town map, and the first 'back home on Sulon' map, are the only really open ones that come to mind - otherwise, you're getting railroaded along, often for no other reason than Kyle says in a cutscene, "Jan, I've got to get to the top of that tower!")

And yet... something about the game is damn good: the level design, or the monster placement, or the challenge, or whatever, that you don't mind this. In fact, I have played many of those maps over and over again ad nauseum, because they are just so much fun to play.

Weird, huh?

And a very fine line, I might add. The sequel / add-on, Mysteries of the Sith, was considerably less replayable: people speak about the poor level design (in some cases the rooms were literally undistinguished boxes, such that you could practically see the words "add monster here" on spots on the floor) but it was something more than that. There was many new elements - new monsters, new weapons, new force powers, cooperative combat (Rebel troopers who fought alongside you) and some levels that had a lot of thought and effort put into them (and were quite good in their way), but the replayability wasn't there, not by a long way.

Which brings us to Jedi Outcast, the one and only game of my life that I bought on the day it was released, glady paying full price for it (no regrets, neither). It was a massive leap forward (I actually started to write 'quantum leap', but 'quantam' means tiny. For instance, quantum physics is the study of the tiny particles of the atom: electron clouds etc. Bizarre misnomer, eh?) Jedi Outcast used the Quake 2 engine (same as MoHAA albeit a completely different gaming experience) to create a world with an extremely rich capacity to use the Force, absolutely mind-boggling sabre-fighting against many Dark Jedi foes (with an interesting plotline to explain where all these psuedo-Sithlings suddenly came from), sensible enemy reactions and some beautifully detailed levels.

And yet: again, the replayability is not there for me.

One reason is the particle-collision system. Its utterly unforgiving: you can literally see your shots go under the storm-trooper's arms, or between their legs, and hitting a moving target can be very difficult indeed. Add in the fact that every weapons in the game, except your pistol and the disruptor rifle, is one degree or another of inaccurate (usually 'extremely'), and the end result is really quite like a Star Wars movie - people shooting in all directions, no-one getting hit.

But thats not much fun, and the early level's before you get your sabre and force powers are practically a write-off: you are just passing time til you get your magical glow-stick and can start carving things up, or choking them, pushing them off bridges, yanking the weapons out of their hands and watching them run in panic etc. After that I almost never touch any other weapon, as opposed to JK where I had a tendency to use a wide variety of weapons and force-powers as well as my sabre at close quarters. And in JK the initial levels on Nar Shaddaa - also, sans sabre - are as much fun as anything after you get it.

The sabre is far and away the redeeming feature of Jedi Outcast: looks spectacular and genuinely fun to use, plus you can use the console to switch on 'dismemberment' so you can fillet enemies (default is just the standard "arm comes off" that you see in every Star Wars movie, but it can be cranked up to the point you can totally dismember a corpse. No blood, of course). Jedi Academy takes it all to the next level, allowing you to use two sabres or a light-staff (Darth Maul style). It overhauls the force powers and the collision system (afaik), so it is still very challenging but not absurdly so. (Absurd in the sense of "empty your Stormtrooper rifle at point-blank range at a Stormtrooper's chest and miss" - yes, JO is that bad at times). It also adds the Concussion Rifle, a favourite from Jedi Knight missing in Jedi Outcast, and allows you to choose your weapons for each mission - sabre and pistol, then 2 additional weapons and a choice of explosive from grenade, trip-mine or det-pack.

And yet... Jedi Academy (as you can probably tell from being in the bargain bin within months) barely caused a stir, despite getting good reviews (generally 80% or better - GameRankings.com says it averaged 81% over 54 reviews). Quite bug-free, too - I just played an unpatched version and only encountered one thing that I thought "hmm, must be a bug". But having played it through just the other day for the first time in many long months, I have no desire to go back and play any level again just now.

Were they repetitive? No. The exact oppposite: Jedi Academy, rather than having a linear plotline, instead consists of a series of missions that can be played in any order, with plot-critical adventures kicking in when you finish the each 'wave' of 5 missions (three of those, representing the 3 rankings of force powers from JO, so you get progressively stronger as you go). And the designers have gone to extraordinary lengths to make each mission different: there is one where you are captured the moment you arrive, have everything confiscated (including, particularly, your sabre) and have to escape. One on a runaway monorail-style train high above a city, where certain death is just a step away. One where you ride swoop bikes, a la the forest moon of Endor (& a certain level of Shadows of the Empire). At least one where you can use an ATST. One takes place on Hoth in blinding snow, and you can ride a tauntaun. One takes place in Mos Eisley, with Chewbacca for company, while another is out in the canyons of Tattoine, cleaving Tuskens' gaddaffi sticks with your sabre (remember, kill them all, even the women and children! ;-)) and negotiating the insides of a Jawa sandcrawler. One is an endless jumping puzzle in an underground canyon (the Demo level, again one of the best in the game). One on a lava planet, another on a planet drenched in acid rain where you have to run from one shelter to the next and get to take out Tie Bombers from a gun emplacement. One involving assassin droids on Coruscant, very similar to Attack of the Clones. One involving a normal Rancor (unkillable) and one involving an humungous Mutant Rancor (killable but not with weapons). One on an Imperial Dreadnaught where you have to man the guns against incoming Tie Fighters (not well implemented). One where you take on Boba Fett (damn flying sod who uses his flamethrower to fry you if you close to use your sabre - just like in Shadows of the Empire, which is good because he should be a very tough foe). One against Noghri who fire an icky green crap at you that makes you ill and kills you very quickly. Several in Imperial facilities, of course. And one involving a Dune-like worm where you have to navigate a crash site, and any movement onto the sands could see you swallowed whole.

