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Archive for the ‘Prototype’ Category

I like open world games. Some of the recent games to include open worlds include Grand Theft Auto 4, inFAMOUS, Far Cry 2, Prototype, Fallout 3, and Red Faction: Guerilla. Open world isn’t trivial on the technical end, and I remember when Sucker Punch came to DigiPen for a company day and discussed the technology they were using to load and unload pieces of the world in real time in order to keep a handle on memory usage and avoid loading screens. It takes a certain commitment to the idea of using an open world to go for it, and it carries challenges and design limitations of its own. All of the above games use local heavily designed “level” areas for quests or missions to take place in; only about half of them completely eschew the dungeon mentality by placing all of these levels in the open world landscape itself instead of in separate areas behind loading screens. These level areas exist in all of these games as buildings, sewers, villages, army bases, or other places where designers have planned certain experiences to texture and grant variety to the basic experience of running around the game world blowing stuff up.

The title of this post refers to a belief I hold fairly strongly about open world games. I believe they’re all about freedom. They’re about being able to go where you want and do what you want within the game world. Thus, if the open world game heavily restricts this freedom, it becomes a closed open world game — one where the world is out there, but you can’t truly enjoy it. In this post, I’m going to look at all six of the games I mentioned earlier, and discuss how I see the open world working, or not working, in each of them, especially as it comes to their support for player freedom.

Grand Theft Auto 4

GTA4

Starting with the latest Grand Theft Auto is appropriate for me because in my mind, GTA is the baseline for an open world game by which all these games are compared. Fundamentally, open worlds are all about freedom, and Rockstar truly understands that. Every car in the game can be stolen, every weapon can be picked up and fired. If there’s a television helicopter overhead, you can find the TV station’s helipad and steal the helicopter, then fly up to the top of a skyscraper and BASE jump off the top of it. If you want a shootout or car chase, you can spark one anywhere, anytime, and at any intensity, from a fistfight with an angry driver to firing RPGs off of buildings onto tanks in the streets below. It’s all in your control, through dynamic responses in the game world based on your actions. Death and arrest are very lightly punished because boldness and life-threatening situations are encouraged. This is a game that is truly about freedom, and it is the ultimate embodiment of this ideal in a game.

Unique among the games I’ll be looking at here, Grand Theft Auto is known for having multiple minigames. From taxi driving to playing arcade machines to going clothes shopping with your main character, they all fit into the game world as things your anti-hero might actually do. From a theoretical standpoint, I have trouble justifying minigames. Why put a playable arcade machine inside your game? If the player wanted to play something else, they’d just turn the game off and do that — right? But in practice, I love this about GTA, and that just means my theoretical instincts aren’t strong enough to represent what’s really going on here.

I think that it comes down to two things: Immersion and pacing. For immersion, a game in which I can dress my character up in a suit, pick up his girlfriend in a nice car I just stole, and then drop by the comedy club to watch a skit is a lot richer than one in which the only part of that with any bearing on the game is the point where I steal the nice car. For pacing, it gives you a break from the primary gameplay, which is all about rebellion and criminal enterprise. Like outfitting your characters in Rock Band, these little things in the game let you take a rest from the core gameplay, which can be exhausting when done exclusively. These minigames are all a part of Rockstar’s approach to giving the player the freedom to do whatever they want, whenever they want. The results speak for themselves.

inFAMOUS

inFAMOUS

It’s a cool concept, and one I had high hopes for, but I didn’t really like inFAMOUS that much. The game falls victim to some tragic problems, and playing this during the last summer was the seed for the idea to make this post. The idea behind inFAMOUS is that you’re a superhero, able to do whatever you want — for better or for worse. It’s got a cool story (or at least a cool twist ending), but the gameplay is inconsistent.

When it comes to delivering on the idea of freedom, inFAMOUS is half there, half elsewhere. The game grants you parkour abilities to scramble up and across buildings, which is nice and liberating, but then shuts down some of your movement abilities and has you getting constantly attacked by enemies when you venture into the wrong area, which is much more limiting. Progressing the story lets you restore powers and open up new areas for you to freely move in, but to get those enemies to stop pestering you, you have to engage in seemingly endless side quests, which feels more like work at times. Doing this clears out the enemies, but that then prevents you from having real battles in the areas you’ve cleared, since they’re now devoid of enemies. This all works in terms of the game’s internal logic, but it’s just not as fun. The world starts out as a closed open world, and only through great effort can it be opened up, and then you lose the ability to engage in some of the core gameplay in those areas.

