Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Review - "The Last of Us"

This is going to be a rehash of some Facebook ranting, but I intend to flesh this out a bit from a much deeper review than what the limited format of social media allows.

So, at the behest - alright, stunned silence - of one of the PhD's here at UTD, I picked up a PS3 with "Arkham Origins" and "The Last of Us" bundled together.  Seeing as how there are some games on the PS3 I wanted to play, and that a Blu-Ray player is always appreciated, I set it up in the bedroom and got everything hooked up and running.

With all of the accolades the game received, I decided I'd fire up "The Last of Us" first and leave "Arkham" for another time.  I knew what "Arkham" entailed in terms of gameplay, and as delicious as it sounded, I knew I had to invest in what many consider the pinnacle of the PS3 game library.

I've played a couple of hours into the game and in that time, I grew increasingly frustrated with the game.  While there was a lot to enjoy in what would be considered the fringe elements of the game, what frustrated me strikes at the core of the gameplay experience.  From the core of the universe as created by Naughty Dog to the initial training and subsequent combat system and the resulting feedback, I found myself restarting sections of the game because unintended controller input, unexpected weapon response, or unexpectedly being spotted by Infected while hiding mean I got my face eaten for seemingly no reason, or for reasons related directly to flaws presented by the developers.

Naughty Dog did a great job of world building.  The universe seems fleshed out, consistent, and the characters all felt grounded and real.  The details of a fallen world that is an apocalypse of humanity is compelling, and it creates fantastic vistas and backdrops for encounters.  But, being someone who enjoys world building, one thing stood out and it lies central to the core of the game universe.  That is, the comparative power of the infected vs. humanity.  In the game, the world is presented as being overrun, the power of the Infected far exceeds the power of the 

I don't really get a sense of the comparative power of the infected vs. the remaining security forces of the Government.  The fallen world that is portrayed implies that the infection and its transmission vectors have sufficient power to overwhelm the medical and physical capabilities of humanity, but the forms experienced of the Infected seem to go counter to this.  

To illustrate this comparison, I'm going to use the novel World War Z by Max Brooks and how the Zombies, or Zeds, overcome humanity.  The Zeds of World War Z are slow, lumbering beasts that rely on ambush, near immunity to damage and overwhelming numbers to attack and kill or create new Zombies.

In essence, the Zed threat is broken down thusly:

1) Transmission of the virus that creates a Zed is easy.  Saliva, not usually a hardy media, will transmit the bug.
2) Multiple transmission vectors means there are multiple ways to get people infected.  It is hard to contain.
3) Killing an infected zombie is surprisingly difficult.  The weapons of humanity are designed to mutilate and incapacitate a target as much as it is to kill a target.  Shrapnel can incapacitate multiple soldiers, but does nothing to a Zed.  This required retraining soldiers.   Zed overwhelms Humans because killing a Zed requires relative precision and our weapons are designed to kill by maiming.

By comparison, the Infected in "The Last of Us", there is one similarity:

Multiple transmission vectors means there are multiple ways to get people infected.  Whether bitten or inhaled (at proper concentrations), you can be infected in a variety of ways

But here is where things are broken:

Transmission of the fungal infection is not particularly easy.  Unless spores reach a critical PPM (parts per million) in the air, someone cannot be infected.  This is something that Naughty Dog admits to.  Fair enough - it explains why there are places that the spores won't infect you immediately.  

Killing an infected zombie seems to be very easy.  Early infected - even up to the Clickers - seem just as susceptible to injury as the Uninfected/normal people.  If they are, as illustrated in the game, that susceptible to injury, why weren't the wealth of conventional arms available in any military inventory proof against the Fungal hordes?  Mine fields and barbed wire would slow down the Fungi.  Assuming the militaries could have had time to establish any sort of defense, killing the Fungi would have made the First Battle of the Marne seem elegant by contrast.  

Humanity falls in World War Z because of faulty training and imperfect killing machines.  Existing training and imperfect killing machines are just as well suited for killing the infected as it would be the uninfected.  Given their universal weakness against fire, man-portable flamethrower teams would have burned down the infected and, based on their responses to the flames, caused the others to flee in panic.

Ok, so, for all of the strains of its great writing - and it is well crafted - key planks of the universe are built on a shaky foundation.  I've consistently had a hard time believing that the Infected I've seen thus far would have brought down global civilization.

The dialog is better than most games, and what I've dealt with in the story, it is seemingly well written.  I'll admit that I haven't played the game all that long.  The only real niggle I have with the story, thus far, is this:

When, exactly, did Tess get bitten?  How did I miss it?  The revelation seemed to drop out of nowhere and felt very deus ex machina.

