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God of War Ascension

Sunday, August 18th, 2013

These playthroughs of the bosses I designed, scripted and implemented in God of War Ascension.

God of War Ascension Alecto and Tisiphone Boss Playthrough

God of War Ascension Castor and Pollux Playthrough

God of War Ascension Megaera and Tisiphone Boss Fight

God of War Ascension: Manticore Mini-Boss Fight GoW

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How to Make Your Shooter Level Successful

Thursday, June 4th, 2009



Posted by Tony Huynh.
What makes a first-person shooter level successful. While I can easily fill a few books with the answer to that question, I will instead narrow the focus to two aspects that I feel are important in the creation of a good level. The first is building and maintaining an interesting world and the second is to construct good pacing and varied player experiences. I will begin by defining these concepts and then use a walkthrough of Bioshock’s brilliant opening level Welcome to Rapture as an example of how to do both of these aspects well.

Build and maintain interest in your world
Story

The first thing that builds interest in your world is story. Bioshock constructs a mystery story by asking questions and providing answers slowly. Mysteries not only build interest in your game, but also serve as an impetus to pull players forward through the game. A good mystery needs to strike a balance between asking questions and giving answers. Ken Levine stated, “We think of the mystery balloon, you have to tap it up to keep the audience interested, but if you tap it too high you’ll lose your audience… and if it gets too low. I underestimated the impact of resolving the ‘who is Andrew Ryan?’ question too early. We learned a big lesson there.” When the player is unraveling a mystery, interest is generated and maintained through making the player ask questions and slowly answering these questions as the player progresses. While questions are more interesting than answers, answers need to be doled out regularly to prevent the player from becoming frustrated and giving up. Giving too many answers solves the mystery which causes the story to lose its pull.

Mise-en-scene and Set Dress
Story can also be built through the use of mise-en-scene. Mise-en-scene literally means “putting on stage,” but in the case that I am using it now it is the placement and arrangement of set dress objects (signage, props, ragdolls, etc.) to tell a story. These little touches help flesh out the story and draw the audience into the world. Set dress and interesting things for the player to look at also serve to slow down the player and the pacing as the player will have to stop in order to look at them. Set dress objects are best served in areas that have low tension that do not provoke urgency for the player to move. I will be calling these instances out in the walkthrough of the level.

Immersion
Immersion is when players lose themselves and forget that they are playing a game. To do this successfully the level, AI and mechanics of the game have to look, behave and react as realistically as possible so that the player is not reminded that they are playing a game. Realistic water, particle and physics as well as AI that interact with each other and are doing things outside of waiting for the player to show up go a long way in selling a living world and creates an immersive experience. Bioshock also maintains its immersion by never breaking the first-person perspective. While this is a system and not a level mechanic, it is vitally important to how successfully Bioshock sustains the game’s immersion.

One often overlooked way of supporting immersion are player objectives. When objectives make sense and are rational to what the player would do if placed in the same situation it helps greatly in maintaining immersion for the player. When objectives fail to make sense to the player, immersion is broken. While Bioshock generally does a good job with objectives, one example where it seemingly failed was the objective of stabbing yourself with a syringe and injecting yourself with an unknown substance (plasmid) in the level Welcome to Rapture. Although this action is explained later in the game, at the time I thought to myself why would any rational person do that? It tore away my immersion with the game, but was effective for the later story plot and was memorable because of how out of place it was.

Varied Player Experiences
The level Welcome to Rapture largely owes its success to how many different well-constructed player experiences it provides. Pacing, atmosphere and mood tie into player experiences directly. When players speak about pace, atmosphere and mood they are generally describing how they feel while they are playing. I will start by listing a few ways that a level can dictate the player’s experience and then go on to show how Bioshock’s opening level uses these elements to vary the experience for the player.

Objectives
Objectives can push the pacing of the level. An objective that is clearly defined and is rational for a person under the circumstances like Welcome to Rapture’s “get to higher ground” helps drive the player forward eagerly and with a purpose.

Objectives not only impact immersion and pacing, but also the tone of a level. Compare the tone of “Escape from Rapture” and “Kill Andrew Ryan” and you can see how the tone has been changed. When the objective is to “escape,” it places the player in the role of the prey, while “killing” has the player in the role of the predator. In this instance the objective of “get to higher ground” and escape from Rapture helps support the type of frantic tone and mood that the developers intended for the beginning of the game.

Setting
Changing to different settings will help with both pacing and maintaining interest in your world. A new setting prevents visual fatigue and helps the player feel like they are making progress through the game. The more dramatic the shift in scenery the better. The shift in surroundings should make logical sense otherwise immersion will be broken. Note the frequency in which settings are changed in the first level of Bioshock.

Tension Level
Tension is the player’s perceived level of threat. There are a number of ways to manipulate tension levels as I will illustrate in the following sections. Keeping the tension level high is interesting and exciting for the player. However, keeping the tension high for an extremely long period of time without a periodic release causes the player to become numb and the tension will start to lose its power. Occasional releases in tension will actually ease a level designer’s ability to create tension.

Physical Space and Lighting to Increase and Limit Options
One of the most important tools in directing pace is the use of physical space and lighting. Tight linear corridors focus the player and create a faster pace by reducing the player’s options. On the other hand, larger spaces or spaces with multiple routes slow down the pace and promote decision-making and exploration. A proper mix of different sized spaces helps keep the experience varied.

Lighting plays a large role in how large a space feels. Absence of light dissuades players from going to and exploring areas. A level designer or artist can actually shrink levels and spaces gameplay-wise by taking out lights on the periphery, thus creating a tighter and more directed path. Conversely, brightly lit rooms inherently feel safer and encourage players to linger for longer.

Large elevation changes can inspire awe by enhancing drama and scale. Bioshock’s first level uses this technique to great effect in both the bathysphere ride down into Rapture as well as the elevator ride up to higher ground.

Lighting and Color to Set Atmosphere and Mood
As I have already mentioned brightly lit rooms tend to feel safer, conversely darker rooms promote a feeling of tension because the surroundings are unknown to the player. In general, levels in Bioshock are dark with contrastingly lit areas to enhance a feeling of paranoia and tension. Bioshock varies the level of tension by sprinkling in brightly lit rooms as a release and the occasional scripted event where the lights turn off altogether to dramatically ratchet up the tension.

Mood can also be created with the color of the lighting and environments. People generally connect colors like red with danger, green with sickness and blue with security.

Landmarks, Lighting and Audio to Direct Player Movement
Landmarks, lights and audio can provide navigational reference points for the player and draw attention to specific areas of a space. The player will move towards a light, landmark or sound and then pause to take note of their surroundings before moving to the next navigational point. These guideposts can be used to encourage or discourage player movement and exploration; therefore they can greatly affect a scenario’s pace.

Music and Audio
Music and audio can be used to enhance the experience that the level designer intends for the player to have. Whether the mood you are trying to create is creepiness, action or awe, music and audio are very useful ways to help in achieving it.

Item Collection
Having an item collecting and scavenging mechanic like the one present in Bioshock will slow the player down and promote exploration. Limiting your player’s available ammo and health and constantly keeping them on the brink of running out raises tension.

Wow Moments
Large scale scripted events a.k.a. wow moments can raise a player’s excitement level and inspire a sense of awe. They are generally expensive from a production standpoint, but add a real punch to varying the player’s experience. The Call of Duty series is well known for exploiting the power of wow moments. Wow moments tend to slow players down as they watch the event unfold, but this is not necessarily always the case as I will point out in the level walkthrough.

Combat
Combat provides an easy way to raise the pace of a level. The player experience during combat needs to be mixed up to prevent boredom. There are many techniques to mix up combat, but for this article I will only touch on the introduction of new weapons and enemies. For more information on improving combat through variation please see my article “How to Improve Your Shooter Combat.”

New Weapons
New weapons extend the capabilities of players and offer a new experience for a period of time as the player experiments with the weapon to discover its strengths and limitations.

