Ben Murden

Tag: Games

My Time With Act 1 of Broken Age

by on Apr.15, 2014, under Games

I finally had a chance to crack into Broken Age and sample its particular flavor of adventure-game-goodness, and have had some distance on that experience that I felt like writing a little something about it. I think the last point-and-click adventure game I played was probably Telltale’s Back to the Future, unless you count The Walking Dead, which I feel like was an altogether different kind of experience. There have certainly been a great deal of indie point-and-click offerings lately, but they haven’t drawn me in like the days of Full Throttle or Grim Fandango, and even the games I mentioned playing recently didn’t leave a huge impression on me. There’s a unique whimsy that exudes from Tim Schafer’s games, and it’s his ability to craft a believable, yet bonkers world that feels grounded in its own rules, that keeps me coming back.

Broken Age is a story about childhood defiance, and the themes of child-parent relationships feel as though they come from a place of experience. Parents want to keep their kids safe, but also want them to flourish in a world that is unsafe. Without talking too specifically about the story, Broken Age does a decent job of exploring both sides of this relationship to its extreme conclusion. The game is full of interesting characters that are well voice acted, and for the most part serve as conduits for some thoughtfully comedic writing. Only a couple of characters spring to mind that fell flat – one of which seemed to serve as more of an outlet for Bay Area stereotypes – but that’s a good ratio when the game has such a broad cast, even in just this first act.

The story is brought to life through a beautiful hand-drawn art style that looks straight out of a modern children’s story book. However, the writing has that Pixar quality of reserving a wink and a nudge for adults, while remaining still something that could be enjoyed by a younger audience. Indeed, the art style is so strong here, that I wonder where else games could have gone if they continued down the 2D path instead of moving to 3D in the 90s. With the funding and budget for this game being so public, it seems like it was absolutely the right move to make this game in a 2D engine; I’m not sure this level of visual fidelity could have been achieved otherwise.

As a person who played many point-and-click adventure games in the 90s, my view on the puzzle difficulty is probably skewed, but I didn’t find the game to be all that difficult. Any time I didn’t immediately know the solution to a puzzle, I simply needed to go through all the dialogue options with another character, and the solution would reveal itself. The gameplay consists of what you’d expect from the genre, the loop of talk to characters, find items, use items to solve puzzles, is all present and accounted for here. There are some interface nuances that feel like they were designed for touch devices. By default, items are used by dragging them, and there is an ever present inventory pop up in the lower left of the screen which occasionally interfered with navigation, but much of this behavior can be changed in the options. It’s an adventure game through and through, so all backers can rest easy that Double Fine delivered on that front.

The first act of Broken Age felt complete, with its own fascinating arc, but ends with an unexpected twist that left more questions than answers. Throughout the game there’s a sense that something is amiss, and the way this act wraps-up plays on that feeling masterfully. It probably goes without saying that I am highly anticipating the next installment, and if Double Fine can keep up the quality, there’s a good chance this will be one of my all-time favorite adventure games.

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First Person Camera Lens

by on Apr.27, 2013, under Games

I was recently having a discussion with a friend who found the visual effects applied to the camera in many games to be incongruous with his idea of seeing through one’s eyes, especially in first person games. The idea of treating the view into the game world as a camera seems logical enough, and lens effects had humble beginnings, like the lens flair that featured prominently in games from the late 90s. However, developers have been pushing these effects to even greater extremes lately, with High Dynamic Range (HDR) lighting simulating more how a camera would react to differences in light than the human eye, and heavy lens dust effects in Battlefield 3 and ZombiU. Such effects reduce the visual fidelity of the information available to players, yes, but provide a more cinematic visual experience. This is the argument you would probably hear in favor of lavishing more image-reducing effects onto the screen. However, it still doesn’t address the issue of dissonance when this is supposed to be a person’s eyes.

