Monday, December 31, 2012

Welcome to the Jungle: Far Cry 3

So, I wasn't looking forward to Far Cry 3 at all. At first it looked like just another bland (but colorful!) shooter, including all the marketing. (That Vaas quote doesn't mean much out of context...)

But then the power of word of mouth took over. Skyrim with guns? Sounds worth a try. (It's totally NOT Skyrim with guns, by the way. Closer to Assassin's Creed, much closer)

I managed to get hold of a copy (free, actually, with the new video card my sister got), downloaded the game Monday (that's two days ago)... and beat it. Yesterday, just before 4. I was pretty well hooked. I dumped.. probably 30 hours out of 36 or so before I quit. (I'm pretty much done, now. Need to try the co-op at some point, but a mic might be helpful and mine is somewhat broken. If someone wants to play, tell me!)

So here's my analysis of the game, specifically how the mechanics aid the themes of the game. There WILL be spoilers, so be warned, although I don't think spoilers would ruin the story and I'll try to avoid those that do.

Vaas, the main antagonist


For once I actually need to bring up plot. Far Cry 3 is a game where you play a thrill seeking tourist named Jason Brody whose party of 20 something friends (including a younger and older brother and Jason's girlfriend) gets kidnapped to be sold into slavery by a psychotic pirate named Vaas. (He of the "do you know the definition of insanity" quote) You escape (because Vaas is dumb/crazy and lets you run), and are saved by the natives.

Then things get weird. This guy from the village, named Dennis, gives you some tattoos, talking to you about some native 'Path of the Warrior', and sets you on your way to saving your friends and killing Vaas.

Whenever you level up, you get to choose perks that let you do more awesome stuff (seriously awesome stuff) and add to the tattoo on your arm. The tattoos either give you power or represent your growing strength, it's unclear which. Either way, they essentially mean exactly the same thing to Jason and to the player, which is pretty unusual.

So, you have these tattoos, and you've got some objectives to do. You start out pretty weak, with just a pistol and a knife (well machete), but pretty quickly you earn your way up to some basic assault rifles and such. And so you begin your way on the path of the warrior...

The tattoo... 
This is where the brilliance of the intertwined narrative and mechanics come in. The balance is almost as good as can be, too. You go to the center of the forest and meet Citra, the leader (shaman priestess, I guess?), earn some more tattoos, unlocking more abilities... go on a quest to prove your worth as a warrior, get more tattoos, more abilities... and finally beat the game and become the ULTIMATE warrior - both in the story and the mechanics. The tattoo and Jason parallel the perks and the player flawlessly.

As you progress, you steadily become capable of more and more incredible feats, becoming tougher and more lethal with every perk you take. By the end of the game you and Jason will be a murdering machine, willing and capable of murdering dozens of people in a variety (such a variety) of ways without breaking a sweat. The end result is that the player and player character motivations become pretty much the same - always a good thing.

...the perks


Jason's character is essentially defined by two words: 'thrill seeker'. He goes on DOZENS of excursions doing dangerous, adrenaline filled activities like skydiving and snowboarding, and the intro cutscene showing the group before they got kidnapped shows him doing just that.

When he gets the chance to go all Rambo and murder everyone... well, he's cautious at first. After all, 'he's never shot anyone before'. Before long, though, he begins to relish it and see it as the ultimate thrill. Killing without penalty is FUN... wait. Sound familiar?

The parallel between Jason's thrill seeking murdering rampage adventure and the player's escapism entertainment is pretty inescapable. Again, we have mechanics that support this. The combat is over the top and encourages experimentation - you'll have a LOT of "let's see if THIS works" or "I wonder if I can do that" moments, just like you'd imagine Jason having. The vehicles are really fun to drive, but also incredibly dangerous - jumping and rolling out of a vehicle as it accidentally careens off a cliff is a common thing. Everywhere there are animals that can and WILL kill you if you're not careful, but they also reward you for manipulating and hunting them.

Jet ski, ramp, sunset, rapids. Everything a thrill seeker wants. Except death.

The most interesting aspect of this is the outpost mechanic. In the game, Vaas's pirates and later on his bosses' privateers hold outposts that you can claim permanently, unlocking new activities in that area and generally making it MUCH safer (not perfectly safe, though. Enemies will still come through, and the animals certainly never go away). That area essentially becomes a generic (if still rather fun) island getaway, with occasional added violence. But the REAL fun comes from exploring new areas and finding new entertaining ways of killing your enemies. The outposts exemplify this, being both the most difficult and the most varied encounters outside of the main campaign.

But what happens when you clear out the outposts? Presumably you're most of the way there by the end of the game, or possibly all the way there (I wanted to finish up the main story so I still had.. maybe a third of them left? Most of the harder ones) The final ones feel like a theme park - you have all your abilities, and this is pretty much the ultimate test to see how you use them. I spent two HOURS playing around, trying to drop on top of someone to do a takedown using a body flight suit and a parachute. (I figured it out, eventually. There's an achievement for it).

