Thursday, 27 January 2011

Pripyat called but I wasn't in

I have discovered that I have an incredibly temperamental mind when it comes to deciding if I like a game or not. There seems to be a pressure trigger in the back of my mind that I suddenly noticed has been tripped about four hours too late. If I was a shop, I’d have been burgled a lot by now.

The latest game to toy with my head like it was a tub of farting putty is S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat (which will not be written out with so many dots again in this post, just a heads up). The Stalker series has been cemented in my heart as a bug ridden pit that is about as playable as driving a car with no wheels, engine, chassis or mirrors - you’re basically riding a frame. This is how I felt about Shadow of Chernobyl anyway.

I went into Call of Pripyat thinking much the same. I saw that equipment still degraded with use, not suffering from radiation poisoning was a still challenge, and my faith was held aloft when the narration said completely different things to what the subtitles indicated.

Everything in the environment was as hostile as ever – animals tried to kill you, bandits tried to kill you, random patches of ground burst into flames and tried to kill you. Stalker’s world is a horrible place to trudge about that feels distinctly unfair and stacked against the player. It really made me appreciate the small havens built out of beached cargo ships and old train stations that were dotted sparingly about the land.

Then it hit me. This really crap place that tries to reject me at every twist and turn is meant to be like this. I’m meant to feel on the edge of nature’s bitchy side at all times. I’m here to take on this demented nightmare of open spaces, mutants and radioactive death. This is awesome.

After accepting that the world was such a harsh mesh of dynamic and often invisible obstacles intending to kill me, trying to stay out of them became fun. My prejudices from the first game had carried over to this one and I failed to realise the point of it all. It didn’t take long for my enthusiasm to shoot from ‘empty’ to ‘awesome’ after a few minutes of navigating the anomalous, radioactive hazards properly – actually listening to the Geiger counter instead of running around and hoping for the best.

Call of Pripyat makes the wastelands of Fallout 3 look about as hostile and unappealing as a bakery full of freshly baked bread and rainbows with a box of kittens outside it. Okay, there is still the odd glitch or slightly bad gameplay decision that spoils it slightly, but other than that there is a really good game underneath. My curiosity about the proper sequel, Stalker 2, is now approaching critical levels.

How fun it is to learn about new games that already exist. To be fair, that’s why I love the Steam game sales so much, cheap games that I wouldn’t have touched at release for a tenth of their RRP. I win (seriously, Shadow of Chernobyl and Call of Pripyat went for £3).

Monday, 17 January 2011

Dead end checkpoints and denial of passage

Dead ends are hardly fun in real life, so when you encounter them in one of the wonderful escapist paradises (or hellish desolate wastelands) we all love to trudge through in the gaming world, it definitely isn’t the most fun you can have with jiggling pixels on a screen. I’m not just being a bit of an awkard sod and saying that mazes should be simple straight paths to follow, or that puzzles shouldn’t have combinations that don’t work, but rather the gameplay should always offer you the chance to get out of the mess you make.

The thing that has sparked this blog off is the Hacker Evolution Collection. It’s a hacking sim that puts you in the hands of a hacker, with the only game screen looking like something out of the film Swordfish. It definitely looks like the Hollywood equivalent of hacking, but then again a recreation of the Windows desktop might be quite disheartening to stare at on a night off.

Anyway, the chief problem in this game is that you need to keep your trace level below 100% to prevent a game over. Your trace jumps up whenever you crack, decrypt or do anything else that sounds like a hacking word towards a server. To lower your trace by 10% you need to spend $500 – money that can only be earned by hacking into something and transferring it. Money is semi-rare to come across in the game, and there is toe stubbingly finite amount of the stuff.

Just to add to the head pounding fun, your trace percentage and cash amount is carried between levels. Therefore there is a harsh limit as to how many times you can lower your trace. Because of this I have now found myself in a situation where I can only lose and have no money to lower my trace level.

Due to the lack of a mid-level save function or a way to skip back to previous levels, I must now start again. The typed out phrase to indicate the action of my *sigh* doesn’t even come close to covering it. A more accurate portrayal of my precise emotional reaction at the time was “BLARGGLEraghARGH *evacuates bowls in frustration* *sigh*” and then some more rage.

Forced restarts due to frustrating save conditions are hardly a new thing in games though. There have been too many times to count that the autosave has triggered a split second before that grenade under my feet has detonated or just after I have fallen down the cliff of instant death. Unfortunately it’s one of those things that we must shrug off when it happens occasionally and accept that it will always be there.

Still, it doesn’t mean that I can’t turn my frustration into prose and whine at the internet and two or three of its users. It's still poor game design.

Friday, 7 January 2011

Victory explosions - A realistic application

Victory explosions can refer to the terrorist team winning a round of Counter-Strike on a DE map, the last kaboom of that really hard boss you just defeated or the title of a crude sexual act defined on Urban Dictionary (coming soon, maybe). For this blog entry however I am talking about them in the context of the showers of glitter and happiness that your in-game avatar receives when they level up or learn something new, usually in an RPG.

Having finally become a man of the modern world, I now have an underused Twitter account and have started jogging occasionally in an effort to help my body use up the layers of beer and melted cheese that it stubbornly insists on keeping. The trouble I am finding in the early stages of this new found running endeavour is the lack of satisfaction it delivers.

It kind of reminds me of the later stages of RPG games, when levelling up becomes so infrequent that earning experience towards the next level is a real grind with a benefit that’s very difficult to see in the short term. When you hit that barrier though and the sparks of success gather in a pool around your toes before spraying skyward in jubilation, it feels like you’ve really done something well.

For this reason I propose the manufacture of pyrotechnic running shoes that periodically explode with nice things after set distances, with the timer resetting for a slightly longer period between each detonation.

In this age of easy to get achievements the very first explosion would of course occur the first time that you put the shoes on your feet. For this reason, I suggest that a safety tab be fitted that prevents explosions until it has been removed. This measure of safety will save the hands and faces of the devoted shop assistants who may help you when trying on the shoes.

After the initial achievement explosion you are required to run a further mile before you trigger the next. From here, the distance required to ‘level up’ at jogging will increase by a factor of two until you reach level five at 15 miles. From this point onwards each level up explosion will have a red hue and the multiplier for miles covered will increase to three.

This new colouration will denote the more experienced runners who can jog and indeed power walk circles around you, giving the novice jogger a chance to jog up the next available alleyway out of pure shame. Some may argue that a pedometre is suffice at telling you how far that you have travelled, but such people are small minded and do not see the attraction of random explosive devices being detonated at ground level to signify achievement.

Such a product will make jogging and indeed most walking related activities more thrilling and worthwhile. The shoes would also come with some rather amusing warning labels that discourage you from running in the London marathon and wearing the trendy footwear to packed bars and clubs.

There, another example of how things that happen in games coming to reality would make the world a better place.