New Enemies
Together with new weapons, new enemies are some of the most important ways of changing the dynamic of combat. When faced with a new AI, players must experiment and discover the strengths and weaknesses of the new enemy. The player must then adjust their tactics to deal with the new threat. The new enemy AI offers scenario designers the opportunity to mix in the new enemy type with the already introduced AI thereby creating new variations on old encounters.

Welcome to Rapture Walkthrough
Airplane Cabin
Narrative questions: Who am I? Where am I?
Narrative answers: I am Jack. It is 1960. I’m on an airplane above the Atlantic.

The first setting that the player is in is aboard an airplane. The scene begins with a shot of a smoke filled cabin of an airplane. The strangeness of this fact creates a moment of unease in the player. The player’s unease is lifted immediately when Jack raises a lit cigarette up and explains away the smoke. The sight of a person smoking inside of an airplane immediately roots the player firmly in the 1960 setting. Jack’s monologue and back story subdues the pace.

Atlantic Ocean
Narrative questions: What is a lighthouse doing in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean?
Narrative answers: None

The setting changes from the plane’s cabin to underwater for a few tense moments as the player watches in first-person as propeller blades and various other objects float through the scene and the player struggles to the surface of the water for air. The player associates the green water underneath the surface with a feeling of sickness. The setting transitions again to the surface of the ocean. The playable space here is small being hemmed in by fire and the path out is clearly marked. The opening in the surrounding fire beckons the player to keep moving. Fire races across the screen directing the player to look right to see the lighthouse landmark. The blinking light is another navigational cue to keep the player directed.
Bioshock Underwater Green

Lighthouse Interior
Narrative questions: Who is Andrew Ryan? What is this place?
Narrative answers: None

Another big setting change occurs here as the player transitions from the water into the dark interior of the lighthouse. The door closes behind the player and the player is in near complete darkness. When the lights turn off the player will generally pause and stop. This creates a moment of tension and builds fear through the unknown. After the lights turn back on the pacing slows down. The space offers the player a lot of things to see like the Andrew Ryan bust and art deco wall decorations and consequently slows down the player. The brightly lit bathysphere draws the player to it.
Bioshock Andrew Ryan Banner

Bathysphere Ride
Narrative questions: Why is there a city built underwater?
Narrative answers: The lighthouse is an entrance to the city of Rapture. Rapture is a utopian city based off of objectivism founded by Andrew Ryan.

Lots of exposition by Andrew Ryan answers questions regarding the founding of Rapture. The bathysphere ride is designed to inspire awe and wonderment for the city of Rapture. As I mentioned before, changes in altitude can aid in selling drama and scale. The blue surroundings of the ocean and city promote a mood of security. The ride accomplishes the mood and atmosphere of awe through the use of music, changes in altitude and a synched to music beautiful reveal shot.

The first clue that something might be amiss is when the sign “All good things of this Earth flow into this city” blinks and shorts out.

Bioshock Bathysphere Ride Blue

First Encounter
Narrative questions: What happened here? How did Rapture meet its downfall? Why did that mutated freak kill that Johnny? Who is Atlas? Why is Atlas helping me?
Narrative answers: None

The tension and pace here is ratcheted up incredibly high in a hurry. There are a number of reasons for this that I will call out specifically.

The Spider Splicer is revealed. A blinking light gives the player brief glimpses of a Spider Splicer killing a man with hooked weapons. Following that the Splicer leaps atop the bathysphere and attempts to penetrate the hull of the vessel to attack the player before giving up and leaping into the darkness. The bathysphere’s door opens and the unarmed player is told by Atlas to keep moving and to “get to higher ground”.

Getting to higher ground is a reasonable objective considering that the player just witnessed the Spider Splicer gruesomely murder a man and the player has no weapons. This makes the pacing and tension high, which is a good change from the awe inducing bathysphere ride into Rapture.

Outside the door of the bathysphere the tight linear corridors reinforce the fast pace implied by the objective. It does this by focusing the player and reducing their options. The space is shrunk further by being darkly lit with the exception of the intended path. The absence of light on the edges of the space makes it feel tighter than it actually is and the darkness dissuades players from going to and exploring areas.

The mood is even tenser because of the disappearance of the Spider Splicer. Audio is used to great effect here in creating a sense of tension. The player is able to hear the Spider Splicer singing and taunting the player, but the Splicer is nowhere in sight. A blinking television screen serving as a navigation marker draws the player to it. Here the player pauses to assess the situation, but not for too long because of the implied danger. A light turns on showing the Spider Splicer. He is chased off by a security bot relieving the tension. With the Spider Splicer gone, the pace lowers and the new light draws the player to the next area. The player is given a safe environment to go through the Jump, Pick Up and Melee tutorials, which is a release and slows the pacing down further.

The arranged protest signs placed outside of the bathysphere serving as clues of dissention against Andrew Ryan are lost on the vast majority of users because the perceived danger from the Spider Splicer above, the tight corridors and blinking light from the TV cause tension to be high and the player to be directed. The player is encouraged to move fast out of this space. To really get the point across I would have placed more signs closer to the flashing television screen. Players tend to stop moving to take in their surroundings once they reach a destination.

Bioshock Protest Signs

Desk on Fire
Narrative questions: None
Narrative answers: None

The flaming desk pushed down the stairs scripted event raises the tension and pace. Combat with the Splicer keeps the pace high. After he is defeated the pace drops back down.

Gatherer’s Garden Room
Narrative questions: What is wrong with everybody here? Who is that little girl and big guy with the drill?
Narrative answers: Plasmids give the player powers.

The physical space of this room is wider than the previous room. The size of the space coupled with the scavenging mechanic promotes exploration and slows down the pace. The sparking electricity on the door draws the player’s attention to it, but the player quickly realizes that the door is not yet an exit. The use of audio calls from behind the player helps them pinpoint the location of the Gatherer’s Garden vending machine. The giant arrowed plasmid sign does not hurt either. As I previously mentioned the objective of stabbing and injecting yourself with an unknown substance breaks the immersion. The first-person cinema creates tension because the player is helpless to defend themselves and his life is threatened twice during the sequence. The Little Sister and Big Daddy are introduced. The Electrobolt Plasmid is introduced.

Tube Flooding Wow Moment
Narrative questions: None
Narrative answers: None

While most wow moments slow the pacing of the game down as players stop to observe these events, the plane crashing into the tube actually raises the sense of urgency by giving the player the feeling that they are in danger.

The linear corridor presents few options and keeps the player moving. The tension is amped up by the cracks appearing on the glass wall and vault door buckling followed by water pouring through the cracks. All of these events imply danger and encourage constant movement by the player. The realistic water effects preserve the immersion. This wow moment does the job of creating a memorable and exciting scene that varies the player’s experience.

Bioshock Tube Flooding Wow Moment

One-Two Punch Tutorial
Narrative questions: None
Narrative answers: None

Entering into this room the player will see that the room is bathed in red light, which warns the player of danger. Combat ensues and the pace is raised for its duration. The arrangement of the corpse underneath pouring water with the protest sign, briefcase and liquor beside him tells a story and keeps player interested in the world.

Bioshock Mise-en-scene

Elevator Crash
Narrative questions: None
Narrative answers: None

Once inside this room the player will see an elevator crashing. This wow moment slows down the pacing. A brief combat encounter with a man on fire ups the tempo for a short time. The space opens up into a well-lit larger room. Larger spaces have more area to explore and slow down the pacing and well-lit rooms promote players lingering in a place for longer.

Elevator Ride Up
Narrative questions: None
Narrative answers: Atlas is helping the player because his family is trapped and he needs the player’s help to free them.

