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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
Best Games of All Time by Genre Part 1
10 Greatest Video Game Designers Part 1
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


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My Student Films 2: EverQuest Documentary and Guilty Gear Isuka Trailer

Saturday, December 6th, 2008



As promised in my first “My Student Films” entry here are some more of my student films.

This EverQuest documentary was created about a friend of mine a number of years ago. This video was originally shot right after the release of the first expansion for EverQuest, Ruins of Kunark, which places it around September of 2000. He is a charismatic and very intelligent guy (these qualities come across on the screen), who dropped out of high school due to his addiction to the MMORPG Everquest. Please forgive the awful camera work. This was one of my first videos that I had ever shot. I learned a lot in its creation.

Land of EverQuest – Student Film MMORPG documentary

This is a video that I worked on along with a few others while at Sammy Studios for the Guilty Gear Isuka game for the PS2.

Guilty Gear Isuka PS2 Trailer – Sammy Studios

See also:
My Student Films 1
Best MMA Fights & Genki Sudo: Real Life Video Game Character
Roger Ebert is Right: Games are Not High Art…Yet

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Call of Duty: World at War Through the Eyes of a Game Designer

Thursday, December 4th, 2008

CoD: WaW X360 Box ArtCoD: WaW PS3 Box ArtCoD: WaW PC Box Art

I played through the single-player campaign of Treyarch’s Call of Duty: World at War over the long Thanksgiving weekend and again decided to compile my notes. As this is not a review of Call of Duty: World at War and more of a collection of my notes organized in a more readable format, it will contain some spoilers. You have been warned.


I have got to tell you that going in I was very skeptical considering I was less than impressed with Treyarch’s last outing in the series, Call of Duty 3.

Call of Duty: World at War brings the series back to its traditional setting of World War II. I am torn by this decision as I enjoyed the more freeform story that a modern setting afforded Infinity Ward’s Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. The modern setting allowed Infinity Ward more flexibility in their locations, missions and story. The developers even introduced a villain and made him perform evil acts so that the villain evoked an emotional response from the player. There was suspense in the outcome of the game as the way the game could end was in question. These sorts of conventions are more difficult or even impossible in a historic setting like World War II, where the player enters the game knowing that the allies win and how they win. Still World War II allows for very epic scenarios.

In the following sections I will outline the levels and events in the game that left a more lasting impression on me.

The first mission was easily the worst mission in the game. The level traps the player into really tight corridors. Invisible walls hem the player in preventing the player from entering areas of the level that are seemingly blocked by small bushes and knee high rocks that the player should be able to easily traverse. Worst still is the fact that very little cover is available in these tight corridors and because it is so tight in sections, it prevents almost all lateral movement. The end result is a player that is left out in the open with no cover and no place to move. I also really dislike the convention of placing enemies in places where the player is unable to travel. It is in many ways lazy and I feel cheated that a 3-foot wall or small plant is preventing me from a performing a flank or even approach the enemy position. By the conclusion of the first chapter I was almost ready to turn the game off and never revisit it. I am glad I continued.

The game really starts to pick up at the start of the Russian campaign. The Russian campaign begins with a sniper mission called Vendetta. The start of the mission is nearly a direct copy of one of the scenes from Enemy at the Gates. As you gain consciousness surrounded by a stack of bodies inside of a destroyed fountain. You crawl to make your way to the edge of the fountain and are given a sniper rifle by a fellow survivor. Here you spot a group of Germans and must wait for planes to fly overhead to mask the noise of the sniper rifle before opening fire. Later in the level, while inside of a building you are spotted by Germans just outside. They pour fire through the windows of the building with flamethrowers and you must go into the prone position and learn to crawl to avoid the streams of fire. While crawling a bookcase that falls overhead was a simple, but very nice touch. There is also a sniper versus sniper segment further in the mission that was very well executed as well.

The tank level, while breaking up the pacing, was not fun. It consisted entirely of sitting at range and firing over and over at targets. If you came too close you would be punished by being pelted by Panzerfäuste carrying infantry or other tanks and quickly destroyed.

The Black Cat mission was one of the more memorable. It involves the player manning the turrets of a “Black Cat” PBY Catalina plane. Although the gameplay is 100% scripted, the running back and forth through the plane to switch to another turret was very exciting. In one scripted event, just as you sit down at your seat to man the turret, a Japanese Zero crashes into the water right in front of you. The mission is littered with exciting moments and there is always something to shoot.

Later in the Russian campaign you are asked to storm a German occupied city. As you prepare to storm the city, your troops line up in front of you forcing you to stop and watch a bombing of the building ahead. The group then charges through the fields screaming battle cries. I just thought this was a great gating mechanism that greatly increased the chance that the player will see the scripted event of the bombing happening and get the rush of charging across a field under fire.

