Sunday, May 26, 2013

Sink-Sank-Sunk


I've been having a bit of fun playing Sinking Simulator over on Steam Greenlight.  If you don't know anything about the game, by all means head on over there and check it out here.  There's a free version available for download.

If you are familiar with the game, then here's three ship designs I made that I'd like to share.  To try them out just right click on the images and save them as PNG files to whatever folder it is you keep your stock ship designs in.  Note that these vessels are made for version 1.2 Alpha and might not work with other iterations of Sinking Simulator.

An Italian pre-dreadnought based on the Re Umberto class battleship
One of those cruiser hull conversion aircraft carriers similar to IJN Akagi or HMS Courageous
An old American Civil War era ironclad modeled after CSS Stonewall 
Sadly, all these ships are pretty fragile so your going to need to turn up materials strength at least for the initial splashdown after loading.  The ironclad disintegrates regardless so feel free to modify it, or any of the other ship types, as you see fit. 

Saturday, May 25, 2013

The War to End All Wars

After the PS4 announcement event, I was sorely tempted to post about it here, but I think it turned out better to wait because now that the Xbox One has been officially relieved it's time to talk about these two dueling giants of the game industry.  Despite all the talk about who's got the best bells and whistles, there's really only a single all important factor that decides if a console is a success or failure.  It's all about the games.

The way the industry is going it looks like there will be a lot of cross gen and cross platform titles.  It's pretty much necessary in order to offset the high cost of triple AAA game development.  So, that means all consoles are more or less on equal footing, right?  Well...here's where things get complicated.  Graphics are obviously a big deal since given the choice of playing a low fidelity title on the Wii U or a fancy HD PS4 game, most people are going to choose the PS4 version.  Hence, platforms like the Ouya might do alright, but it's hard to imagine achieving dominance via iPhone games.  Meanwhile, Xbox One and PS4 are on similar footing when it comes to specs.  They really only have one other equal, a high end PC.  Moving on, there are a few tricks Sony or Microsoft could pull to give themselves a leg up on the competition.  Undercutting through a reduced pricing structure at retail is a possibility.  Another method is to have periodic online sales like what Steam does.  If the next Assassin's Creed is half price on PSN, but full price on Xbox-Live why would anyone voluntarily pay the higher price?

Then there is the concept of exclusives; stuff like Halo, Alan Wake and Gears of War for Microsoft...Killzone, Resistance and Uncharted for Sony.  Honestly, I think both platform manufacturers have been doing it wrong though because all those above mentioned titles are sci-fi shooters of the first or third person variety.  The titles that really set platforms apart are those smaller unique experiences that can't be found anywhere else.  Toy Soldiers, Journey, Echochrome, Bastion or even titles like Demon's Souls and the first Mass Effect are far more noteworthy exclusives, but not because they sell big time.  Rather the reason they are important has to do with escaping the ever growing puddle of generic goop that is big budget gaming.

So, with so much up in the air this upcoming generation of hardware could go sour for anyone (or everyone).  I think there is one way to ensure survival though.  Don't piss off people who make or buy video games.  Nintendo and EA's profits are waning while Gearbox is getting hit with a class action lawsuit.  The reason?  Randy Pitchford over-pimped Aliens: Colonial Marines to the point of false advertising and destruction of a subsidiary development team.  Nintendo is screwing over fans on Youtube, and third party developers through alienation.  As for EA...need I drudge up the extensive list of offences they have committed in the last twelve months alone?  Right now Activision has a 20% market share thanks to a combination of Call of Duty and Bobby Kotick recently keeping a low profile.

Granted, Sony and Microsoft are bigger than the above but they too can be brought low by similar hubris.  Valve, becoming the successful company it is, wasn't a fluke.  Now billionaire, Gabe Newell worked hard to build up consumer and developer goodwill.  Sure he made mistakes along the way, but the harsh reality is you don't need to be perfect, just don't screw up as bad as the other guys.  Good luck console makers...your going to need it.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

A Second List of Wishes

About a year before the release of Dark Souls (spiritual successor to Demon's Souls) I wrote a blog post with five requests for the game.  It makes me happy to say that I more or less got everything I wanted, at least once the post release patch was implemented.  Now that Dark Souls II is on the way, I thought it was about time for another wish list.  So without further adieu, here we go:

1.) Natural Light
One of the things I noticed when viewing in-game footage for Dark Souls II was the new and improved dynamic lighting. My hope is they'll make this an integral part of gameplay. Something a lot of people don't realize is just how black it gets without the modern convenience of electric bulbs. Fire is pretty much the only alternative to sunlight, and as such has its own set of complications. Grab a stick and wrap some resin soaked rags around one end. Hit it with some sparks and now you have a torch that will burn for ten or fifteen minutes tops. Candles can last longer, but they aren't as bright and can be snuffed out easily. The only other non-magical option is to use a lantern. Even this handy device has drawbacks though in that its fragile and potentially hazardous should the oil reserve break.