It occurred to me, while discussing how this all came to be, there are probably a couple of subtle factors at play here: Making games look good is a marketing tool, and the closest mediums that most people would understand are film and photo. Take your screenshots and trailers, make them look as close to professional photos and cinema as possible, and most people will think that game looks impressive and worth investigating further. I believe this type of thinking overtook the idea of representing the world cleanly in first-person, but was also influenced by the fact that first-person games were not as common when camera lens effects were really becoming a thing. It felt relatively natural, when the most popular genre was racing games, that the camera should act like a camera (save for the odd first-person camera, which wasn’t really the focus on consoles). I believe that thinking just eventually became pervasive, since it’s so easy to always think of the view into the world as a camera.

It seems then that these camera lens effects simply had to be applied to every type of game that purported to be even remotely realistic – a real irony when reality, as seen through the eyes, features none of these things.

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Portal 2 Blobulator Fix

by on May.05, 2011, under Games

It’s been in trailers, so it’s no spoiler to say that Portal 2 has some pretty cool new mechanics; a lot of them are related to various gels that can be spread across surfaces in order to convey a number of interesting properties.

While I thought all the gel effects looked great, I had a weird hitching performance issue whenever there was a lot of the stuff flying around. To be clear, the rest of the game was running smooth as butter, the hitching only occurred when the gel presence was thick.

Cores

I heard a developer commentary on the gels and the challenges faced when trying to optimize the code to work on the Xbox 360, and how it was easier on the PS3, because the blobulator threads could be passed off onto the SPU. This had me thinking that maybe my ageing Core 2 duo just didn’t have the cores required to process the calculations effectively. I also read from others experiencing this issue that dropping effects to medium fixed the hitching, and while this was true for me, that also reduces other areas of detail I was having no trouble with. I needed to just optimize the Blobulator, so off to the developer console I went.

The two most important commands I discovered were

“r_paintblob_max_number_of_threads” = “4” ( def. “4” ) client                    – Indicates the maximum number of threads that will be spawn [sic] for the blob.

“r_paintblob_highres_cube” = “0.800000” ( def. “0.8” ) client                    – Set cubewidth (coarseness of the mesh)

It’s worth noting that there were a ton of Blobulator related errors filling up the console as I stood in front of a glorious gel stream.

Threads and Meshes

I thought dropping the threads to 2 would be sensible, given that’s the number of cores I have, but no dice. The way threads are handled must be more complex than that, or it simply expects to be able to use 4 threads if it’s going to do any threading. Anyway, dropping the max number of threads to 1 totally worked! Yay! No more hitching! Except now the framerate was bad when looking at gel. Boo!

Because I had taken out threading, the calculations were simply too much for the CPU to bare, so by increasing the highres_cube value, I was able to achieve 60FPS no matter what. In fact, I only had to increase this value to 0.9 in order to get a stable framerate at all times, and the impact on blob quality was negligible (as a side note, the medium effects setting increases this value to 1.4, which is much more noticeable).

Conclusion

So there you have it. I’ll list my PC spec and the commands used here for reference.

  • E6750 Core2 Duo 2.66GHz
  • 8GB 1066MHz OCZ RAM
  • Radeon HD5870 1GB
  • Seagate 7200.12 1TB HDD

That’s all the important stuff, right? Now the commands.

r_paintblob_max_number_of_threads 1

r_paintblob_highres_cube 0.9

It seems as though the config file used is packaged into the Portal 2 executable, and I haven’t seen a way to get the game to boot with an alternate configuration, so it looks as though you would have to enter these commands every time you start the game. I find it’s a pretty good tradeoff for the ultra smooth and optimized experience. Also, just have a play with the commands in the console while you’re there and experiment with the other crazy hidden-away features.

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Not a Review: God of War III

by on Feb.03, 2011, under Games

On the back of hearing that God of War III is one of the best PS3 games of 2010, plus having played the previous two games, I felt I should finally give this game a go.

