Obscured View

A few chosen words on the world of video games

Archive for November, 2009

YOO just need to shoot more BOO-llets!

Playing through Borderlands for a second time, one thing becomes painfully clear:  Sniper rifles don’t scale appropriately to other weapons found in the game.

My wife is playing a siren that puts out hundreds of damage per second with a L18 flame SMG (L18! And she’s L43 now!) and her Siren’s abilities tweaked to assist that. My Hunter with maxxed sniper skills and a 500+ damage L40+ rifle? Not even close. Even with damage bonuses and such, the time it takes to aim at a target, get a headshot lined and fire completely invalidates the usefulness of that shot’s damage.  The loss of instant, constant DPS from a pistol / SMG can never be equalized by a sniper headshot… unless the headshot was always instantly fatal, and even then I have my doubts.

For the hunter, the pistol tree is infinitely more playable the second time around.  You get both pistols and magnums to play with, and if you find one with ammo regeneration, you’re made of epic win.  You don’t even need a scope at that point.

It’s a shame, really.  The game is still fun, but not having any way to make that tree enjoyable is disappointing.  Sniping is fun, but slows you down tremendously when things get harder.

I’m hoping the DLC will bring some game balance tweaks as well, since the weapon balance appears way skewed to fast-firing constant damage weapons.  Even the skills available to the classes push you in that direction.  I’m also curious how the DLC will scale level-wise.

I guess the title really says it all.  Take the vending machine’s advice.  Go for fast shooting weapons!

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Adventures (and maybe just a -few- deaths) in Boletaria

dsouls

A while ago, I read an interview with a Japanese game developer (Kojima, I believe) that talked about the game design philosophy of the Japanese.  Kojima said that the Japanese liked making games around one core activity and allowing the game design to explore the furthest extremes of that activity.  Demon’s Souls is a shining example of that philosophy.  Fantasy melee combat, taken to extremes.  It’s also a great game, but it’s certainly not for everyone.

How can you tell if you’re not right for the game?

  1. You think you need to grok a game (i.e. understand it completely) before you can play it.
  2. You don’t enjoy having to focus on what you’re doing and what’s going on around you when playing a game.
  3. You like to blame your in-game deaths on everything other than what you did to cause it.
  4. You button mash in most games, especially when you get stressed in heated boss battles.
  5. You don’t like the idea that 30+ hours into a game, you may want to restart because you finally “get it”.

I’m not listing this stuff to brag in any way, as if I’m more ub3r for having gotten through it.  It’s honestly just not a game that some people will be able to tolerate at all.  I have friends that will love this game, and I have ones that will hate it with every fiber in their body.

Why is it so polarizing? Demon’s Souls is like Animal Crossing in a way.  Both games force you to play in a way that most gamers aren’t accustomed to doing.  For the latter, you had no choice but to play casually, which drove me completely insane until I got it… promptly stopped playing.  For the former, it’s restraint and patience that you must have, young Jedi.  Without it, you’ll just die, die, die, and die some more.

That’s not to say that you won’t die anyway, because oh you will, you will.  I never got frustrated at my deaths in Demon’s Souls, unlike the end of that horrible Saving Private Ryan inspired level in Conker’s Bad Fur Day.  In the case of Conker, I wanted to destroy my console as every soul-crushing death stacked one atop the other.  I cursed the game, the developers and myself for not giving up on the damn thing.  To this day, I still remember how horrible that level was.  In Demon’s Souls, I didn’t even get close to rage when I died.  Typically my deaths were because I screwed up in some way.  I swung too early.  I was out of stamina.  I forgot to block.  I dodged off a cliff.  I did something dumb or hasty or uneducated and it cost me.

There’s a ton of reviews out there that talk about Demon’s Souls difficulty, but let me be clear – the game isn’t that difficult if you pay attention.  You have to listen, you have to look, you have to learn attack patterns, you have to learn level layouts.  The game is amazingly honest in everything it does.  You hear monsters breathing from around corners waiting to ambush you.  You see enemies assemble themselves from bones before they start charging you.  You hear the “twang!” of a bow as an arrow comes whistling your way.  Almost everything in the game announces itself in one way or another, giving you plenty of time to react… as long as you look and listen.