Matters get worse in the last third of the game, where the continuously attacking enemies in uncleared areas become too tough to ignore (thus limiting your ability to run around), and in a particularly ill-advised game mechanic, high pitched beeping land mines of irritation litter the rooftops, forcing you to stop on every second building to find and manually destroy them, lest you stumble into one and lose health and momentum. Even if they didn’t hurt you, the sound alone is enough to drive you crazy. These mechanics aren’t about giving you freedom — they’re just trying to give you challenges, even at the expense of your freedom to move around and do what you want. But if they needed to close the world down to make it challenging, they shouldn’t have made an open world game in the first place.

The trouble is that inFAMOUS’s concept is perfect for an open world game emphasizing personal freedom. You’re a superhero in a city descending into anarchy and gang control. You can go where you want and do what you want. You can be good, you can be evil, it doesn’t matter, because nobody can stop you. And yet for every step the game takes in the direction of fulfilling this promise, it trips over mechanics that seem to betray it.

Prototype

Prototype

In Prototype, you play as a virally infected anti-hero infused with the power to transform your body into different shapes, and set loose in a quarantined Manhattan during a biological attack. Prototype was released about the same time as inFAMOUS and got a lot of comparisons with it because both are open world third person action games about playing a character with super powers, but fundamentally, Prototype shares much more in common with GTA than inFAMOUS — and since you’ve probably just read what I think of both games now, you’ll know that’s a good thing in my book. Where GTA emphasizes the freedom to do whatever you want, Prototype is all about power, and the resulting formula is quite similar. Like GTA, Prototype bends the rules of its game world to maximize your freedom: in GTA cops ignore speeding, running lights, and all sorts of reckless driving, while in Prototype soldiers don’t notice you even if you’re traveling at super speed and soaring between buildings. In Prototype this is done to the point of weakness, as it compromises the believability of their stealth game, but it ensures that one thing Prototype doesn’t have a problem with is keeping their open world open.

Movement across the game world in Prototype is a joy. You can simply sprint up walls, leap between buildings, and soar for great distances. It may not use parkour moves of the sort inFAMOUS and Assassin’s Creed have to suspend disbelief in their freedom to move about the world, but the greater velocity reinforces the feeling of power the game focuses on, and it works wonders. All of your character’s abilities are like that; you’re an unstoppable monster that smashes tanks with your fists and can kill a dozen people in a single sweep of your whip-like arms.

Prototype is about power, and the freedom to use that power, and unlike Sucker Punch’s work with inFAMOUS, Radical Entertainment clearly worked to ensure nothing interfered with the maximal expression of that theme. As a result, though Prototype is not as rich of a game in concept, I enjoyed it far more than its press-appointed rival. Instead of leaning back in occasional disgust, my lean back moments with Prototype were to reflect on how much of a blast it was. From top to bottom, Radical Entertainment made a game with focus, and they delivered on their concept.

Far Cry 2

Far Cry 2

Far Cry 2 is a tragic game in my book, because it has some fantastic core gameplay that is marred by only a few serious errors. Far Cry 2 is a first person shooter that casts you as a mercenary in a country in Sub-Saharan Africa being torn apart by civil war. You are stricken with malaria, diamonds are the only currency, and both sides in the war are corrupt and dangerous. The world is broken into two open maps, and the only loading screens exist at a few key plot points. The game is all about immersion and player agency. On any mission, you choose your weapons, plan your approach, and execute the attack using improvisational tactics.

I suspect the most criticized aspect of Far Cry 2 is its most direct affront on the open world: The use of respawning checkpoints full of hostile enemies everywhere you go. Traveling to missions becomes a pain in the game because you have to avoid or fight through several checkpoints to get there. That’s fine in small doses, but it becomes very repetitive in longer sittings. They’re hard to ignore if you don’t want to deal with them, there are no easy ways to stop a fight if you don’t want to engage in it (like the pay and sprays of GTA), and they magically respawn almost as soon you make it over the next hill.

The reason Far Cry 2 makes this very poor design choice is to address the problem inFAMOUS blundered into when allowing you to drive out the bad guys from the world: it keeps the map populated with challenges and enemies. The problem is that this solution is so heavy-handed that it closes down the open world, depriving the player of the freedom to move and explore. As with many of the other games here, Far Cry 2 gives incentives for exploration by scattering small rewards around the game world, but with the degree to which movement through the world is unintentionally blocked and punished in this game, it’s just not worth it.

Fallout 3

Fallout 3

Fallout 3 is the latest of Bethesda’s RPGs, set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland around Washington DC, and reviving an old and much beloved IP. Like The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion before it, it blends action and RPG elements in an open world, and also like Oblivion, it dynamically scales enemies to your level. Unlike Oblivion however, it doesn’t level up enemies in areas that you’ve already explored, so it always feels like a statically scaled game where your explorations are never into places that are over your head. It works well, and for the most part, the open world is truly open. Leveling up gives you new, tougher challenges in the unexplored wastes, while making familiar territory easier to cross.