The elevator ride provides an opportunity to update the objectives as well as remind the player of the scale of Rapture. The altitude change emphasizes scale and drama. Music is incorporated to sell this awe factor. The player’s objective is updated from a plea by Atlas to go to Neptune’s Bounty to rescue his wife and daughter. This objective will set the stage for animosity between the player and Andrew Ryan when Ryan kills Atlas’ family, thereby easing the player into accepting (as not to break immersion) their next objective and the tone change that accompanies “kill Andrew Ryan.” The overall objective of escape from Rapture still stands.

Bioshock Elevator Ride Up

Baby Carriage
Narrative questions: None
Narrative answer: The inhabitants of Rapture were driven insane by the use of plasmids.

Here the player finds a brief scripted moment where a woman is hovering over a baby carriage and singing a lullaby. The shadow of the female Splicer and baby carriage are splashed along the wall and can be seen well before the actual Splicer and carriage. The shadow forewarns the player and allows them to stop and become a voyeur. By listening to the lullaby and woman speaking to the baby carriage the player witnesses the extent in which plasmids have deranged the populace. Eventually the player must engage in combat with the Splicer. This scripted event hints that there is a living breathing city here and maintains the immersion.

The pistol is introduced.

Bioshock Baby Carriage Splicer Shadow

Kashmir Restaurant
Narrative questions: What happened here?
Narrative answers: There was an attack by Fontaine’s men on New Year’s Eve.

When the player enters into the Kashmir restaurant they find a male Splicer banging on a door and in an argument with a female Splicer. This is another very simple scripted event that goes a long way in building the player’s interest in Rapture. It gives the illusion of a living world by giving AI lives outside of waiting for the player to show up.

The Kashmir restaurant is a wide space that has many items for the player to collect and a lot of things to look at, which slows down the pace.

There are not many outward signs that anything bad has happened here until you go downstairs. The music is playing and the place is decorated festively. Bright colors, party hats and balloons that pop and leave behind a shower of confetti are scattered about the room. This room’s festive décor is in stark contrast to the previous environments and is a nice setting change.

After the Splicer and his wife are dealt with the pace slows. The ghost in the bathroom keeps the player vested in the story. The Splicer in the bathroom stall punches the pace up with combat for a short while. The signs of battle are much more prevalent down stairs. Signs here are askew, the lack of lights in the kitchen make it really foreboding. Within the kitchen is a man slumped over with a cash register. The player can start to invent their own stories about him. The Electrobolt plasmid with water tutorial takes place. Violin music adds to the sense of foreboding.

Bioshock Kashmir Restaurant

Footlight Theater
Narrative questions: None
Narrative answers: Questions about the relationship between the Big Daddy and Little Sister and their purpose are answered.

When the player enters into this area they will see a Little Sister and notice that the room is a bright crimson red because of the carpeting. This helps the player to make the connection that the Little Sister is dangerous. Exposition regarding the relationship of the Little Sister to the Big Daddy and how they fit into Rapture’s ecology is explained. Combat with two Splicers again raises the tempo. There is another pre-fight scripted event of two Splicers looting the Big Daddy’s corpse and more combat. There is a drop down here which prevents the player from backtracking, thereby keeping the player more directed.

Bioshock Little Sister

Rapture Metro
Narrative questions: Why is Andrew Ryan against me?
Narrative answers: None

There is sustained combat here. Access to Neptune’s Bounty is shut off by Andrew Ryan. A frantically voiced Atlas tells you to get to Neptune’s Bounty by way of Medical. The objective to get to medical happens because Andrew Ryan has prevented you from getting to your destination. This builds animosity with Andrew Ryan and sets the player up against the antagonist and prepares the player for the next overarching objective of killing Andrew Ryan. If the objective from the start is to kill Andrew Ryan who has not opposed the player in at least a few turns then you will lose the buy-in of your player and immersion will be broken.

Andrew Ryan’s Trap
Narrative questions: None
Narrative answers: Andrew Ryan is trying to kill the player because he believes he is from the KGB or FBI.

When the player enters into this room Andrew Ryan closes and locks the door on the player. The lights turn off and the player is in darkness for a short time for an immediate rise in tension. Following this Andrew Ryan speaks to the player accusing them of being from the KGB or CIA. There is implied danger to create additional tension when the Splicers try to break through the windows. The level ends when the door is opened by Atlas and the tension is relieved with the player being given an exit.

Conclusion
Welcome to Rapture is a successful level because it builds an interesting and immersive world and pays attention to constructing a variety of complete player experiences. By going through the walkthrough of the level, one can see just how many techniques are being used to direct the player experience. Although from a production standpoint it is expensive to pack so many setting changes, scripted events, wow moments, new enemies and weapons into a single level, there are many ways to direct the player experience less expensively. The important takeaway is that a big part of a level’s success depends on the player’s experience and to occasionally change the current experience to keep the level fresh and enjoyable.

See my other related articles:
Become a Video Game Designer: Everything You Need to Know Part 1
Roger Ebert is Right: Games are Not High Art…Yet
Top 5 Greatest Moments in Competitive Gaming (eSports)
What Video Games Taught Me About Life
Low Skill Cap and Luck (RNG) in World of Warcraft PVP
Best Games of All Time by Genre Part 1
10 Greatest Video Game Designers Part 1
What’s Bad About Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare Multiplayer Mode?
Call of Duty: World at War Through the Eyes of a Game Designer
Dead Space Through the Eyes of a Game Designer
Gears of War 2 Through the Eyes of a Game Designer
8 of the Most Underrated or Overlooked Video Games of All Time
Best MMA Fights & Genki Sudo: Real Life Video Game Character


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How to Make Your Shooter Combat Better

Sunday, April 5th, 2009

By: Tony Huynh


I was asked the question, “how could Bioshock’s combat be improved?” I thought about it for a while and I am going to propose some possible fixes for the shortcomings of Bioshock in this area. While this is geared towards Bioshock, it can just as easily apply to other games featuring first or third person combat. Some of these solutions may be drastic and change the tone of the game, but I wanted to put them out on the table to promote discussion. The root of the problem with Bioshock’s combat is the lack of necessary tactical decisions for the player. The aim of this article is to see why this is the case in the areas of weapon, AI, level and system design and present some possible solutions to add a greater variety of necessary tactical decision-making for the player as well as offer other improvements to Bioshock’s combat.

1) Balance weapons and plasmids around a Paper / Rock / Scissor system

A weapon in a Paper / Rock / Scissor system is balanced around the idea that weapons have strengths and weakness and that each weapon plays a defined role during combat. For instance a sniper rifle is strong at long range, but weak at medium and short-range, while a shotgun should be strong at short-range and weak at medium and long-range. If a player enters into a long-range engagement armed with a shotgun, they will be at a gross disadvantage against an opponent with a sniper rifle. The player must then choose whether to close the distance to take away the opponent’s advantage or switch to a different weapon. The weapon’s strengths and weaknesses can be affected by any number of circumstances and not just range. An example is in Halo, ballistic weapons do more damage against flesh targets and energy weapons do more damage against shielded opponents on top of their PRS range-based system. Obviously a balanced PRS system precludes any one weapon that is the best in all situations.

The current state of Bioshock:
In Bioshock, the Paper / Rock / Scissor system is not clearly defined. 99% of the engagements in Bioshock occur at short and medium-range and most of the weapons and plasmids are good at both ranges. Despite Bioshock’s shotgun being only usable at short-range, it does little damage at short-range and the rate of fire is extremely poor making it a non-viable weapon later in the game. While Bioshock presents a lot of options to the player, the player is never enticed to use these other tactics because every encounter can be handled with the Electrobolt stun to gun combo. This combo is one of the safest and most effective ways to dispatch every type of enemy in any situation in the game. There are no weaknesses to this combo as none of the AI are resistant to it and it can hit at both medium-range and short-range.

Another key component of the PRS system is that there are tradeoffs to which weapon the player chooses to carry with them. Even if Bioshock’s weapons followed a PRS design, the player in Bioshock always has access to all the weapons introduced up to that point in the game. This removes an additional layer of tactical decision-making because the player is always carrying the perfect weapon for the situation in their inventory.