2.) Unnatural Dark
I think a day/night cycle, or at least some game event which changes the heavens above, would bring some exciting variety to Dark Souls II.  We got a small taste of  this kind of thing in Anor Londo.  Changes in enemies aside, it would be cool to see subtle alterations in environment by the light of the moon or stars, especially for above ground locations.  Perhaps another option would be to have a magical form of illumination that reveals secrets like the skull lantern in the Tomb of Giants.

3.) PC All the Way
The developers over at From Software have already hinted that they're going to make sure to give Dark Souls II a good PC port, but I'll put it here anyway.  please don't have it distributed by window live games or suffer from a release delayed until long after console versions have been out.  Please do have a robust set of graphics options and availability on Steam (or better yet Good Old Games).

4.) Backstab Immunity
A common problem with player vs player combat in Dark Souls is the constant fishing for backstabs.  Because of lag it can feel real cheap to have a foe suddenly appear behind your character and deliver a killing blow.  In preview footage of Dark Souls II there was an armored, two-handed mace wielding turtle-like enemy that could stop backstabs cold by means of a reverse body slam.  Lets hope that player characters have a similar option available at least when a shield is strapped to their back.

5.) Arabian Themed Areas
The Souls series, thus far, has been primarily European in flavor.  However, there have been small glimpses at other lands.  Take Izalith for example with spires reminiscent of real life temples found in the jungles of Tailand.  Then there is Shiva of the East along with a variety of Asiatic weaponry (katana, kilij, scimitar, etc.).  As of yet though no sand swept desert pyramids or oasis ruins have been introduced to the fiction.  Personally, I think it would be fun to go up against a mummy, ifrit or flesh-and-blood sphinx, but maybe that's just me wanting to get a taste of ancient Persia without princes or time travel.

Well, that's my list.  I have to admit I kind of wrote Dark Souls II off after hearing that the director of the two previous games (Hidetaka Miyazaki) was moving on to other projects.  Since then though the preview footage has rekindled my interest.  If  my five wishes turn out to be true then consider me back on board one-hundred percent.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Underwater Mechanised Super Snipers


Once upon a time there was an age in which subsims were popular.  Partly it was due to novels such as Tom Clancy's "The Hunt for Red October," but also because of Cold War fears which permeated the culture of that era.  After all, just one "boomer" carries enough nuclear warhead tipped ballistic missiles to devastate an entire continent.  Couple this with the fact that such an underwater vessel can keep its whereabouts a secret for months at a time, and you have what is essentially the ultimate weapon of the modern age.

However as the years rolled on and the Soviet Union came to an end, subsims shifted away from their high tech forms back to historic conflicts of their heyday.  Basically, you can choose between Americans in the Pacific or Germans in the Atlantic but regardless it's always World War 2.  There's nothing inherently wrong with being stuck with U-boats instead of SSNs except that there's a lot more that a modern military submarine can do.  For one they are capable of engaging targets on land, sea or in the air (not to mention other underwater craft).  Technology also allows for a much greater variety of missions and tactics.

The whole concept of undersea warfare is a game of cat-and-mouse. Sound is vital to situation awareness since very little light penetrates to the depths that most submarines operate at. Don't forget that beneath the waves it's a fully three dimensional environment complete with trenches, seamounts, ridges, troughs, plateaus, reefs, atolls, sea vents and sunken ruins (not to mention deep rivers and lakes). Couple all this underwater topography with background noise generated by eddies/currents and there is a lot of places to hide.

On board passive listening devices only work when moving slowly.  Worse yet it can be difficult to properly identify, let alone hear, other vessels.  Active systems such as sonar can give a clearer picture, but even they can be fooled by staying near the surface or close to the ocean floor.  The reason for this has to do with the sound reflection lacking detail if the ping has to travel far.  Pinging also has the disadvantage of revealing one's position.  Of course it is possible to channel sonar only in a certain direction.  Depending on the frequency the range can also be limited to a degree.  Lashing foes with loud pings can be a viable tactic since the noise generated will blind and confuse listening devices.