The character art sits firmly within the uncanny valley, which is an ongoing issue for realistic game worlds.

As a designer, though, I tend to notice things like world consistency because it directly relates to gameplay.  The hordes brought down civilization, so I am rightly afraid of them.  
The game has taught me, from the start, to flee the Infected.  The infected have few weaknesses and so, to survive, I need to evade.

Message received.

But did Naughty Dog remain consistent in this message?




Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Musical Analysis - "HALO Opening Suite: The Ancient and the Modern"

The opening suite of the video game Halo (2002) with a score by Martin O’Donnell and Michael Salvatori is an aural presentation of the contrasting relationship between the modern and the ancient, as the composers use a mix of ancient and modern musical instruments to create the core elements of the piece.  One of the themes presented is the intertwined relationship between modern and the ancient. The entire score of the game exemplifies this relationship, but in no place is it more apparent than in the opening suite.  The modern is represented by synthesizers, heavy percussion and high-hat cymbals, along with string instruments such as the viola and the contrabass. The ancient is represented by men’s voices as simple tones without lyrics plus hand-driven drums.
From the outset, O’Donnell and Salvatori emphasize the dynamic between ancient and modern by evoking musical qualities not typically found within this genre of game, giving the score an unusually powerful emotional tone.  O’Donnell and Salvatori begin the piece with a rising climax of synthesizers and cymbals, followed by the introduction of a lyric-free Gregorian-style chant, using the timbre of the male voices as a rich set of instruments.  There is an interplay created between the percussion and synthesizers. The synthesizers create a low bass drone framing the chant and brings to the fore the thematic conflict presented in the game.  The electronic modern supports the analog ancient, grounding the work, while the ancient gives the modern soul and depth.
Following the choral opening, the rhythm of the piece is firmly established by the introduction of simple, primitive drums.  Here, the roles are reversed as the ancient is supporting the orchestral new.  The string instruments build in their intensity, matching the beat of the drums and evoking the rising conflict that the player will experience over the course of the game.
As the strings build through a brief intermezzo, the ancient is woven more directly back into the piece.  A lone voice becomes woven into the texture of the fabric of the piece, rising and falling as if calling the faithful to prayer in an Islamic salat. The prayer rises high, standing out, evoking the the high tones of the voice lashing out like a whip, on the verge of cracking at the upper end of the singers range. The harshness of the voice stands as a call and a challenge of the ancient voice of the past against the programmed, manufactured smoothness of the modern strings.  
The piece begins its climax as these elements are brought in with more vigor and emotion.  The piece becomes more dynamic, approaching its crescendo, the ancient and the modern becoming intertwined into a single system.  Here the intertwined nature of the themes becomes most evident as the song continues its climb through a brief bridge and to its climax.  Rather than a rousing finale, the modern falls away almost completely.  A low tone of synthesizers and the chorale remains, echoing the haunting reverie that has been a hallmark of the piece.
O’Donnell and Salvatori have done more than use the opening suite of Halo as an ear-catching, highly identifiable piece to aid in the capture of the player.   The piece perfectly captures one of the core themes of the game’s mythos - the complex and intertwined relationship between the ancient and the modern.  By weaving complex and modern instruments with two of the most basic musical implements in use by historic man, O’Donnell and Salvatori plant a musical hint whose nature is ultimately revealed over the course of play.  This hint illustrates the depth of the game itself, in a genre not known for depth or symbols, but also the attention to detail and design by the composers, creating a seminal musical piece that stands as complete beyond the scope of the game.

The piece in question:

Monday, April 21, 2014

Trials and Tribulations of the Volvo 850

For the uninitiated, I've taken it upon myself to get more "hands on" when it comes to car care.  I've eschewed more modern cars and embraced several older cars that are, by all accounts, exceptionally easy to care for.  My family and I own three cars:

  1. A 1991 Mazda Miata.  This was the car from which the seed of this great adventure was sown.  While this car is by no means perfect, I think I've got a small oil leak, I've done everything from a timing and accessory belt replacement to routine maintenance.  This is definitely a fair-weather car right now.  I've slammed it down an inch and tuned the suspension to be more aggressive.
  2. A 1997 Volvo 850 Wagon.  The seminal family car.  Unfortunately, the previous owners were less than careful with maintenance.  As a result, I've been replacing...well...a lot.  I've put on new rear shocks.  I've replaced the Positive Crankcase Ventilation system.  I've done routine maintenance.  This car, I don't think, has at it this good.  After taking it on a road trip to Iowa, my wife fell in love with the brand which led to...
  3. My wife's 1997 Volvo S90 Sedan.  Phased out in 1998, this car has less than 100k miles on the clock and was in excellent condition.  It needed some minor interior bits, such as broken safety lights on the doors and a tiny bit of trim.  It has also developed a bit of an oil leak of late.  I think one of the rear cam seals is failing, but I'm thinking the gaskets on the oil cooler lines have gone.
The 850, though, is the most worn of the three.  I've had a recurring issue with the Secondary Air System (SAS) as well as a lingering gas smell.  So, one day - with the help of my Father-in-Law - I replaced the three major parts of the system that could screw up the SAS.  These parts being the air pump, the check valve and the pump relay.  The issue was not resolved, which officially puts the problem out of my knowledge base.  

The lingering gas smell is related to a recall in which the heat shield surrounding the gas tank gets loose and begins to rub the connections with the tank, creating small holes.  This is, of course, a major fire hazard.  The 850 was not serviced for this recall, so, I took the car so it doesn't explode in flames for the recall and am having them check my handiwork on the SAS.

But, I have to say, I'm fairly in love with Volvo's now.  Much like VW's, these cars have a very very solid feel.  Stout, but still nimble.  If I had a gripe, it is that the car is a bit hampered by the automatic transmission - the engine has pep, and would be a hoot to drive if I weren't losing so much torque in the slush box.

As I find out more about the 850, I will let everyone here know.

Now, something a little mellow to round out the evening that appeals to my UU-ness:


Friday, April 18, 2014

Just hanging out on the couch, nearing the end of the semester

"If this thing goes sideways and we end up on the other side, meet me at the bar. I'm buying."           -- Garrus Vakarian 

For those that don't know, and I think that would be most everyone who peruses my blog, I have gone back to school to work on a Masters Degree in Arts and Technology at the University of Texas at Dallas.

I'm looking to begin teaching as a profession at UTD, but, at the same time, I'm on the fence about taking some levels as academic and work on a PhD.  I think I'll trend my class selection toward that goal, but teach for a few years before jumping in toward being a professional academic.

My initial class load includes an analysis of music and myth, which has been a challenge.  While I've had a chance to really stretch out my intellectual and creative muscles, and listen to some really great music, it's been a source of stress.  The class puts me considerably outside of my element.  Not even the same periodical chart.

I've also worked on a serious game in an experimental game lab.  That has been fun, and I've had the chance to work with some cool people on the game.  It's been a great experience and let me delve into something that would not have any financial gain.  

Finally, I've been working on a class called "Design Principles".  While these principles generally are attributed to visual design, many are applicable to game design.  The professor, Professor Cassini Nazir, is fantastic.  His wry sense of humor conceals a very deep appreciation for the material.

In the spirit of my musical analysis piece that I wrote, and because it evokes some powerful memories, I give you a favorite piece of mine from Mass Effect 3:

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Late to the Party


I finally picked up a Playstation 3.  

I was an avowed Xbox user.  When given a choice between Xbox and Playstation 2, I chose the Xbox.  I picked up an Xbox 360 as an early adopter and eschewed the PS3.  But, after reading the fine press (and knowing several of the developers) on "The Last of Us", I decided to bite the bullet and invest.  So, I picked up a bundle that included a PS3, "The Last of Us" and "Arkham Origins".

After playing "The Last of Us", my feelings on the game is summed thusly:

The game is gorgeous.  The storyline is compelling.  I challenge any parent to not have a dry eye after the first 30 minutes.  Performing some stealth and avoiding disgusting fungal zombies is always a treat.

What genuinely has bothered me about the game is twofold. 

The first: the gamification of the narrative has really bothered me.  To put it succinctly, Naughty Dog crafted a fantastic narrative and visual experience, yet break the fourth wall with unnecessary controller interactions.  I lost count of the number of doors I had to press a binding to open where that binding was entirely and wholly unnecessary.  Worse, the door progression was not interactive - I wasn't bashing down the door - it was merely a progression blocker that could have been solved by a trigger and accomplished the same thing invisibly.  

What's worse - there is a trigger in some form in front of the door.  Something is tracking player location in relation to the door to know when to pop up the hint.  If this proximity sensor automatically keyed the "open door" animation sequence without the hint, the game would've been much cleaner and far more immersive.

This would have required a far more delicate touch in terms of path design, highlighting the dominant path appropriately, but would have taken an already cinematic game and made it more immersive.