Proposed solutions:
1. Define the roles of the weapons and plasmids in Bioshock to fit into a clearly communicated three category closed-loop (PRS) system, whether it is ranges or some other system.

2. If the solution is ranges (short, medium and long) it will be necessary to change level databases to intersperse long range engagements.
a. This is extremely risky because it will affect the atmosphere and feel of the game. The benefit would be that it will add some variety to the combat.

3. Limit the player’s weapon choice down to fewer weapons and plasmids. My suggestion is two of each. By giving the player only two weapons and two plasmids the player will always be weak in at least one of these three categories and they will have to make a choice on which weapons and plasmids to carry.
a. This will have the side-effect of alleviating some of the problems with the clumsy weapon and plasmid selection I mentioned in my last article as the player can now comfortably alternate between two instead of eight selections.

4. There are Gene Banks to swap out genes; how about Weapon Banks to swap out weapons? Create Weapon Banks and place both Gene Banks and Weapon Banks liberally through the levels to allow the player to swap out weapons and plasmids frequently.

2) More Enemy AI Variety
Introducing new enemy AI that have different personalities, behaviors, strengths and weaknesses changes the dynamic of combat and greatly benefits a game’s pacing. When faced with a new AI players must experiment and discover the strengths and weaknesses of the new enemy. The player must then adjust their tactics to deal with the new threat. The new enemy AI offers scenario designers the opportunity to mix in the new enemy type with the already introduced AI thereby creating new variations on old encounters.

The current state of Bioshock:
The wholly inadequate number of enemy variations in Bioshock are all frontloaded into the beginning of the game. By the middle of the title the player’s have been introduced to every enemy type and as a result the rest of the game’s combat pacing suffers.

Proposed solutions:
1. One way to add more variety to the enemies is to arm more Splicers with different Plasmids. Imagine an Electrobolt plasmid using Splicer that was also resistant to Electrobolt attacks, but weak against the Insect Swarm plasmid. Giving specific varieties of Splicers resistances to specific plasmids and weapons would have added depth to the tactics employed by players. This would at the very least force the player to change up the aforementioned Electrobolt to gun combo technique on occasion.

2. Design and create new AI with different personalities, behaviors, strengths and weaknesses and space out their introductions throughout the course of the game.

3) Differentiate AI silhouettes to aid player planning
One of the most effective ways to convey what type of enemy the player is facing is through having drastically different silhouettes between enemies. Silhouettes assist players in being able to tell enemies apart quickly, and in turn formulate a plan on how to tackle a situation more accurately.

The current state of Bioshock:
This is an area that Bioshock does not do well. The Houdini, melee and gun wielding Splicers are all difficult to tell apart at a glance because their silhouettes are so similar. Having unique silhouettes for AI is even more important because of how dark the levels are in Bioshock.

Proposed solutions:
Now that we have a greater variety of enemies that require different tactics to defeat, we need to communicate the variety of enemies to the player quickly and effectively. Gears of War 2 does an excellent job of having easily recognizable enemy silhouettes. Scroll through their enemy list to see what I mean.

A key difference with Bioshock and Gears of War 2 is that the enemies are more human in Bioshock. While this makes the solution a bit more difficult, it is not impossible. An example of widely divergent human silhouettes can be seen Valve’s Team Fortress 2.
Team Fortress 2 Character silhouettes

4) Have pre-fight AI scripting throughout
How a player perceives an AI’s intelligence is determined by what an AI is doing before a battle as much as what they do during the fight. While this does not directly affect giving the player additional tactical choice, pre-fight AI scripting helps make the AI look smarter and this will always assist in making combat more enjoyable.

The current state of Bioshock:
This is an area that Bioshock excels at especially at the beginning of the game. AIs in Bioshock have lives outside of waiting for the player to show up. The Splicers whistle, have conversations with themselves, take their imaginary babies on strolls and even dance with each other. This is one of the best examples of a game with the illusion of a living world. This is not easy to do and requires tremendous development resources, which is why it is not often seen in games. The problem in Bioshock is that pre-fight scripting falls off dramatically in the middle through the end of the game.

Proposed solutions:
More pre-fight AI scripting is needed during the middle and late stages of the game. If this is not feasible I would suggest spacing out the densely scripted pre-fight AI in the first half and spreading these through the course of the game so that there is not such a lull in the middle to end of the game.

5) Leaders with underling breaking behavior
This is a technique that was pioneered by Total War and brought over to the first person shooter genre by Halo. Whenever a much more difficult to kill Elite in Halo was defeated, the grunts in Elite’s squad would break and scatter. This added depth and tactical choice to target selection in combat.

The current state of Bioshock:
There are no leaders in Bioshock. In fact, the AIs seem to act completely independently from each other.

Proposed solutions:
1. This could be simulated in Bioshock by having the aforementioned plasmid infused Splicers serve in the role of leaders and if they are killed, the other Splicers will break and flee or simply cower and beg for their life.

2. “Wherever possible, we try to make the vocalizations a dialogue between two or more characters, rather than an announcement by one character.” J. Orkin – States & a Plan: The AI of F.E.A.R.
a. By including communication between AI whenever possible, it will make the AI at least have the illusion of working together.

6) Raise the hit points and damage dealt by your AI
This is taken from the 2002 GDC talk The Illusion of Intelligence by Jaime Griesemer and Chris Butcher. Through playtests and surveys conducted by Bungie Studios, they discovered that tougher AI (higher hit points and higher damage dealt) created the illusion that the AI was smarter.

Halo: Combat Evolved AI Test

Combat almost always benefits from the illusion of smarter AI. If the combat is too challenging however, accessibility will suffer. So making the AI tougher can only be pushed up to a point.

The current state of Bioshock:
Through the course of Bioshock the player becomes stronger by accumulating and upgrading health, eve, weapons and plasmids. The result is the enemy AI is tough at the beginning of the game, but gradually became weaker through the course of the game. Bioshock in turn occasionally scaled up the same exact AI in difficulty to accommodate the growth in power of the player. This made for uneven difficulty in the game and by scaling the difficulty of the same AI, Bioshock nullified some of the player’s sense of advancement. Nonetheless, by the end of the game the combination of player familiarity with game mechanics and avatar upgrades made the AI too weak and in turn caused the player to be left with a lowered opinion of the AI and consequently of Bioshock’s combat.

Proposed solution:
1. Create easily recognizable skins for upgraded enemies to communicate to the player that they have been upgraded.
2. Introduce new AI later in the game that is already scaled to the appropriate difficulty level of where they are introduced.
3. Maintain the frequency of player upgrades, but lower their potency.

7) Call in the reinforcements!
The way AIs are introduced can make them appear smart. AI that call for reinforcements when they see the player or if an AI is seemingly the last enemy in a scenario and calls for back up and they arrive make the AI feel intelligent.

“For example, when an A.I. realizes that he is the last surviving member of a squad, he says some variation of ‘I need reinforcements.’ We did not really implement any mechanism for the A.I. to bring in reinforcements, but as the player progresses through the level, he is sure to see more enemy A.I. soon enough.” – J. Orkin – States & a Plan: The AI of F.E.A.R.

F.E.A.R. relies on the player’s assumptions to create the illusion of intelligence, but this could just as easily be scripted in the game.

The current state of Bioshock:
I do not recall any AIs in Bioshock ever calling for back up.

Proposed solution:
Create occasional scripted moments where the player happens on a lone Splicer and she calls for help and additional Splicers come through a door or run downstairs to assist her.

8 ) Make the AI predictable
AIs need to have predictable behaviors so that players can recognize and use their patterns to outsmart them and thereby feel good about themselves.