First of all, God of War III is clearly a game about spectacle. The sense of scale imposed in so many of the game’s scenes is really something to behold. It feels pretty satisfying to see Kratos climbing over giant Titans, literally messing them up inside and out, but this kind of thing brings its greatest strengths and weaknesses into stark relief. It’s kind of the same with every God of War game; the best things it has to show you require very little interaction from the player, and any player interaction feels pretty disconnected from what’s happening on screen.

I think enough has been said about the exceptional polish on God  of War III, so I’ll just jump into some of the glaring oversights I noticed during my time with the game.

UI

You know how it is. When you’re sitting down to continue your game, you just want to boot right up and get in there as fast as possible. I’m a busy guy, OK? Sure I hammer on the go button during those logo builds, because I just want to get into the game. How annoying is it, then, when the game disregards any saves you may have on your console and always makes “New Game” the default option? It’s especially bad when that launches you into an unstoppable, unescapable opening cutscene, which was pretty cool first time around, but now only makes more apparent the need for better UI design on the front end.

Always check if the player has saves, and make Resume or Load the default menu option. If you can’t check for saves, make it the default option anyway; the only people you’re going to piss off otherwise are those wanting to quickly jump in and continue a game, which will happen more often than the guy jumping in for the first time and accidentally hitting Load.

I admit it’s a weird thing to notice, but it became a problem enough for it to really stick out. Just bad UI.

Combat and Control

It’s hard not to let my experiences with other character action games like Bayonetta inform some opinions about the combat in God of War III. So rather than fight it, I’ll just run with it.

I feel like the combat in God of War III is starting to show its age. Maybe I was never that into it in the first place, but when compared to Bayonetta, I just don’t feel like I have as much control in God of War. Having spent a crazy amount of time thinking about it, I believe a lot of it comes down to evasive maneuvers and blocking. Too many times in God of War did I feel like I got hit because I couldn’t break the animation of some protracted attack, while I don’t remember having that problem at all in Bayonetta. Sure Bayonetta’s evasive flip is a little fudged in the way it can be used to avoid damage from any earth-shattering attack, but at least I felt in control. When I hit that evade button, I got the expected result and it felt super satisfying; sadly the same can’t be said for blocking in God of War. There I just felt like some of the attacks would take longer to complete than some enemy’s attack animations, meaning I had no way of hitting block in time. Am I supposed to avoid using half the repertoire of attacks because they’re too slow? I think it’s better to give the player a greater sense of control and balance around that, rather than punish the player for using anything but quick light attacks.

I felt like Bayonetta was weighted more toward rewarding the player, with an evasive move that avoids damage by itself, but also grants additional bonuses if timed well.

Gorgons

An enemy that can perform an attack that, if it hits under certain frequently occurring conditions, will kill you instantly. Yeah, that’s pretty messed up. The game has a lot of places in which you can instantly die (and I’ll talk about that later), but none are more infuriating than this, because this one always means having to start an entire encounter again. I hated them in the last games, and was sure that Sony’s Santa Monica Studio would balance them appropriately in this game, maybe making you take a few hits before crumbling to pieces (you know, like the other guys when they’re turned to stone), but sadly no. Fortunately there is not a litany of them in this game, but I wouldn’t have been sad to see them gone completely.

Puzzling Traversal

The single greatest cause of death among Gods, it would seem, is stepping off the edge of a cliff. There’s a terrible inconsistency with invisible walls that prevent you falling to your death in God of War III. Sometimes you’ll be trying to jump down off a platform, only to be foiled by the God stopping power of an invisible barrier, then you’ll be sauntering off the edge of a cliff because the same courtesy was not afforded at this particular spot. It’s an inconsistency that really stood out.

The second greatest cause of death is probably the Icarus wings choosing to take a day off at the most inconvenient of times. I could seriously be holding that jump button for dear life and have absolutely nothing happen. I tested the button for responsiveness and even used a different pad – same problem, sometimes they just wouldn’t go.