Although Fallout 3 isn’t about freedom the way that GTA is, Bethesda’s choice to go with an open world in their RPGs is. They want to give you a world to play with, and ways you can change it. They’re also about exploration. Thus, you move slowly through the world, and have a fast travel ability to jump between places you have already explored. With the tremendous amount of side content in the vast areas of the game world, only the most committed players will actually discover and consume it all, leaving you most players with a perpetual horizon filled with new and interesting hand-crafted content to discover.

Bethesda’s biggest mistake with Fallout 3 wasn’t some mechanical inconsistency in the vision, but the decision to end the game when you concluded the story. In a game with such a rich world to explore, the story was just another quest string, and its conclusion shouldn’t have been assumed to be the end of the player’s experience.

At least as of this writing, the header image on my blog is taken from a promotional screenshot of Fallout 3.

Assassin’s Creed

Assassin's Creed

I would prefer to write this about the newly released sequel to Assassin’s Creed, but unfortunately I won’t have the opportunity to play it before it is ported to Windows in March, at the earliest, so I will have to make due with the game I have played. Assassin’s Creed is set in the third crusade, and you play as an assassin resisting the crusader incursions. The world is broken up into several pieces, but the gameplay is fairly non-linear, and each chunk of the world is relatively large, including three separate sections encompassing each of the game’s three cities, where most of the gameplay takes place. Movement through the cities is quite free, with parkour mechanics to allow you to scramble up the sides of buildings and across rooftops. Unlike GTA and Prototype, Assassin’s Creed penalizes this behavior by arousing the suspicion of the crusader guards, but this mechanic is balanced with sufficient evasive tactics and combat prowess as to not to feel punishing.

Assassin’s Creed’s open world is about the freedom to go where you want and do what you want, but that doesn’t extend to the point of making every part of the area easily traversable. For example, one of the cities has a large castle that is largely restricted, and while you can still access it, it takes a mixture of stealth, agility, and combat prowess to get through in one piece. This doesn’t limit the world’s openness, however; it simply gives additional activities for you to engage in. It’s not difficult to get to the point where you can access this.

The flexibility of the world in Assassin’s Creed feels like the flexibility that Far Cry 2 aimed to have, but missed at. You have an open world that frowns upon your character and is actively suspicious and hostile toward you. It transmits the sense of constant danger without actually preventing the player from navigating through the world, or discouraging them from exploring. Assassin’s Creed wasn’t a perfect game, but it was a good game, and their environment and movement trough the environment was one of its great strengths. Assassin’s Creed 2 is supposed to have brought the rest of the game to the level of these aspects. I look forward to seeing that in action.

Red Faction: Guerrilla

Red Faction: Guerrilla

Where inFAMOUS and Far Cry 2 are otherwise strong games that suffer from a couple of boneheaded design choices, Red Faction: Guerrilla is a potentially mediocre game uplifted by inspired design choices. Being set on Mars, the game isn’t as resonant as some of these others, and its combat isn’t more viscerally satisfying the other games of its release period, especially Prototype, which may have been the game that really dampened its sales. But Red Faction: Guerrilla had one really strong core feature going for it, and that’s the ability to blow up buildings more satisfyingly and spectacularly than in any other game out there. Volition knew this was their competitive advantage, and they exploited it.

The theme of Red Faction: Guerrilla is destruction. Your open world freedom is essentially your freedom to pick what to destroy, when to destroy it, and how exactly you’re going to level it. The game is a third person shooter, yes — but you can’t win an extended shootout. Too many enemies, too many vehicles. You have to plan an attack, strike fast, do a lot of damage, and then retreat when the enemy starts to show up in force. Each part of this is fun. Every mechanic in Red Faction seems to be designed to support, encourage, or otherwise feed back into this core gameplay loop, save for a few side missions that help with pacing and variety.

You can move freely around most of the world in Red Faction: Guerrilla without harassment from the evil EDF forces you’re fighting, with the exception of a handful of restricted areas. This is crucial, as it enables you to plan your attacks freely. The openness of Red Faction: Guerrilla isn’t a matter of finesse, but simply their decision to not screw up by acting contrary to the interests of their core gameplay. Their game was about making surprise guerrilla strikes against defended targets and blowing up buildings, and harassing the player during transit would simply have interfered with that, the way it did for Far Cry 2.

What else?

That’s a lot of games, but it’s certainly not all of the open world games that have come out recently. There are other games, including older games, that would be interesting to look at. I’m interested in hearing from you, having read this:

What other open world games do you think have suffered from restricting the player’s freedom too much, or discouraging exploration of the open world?

Which ones avoid this pitfall?

And of the games I have talked about, do you think that I’ve misjudged some of them?

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This blog post is going to be a review of Prototype. Well, sort of. It’s not designed to help anyone decide whether or not to buy it; rather, it’s intended to reflect on my experience, to explore aspects I didn’t like, and to invite comment. Considering that this is the first serious post on this blog and nobody is reading it yet as of this writing, please do share any thoughts you have about this post and this blog.