The current state of Bioshock:
This experience came from my playthrough of the game. I had entered combat with a pistol armed Splicer, but moved away to where he could not see me, but I could observe him. He would move to the last place that he saw me to investigate, once there he would stay in his alerted state and begin a patrol. During his patrol he would stay at a constant speed (good), but would seemingly at random (bad) turn 180 degrees and start walking the opposite direction.

My goal was to sneak up behind him to use my wrench. Because he would randomly turn around 180 degrees my attempts were not always successful. Even if I manage to get to him the Splicer becomes aware of you at around 3 meters and immediately turns around to react disallowing the player the advantage of the first hit with the wrench. Let me outsmart the AI!

Bioshock AI Investigation Behavior
Proposed solution:
Bioshock AI Proposed Investigation Behavior
When an AI loses sight of the player they should move at a constant speed and never turn around 180 degrees. The AI should also not have the ability to see the player behind him (extrasensory perception) when at close range. Keeping AI actions predictable is the goal. Having predictable AI allows the player to recognize behaviors through observation and outsmart the AI.

9) The use of gameplay space and cover to create tactics
I have saved the discussion regarding cover usage and placement until now because it so fundamentally changes the way Bioshock plays and it carries the most risk. This should not be a direction that is taken lightly and without serious consideration and playtesting.

Make cover matter
Cover in shooters can be used to direct the flow of combat as well as promote tactical space analysis and decision-making by the player.

The current state of Bioshock:
Cover in Bioshock is used very little to direct battles and create fronts against enemies, the most effective way to deal with enemies I found was by standing out in the open and strafing left and right while firing.

There is very little half-cover in Bioshock, so crouching behind cover is not an option most of the time.

Proposed solution:
One of the easiest ways to promote the usage of cover for players is to have consequences for them for not doing so.

I took a look at a few other games that are praised for their combat to see what they did. I performed some tests to figure out how long it took three different games to kill the player. Each test was performed by standing the player perfectly still out in the open at medium range (my best guess at 8 meters).

Bioshock
In Bioshock, at the end of Smuggler’s Hideout, it took an average of 15 seconds to die from 3 pistol armed Splicers and 1 Spider Splicer on normal difficulty from a full health bar.

Halo 3
It took an average of 7 seconds to die from the very first engagement in Halo 3 on Heroic difficulty (the recommended difficulty).

Call of Duty 4
In Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare it took an average of 4 seconds for two AI to kill the player when he is standing out in the open on Normal difficulty in the second engagement of Blackout (the first mission in Act 1).

This means that in Halo 3 the player dies more than twice as fast in the very first engagement of the game and in Call of Duty 4 the player dies over three times faster when compared to Bioshock at about the one quarter mark of the game where the player is up against an unusually large number of enemies. Without the immediate threat of death the player is not as willing to seek cover in Bioshock.

Encounter space design
Spaces should be designed to accommodate as many different types of playstyles used by players as possible.

What type of playstyle do you use? Do you like to sit back in cover with your medium and long range weapons and slowly whittle down the enemies? Do you sneak around the side and flank your opponent with close range weapons? Are you Rambo and want to run out in the center with guns blazing? Maybe you just want to use cover to sneak past the enemies and avoid the encounter entirely.

“Building a successful course then becomes a matter of understanding these different demographics and designing with each of them in mind.” – What SimGolf Can Teach You about Designing the Perfect Level by Alex J. Champandard

The current state of Bioshock:
While I am not saying that all the encounters in Bioshock did not allow for different playstyles, in fact some of them did this quite well, but there were far too many coverless corridors populated with enemies where the player’s options were limited to simply strafe and fire.

Proposed solutions:
The key to accommodating a wide range of playstyles is making sure that there is “interconnectivity” in the combat spaces.

“It’s very important to make spaces that highlight the strengths of your AI. A battle in a corridor doesn’t involve much strategy so there are no intelligent things for the AI to do. An interconnected space allows the AI to flank the Player, making them seem more intelligent. It also allows the Player to flank the AI, giving him a chance to watch them react to his tactics. One weakness of an interconnected space, however, is that it tends to be chaotic. So we also needed to establish a Killing Zone, an open area between two positions with good cover. Flanking is still possible in an environment with a killing zone, but the battle is much more directed. The killing zone also allows multiple enemies to fight at once without it degenerating into chaos.” – The Illusion of Intelligence by Jaime Griesemer and Chris Butcher

This is a combat space in Fracture that I worked on.
Fracture Tony Huynh Encounter Design

I attempted to design the space to accommodate different playstyles.
• Note the cover placement to create battle lines and the killing zone to keep the battle orderly.
• The sniping spot is for those that want to sit back with a long ranged weapon like the sniper rifle.
• Battle line 1 is to allow the option of medium ranged weapons.
• Note the flanking routes to allow for the player to flank the enemies and the AI to flank the player.
• I did not accommodate a way to avoid the encounter entirely, but in hindsight maybe I should have or at least have given it some more thought.

Cover placement is very important in providing opportunities for players to tackle encounters the way that they want to. Having a mix of battles take place in open areas as well as tight confined spaces and corridors will add variety to the gameplay to keep the player from becoming bored.

10) Use large-scale cinematic scripted events in combat
Large-scale cinematic scripted events like explosions, buildings toppling and helicopters crashing add excitement and help to break up the monotony of combat. Few games do large scale scripted events in combat as well as Call of Duty 4. The real trick is to make sure that players see these events.

The current state of Bioshock:
While there are certain big moments that happen in Bioshock, the Airliner cabin crashing through the walkway tube comes to mind, there are not any that happen mid-combat.

Proposed solutions:
1. Place enemies defending the hallway where the airline cabin comes crashing through. Have them get killed by the airline cabin collision.
2. Come up with and implement additional cinematic scripted moments that occur in combat.

11) Death for a player should not be meaningless
Combat does not work without the fear of consequences. When death is meaningless, the need for the player to use tactics is diminished. Conversely if death is too harsh, players will never want to experiment with anything but tried and true methods. A balance needs to be struck.

The current state of Bioshock:
The current implementation of Vita-chambers removes any need for tactics as dying is meaningless. Each time you die, you instantly respawn nearby with half health and the enemies do not recover any health. A tactic I abused a few times is to pull a Big Daddy close to a Vita-chamber and rush him with my wrench. When I died I simply respawned and repeated my tactics with the wrench until he was dead. I have heard a lot of people complain about the Vita-chambers, but there is a trade off here. The experience may have felt cheapened for the player, but this makes it so every player can see the end of Bioshock which is very valuable.

Proposed solutions:
I know I suggested a compromise to have injured enemies regain a modest amount of health if a vita-chamber is used in my last article, but if the goal is to promote tactical combat I would go so far as to recommend removing Vita-chambers entirely and rely on a system of checkpoints. There are certainly tradeoffs here and this negatively affects accessibility of the game so this needs careful consideration before implementation.

12) Healing
The question of how the player is healed becomes much more important with the removal of Vita-Chambers from the game. Here are the pros and cons of the very common Recharging health and Bioshock’s Persistent health systems as I see it.

Recharging health
Pros
• Promotes the use of cover (as it is the only place to regain health during combat.)
• It is easier for designers to tune difficulty for individual engagements because they will always know the player will have a certain amount of health before each encounter.
• It is easier to create a consistent difficulty curve for the game because each encounter can be tuned to be more difficult in relation to the last without worrying about how much health the player currently has.

Cons
• If there are permanent health upgrades they are exponentially more powerful.
• Players do not have to search for health packs.

Persistent health (Bioshock’s health system)
Pros
• The player must worry about every hit, because all damage is permanent.
• Players must search for health packs.

Cons
• Careful attention needs to be paid to a player that gets stuck in a low health situation right before a tough encounter.
• Cover can sometimes be ignored because players can stand in the open and regain health with a press of a button.

Neutral
• Designers can ensure a proper amount of health for the player by placing health pickups preceding an encounter.