In one of the American Pacific campaign missions, you fight your way up a hill and you arrive at a nice vista shot to close the level. Amazing vistas are a great way to reward the player for reaching a goal.

One of the departures from previous games in the series that I liked was the way the game made you feel heroic especially in the Russian campaign. Previous Call of Duties put you in the roll of a grunt soldier that was treated no different from any of the other soldiers. In Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare the player meant so little that the developers went so far as to kill the player’s character.

Some of the situations where the game made you feel like a hero were:

  1. The Russian commander giving you a rest on the back of a tank for your performance, while ordering another grunt to walk.
  2. The Russian commander also kept reminding you of all the harrowing circumstances you had lived through and that as long as you lived the Russian army could not be broken.
  3. The Russian commander also gives you the honor of planting the Russian flag to signify victory over your German adversaries calling you out specifically for your heroics.

I am also glad to see Treyarch got rid of the quick time event hand-to-hand battles that you had no control over when they occurred from Call of Duty 3 and replaced them with a single knife button press and only if the enemy comes within range of you. This gives the player the ability to prevent these events from occurring by not allowing enemies to get within range. Although the frustration of these events have lessened by being able to prevent them from happening, when they do occur they can be frustrating because the game clock continues and this often leads to grenades landing on you that you can have no chance to escape from.


Issues I saw and improvements I would have liked to see in the game:

  1. Enemy AI will occasionally just stand there ignoring the player or you will see two AI from opposing factions standing back to back ignoring each other while they engage more distant targets.
  2. It is about time CoD fix their AI’s animations. The IK or something is off, they just occasionally get crossed up while moving and it looks very wrong.
  3. The flamethrower was completely overpowered. It made any of the levels that it existed in a complete joke. You just fan it around and everybody instantly dies. It also has unlimited ammo. At least the developers limited the flamethrower to a few select missions.
  4. Enemy guns should do more damage and grenades should do less. I could just stand there and be nearly impervious to fire on the Regular difficulty. Where as grenades are instant death over a very wide radius. Grenades accounted for 90% of my deaths. If the player moved forward and a grenade is already on the ground, the grenade icon would appear before instantly detonating and giving the player no warning before dying. These deaths feel very cheap. This could be resolved by reducing the instant death radius of grenades (falloff of damage), while at the same time increasing the damage of enemy guns against the player. This would place more value on the use of cover.
  5. The achievements come few and far between in the solo campaign. Ideally an achievement should be handed out after every mission completed even if it is a small one in point value to keep the player motivated. It is like Warren Spector says, “have you patted your player on the back lately?”

Despite these issues, Call of Duty: World at War snuck up on me and surprised me with the quality of the campaign. The game starts off slow and the weapons are mostly familiar if you have played Call of Duty 1-3, but the game slowly builds momentum and ends on a very high note.

My thoughts and impressions of the game were based off of a play through of the solo campaign set at Regular (the suggested) difficulty on the Xbox 360 platform.

See my other related articles also:
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
Gears of War 2 Through the Eyes of a Game Designer
Become a Video Game Designer: Everything You Need to Know Part 1
Top 5 Greatest Moments in Competitive Gaming (eSports)
What Video Games Taught Me About Life
10 Greatest Video Game Designers Part 1
Low Skill Cap and Luck (RNG) in World of Warcraft PVP
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
Best MMA Fights & Genki Sudo: Real Life Video Game Character

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Dead Space Through the Eyes of a Game Designer

Thursday, November 13th, 2008




Dead Space
Just finished playing through Dead Space and since I always take notes on every game I play through, I thought it would be useful to compile them all together and write a short disposition for Dead Space from a game designer’s perspective. Warning: Some very minor spoilers in this article.

Dead Space is a third-person survival horror game that closely resembles Resident Evil 4 only with better controls (strafing included) and taking place on the set of the movies Event Horizon and Sunshine. Dead Space was developed by EA Redwood Shores, whose previous effort was the licensed title, Godfather.

The Dead Space team runs a real clinic on great design decisions. Dead Space does a number of things to immerse the player in their world and keep them there.

One of the most important decisions made was to never take control away from the player. What this means is that the entire story takes place from the player’s camera. The great thing about this mechanic is that the player’s immersion is never broken by cutscenes. The negative is that story telling is more difficult for the developers as they cannot rely on cutscenes to drive the story forward. The developers at EA had to be extra inventive in the way they told the story of Dead Space and they managed to do a great job with audio and video recordings spread throughout the gameplay spaces as well as using NPCs to drive the exposition.