The most hilarious thing about all these traversal related deaths is the message asking if you’d like to switch to easy, adding that this only affects combat. Thanks, game, but I just want jumping to work, cool?

You Should Still Check it Out

Despite my grievances on the oversights, I still think God of War III is at least a 3 star game and worth checking out. I’ve probably been too affected by Bayonetta at this point when it comes to the combat, but nothing quite compares to the sheer epic scale on offer here.

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Dialogue Audio Cut Off Issue

by on Aug.16, 2010, under Games

After a few months of having a weird issue with dialogue audio in Mass Effect 2 on the PC, I may have finally found the solution.

The problem reared its head when I switched to Windows 7. While this switch allowed me to finally use digital 5.1 through the on board audio device again – after it had been taken out of Windows XP – it introduced another problem which was particularly noticeable in games with dialogue audio. The issue caused all single audio samples to be cut short by a certain percentage. What this equates to is that when characters had a long line of dialogue, the last few words would often be missing, and the game would go straight to the next line. This wasn’t so noticeable with very short lines, leading me to believe it was some kind of timing issue, like maybe the sound was going marginally too slow. Needless to say, this is kind of annoying in a game with so much d…

I noticed this problem again in Starcraft II, so I had to get to the bottom of it. Fortunately, the latest few responses on the Mass Effect 2 technical support forum – which had not been present when I had this issue before – gave me a clue as to how I could fix my specific issue. My motherboard is an Asus P5K, featuring a bevy of overclocking features, one of which is the N. O. S. setting apparently geared to automatically overclock components according to load. This has a separate PCI setting, which I thought might solve the problem if I scaled it back to default, but no dice there. The solution came when changing the overclock type from N. O. S. to auto. At last! The audio no longer cuts short!

You lose some control over the overclocking this way, but I had only set the N. O. S. to 3% overclock anyway. Perhaps a BIOS update could fix this in the future.

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Demo Transition

by on Mar.30, 2010, under Games

At what point do you think you’ve played a demo of a game enough times that you should just transition to buying the full product?

I’ve played the demo of Just Cause 2 at least 3 times now, which is really saying a lot for the quality of this slice of open-world pie that’s on offer here. The fact that the same area of the world keeps me coming back for more speaks to just how much fun it is to simply mess around and answer questions like “what would happen if I attach this thing to that thing and then shoot?” While many of these questions end in me laughing out loud to myself, I can’t help wondering whether this kind of open-world physics-based fun will endure the length of the game. Of course, I hope it does, and some reviewers seem to have had a lot of fun with it.

I appreciate the freedom given to make a mockery of physics, and tethering stuff to other stuff in varying situations never ceases to amuse. It’s a physics playground even more so than most other similar open-world games, though more grounded than something like Gary’s Mod; you can’t make a gun that shoots bikes, after all.

I haven’t heard of any good rental systems here, otherwise I’d likely do that. I should probably start researching the ones that are available, but I might just end up buying the game instead.

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Battlefield: Bad Company 2 Multiplayer

by on Mar.11, 2010, under Games

I kinda played a lot of Battlefield 2, so when I heard Battlefield: Bad Company 2 was coming to the PC this time, of course I was interested in how the Bad Company subtitle would affect the multiplayer aspect. I’ve had a few hours with it now and have already come to appreciate the refocusing of the classes, making each one useful in more than a couple of scenarios. The support and spec ops kits are gone and have had their varying attributes spread across other kits to make them more meaningful. This feels like a sensible change, especially since this game is focused on a lower player count.

Where kit balance has been well thought out, I feel like the progression has lost its way a little. The number of available unlocks is numerous and varied, but includes items that are key to the successful functioning of some kits. For example, one must accrue a number of points as the medic before even being able to heal other members of the team, let alone revive fallen teammates. I can only imagine this direction was taken in order to slowly introduce new players to all the features of each kit, but for those who already have some familiarity with class-based shooters, it just becomes a frustration and leads to those classes being ignored in favor of classes that can shoot dudes better. This might not have been so bad if there had been a way to unlock features across kits without essentially grinding them out, but again, if the key features of kits like the medic or engineer were available from the beginning, this wouldn’t be an issue.