Proposed solutions:
Having listed out the pros and cons of the two systems as I see it, I do not know which system I prefer. The main issues of contention are the exponential power increase of health upgrades for the recharging health system and the difficulty of balancing each encounter for the player in the persistent health model. If I had to choose between the two, I would go with the persistent health system because it promotes the player searching for powerups.

The system I propose is a hybrid bucketed health system where the player has a number of buckets of health. Each bucket replenishes itself as long as it is not completely depleted. The bucketed health system maintains the need to have the player search for health and simultaneously encourages cover usage during combat to replenish health. Permanent health upgrades could come in the form of additional buckets of health.

Conclusion
This article is meant to offer suggestions to enhance the tactical decision-making of the player in Bioshock’s combat. Many of proposed solutions have large tradeoffs and affect the game negatively outside of combat. Since the goal was to improve combat and spawn discussion points, I largely ignored these problems. To read a less combat-oriented and more balanced list of suggestions at improving Bioshock read my last article, Bioshock: The Most Important Game of the Generation.

See my other related articles:
Become a Video Game Designer: Everything You Need to Know Part 1
Roger Ebert is Right: Games are Not High Art…Yet
Top 5 Greatest Moments in Competitive Gaming (eSports)
What Video Games Taught Me About Life
Low Skill Cap and Luck (RNG) in World of Warcraft PVP
Best Games of All Time by Genre Part 1
10 Greatest Video Game Designers Part 1
What’s Bad About Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare Multiplayer Mode?
Call of Duty: World at War Through the Eyes of a Game Designer
Dead Space Through the Eyes of a Game Designer
Gears of War 2 Through the Eyes of a Game Designer
8 of the Most Underrated or Overlooked Video Games of All Time
Best MMA Fights & Genki Sudo: Real Life Video Game Character

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Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare Campaign Playthrough Notes

Friday, February 6th, 2009

I know this game is not a recent release, but it just happens to be what I have been playing a lot of lately. So I decided to dig up my hand written notes and type them up and in the process organize them a bit better. I structured the notes off of the levels this time around. Hopefully it will be easier to follow. As always there will be spoilers, so stop reading if you have not played through the game.


F.N.G. (Fucking New Guy)
F.N.G. is the tutorial level of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. You play as Soap MacTavish, a member of the British S.A.S. The tutorial is very good at teaching you the necessary basics to play the game in a mostly non-contrived manner. The only exception is the tutorial on melee, which involved using your knife to slash a watermelon. The developers seriously couldn’t hang a target dummy on a post somewhere for the player to learn to melee attack?

One of the first elements of the tutorial happens when the player is looking down a gun range and an audio cue to “look up” plays. Whichever way the thumbstick is moved by the player determines whether you were an inverted player or not. That is if you looked up by pressing up on the controller the game automatically sets your controls to non-inverted and if you pressed down on the stick to look up the game sets it to inverted. I have always like this mechanic in shooters as it ensures players have the correct controls before the action gets started.

Once all the basics have been learned, the tutorial then has the player practice by stringing all the skills together in a competitive timed training course that simulates the layout of the next level. The player is encouraged to repeat the training course to beat their previous times. Repeated playthroughs really familiarizes the player with Call of Duty 4’s controls and shooting mechanics.

F.N.G. is a very fun and effective tutorial. The only thing that struck me was that the dark confined rooms of this introductory level really do not do the rest of Call of Duty 4’s beautiful graphics and environments justice. The first level of any game is the most important and the setting is not the most ideal choice to introduce an audience to your game. Thankfully, the gameplay in F.N.G. carries players through.

Crew Expendable
After completing the tutorial level the player and his team begin a mission to infiltrate a cargo ship on the high seas. The S.A.S. team arrives by way of helicopter and fast ropes onto the deck of the ship, mirroring the tutorial’s training course. The crew of the ship is caught unawares and the first few crewmen are taken care of quickly by your team whether you participate or not. Several of the highlights of this level are the AI that seemingly have lives instead of waiting around for the player to kill them. One of the ship’s crew is drunkenly wandering the ships hallway with a bottle in his hand and two others are sleeping in their bunks. You almost feel bad for killing them, but the level is called Crew Expendable for a reason. More games need to do this, having AI that are going about their lives before the player arrives creates the illusion of a living world.

The mission is punctuated early on with a nice scripted event of your friendly helicopter laying into the enemy crew, who have an elevated position over you, with gunfire.

I also really like the gating mechanism used where the friendly AI “stack up” at the door before they open the “gate” to allow you to proceed to the next area. The animations look very realistic and the stacking up really shows them off in a good light. The rest of the mission proceeds with combat, which leads up to a harrowing escape from the sinking ship. This was exciting as you watched the ship sway from side to side and water pouring in, but it was also frustrating as there are several wrong turns that can be taken resulting in a fail condition and a reload back to the last checkpoint.

Crew Expendable is a good mission, my largest problem with it is where it is placed in the game. It is the first real mission experienced by the player and I could not think of a worst level to start new players in than Crew Expendable. The constantly rocking and swaying ship is disorienting and the crosshairs on your gun are affected by this, making the shooting frustrating. This level would have been better placed somewhere in the middle of the game, where its unique setting could have served as a breather for the visual fatigue caused by the constant urban street fighting and similar color pallets that marked the middle portion of the game.

The Coup
The Coup begins with a pair of men dragging you into a car. You have control over the camera, but are unable to move. The .50 caliber round hanging from the car’s rearview mirror made me chuckle. You are then driven through the streets of a Middle Eastern city and along the way are presented with scripted gun battles, executions and even a man running from a dog. There are also caged chickens lining the streets. I wonder why these art assets were not used elsewhere in the campaign. I would have loved to have had a firefight with some caged chickens running and flapping around. You arrive at your final destination and are then promptly executed by Khaled Al-Asad. Only in the next cinema is it made clear that you were seeing the world through the eyes of the now dead president of that country.

With as many gun battles as are happening along the path of the car and general chaos, I would have thought a high profile target like a presidential hostage would have a larger escort than a driver and one armed passenger. The Coup serves as a player camera controlled cinema that introduces the player to one of the game’s antagonists, Al-Asad. While this is enjoyable, it is offbeat and I was surprised at how front-loaded Call of Duty 4 is with unique experiences. It is not until Blackout, the fourth mission, that the player really dives into what I consider classic Call of Duty gameplay.

Blackout
What I mean when I call Blackout classic Call of Duty gameplay is that it is sustained combat over solid ground with some nice scripted moments and multiple objectives strung together. There are a good mix of objectives and mechanics introduced, including planting claymores, sniping, rappelling, shooting through walls and using the grenade launcher. All the teaching is done while playing and nothing is forced. The swamp where you are inserted is beautiful looking. A really awesome moment was when the Russian loyalists standup and remove their perfect camouflage from the tall grass right in front of you.

Blackout also makes good use of the Call of Duty staple of having AI waiting to show the player the way to go. While I loved Half-Life 2, I got frustratingly lost on multiple occasions. Valve could learn a thing or two from Infinity Ward on techniques to lead your player through the level.

Charlie Don’t Surf
You now switch perspective away from Soap to Sergeant Paul Jackson to take on Charlie Don’t Surf. You arrive into the level via a lengthy helicopter ride with the requisite insurgents firing upon you with RPGs.

What is interesting is that the AI have leans and blind firing animations. It did not sit right with me that I, as the player, was limited in this regard.

As soon as you fast rope down you see some marines cordon off the operation area with razor wire. This struck me as very realistic and smart to both prevent the target’s escape as well as a counter-attack by insurgents on the marines. This made the mission feel that much more realistic.

The Bog
This mission begins with your team going through enemy lines to meet up and defend a stranded Abrams tank. This level also introduced the Javelin missile weapon. During my playthrough of the level I could not find the Javelin. The VO kept calling out “get the Javelin”, but I had a hard time locating it. The CO kept screaming the same two non-descript VO lines about the Javelin and it got annoying after a while. The VO lines could have called out the location of the Javelin better “it is in the courtyard” or something to that effect.

