Monday, February 27, 2017

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Taking Flight en Masse

Wings of Saint Nazaire is an indie space combat flight-sim introduced as a pre-alpha demo back in 2014.  More proof-of-concept than actual game, Nazaire's most outstanding feature is its use of simple polygonal shapes bitmapped to display highly detailed pre-rendered sprites.  It's a form of graphical ingenuity that hasn't been used much since the days of Wing Commander I and II.  Back then it was by necessity, since computers of that era struggled to render more than triple-digit polygon counts.  However, in this day and age, video game platforms, such as the PS4, can render up to 1.6 billion polygons at once.  Considering the average vessel in Wing Commander had a double-digit polygon count that means over a million craft on-screen at once is in the realm of possibility, right?  Well...it's not quite that simple.  There's actually a large number of other factors that will eat into the available processing power; tracking data, A.I., physics modeling, and particle effects are just a few examples.  There's also the whole 1080p/60fps matter to consider as well.  That said, hundreds of spacecraft should be perfectly doable, and with some code optimization that number could even climb into the thousands, which would allow for some truly colossal battles.

As much as I appreciate Star Citizen's attempts to innovate on the space combat flight-sim genre with respect to lovingly 3-D rendered spaceships, I find myself wanting to see what a push in a tangential directing would result in.  You see...one of the hang-ups I have with a lot of space combat flight-sims is their lack of scale.  With the exception of a few standout titles like Tie Fighter and Freespace, most of these kinds of games feature more than a dozen vessels in a given combat zone.  It feels especially weird when technical documentation about some-such carrier spaceship claims that it has a fighter complement of over one-hundred craft, yet in-game a player will never see anywhere near that number.  Wing Commander II got around it to some degree by assigning the player a lot of scouting and patrol missions.  Either that or on rare occasions a story-based reason would be brought up to justify the small number of strike craft ("Our fighter deck has been damaged...again.  We can't launch or land anything!").  It's alright...I guess, but I'd still like to see a space combat flight-sim that swaps out the detail of a magnifying glass for the majesty of a panoramic.

Wings of Saint Nazaire appears to be taking some tentative steps in that 'wider view' direction.  Whether or not anything will come of it remains to be seen.  According to the developer's blog, progress is being made, but real life demands have inhibited the studio's forward momentum.  Hopefully fans will get to play an updated version of the game sometime soon.  Also, here's hoping that the envisioned end product doesn't get gutted along the way like what happened to House of the Dying Sun.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Nintendo Conservatism

Well, the Switch is going to be out soon and (if recent Nintendo hardware launches are any indication) chances are demand will vastly outstrip supply.  Most likely we'll see speculators and scalpers on eBay, along with folks lining up in front of stores long before they open for business.  As much as it makes me look like a curmudgeonly old killjoy though, I have to ask, "what's the rush?"

Pretty much every console in the history of video games has suffered from slim pickings for the first six to twelve months after release.  The Switch is no exception here with launch window titles being few and lacking in variety, or perhaps a better way of wording it would be lacking in originality.  Sure we got Zelda (now with open-world survival crafting elements!), Mario (*spoilers* the princess gets kidnapped again), and Splatoon 2 (the unofficial tie-in game for the movie Rainbow War), but none of these franchises are going outside their established comfort zones.  In the past Nintendo has shown a willingness to put their iconic characters in circumstances outside norm, take Dr. Mario or Zelda II: Adventures of Link for example.  Even if current Nintendo leadership doesn't want to risk tarnishing the image of their mascots, they still have the option to innovate by creating new experimental IPs.  Case in point, the Mode 7 gameplay pioneered in F-Zero paved the way for Mario Kart, while Stunt Race did a lot of the ground work on the FX chip which made Yoshi's Island possible.  Of course not every experiment was a success (Pilotwings, anyone?), but still it demonstrated a desire on Nintendo's part to try new things and advance the industry.  That doesn't seem to be the case anymore.

At the very least they could dust off some of their neglected, but still beloved franchises like Earthbound or Ogre Battle.  As is, it feels like without Fire Emblem there wouldn't be a single strategy game in their current gen library.  Granted, it was never Nintendo's genre of choice, but what little they did have in the past (Advanced Wars, Front Mission, and King Arthur's World) were all quality products.  JRPGs have also dried up for the most part.  Gone are the days of Final Fantasy, Crono Trigger, Secret of Mana and Illusion of Gia.  Part of this dearth of homeland backing comes from Nintendo's less-than-stellar third party support.  It's an issue that began in earnest with the release of the Wii and has only grown worse during the lifespan of the Wii U.  Aside from that ongoing issue, Nintendo really should consider revisiting some of their more creative eras.

When people bring up the possibility of an new 2-D Mario on the Switch, I find myself wishing that they'd revive the unusual gameplay found in Super Mario Brothers 2 (A.K.A. Doki Doki Panic).  The ability to pick up and throw objects or enemies still has a lot of untapped potential, particularly in a co-op driven experience.  The dreamland-like setting would also allow the development team a bit more creative freedom in terms of design aesthetics.  Will it happen?  Probably not.  In all likelihood Nintendo's resources are focused predominately on safe bets such as Mario Kart 9, a double digit Mario Party and more Super Smash Bros. I assure you that work on an official 2020 Tokyo Olympics video game is in the pre-production phase as well.  After all, if there's something Nintendo doesn't have enough of already it's mini-game collections...*sigh*

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Plan, Execute, Observe

Flamberge is a pixel graphics indie strategy game that has been available on Steam for quite some time now.  Being an early access title, what was there for players to enjoy was pretty barebones (more of a proof of concept than an actual game)...that is until a recent update added a bunch of new content.  While still not anywhere near version 1.0, it does have one interesting feature that helps it standout - turns take place simultaneously.