Besides this, I’m just getting used to the little differences in the way things handle: the inability to go prone, tanks not having a driver machine gun, no rockets on APCs, no camera missile on choppers, no ability to change firing mode. Some things have clearly been changed for balance reasons; choppers could absolutely dominate in Battlefield 2, so making them less of a threat was probably a sensible move, even if it does make me a little nostalgic for the old MEC fat-choppers from Battlefield 2. In addition, a lot of the changes are there to streamline the experience for consoles, which is not always a bad thing (look at how Valve streamlined the Team Fortress 2 experience), though I would like a few more options about how I can control the game; not being able to change the toggle aiming and not being able to invert the flying independent of UAV controls has really messed me up more than a few times.

In the end, I think a lot of gripes I may have with the multiplayer exist because I spent so much time with Battlefield 2. The extent of progression and unlocks will keep me coming back for a good long while yet. However, I still can’t help but look forward to what Battlefield 3 will bring to the franchise for the PC crowd.

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Mass Effect 2, Non-Canonical

by on Feb.17, 2010, under Games

This is probably my fault for not having scoured the Internet for the minute slivers of hard information on this subject, but I was originally very excited to hear that I would be able to set the back-story for Shepard in Mass Effect 2 if I did not have a Mass Effect 1 save to import. Despite words to this effect being spoken on the Bombcast by BioWare’s Casey Hudson, it would appear that the game makes several terrible assumptions about the canon of Mass Effect if you do not import a save game.

The reason this is a problem is because I played the original on the PC, but wanted to play Mass Effect 2 on Xbox 360. Ironically, I’d have been in a much better situation if it were the other way around, with all the PC saves that are out there to download as a direct result of this. However, as it is, I’m stuck with a universe that’s hard to care about because characters are talking about things that just didn’t happen. Every time I hear a reference to events that simply never were (as far as I’m concerned), I cringe, as if watching a bad B-movie that can’t remember it’s own plot half-way through the film.

Knowing that this feature once existed in a build of the game further fuels my incredulity at how this was never included in the final package.

Aside from this glaring omission of functionality, the game plays very well and provides much more satisfying combat than the original. I also appreciate how the loot management has been reduced to zero, allowing the player to focus on the story and the experience of the Mass Effect universe.

Now if only my Shepard could be my Shepard.

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Japan, PC Gaming in the Arcade

by on Jan.08, 2010, under Games

I’m back from just over a week in Japan and in between all the cultural sightseeing, I managed to find some time to check out what’s happening in Japanese arcades. As it turns out, the world has turned upside down or come full circle, depending on how you’d like to look at it. I had to try it; Border Break from Sega is an online multiplayer 3rd person shooter featuring giant robots instead of beefy space marines. The matches seem to play a little like the onslaught game type from Unreal Tournament 2004, though with classes and an unlock progression system. The crazy thing is it follows those kinds of shooters so closely the machine has a MOUSE! A MOUSE! Attached to AN ARCADE GAME! The only thing missing is a miniature WASD layout. Instead, movement is handled with a thumb-stick ala any controller since the N64. The thumb stick is mounted on a kind of joystick with no movement of its own, but with a couple of buttons on the front and an awkwardly placed action button by the thumb – though how you’re supposed to press it during any kind of action is beyond me. The analogue nature of the stick overcomes the limitations of WASD quite nicely, while the little mouse allows smooth aiming control that feels very natural to anyone who’s played a few shooters on PC. Because of the simple action based nature of the game, resembling Unreal Tournament, and the familiarity of the controls, I found myself buying a save card for the game and playing a few more matches than I expected I would, even topping the scoreboard.