Surprisingly, there has only ever been one recorded instance of a submarine sinking another while both were submerged. Despite this all modern subs have a cache of torpedoes. Unlike the original straight running "fish" used in the past, current versions use guidance systems to zero in on their targets. However, even this advancement in navel warfare hardly guarantees a kill. Acoustic tracking can be fooled by noisemakers. Magnetic guidance systems designed to turn toward ship hulls are tougher to foil, but even these devices are vulnerable to countermeasures. Obviously manually steering the torpedo by wire might seem like the best option, but this too can be tricked by signal scrambling pings from the target. Remember that submarines carry a very limited supply of ammo, and as such cannot use it's weaponry indiscriminately without quickly running dry. Reloading takes a fair amount time too which is the reason why most combat subs are equipped with four or more tubes to fire from. More than once a submarine has been destroyed by its own torpedo coming back around. Fail safe systems can, and do exist, but these introduce problems of their own such as minimal firing distances.

Decisions have to be made when it comes to submarine design.  From a video game standpoint this opens up a lot of opportunities for upgrades and customization.  Maximum depth, top speed, overall handing, noise from propeller cavitation and other internal systems like periscopes are all important points worth considering.  Armaments such as missiles and torpedoes are obviously major factors as well.  Perhaps the single most important aspect of modern submarine architecture is its listening devices.  Virtually all subs have a blind spot to the rear, but even this weakness can be overcome by use of probes (deployable listening devices).  Then again decoys are yet another form of deception which can be used by both hunter and prey.

In combat situations underwater blasts cause a kind of  blindness in the form of dense clusters of bubbles which disrupt sonar and mask other sounds.  Obviously these pockets rise slowly to the surface, but the fact remains that explosions from depth charges, torpedoes, mines and so on, create their own form of exploitable phenomenon.

Ken Levine (maker of Bioshock: Infinite) originally started off at the now defunct Looking Glass Studios writing design docs for stealth fighter and submarine games.  Eventually his ideas were used to make Thief: The Dark Project, and while I love that series part of me wonder what a story driven subsim would be like.  Setting it a fictional oceanic setting like the Ace Combat franchise would allow for a lot of freedom when it comes to scenario design.



Friday, May 10, 2013

In the Land of the Blind

Chasing after the big bucks seems to have been the dominate strategy of this console generation.  Producers, more than anything else, really just want to make a repeat of Halo, Call of Duty, World of Warcraft, Gears of War or Angry Birds.  The problem is these franchises are lightning in a bottle and any game made attempting to emulate them will inevitably be a lesser imitation.  So, rather than trying to get the highly improbable to repeat itself, how about moving into less crowded territory.  Namely genres that aren't MMOs or shooters.

XCOM, Demon's Souls and The Walking Dead were all surprise hits in large part because the competition was practically non-existent in their respective genres.  Turn based strategy had, at best, a few iPhone games with the occasional PSP title released by some unambitious Japanese developer.  Demon's Souls only real challenger was the worn out Zelda franchise.  Meanwhile, The Walking Dead had literally no opposition at all when it came to adventure games aside from a few nostalgia projects or the occasional free flash game. Of course all three of these successful new IPs were innovative, but it's important to remember that they were also flawed in their own special ways. I think that appealing to an unsatisfied niche though allowed them to get a leg up on what would have otherwise been an impossibly overcrowded section of the marketplace.

So, What's the point I'm trying to make here?  The next generation of consoles is just around the corner, meaning that now is a good opportunity for developers to try out their pet projects (or simply take a shot at an under represented genre).  Gamers will be more likely that ever to branch out an try new things when they have a shiny new console that they're eager to use and a small library of titles to choose from.  This might sound risky to the conservative investor, but the reality is playing it safe will pretty much guarantee that the 8th generation (of this hobby of ours) dies a slow and painful death from stagnation, shrinking profits and ennui.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

An Exercise in Frustration

It's about damn time.
So, here's the deal.  I recently got around to finally playing Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine from beginning to end on the normal difficulty setting.  It was a somewhat tedious experience, not because the game was bad, but because I think it could have been so much better.

Generally speaking I'm not especially good at third person shooters.  That said, I thought the player character, Captain Titus, controls rather well; the aiming is smooth and melee attacks are snappy.  Relic, the developer, also did a good job of giving the Ultramarines a weighty, impactful feel.  What drove me nuts though, was the divergence between gameplay and setting.  The idea is Space Marines are humanity's biggest bad asses yet in this video game they more often than not die like chumps instead of bring the smack down on enemies.

The basic problem is twofold.  First, in order to recover life Captain Titus must stun an enemy then perform a special time consuming execution move.  If I had a dollar for every time my Ultramarine was killed in mid-attack the game would have paid for itself and then some.  Perhaps if Relic had seen fit to allow life recovery with every kill, rather than just with repetitive and inefficient finishing moves, the basic mechanic might have worked better.  However, as it stands this change alone would not be enough to salvage the poor gameplay.