The behavior of the Javelin was very interesting. As soon as a lock was achieved the javelin would fire upwards into the sky and unerringly strike its target. It is too bad that this weapon did not make it into the multiplayer in some form.

Air support helicopters blowing up the building and taking out the enemies was a good way to end the level on a high-note.

Hunted
For Hunted, the player is put back in the shoes of Soap. Your chopper is shot down and you must evade detection by the enemy helicopter.

At one point you had to go under the bridge to avoid the helicopter flying by overhead. That to me was the most memorable event of the level.

Death from Above
In Death From Above, you take over the guns of an AC-130. Using the AC-130’s arsenal, you must fly escort for your friendlies on the ground. The gameplay of this level and the top-down camera really started to remind me of a god game or Real-Time-Strategy game. You wiped out the enemies while your friends gained territory and traveled through the map.

The disinterested voice of the spotter calling out targets was awesome. To have that type of power in your hands and snuffing out the enemy felt great.

Death From Above really helped with the pacing and was a much-needed breather from the last four ground missions.

War Pig
War Pig switches your perspective back to Jackson. The mission is to escort the Abrams tank back to the highway.

One of the best openings of a gated area in the game happens in this level when the Abrams runs over a car that previously blocked the player’s path.

In addition there was a really nice moment when friendly marines move a dumpster forward to advance on the enemy behind cover. I was really impressed by this and the only negative is that I would have liked to see this mechanic used more throughout the rest of the game. Unfortunately this was not the case.

Infinity Ward accurately recreated the scene of ground troops cheering when close air support comes to the rescue as can be seen on this video.

Another memorable scene was when the Abrams tank shoots through the wall to take out the Russian made tank.

Shock and Awe
Shock and Awe is a mix of rail shooting out of a chopper and some on-foot street battles through a Middle Eastern city. There is a large statue reminiscent of Saddam Hussein that just begs to be shot at during one of the rail shooting segments and if shot, it falls in a satisfying way. It is always nice to be rewarded for shooting stuff.

Another scripted event of a Cobra crashing happens when you are locked into the chopper’s turret that conveniently forces you to witness the scene. First-person-shooters have to rely on these types of techniques to ensure player’s cameras are pointed in the correct direction for an in-game scripted sequence.

The plot twist that occurs in this level is that Al-Asad sets off a nuke and blows up the city. I thought for sure Sergeant Jackson was going to live through it with only a few scratches to show for it, but I was in disbelief the moment he died. That makes for two player controlled characters dead and we’re only halfway through the game.

All Ghillied Up & One Shot One Kill
I am going to group these two flashback levels together because they are a continuation of each other. These two levels were by far my favorite missions of the game. Chernobyl is a really good setting and a great excuse to have a city without civilians around.

Having a friendly AI lead the player through the level was a brilliant way to avoid the general frustrations and problems of a stealth mission placed in a more run and gun game like Call of Duty 4. The friendly AI gives constant feedback and instruction and shows you the best path through the mission. Following the friendly AI and narrowly avoiding detection by the dozens of enemies on patrol was exhilarating. The vignette of crawling underneath the truck as the overwhelming number of enemies walked all around you was one of my favorite moments in all of gaming.

While I cannot remember this happening anywhere else in the rest of the game, there was a moment as you escape after having blown off Zakheav’s arm with a .50 cal, where just before you enter into a hallway enemy shadows cross in front of the light ahead alerting you of their presence. This is a simple forewarning mechanic that few games take advantage of.

The helicopter turning sideways and crashing towards you blades first and injuring your fellow sniper was visually impressive and exciting.

For the rest of the level your injured friendly AI is unable to walk and must be carried. While carrying your friend you are unable to fire, but you can drop him down in tactically advantageous positions where he will become what is essentially a turret. The sheer variety of gameplay and water cooler moments made these missions stand out from the rest of CoD 4’s excellent levels.

Heat
In Heat you are back in the perspective of Soap MacTavish. The mission starts with waves of enemies attacking your position and you and your team must organize a fighting withdraw. Having to fall back as a game objective is difficult to pull off, but the developers did it well. The more memorable moments in this level were the use of a downed helicopter’s turret to fend off waves of enemies and having to fight your way through the defenses of waves of insurgents as you raced against a four minute clock down the hill to your extraction point.

Sins of the Father
In this mission you ambush Zakheav’s son. The ambush fails and Zakheav’s son manages to flee the scene on foot. You and your team give chase.

The easiest (laziest) way to make a chase and how a lot of games default is to have a cut scene just as the player rounds the corner to show the person that is being chased leaving to the next area just out reach. Cut scenes break up the flow of the level and I hate having control wrested away from me. Thankfully Infinity Ward does not take the easy route. When I think about designing a chase in a first-person-shooter without the use of cutscenes the two solutions that immediately come to mind are (1) make the Zakheav’s son invulnerable or (2) fail the player if they kill the target. The developers opt for the later, making this a capture mission. While the level is well executed, the chase ends up masking what is just more urban combat.

Ultimatum
In Ultimatum you and your squad must find and free SSgt Griggs and kill the power to the ICBM launch facility.

This level brings back the too long missing “enemy AIs with lives outside of waiting for the player to show up” with an enemy AI sitting in a chair with his back to you and his legs propped up on a table.

When you find Griggs, he is tied to a flimsy wooden chair with his gun placed not 2 feet away from him. I found that to be a little too convenient. Having a member of your squad toss him a pistol to get him rearmed would have been a lot more realistic.

The destructible cars in the level were really good looking when they were destroyed. The wheels would fall off and roll around and they would be cool to look at. The problem with them are that they are the equivalent of explosive barrels and should not be used as cover under any circumstance until they are in their destroyed state. This went against my natural tendencies.

Also frustrating in this level is watching your friendly AI take cover right behind red exploding barrels and the aforementioned cars and promptly dying. It really made the otherwise mostly smart AI look bad.

All In
All In is more standard shooting gameplay. Here you must breach the defenses of and get inside the ICBM launch facility.

Upon reaching the facility you must wait for your squad to create an entrance with electric handsaws. It seemed like a missed opportunity, while the guys are cutting the vent to not have to have to defend them from enemies. Instead it is just a matter of waiting until they cut through.

This marks the fourth mission in a row with standard combat and the pacing starts to really suffer as a result. Another AC-130 mission or moving the Crew Expendable mission into this spot would have been ideal to inject some variety into this portion of the game.

No Fighting in the War Room
In No Fighting in the War Room the player must navigate air ducts and tight corridors to reach the control room and abort the nukes.

The level felt very cramped and there were no opportunities to flank the enemy. The only option was to barrel head on ahead through waves of enemy soldiers.

I also got a progression-stopping bug on this level in the PC version where Captain Price would sit at the door waving for me to enter the room even through I was already in the room. I had to restart the level in order bypass the bug. The gameplay was very similar to the last four missions in that it was your garden variety Call of Duty 4 combat, only this time with tighter corridors and ICBM base interior art.

Game Over
Game Over is a rail shooter on the back of a jeep escaping from the ICBM facility. You are equipped with an M4, which is annoying because of how often you have to reload. A light machine gun would have been a much better choice of armament.

Partway through you are also given a RPG in which to shoot down the enemy helicopter with. I could never hit the damn chopper despite three playthroughs. Since there is an achievement for this I will keep trying until I get it. Infinity Ward did a great job developing the player’s antagonism toward Zakheav through the story and the depictions of his despicable actions. As a result finally killing Zakheav was incredibly satisfying.

Credits
Instead of having a video of the AC-130 in action, it would have been nice to let the player actually play the AC-130 while the credits rolled. Although I do not know if there is some crazy patent that prevents this, similar to Namco’s silly patent of playing mini-games during loading screens.

If you are interested in further reading about Gameplay Patents, I would suggest reading Ernest Adams’ The Designer’s Notebook: Damn All Gameplay Patents!