Level design is very well planned and populated.  Almost every level has shortcuts that can be mastered or unlocked as you progress, allowing you to quickly get back to the boss that’s currently turning you into a soul-splat on the floor.  Monsters are presented in interesting mixes with space to breathe inbetween.  The varied environments provoke all kinds of sense of dread in different ways, from ruined castles on cliffs to poisonous rainy swamps, horrific bogs and rotting jails full of insane prisoners, the game has you covered.  The only level type I would have loved to see included would be a misty forest full of shadowy menace.

One of my friends calls Demon’s Souls the best MMO that you can play alone.  This is a very apt description.  The levels feel like raid dungeons with you running them solo.  You can play with others when you want to (mostly) and within your defined boundaries of interaction.  Multiplayer is unique and interesting, especially with bloodstains and messages left behind for players that don’t know the levels or the monsters they may encounter.  World 3 (The Queen’s Tower) ups the multiplayer aspect to a whole new level of “oh, that’s cool” which I won’t spoil here.

UI-wise, the game could have used a few more iterations.  Reading messages and then recommending them is tedious.  The gesturing system is interesting, but esoteric to the extreme (hold X for an undefined amount of time, then tilt / shake controller in different ways).  From Software could have done with a look at a TiVo’s UI.  Equipment management is sometimes a hassle, and the message pop-ups and dismissal of them can get you killed during a heated fight.  This at first seems like it’s a bug.  Why the hell can’t I just pick things up instantly?  And yet, there’s the game design rearing its head again, reinforcing the idea that you need to focus on the combat.  In the middle of a heated swordfight, is it really the best idea to start rummaging through the pockets of an enemy’s corpse?

What also gets you killed in this game?  Bravado.  In a game like God of War, wading into 10 enemies at once is exciting, fun, and generally the way the game is designed to play.  In Demon’s Souls, it’s not the case. If you have 10 guys on you, you’re dead.  Three guys at once is scary enough, and with certain enemies, two at once is enough to make you soil your pants.

Let’s take a look at the second time you encounter Vanguard, the monster in the image above.  The first time you fight him, you die — you have to.  Now you’ve encountered him yet again, ready to dish out some payback for the previous death that started this whole mess in the first place.  Do you:

    A. Rush in and start swinging wildly?
    B. Patiently engage him in a melee battle?
    C. Sneak around him and continue through the level?
    D. Get to a safe vantage point and and fill his fat ass full of arrows?

Of course, the correct answer is D, but could also be C if allowed, which in many cases is.  A is immediate death, so that’s out.  Sure, you can do B, but considering that one or two mistakes = death, why risk it?  The game wants you to play intelligently, which in some areas flies against all the other training you’ve had as a console gamer for years and years.  You really want to just rush right in and start swinging — most 3rd person action games today encourage that kind of behavior.  If you stop to think about it though, it’s pretty clear what you should do instead — survive.  The time it takes to fill him with arrows is a lot less than the time it would take to fight him, potentially die, and then have to come back and do it (and all the enemies leading up to him) over again.

The first character I played in Demon’s Souls I took to level 73 in about 40 hours played when I decided to start the game over.  I then took the new character and finished the game at level 95 in around 30 hours played.  I’m now level 110 with 39 hours played, and a good deal into the (much harder) second playthrough.  Why did I start over?  I learned what I was doing wrong.  Amazingly, I wasn’t pissed at all.  I was playing the game like just another 3rd person console game.  I was leveling in a way that wasn’t very focused.  I was randomly upgrading weapons here and there without concentrating on a few at a time.  In a nutshell, I wasn’t paying close enough attention to the other aspects of the game besides hitting monsters, namely my character’s progression.

So yes, I started over, and had an amazingly smoother time the second time through.  Less death, more levels, better weapons, faster boss kills.  In every way the game got more enjoyable as progress came at a more steady pace.

So what’s not great?  For a game that has a lot of numerical detail to it behind the scenes, almost none of it is exposed to the player in a way that would let them develop strategies without consulting a source outside the game.  You can’t find out that skeletons are weak to fire and blunt weapons otherwise, unless through a lot of trial and error, and likely deaths.  This is flawed.  The game is challenging enough in combat and its manifestations that knowing that piercing does crap against hard scaly lizard creatures would be nice.  Sure it’s all fantasy-logical from the start (so again if you just think about your fantasy expectations…) but it’s also hidden from the player unless they experiment or read up on it.