The second part of the problem is the player's regenerating shield (copied wholesale from from the Halo franchise).  The game's producer has gone on record saying that he wants the player to feel like a tough guy who doesn't need to sprint from cover to cover.  Sadly, in order to facilitate shield recovery you are more or less encouraged to take the opposite course of action.  Time and time again charging in simply brought about quick player death.  Meanwhile sidestepping in and out of barriers while taking pot shots at extreme range proved far safer and more effective.

Zug-zug?
Enemy design also feeds into the fundamental issues this game has.  Snipers, rockets, suicide bombers, and mortar fire are deadly and difficult to pinpoint in the heat of battle.  Adding to this are gun-toting orks (yes, with a "k") who tend to constantly peck away at the player's life bar using surprisingly accurate fire.  Granted the damage these orks do is minimal, but it's still enough to prevent shield regeneration and can even finish off a Space Marine before he's able to recover from a low health situation.  Because of these design decisions defeat often comes in the form of death-of-a-thousand-cuts, or equally annoying, one big blast out of nowhere.  It's all very antithetical to the kind of experience the designers and fiction push for.

Say hello to my little friend!
Compounding things further still is the simple A.I. which tends to charge the player blindly.  So what do you do?  Get the enemy's attention, then lure the them into a place where they can be corralled and slaughtered without ranged support from their more cautious comrades. Personally, I found the best strategies usually involve baiting, sniping and hit'n'run tactics. Basically the opposite of how Space Marines are supposed to operate.

Now, I know there is an argument to be made that this is a more realistic view on warfare and perhaps it was Relic's intention to do a bit of genre deconstruction.  But remember this is Warhammer 40,000!  In the grim dark future the rule-of-cool trumps all.  So, if I'm playing as Ultramarines I expect them to live up to their namesake.  Part of the problem plaguing the game might be legacy issues stemming from the original miniature figurine war game.  To newcomers there might seem to be a few strange rules such as battles usually being capped off at six turns.  Another weird one is the inability to make ranged attacks against enemies who are engaged in close combat with allies.  These rules exist to ensure the table-top game consistently offers an entertaining experience.  Despite their importance, I imagine that these rules don't translate very well to other forms of media such as a third person shooters.

Waagh!
Yet another pitfall with regards to the above is the simple fact that Warhammer 40k has already been pilfered for it's best setting material long ago to make games like Gears of War, Halo and Starcraft. Honestly, I don't understand why Relic chose to neglect its well received Homeworld series in lieu of playing copycat. Yes, I know that Games Workshop technically introduced Space Marines into their fiction long before Bungie came up Spartan IIs. Keep in mind that for most non-table-top war gamers though chainsawing orks as Captain Titus feels like a rehash of when they were doing the same thing to Locust as Marcus Fenix.

As an aside, I think it's worth mentioning that I played the PS3 version of Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine and it was buggy.  Enemy clipping, area loading errors and one instance where I became trapped by level geometry, all forced checkpoint reloads in order to progress.  I'd say that the game was made lazily except there are some rather obvious examples to the contrary.  The fact that most enemies don't disappear after being killed is a big plus in my book.  It also indicates that code got a healthy does of optimization.  Audio is very hit and miss too with music and sound effects both being excellent, but the voice acting coming across as a mixed bag.  Captain Titus and friends are well performed, delivering their lines with the stoicism and determination you'd expect, but the ork speech seems limited to repeating "Supayce Mahweens!?!" over and over ad nauseum.

Believe it or not these aren't the bad guys.
After finishing the game I felt like there was a missed opportunity in the storytelling department too.  The Warhammer 40k universe is grand in scope and ripe with possibility.  Relic could have very easily told a much more compelling epic tragedy involving feuding chapter houses or a grand saga of glorious conquest and sacrifice.  Instead we ended up with a boilerplate get-the-macguffin tale with painfully obvious plot twists.  Chaos has always felt more like a force of nature or symbol for the failing of humankind rather than a proper adversary.  That's just my take on the setting though.  I'm sure there's a small horde of war gaming veterans who would strongly disagree with me.

Overall, I am left with a profound feeling of disappointment regarding Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine. Again, not because the game was all that bad really, it just reeks of a squandered opportunity to show a wider audience the best of what the setting has to offer. Mediocre gameplay, a bland story and numerous elements that feel recycled from more commercially successful video games...the Emperor would not approve of his finest being wasted in this manner.