The second: poor communication of weapon capabilities.  The first time I was given a long rifle, I lined up a shot on a poor soldier's helmet-less head and fired.  Watching the soldier play his hurt animation and the impact effect playing on the chest, I was surprised.  Frowning, I reloaded the checkpoint and performed the same action and missed the shot entirely.  The reticule of the weapon was an arbitrary point in space that does not react when the weapon was fired.  Therefore, the weapon was illustrating explicitly where it will hit, but was implicitly modifying the impact point invisibly to the player.

In a game where ammunition is supposedly (in keeping with the post-apocalyptic theme) limited and stealth paramount, this sort of gameplay is needlessly frustrating particularly when illustrating accuracy is such an easy thing to accomplish.  Further, the game tells you it is tracking weapon accuracy through the upgrade system.  This is data the game is already manipulating through player action without explicitly illustrating the manipulations.  Providing a player a 10% increase in accuracy on a weapon is moot unless the player understands the difference between the current and improved values.  To fix it?  Illustrate the current accuracy value through the reticule by illustrating the potential perturb of the weapon.  Improve the accuracy, shrink the reticule and show the player how much more accurate he has become with that weapon.

One is surely a nitpick, but a valid one from a narrative-interaction standpoint. The second is a genuine complaint about a core gameplay mechanic.  I'm sure that I will get back into the game, but right now, I'm really having to work up the "desire" to play the game.

And I know that I shouldn't.

Music of the Moment

Design Theory: Shooter Weapons and Combat

In first person shooters, there is really two gameplay requirements upon which the entire genre is built around:
  1. Firing the weapons is fun
  2. Moving through the world is easy and engaging
It doesn't matter what other features you have in a shooter, third or first person, if your basic, "through the barrel" experience is lacking, the rest of the game won't matter to the player. The best games are the ones where both of these are achieved invisibly.

One can certainly make point 1 or 2 more interesting or compelling, thereby increasing the efficacy of the gameplay experience for the shooter enthusiast. Without the two points above, you don't have a "fun" shooter game.

Borderlands 2
The recent title from Gearbox places a unique spin on point 1 to make up for the relatively straight-forward approach to point 2.  Embracing classic titles like Diablo II, the guns are generated by the game as 'loot', determining type, abilities, etc., providing a virtually endless supply of unique weapon experiences.  By providing a variety of increasing varied, but still useful, gameplay from the weapons and their intended targets, Borderlands 2 finds a happy medium in its approach to the 'through the barrel' experience, and the sales certainly reflect the success in this department.

Movement is also smooth and easy, though, a bit floaty.  This reinforces the science fiction aesthetic and background of the game, but it also increases the forgivability of falls and other events that may cause accessibility issues for players who trend toward the Diablo II "loot fest" style game and play few shooters.  Here, the implied design requirements for accessibility to inexperienced players was leveraged into the overall gameplay design aesthetic.

Team Fortress 2
TF2 embraces its old-school roots with gusto.  Each weapon is unique, based on the character class selected, and creates a wide variety of gameplay experience with each weapon.  The mini-gun of the Heavy Weapons Guy has a different feel and gameplay mechanic and aesthetic than the Soldier's Rocket Launcher or the Sniper's Rifle.  While this slightly increases the learning curve of the game, it also allows players to discover the character class that suits their style of play.

Movement is straightforward, while simultaneously embracing organic movement abilities discovered and exploited in previous titles in the same genre.  Players can "crouch jump" to increase jump height incrementally, based on the game Half-Life and derived from its engine.  Some classes can use their weapons to throw themselves high into the air, using a "rocket jump" first used in Quake multiplayer

Spec Ops: The Line
I've only recently purchased the title, and have played several hours into the campaign, but my first impression of the weapon behaviors is "meh".  There is nothing to attract me to the combat behaviors, and while certain weapons provide differing abilities, such as the M4 having a silencer, the AK47 having a fire select, for example, these abilities are not immediately obvious and, in rare circumstances, provide a significant change in gameplay.  Further, the behavior of your targets are, at times, both criminally stupid and brutally accurate.

Further, movement in the game is hampered by a rather dubious control scheme.  I find myself having to think about which binding to press for sprinting, even as I completed the game.  I was also given a short tutorial about how to move my squadmates and give them orders, but the on-screen prompt lasted less than 5 seconds and didn't wait for me to actually give the command before it disappeared.  It feels like a system that wasn't completely realized, and subsequently shoe-horned into the game.

While the atmosphere of the game is excellent (but, can we find another everyman besides Nolan North?  Please?), and the writing a new standard, the gameplay thus far is ho-hum, if not mildly frustrating.