Usually when the phrase "turn-based" strategy comes up it implies a you-go-then-I-go style of gameplay.  The most common version of this is by teams (examples include XCOM, Front Mission and Final Fantasy: Tactics).  Somewhat rarer takes on the concept are command point systems (Valkyria Chronicles) and unit-by-unit systems (The Banner Saga).  However, the most unconventional way of doing turn-based strategy in my mind has to be the simultaneous-turns method.  Aside from the aforementioned Flamberge, I can only think of three other titles that have ever used this particular approach.

The most recent is Leviathan Warships made by Paradox Interactive (the development studio that brought us titles like Hearts of Iron, Crusader Kings and Stellaris).  This small scale naval combat game gives players control over a few highly customizable ships.  Each round is divided into two parts: a planning phase and an execution phase.  The first part consists of maneuvering each ship by deciding its speed and direction for the next five seconds of upcoming real time.  The player also has to issue firing orders to each of the ship's various weapon systems either by assigning a firing arc or by designating a particular patch of ocean to be bombarded.  Once all the commands are set the player can view the results.  After that it's on to the planning phase for the next round and following five seconds of action.  At the end of a match it's also possible to see the whole battle from beginning to end.

Another, much older game that uses a nearly identical system is RoboSport by none other than Maxis.  It might seem odd for the makers of The Sims to dip their proverbial toes into war gaming, but this was early in the history of that company (before they had really hit pay dirt with Simcity).  Like Leviathan Warships, each round is divided between planning and execution.  However, instead of sea-going vessels bristling with oversized armaments, players take control over a squad of little three-legged robots.  Customization is also a big part of the game with a variety of weapons (including rocket launchers, grenades, mines, and SMGs) available for distribution.  Robots can hobble, gallop or jump around battlefields, as well as set up covering arcs or place explosives in a specific area designated by the player.  A robot can even be told to go "kamikaze" by self-destructing in an attempt to take nearby foes with them.

The last title is a late PSX fantasy game called Vandal Hearts 2.  Unlike the previous two examples this is a single-player only experience.  Also unlike its predecessor, the original Vandal Hearts (which used turn-based gameplay by teams), the sequel has players issue orders to one unit while the A.I. does likewise with one of its own.  Then both units carry out their orders oftentimes resulting in some bizarre situations wherein one or both opposing units will walk past each other and attack the empty space their respective opponent previously occupied.  This process continues until all units on each side have taken an action for the round.  One strategy I have seen suggested is to sacrifice the first move of each round so that all remaining units can focus attacks on foes that have already taken their action for that round.  It's a weird and cumbersome game to play compounded by long dialogue sequences between characters whose portraits don't match up well with their on-screen sprites.  The story is an epic yarn filled with byzantine politics, a large cast of characters and a time-skip wherein the protagonist begins the game as a child fighting giant slugs with a salt sticks only to jump ahead in time at the end of the first act to when he is an adult leading a resistance cell against an oppressive and tyrannical government.  I should mention this sequel has nothing to do with the original game which was a lot more straight forward in terms of storytelling.

Flamberge represents an evolution of this subgenre in that it takes the best from its three predecessors and attempts to innovate and streamline the mechanics.  The story is unfinished, but has potential; arguably, it strikes a good balance between too much story and no-story at all.  Here's hoping this game makes it out of early access in a timely manner unlike so many other titles that are soon abandoned and forgotten after their Steam debut.


Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Buzzkill

While I'm not an expert on the topic, I think the inspiration for using chainsaws as weapons in video games comes from the classic slasher film "Texas Chainsaw Massacre."  I'm not really a fan of the long running series, but I've seen bits and pieces...chunks (if you will).  It's interesting to note that the original movies is surprisingly lacking in on-screen gore.  Sure, some blood gets splashed about, but the murder, Leatherface, is given a somewhat tragic angle in that he is a mentally disabled man browbeaten by his psychotic family into being the human equivalent of an attack dog.  He can't even speak using actual words although he does have three different masks in the first film which he wears as a form of self-expression.  Leatherface also wields a hammer as much as his iconic chainsaw, which is a lot smaller and more practical than what appears in the sequels.

Take the word "practical" here with a big grain of salt since chainsaws make for cumbersome melee weapons.   They're heavy, bulky, imbalanced, and generally speaking, don't start up on the first pull.  Until their little high performance 2-stroke engines are warmed up they usually can't be throttle up with out the motor dying.  What's more, the spinning chain can cause bounce-back if it's brought against a surface too quickly, putting the operator in a lot of danger.  On top of all this the teeth on a chainsaw are designed to cut through wood and not much else.  As such they tend to get caught up in clothing fabric.  They also dull very quickly against hard materials and as such can't tear through most metal surfaces (a fact that is well demonstrated in the original film, but largely ignored in later iterations).  Then again, if you're mentally handicapped, it could very well be that none of these facts would make an impression on you're weapon selection process.

Nevertheless, video games have embraced the chainsaw as a deadly melee armament; Doom, Gears of War, Splatterhouse and most recently Resident Evil 7 are just a few examples.  It's not hard to see why those games chose the chainsaw over more widely used hand-to-hand weaponry.  Chainsaws, to the uninitiated, are incredibly intimidating with their loud, shrill-sounding motors that billow for clouds of oily vapor.  It's definitely a given that games thriving on gore like to show the effects of being sliced and diced in a less-than-expeditious manner.  Again, it's not my thing, but it get what the designers were going for.

Of course what makes sense in Texas Chainsaw Massacre doesn't necessarily jive in other settings.  For example, the Sawyer/Hewitt/Slaughter family patriarch is (as far as I can tell) some kind of undead.  Scary?  Sure.  Plausible?  Not really...
 
What's that?
 I can't hear your criticism over the sound of my CHAINSAW!