Another difficulty that the team must have faced was in introducing new enemy types to the player in a fair manner. That is to show what the new enemy type is capable of before letting them loose on the player. The most common practice in games is to introduce new enemy types through a cutscene. There are many advantages to the cutscene approach. The main one being that you can never be sure which direction the player’s camera will be facing during the game, thus they may miss events that happen during gameplay. The disadvantage is that the control is taken away from the player and immersion is broken. Dead Space manages to get around the cutscene crutch in a number of interesting ways. They minimize the likelihood of the player looking in the wrong direction by picking spots like tight corridors to introduce their enemies or by placing the enemies behind glass and showing what the new enemy type is capable of by allowing the player to view the new enemy attack and kill another member of the crew. Another way that the game introduced a new enemy type is through foreshadowing. An example is when the player, passing through a room to complete an objective cannot help but notice the numerous holes punched through the walls. Returning to the room you are attacked by the giant worm that has caused all the damage in the room and it is pulling you towards the large holes. While this is not new to games, as Valve used a similar methodology in their title Half-Life, it is not often done because it is simply not easy to pull off. The developers at EA should be given credit for applying and following this rule, and it is a formula that I would implore other developers to follow.

The second decision made to promote player immersion is that Dead Space has no on-screen HUD. The player’s health is displayed on the character’s spine and gun ammo is read directly from the gun. This system is incredibly well executed and I am sure that going forward, there will be many games that will be copying this mechanic.

There are a few minor issues with not having a HUD that Dead Space did not handle gracefully. One example is since there is no “press A button to open” dialogue on the screen, I did not even know you could open any of the small crates laying on the ground until half-way through chapter 2, when I opened one by accident.

While on the subject of lack of information, the tutorial does not go overboard and lets the players discover a surprising number of the game’s mechanics. The alt-fire mode is not even explained until chapter 2 and the waypoint path is never mentioned and the first time I used it it was during a cinema, which caused it to not function at all.

Dead Space does manage to pull off many aspects of their game very well. Not being able to pause the game to use the inventory or map brought a risk versus reward and a heightened sense of danger anytime the player wants to check the map or use an item from their inventory.

Even the reuse of environment is handled well. Every one of the game’s 12 chapters start the player in a hub area where the player can save, replenish on items from storage and buy upgrades and items at a store. The hub branches off into multiple directions where the player will accomplish each of their objectives for the chapters. This allowed for reuse of the environment as the areas were populated with enemies on the way down to the objective and repopulated on the way back. This repetition is somewhat mitigated by very good scripted events both ways through as well as the player’s desire to reach the hub again to replenish supplies.

The Zero-G environments are impressive visually and offer a lot of unique gameplay from a platforming standpoint.

The dynamic lighting in Dead Space is shown off to great effect through the use of flickering lights, sirens, wires that flail all around spewing electricity and even random objects hinged to the ceiling just swaying back and forth casting shadows. Little tricks like these really help to make the game environments seem less static and more alive.

The audio is one of the highlights of the game. Creepy singing from people driven insane, screaming in the distance, Necromorphs wailing, objects being knocked around and even the occasional music are all dead on and set up the creepy mood.

The telekinetic powers and puzzles helped break up the pacing and the way it is used reminded me a lot of Star Wars: Force Unleashed. This made me start to wonder how a Jedi would behave in a survival horror style of game. Back on topic.

Last note: Guns whose parts animate all over the place like the Line Cutter are always cool.

Improvements I would have liked to see in the game:
1. As with most middle portions of games, they are usually slow and uneventful. Sadly, Dead Space is no exception to this rule.
2. Playing on a console I was surprised by the absence of aim assist on the turret sections of the game. It was immensely frustrating attempting to aim at precise points on the Xbox Controller without any assistance. You can get away with this on the PC Mouse, but with a console controller this is simply not acceptable.
3. Taking away the player’s ability to run on sticky substances was intriguing, but not explored. I am really surprised EA Redwood Shores did not take advantage of this more. The player’s inability to run could have led to a number of cool scare moments. Just off the top of my head, imagine the fear and anxiety of the invulnerable Necromorph chasing you through a corridor where you cannot run from it, but must slow it down with limb shots to make your getaway. This is a missed opportunity.
4. The red explosive barrels that do not affect the enemies are a “wtf moment.”
5. Why does the game reset my plasma gun alt-fire position to default at the beginning of every level and on reloads? This gets annoying.
6. The way the game spawns enemies behind you or when you turn a corner and the tiny Necromorphs (which are out of your view frustum because they are tiny) immediately latching onto you is pretty cheap. If you are going to do that at least give the player some warning and a chance to react. An example of this warning could be, the player enters in a room and hears a crash through the ceiling behind him and then hears the roar before the Necromorph attacks him.

Despite these relatively minor issues, Dead Space is an achievement and is one of the first fruits of a welcome shift within EA to create more original IPs. This is a game that developers, aspiring developers and gamers should not miss.

For aspiring developers, this article is an example of what a designer is looking at when they play games. To learn more about how to become a game designer please read: Become a Game Designer: Everything You Need to Know Part 1.

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