The rap song at the end is comical and it reminded me of the Iraq War documentary Gunner Palace. The documentary’s soundtrack was almost entirely composed of rap songs and poetry performed by the soldiers of the 2/3 Field Artillery.

Bonus Mission: Mile High Club
I missed this mission entirely on my first playthrough of the game on the Xbox 360 as I usually turn off games instead of watching the credits (a bad habit I know). It was not until I played through the campaign again on the PC and left it running that I found out that there was a bonus mission.

The Mile High Club consists of a mission where you must race to the clock to save a VIP aboard an in-flight passenger airline. The amount of time to complete the mission varies depending on the difficulty chosen.

There is a moment during this mission where the airplane is breached with a giant hole. It would have been awesome to see all the oxygen masks in the plane fall down when this breach occurs. The luggage and other dynamic objects being pulled through the cavity was cool though.

As I attempted to beat this final mission on Veteran, it made me realize that I really miss the multiplayer camera switch that happens after a death to show me how I died each time that I did. I have spent several hours already attempting to beat this level on Veteran and I am very close to achieving it. This achievement is popularly considered one of the toughest achievements to get on the Xbox 360. If you feel like tackling a challenge, as a guide writer called it, “created by Satan himself” I would recommend trying your hand at it. I’ll let you know when I finally do get it. It is only a matter of time now.

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare is one of my favorite games in recent years. It is certainly one of the games I have devoted the most time to. While some of my comments may sound nitpicky (they probably are), the game as a whole is a masterpiece. Despite the single-player campaign falling on the short side, it was an incredible experience. I have been steadily climbing levels in the Multiplayer. Despite being out well over a year now and having a direct sequel in Call of Duty: World at War, Call of Duty 4 still draws 100,000 people nightly over Xbox Live. That speaks to how good the Multiplayer portion of the game is. Expect a write up on the Multiplayer portion of Call of Duty 4 as well as a direct comparison between Infinity Ward’s Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare and Treyarch’s Call of Duty: World at War shortly.

See my other related articles:
What’s Bad About Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare Multiplayer Mode?
Call of Duty: World at War Through the Eyes of a Game Designer
Become a Video Game Designer: Everything You Need to Know Part 1
Roger Ebert is Right: Games are Not High Art…Yet
Top 5 Greatest Moments in Competitive Gaming (eSports)
What Video Games Taught Me About Life
Low Skill Cap and Luck (RNG) in World of Warcraft PVP
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10 Greatest Video Game Designers Part 1
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8 of the Most Underrated or Overlooked Video Games of All Time


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TapDefense Reviewed Through the Eyes of a Game Designer

Tuesday, December 30th, 2008



As I was stepping on the plane for a holiday visit to San Diego, I went on the Apple App Store on my iPhone and downloaded the free game TapDefense. As a rule I generally do not expect much from free games, especially for the iPhone and just got the game because it was high on the popularity list and to waste some time on my four-hour flight. I was very surprised by how good this unassumingly named game was. The game itself is a tower defense strategy game that is surprisingly deep.

TapDefense Title Picture

The Premise
Your job is to defend the gates of heaven from 41 waves of invading demon hordes through the strategic placement of a variety of different defensive towers. There are three different difficulty levels in the game and the only difference (and it is an important one) between easy, medium and hard is the path the demons take to the gate. Easy mode’s path is very circuitous and the map provides a number of great choke points to place towers, while medium mode has fewer turns and a more direct path to the gate and hard mode is nearly a direct path. At the start of every level the player may place towers without the threat of the demons. The player may also pause the action in the game at any point and upgrade existing towers or place additional towers.

TapDefense Tower Placement Picture

The Gameplay Mechanics
As I play games I am always analyzing the gameplay mechanics and boiling it down to a few tenants of game design that I believe the developers had in mind when creating the game. The game mechanics are designed to work in a certain way to encourage the player to play in a certain manner. Here are the two game design tenants that I see the game mechanics supporting.

1) The first tenant is that the player must strategically place towers and properly allocate resources.

2) The second game design tenant is that the player must utilize a variety of towers.

These game design tenants in TapDefense keep the gameplay interesting and varied. So based off of the design tenants the key to winning is the proper allocation of resources to maximize effectiveness and the use of a variety of towers.

Tower Variety
I will list out the various towers the game has available. TapDefense begins with the player only having access to the Arrow Tower, Bomb Tower and Water Tower. Additional towers are unlocked through the use of Halos, which are earned at predetermined level intervals.

Arrow Tower

    These are cheapest towers to place and upgrade. They have good range and have a fast firing rate.

Bomb Tower

    These towers are more expensive than the Arrow towers and have a slower firing rate and range, but more than make up for it by doing very good area effect damage.

Water Tower

    This tower slows enemy movement and when fully upgrade does decent direct damage.

Storm Tower

    These towers have short range, but they take off a percentage of a demon’s life. Storm towers scale incredibly well. While these towers are not useful early on, since most of the enemies do not have a high health total, in later waves when enemies have outrageous hit points these towers become essential to victory.

Ice Tower

    This tower slows down entire enemy groups.

Magic Tower

    This in my opinion is the most important tower to have during the higher waves. The Magic tower has a high rate of fire, the best range in the game and when fully upgraded do very good area of effect damage.

Earthquake Tower

    This tower has decent range and causes very good damage, but it takes up the equivalent space of four towers. The Earthquake Tower is also special in that it is the only tower that requires the player to manually operate it by shaking the iPhone.

TapDefense Towers Picture

Problems I would like to see addressed in the game

1. Occasionally the game will stall and not load

    This issue was not just isolated to only my iPhone as my girlfriend’s phone had similar issues with the game.

2. Frame Rate Issues

    When there are a lot of demons on the screen and lots of towers shooting at them, the frame rate can drop very significantly. This can hurt the game to the point where the game will not respond to your command to pause.

3. The sell tower button is in the same spot as the pause button

    Since the pause button is such an important button (used frequently to assess the situation), the UI choice to place the sell tower button in the same spot with no confirmation leads to some very unhappy accidents. Selling a tower only recoups a small fraction of the cost to build the tower so this is simply unforgivable.

4. No Undo

    If you do manage to sell a tower or place a tower down by accident, there is no undo button. Not a killer, but occasionally annoying.

5. Add a level rewind feature

    As far as I could tell there was no level save feature, even if they had this feature it would not resolve the issues, because mistakes early in the game ripple throughout the rest of the game. I would suggest the inclusion of a per level rewind feature to go back in time to the spot where the mistake occurred. Currently, in order to atone for mistakes the game must be restarted from the beginning.

TapDefense is an ad-supported game and there are ads after every level played. They are small and out of the way though and really never bothered me. If we can have more high quality games like TapDefense made free through ads, I am all for it.

If you have an iPhone, you should download TapDefense. The gameplay is addictive and provided me with hours of entertainment. It is free so what have you got to lose?

See my other related articles also:
The iPhone 3G & AT&T Service Review
Become a Video Game Designer: Everything You Need to Know Part 1
10 Greatest Video Game Designers Part 1
Low Skill Cap and Luck (RNG) in World of Warcraft PVP
What Video Games Taught Me About Life
Roger Ebert is Right: Games are Not High Art…Yet
What’s Bad About Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare Multiplayer Mode?
Dead Space Through the Eyes of a Game Designer
Call of Duty: World at War Through the Eyes of a Game Designer
Gears of War 2 Through the Eyes of a Game Designer
Best Games of All Time by Genre Part 1
8 of the Most Underrated or Overlooked Video Games of All Time
Pimps at Sea err I mean Age of Booty & Gen 13 Cosplay
My Student Films 2: EverQuest Documentary and Guilty Gear Isuka Trailer
Top 5 Greatest Moments in Competitive Gaming (eSports)
Best MMA Fights & Genki Sudo: Real Life Video Game Character

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