An enormous amount of variety. And yet - looking back at that list of the levels, I can't see a single one which I feel compelled to go back and play again any time soon. Compare that to MoHAA, where I am barely half-way through and I am already thinking "gotta go back and try the bunker again, only using the Colt" or "gotta do the tank park, but sneak my way through this time".

And there, I think, lies the essence of replayability: not diversity of content, necessarily, but diversity of how a set piece can be played. Frontal assault? Sneak around? Sniping? Use the environment against your enemies? Go the suggested route to bypass the waiting army, or head straight in guns blazing?

It occurs to me, the two levels of JO / JA that I did want to go back and play afterwards both involved vehicles. In JO it was a level on Yavin where you go through a canyon in an ATST blatting stormies and enemy vehicles - in JA, it was the swoop bike level. In both cases I played through then thought, "what if I don't use the vehicle? What if I try to play it through on foot?" The latter was very hard and only worth doing once - the former revealed many secret areas in the canyons, including some Reborn (Dark Jedi baddies) who are always more satisfying to kill than to avoid.

I also think this explains the replayability of JK, but not JO / JA: JK was far more balanced in terms of weapons / sabre and force, as I said before. You had the option of blasting with the heavy weapons (rail gun and concussion rifle) - though that generally made things too easy, and there were non-combatants like droids and ugnaughts where-in you lost force power, 'mana', for killing them, and got pushed toward the dark side, so you tended not to just nuke whole areas too often - or blazing away with the repeater or stormie rifle, or carefully pinging with the pistol or bowcaster (including bouncing trick-shots), or using the grenades, or just hitting "Force Speed" and charging in with your sabre and taking care of business. The shocking inaccuracy of the weapons in JO / JA, combined with the unforgiving collision system, meant you never used the stormie rifle after you got the sabre, the repeater was just ridiculous, the pistol was only effective against stationary targets or those running directly at you, and the flechette was just a silly novelty weapon (albeit fun to use against Dark Jedi, because its spread of fire could not be blocked with a light sabre. Annoying to face though). Hence, every battle involved pinging a few foes with the disruptor rifle, if you had one, and then charging in with the sabre - or just charging in. The various explosives added a little variety, but only in specific circumstances: you end up playing the levels the same way each time (except for the sabre-on-sabre fights) and that gets old very quick.

So the lesson for today? Quests in KotB have to not only have variety - they have to have a variety of ways to complete. There was some of that in ToEE - consider the Jinnerth quest, where-in you could intimidate Renton into accepting Jinnerth, bluff him, negotiate if you had Elmo in your party, or just flat-out bribe him. But thats very minor: I mean more elaborate quests should be able to support very different approaches. I think that is already part of the ongoing appeal of ToEE that its devoted fan-base already have: the massive amount of variety present in the combat system. You can Fireball the Bastards (TM) or go the direct tank-with-a-big-axe route, or mow down your enemies with missile fire, or TWF-sneak-attacks, or battlefield control spells, or summonings, or have a balanced party, or a themed party, or a party of NPCs, or just go it alone. A huge variety of ways to play through, even if its the same encounters again and again (and we all do).

In KotB I have to confess, I concentrated more on the 'variety of quests' rather than 'variety of means': sneak quests like the prison cell, or the corporal 'seduction' quest, or the Billy 'suddenly find yourself in the middle of it' quest, as well as the usual fedex quests, social skills quests, go-kill-stuff and occasional puzzles. I tried to include different ways to finish quests, more to suit the different alignments than to promote replayability. I do believe I shall try harder :-)

The other thing to mention, with respect to MoHAA, is that you could attempt the 'sneak' route because it was an extremely consistent engine. If you pop a guard with a silencer or pistol-whip him, you get away with it - if you stupidly shoot a spot-light or a guard sees you and grabs an alarm, you pay the penalty. The game is VERY consistent in that sense, such that when you reach the point in such levels where you can no longer sneak - where you automatically set off an alarm by passing a certain point, no matter how you play the game - you really feel quite cheated. But you have a lot of fun getting to those points, and if you want to just go in guns blazing and damn the consequences, you might have to take on a whole army, but you can still do it, albeit it is tough.

ToEE did not have that: no matter how quietly you might carry out an assassination, you would still get the "Butcher of Hommlet" rep no matter whether you were seen or not, and we all know the Temple troops did NOT react as well as the original module wanted them to, or even consistently from the point of view of the game (having Romag go KOS just because an NPC comes near him is a classic example). A challenge for KotB, which I have not attempted to implement yet (since I think it should be an all or nothing thing, not piece-meal) is to fix this. Sneaking should be possible, but certain actions should make the guards more alert. NPCs should not react to things of which they have no knowledge, but they should also not ignore the free-for-all going on in the next room. There should be consistency.

Back to modding, then :-)


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