I enjoyed the game very much, and in a comprehensive review I would discuss the frantic combat and interesting (and effective) “Web of Intrigue” system of optional story snippets, but there were a couple of things I didn’t like about the game, and I want to specifically focus on two aspects of the game that I felt put off by.

Spoilery in-game cutscenes

One of the firsts things that struck me when I started a new game was that Prototype mostly takes place in extended flashbacks as your avatar explains his exploits of the past couple weeks to a currently unknown person. The first couple of minutes of gameplay are also set in this period of time several weeks after the beginning of the story, in a “here’s how cool this game will be once you unlock all your powers” scene that reminded me of a similar opening in The Force Unleashed.

I’d have preferred to do without the demo-like beginning and intermittent cutscenes that flash forwards to the present. I can only speculate that the purpose was to retain players unsure if they want to spend a lot of time on the game, but for me it detracted from the immersion by not only revealing plot spoilers that ruined any sense of suspense, but drawing attention to the structural aspects of the narrative design. Will the infection completely overrun the city? You know in the first five minutes that the answer is yes, even though it won’t happen for half the game, and in the beginning it’s not even clear there’s an outbreak to be concerned about!

Not everything was spoiled by this, but the story became extremely predictable, and many of the powers (any of them used in the start of the game fight scenes) weren’t as new and fresh as they could have been when I finally unlocked them myself, and I didn’t like that. Eventually I actually started skipping the flash forward scenes because it was bugging me so much to have my character tell me what was going to happen in the next hour of the game before it happened. But since some aspects of the plot are only clearly spelled out in these scenes, there is no clean way to get around this problem.

Forced immorality

Despite casting you as a third party to a conflict between two warring factions (infected and military), the game has no sort of faction relationship or alignment system. If you charge into a war zone and start attacking only one side, the other side will try just as hard to kill you off. For the infected this makes sense if they’re rampaging mindless killers, but it’s unclear if this is the case. For the military this makes sense too, since you’re necessarily playing a sociopathic scourge on humanity, but I acutely felt the absence of any responsiveness to my playing style. As I played, I seriously wished the game validated or at least acknowledged my choices in some fashion. I find most alignment systems in games to be cringe-worthy, but even a simple acknowledgment of relative faction affinity would have been nice here.

This came to my attention because I approached Prototype from the start with the conscious decision to avoid wanton violence and killing, a code of behavior I adhered to more or less throughout the game. In scenes with massive military fighting, I would use surgical and guerrilla focus on my mission targets. In the presence of civilians, I would move to the rooftops and work to keep collateral damage to a minimum.

From the start I made the conscious decision to avoid wanton violence and killing, a code of behavior I adhered to more or less throughout the game. In scenes with massive military fighting, I would use surgical and guerrilla focus on my mission targets. In the presence of civilians, I would move to the rooftops and work to keep collateral damage to a minimum.

Toward the infected I was more indiscriminate; but I felt unsure if this was right or not. Unfortunately, the game didn’t provide enough information about this infection that was ravaging New York to let me decide. What was happening to these people? Was it curable, or was it permanently transforming them? Were they just the mindless zombies their AI made them out to be, or intelligent beings like my own twisted avatar? These questions were never adequately explored to my satisfaction, and I was left treating them as generic bad guys, even as I tried to impose a moral framework on my play that the game didn’t explicitly support.

I was a bit conflicted with the very premise of the game, and its compatibility with my approach. Specifically, my own continued existence as a living character in this world was hard to justify. The military was hell-bent on hunting me down and killing me, and avoiding this fate seemed to require mass murder on an epic scale — not directly, it’s just that all the combat and dead soldiers you leave in your wake was obscene. Given the choice, I would sooner side with them than play as the apparent villain in the story. This wouldn’t make sense in the context of the game, however, and indeed, if my character didn’t have such a wanton disregard for the lives of others, things wouldn’t have even reached the head they did at even the very start of the game, and there would be no game to play.

My forgiveness

Both of these things wrenched me out of my immersion in the game and frustrated me slightly. I felt that the game imposed a cruelty on my character I didn’t care for, and ruined its own story for me. This wasn’t enough to stop me from liking it though; the game was about frantic action and being a total badass, and it succeeded in these things.

Furthermore, despite my misgivings, I have to respect that the immorality from the main character is mitigated by the fact that the game embraces it so straightforwardly. It never postures to offer you a chance to pretend to be heroic. Eventually your actions tend toward saving lives, but only because there are eventually more deadly things than you to deal with, not because you’ve suddenly turned good. I’ve had similar trouble with Grand Theft Auto in the past and come to peace with it. I just don’t like that the simulation boundary on an otherwise fun game precludes trying to be anything but a sociopath.

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