I’m surprised to see a game with what looks to be a deep unlock path and engrossing team-based multiplayer in an arcade. PC multiplayer games must be even more unpopular in Japan than I thought. Sure I’ve seen a few Japanese players on Battlefiled 2, but for Border Break to survive, there has to be a significant audience out there with no other means to play such a game. Either that or I’m missing the draw of the noisy arcades. It makes me wonder if an arcade developer could revisit some older online first person shooters and modify them a little for the arcade. Though I suppose they would not appeal as much to the Japanese sensibility. Border Break does at least meet that requirement in spades, not only with the giant robots but also the anime looking pilots. I assume this is also to keep the game kid friendly, though all the people queuing up to play it were adults.

I must say I enjoyed my time with Border Break and it makes me think that Japanese gaming isn’t so dissimilar from western after all, but I do wonder if the format would last if the money-based time limit were removed and the game became a retail PC release. There’s certainly a lot more potential for more money to be made with this pay-to-play model, especially with the amount of progression there appears to be. Still, running out of 100 yen coins and suddenly dropping out of a game is more annoying than having to answer the door or the phone, since you can more successfully ignore those.

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Fall of Matchmaking?

by on Dec.20, 2009, under Games

There was a time when I felt that the process of matchmaking would completely supersede server browsers, but recently – and especially since the release of Modern Warfare 2 – I feel that there is still a place for them.

The process of searching for a dedicated server with a good number of players on it might seem antiquated, but with adequate search features it becomes far more robust at finding the kind of game you want. All that’s required is a filter for X number of slots available, giving the ability to ensure space for any friends joining in. Xbox live did have this great feature known as parties, but it seems party chat is a tool of the devil, so even those are far less useful now.

So often I find myself comparing my Modern Warfare 2 experience with that of Battlefield 2. It makes me yearn for a time when I could find a well administered server with a population of players who were not just out for themselves. Even Battlefield 2 had a “Quick Play” button, which was enough to get you into a populated server and start playing. That satisfied the “I don’t care, just let me play now” contingent, but having the fully featured server browser there with a bevy of search options meant I could find the exact map I wanted to play on and see beforehand whether I would be jumping into a game full of hardcore clan members looking to lay waste to my plans of enjoyment.

Matchmaking in Modern Warfare 2 has been honed to a point where it can get you into a game very fast and with little effort on the part of the player, but I often find that if I pick anything other than Mercenary Team Deathmatch, I rarely have a good game. This is because that is the only mode that will ensure you’re not put on a team opposite a bunch of clan members working together, while your team team is made up of players hoping to just hop in and have some fun. It makes me feel like the choices in multiplayer on Modern Warfare 2 are extremely limited, else I am not given a greater guarantee of a game I will have fun with. At the very least with server browsers I could leave and find a different game if the people there were being unsporting/annoying/jerks, but any time you try that in Modern Warfare 2, you’re right back in the same game.

I suppose with the additional limitations imposed on the Xbox 360 version of Modern Warfare 2, I start to feel like there’s too much dictation of what the experience will be on the part of Infinity Ward. Rather than making a game for people to play and have fun in, it has become self-serious as though the hardcore minority – though vocal they are – have been able to influence what that mode should be. Those are definitely not the people you should be listening to if you want to make your game fun for the most people possible.

I don’t think I would feel so bad about matchmaking and multiplayer in Modern Warfare 2 if it were just a lot more flexible. Seeing a kind of regression back to few game types and few rule-sets in multiplayer games is quite saddening.  Have your easy playlist style games, but also allow people to make games with custom rules that can be searched using a kind of advanced matchmaking. No one would end up in them who didn’t want to, and you’d be able to have a Mercenaries Domination on the smallest map available; now how much fun would that be?

Bare in mind that besides Battlefield 2, a lot of my multiplayer online gaming time was spent with games like Unreal Tournament 2004, so take that as you will.

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