The lock-on targeting system, essential in some places, is downright mystifying in its logic.  Sometimes it works great and immediately locks targets.  Other times you can’t lock on to anything even if it’s right in front of you.  To this day, I still don’t understand how it picks targets or why it won’t pick some from time to time.  I have a sneaking suspicion it’s designed like that and varies by weapon or by one of your stats.  Maybe high INT makes you lock on faster.  Who knows?

I picked up the collector’s edition, so I fortunately have the strategy guide to enlighten me on the location of ores, the trade-offs for using each spell to gain a weapon or magic, and other important pieces of game-altering knowledge, but even then it falls short on explaining some critical aspects of the game, like how stat bonuses work on weapons.  If you don’t have access to the strat guide, there’s two excellent wikis on-line (found here and here) that contain everything the strat book does and more.

So do I recommend the game?  Oh hell yes… but only if you’re up to the brutal humbling that’s initially in store for you.  I will say that although you may be beaten down at the start, you can walk away from this game with some serious bragging rights once it’s over.

Worth the $60 and then some.  I’d love to see a sequel.

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Check me out! I'm dancin!

Borderlands - claptrap

Borderlands is a great excuse to get you and 3 other friends online and shoot stuff until it stops moving.

Here’s a few realities of the game:

  1. This is a co-op game first and foremost.  Play split screen at the least, but for maximum insanity, play with 3 other players on-line.
  2. Ignore the story completely.  It makes no sense.  Once you reach the end and know what’s going on, it makes even less.  I was genuinely hoping for an option to turn it off on second play-through.  That’s how meaningless it is.
  3. You will use a sniper rifle, no matter what class you play.  Just accept that and have one on you.
  4. The game’s last few levels are tedious.  The enemies you fight in those levels are also tedious.  Have an electric and an corrosive weapon with you to make it a bit easier.
  5. The game title sequence and character intros are great, and then… they don’t do anything with them.
  6. If you play the Tank or the Soldier, you’ll get tired of their dialogue really fast.  They’re both kinda annoying.
  7. The comparison UI is about one iteration away from being incredibly useful.  As is, it’s annoying at times, especially when dealing with shops.
  8. The decision to not have characters vacuum-up money is mystifying.  It’s shared with all players automatically, yet I have to hit a button to pick it up.  Why?  I can hear the argument that it’s inconsistent to the rest of the “hit X to pick up” UI standard, but it’s also inconvenient to the player to make them tediously pick up automatically shared funds.  Let players make decisions that impact the game, not ones that don’t.
  9. Holding down X is the concession to the “hit X” UI, which allows batch-grabbing stuff in view around you (view though, not radial — again, why?) but can lead to some accidental weapon and outfit mishaps when you hold X down just a bit too long for the game’s taste.  Suddenly instead of wielding your auto-recharging room-killing explosive shooting shotgun, you’re firing a level 2 pistol at a level 30 monster.  Yeah, not fun.
  10. I really wish there was more than 2 vehicles in the game, or at the least they became more powerful as you progressed.  My sniper rifle does more damage than the rocket launcher turret on the car.  WTF?
  11. Not being able to bring a higher character into a lower character’s game is disappointing.  Does it really matter if you want to power-level a friend?

I liked Borderlands, but it suffers from the same thing that happened in Crackdown: you’re ultimately too powerful for the enemies you’re facing.  There’s only one enemy in Borderlands that can drop a turret like the soldier class can, but none of them can phasewalk, have some crazy pet they can throw at you, or go enraged and charge around punching things.  You’re too unique in this world, and that makes the later fights in the game boring.  They just throw more numbers of things with greater health at you rather than add new dynamics of enemy behavior.

I’m sure the game did well enough in sales to spawn more (DLC yep, sequel maybe?) adventures in that universe, so maybe next time around they’ll add more mission diversity (escorts, assassination, gauntlets, etc.) and more unique dynamics to the enemies… or at least some more interesting boss battles.  Most bosses are just normal enemy types with unique guns and/or lots of health.

If there was ever a game that lives up to the idea that it’s not the goal that’s important, it’s the journey to get there, it’s this game.  Borderlands lives and thrives in the moments of fun you have with friends along the way, not about the credit roll at the end.

It’s worth the $60 if you have at least one other friend to play with.

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