When you have them ALL, however, and you've done all the hunts and gotten all the gear... there's nothing left to do. For you or for Jason. I mean, sure, you can go race 4 wheelers and dune buggies, go skydiving/hang-gliding, or just see the sights (of which there are PLENTY). The main thrill of the kill is gone, though. You're done, and the game has little left for you, and little left for Jason (who has done all that before, MANY times - which is why the killing was just a blast for him. Taking it up to eleven, as it were) There's a reason the story ends with you leaving the island in some way no matter what you do.The island holds no more appeal to Jason, and if paced properly (as in you take your fill of the extras before finishing the story), it doesn't to the player either.

Ziplines. These things are all over the place.


I had a blast with this game. I SLAMMED through it in a couple days, and I don't regret a minute of it. It's the most FUN I've had all year. The mechanics and the themes mesh quite well together, in a way I haven't seen before, and the combat encourages experimentation and variety in a way nothing else this year has - including Dishonored and Assassin's Creed (which this game feels a LOT like, incidentally - especially the radio towers and the outposts), or Skyrim last year (as in the quote from the promos).

The game's parallels between player motivation and character motivation are really interesting. Those themes are definitely there, even though that's not the main message of the story - a fairly simple, definitely blunt "power corrupts" along with "not so different", but the game's mechanics combined with certain aspects of the story dissect the idea of a power fantasy by putting the character in a (relatively) realistic example of playing one out. (Most power fantasies are VERY fantastic. This one makes a big deal out of it being relatively possible) A lot of this stuff you may not even notice while you're playing, but by the time I hit the end, they were pretty apparent, which is the way it should be.

I'm somehow surprised I'm not hearing more about Far Cry 3, but then again I didn't hear much about Assassin's Creed 3 either. It doesn't do anything hugely different, or feel particularly different, but it executed really well, at least for me. I feel like the reason no one was discussing it was because of a bit of a lack of promotion - like I said, I thought it was just another shooter sequel (I didn't know much about Far Cry) until I started hearing from people playing it. The release time didn't help either, coming out right before people started discussing GotY awards, and people didn't have enough time to play it before the discussion was drowned by the GotY talk.

Oh, I suppose I should mention where it is in MY games of the year... fairly high, honestly. As far as FUN, it was incredibly fun. It felt short, because of my marathoning, but it was actually just as long as Mass Effect 3 or Assassin's Creed, and it never overstayed its welcome. (Well, it can, but if it does you just play the not-so-long main story. Because you're bored and want to get off the island. Like Jason would!) It manages to deliver some commentary about games and have some really interesting mechanics while still being fun, something I haven't seen much of ever, let alone this year. As far as number? Eh. I don't know. I'll tie it with ME3 for my personal enjoyment and the walking dead and Dishonored for having interesting mechanics, so I guess that's a win for Far Cry 3? Eh. I liked it, and that's what matters at the end of the day

P.S. I recorded a few videos of post-game outpost reclamations, I'll upload them and add them here when I'm done. I'm planning on doing a video with commentary fairly soon as well, so I'll post that here if it happens.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Arcanauts: Aladraian's Journal - Adventure Finale

This is an excerpt from the journal of the Psion Aladraian Starrunner, apprentice of the great Psiontist Grayson Faraday, following the conclusion of the first of his adventures with the Arcanauts that was extensively chronicled.

25 March 256 A.S. (Date converted to current systems. The A.S. calendar system is an approximation of the system then in use, with year 1 as the year space travel was first discovered on the Motherrock)

The past few days have been like nothing I have ever experienced. I found myself embroiled in the machinations of galactic icons, and I found myself foiling those plots. But that feels almost.. unimportant right now. I came face to face with a primordial, one of those mythical beings of creation... and talked to it.

I... cannot fully convey the feelings I experienced, for I do not fully understand them myself. A primordial is a being of such immense power... it communicated not with words, for words are beneath them, but with primal feelings and images. I was overwhelmed with awe - something I am used to only feeling in my studies of the universe and its secrets.

I will forever be thankful for my companion, Crias, for interrupting me before I put the primordial to sleep. The experience and opportunity I would have missed...

Wait, I should explain. It has been a tumultuous few days. I returned from my absence to aid the party in breaking the final seal in the nick of time, as they would soon have been overrun by the World Builder's men. We rushed to the location of the Primordial, only to find what appeared to be Oona and Lord Ceylon Tuatha themselves, along with their respective entourages, debating the Primordial's fate.

The details matter little, but we dispatched both parties separately without much trouble. Of note is that Crias saved a little elfling child that was apparently inside what had appeared to be Oona - the child is with us as we return to Ferrosa and its fate and history are not yet determined.

Those parties taken care of, I took the amulet containing the name of the Primordial from Zasahl and invoked it in order to ask it to put the colony back together, which it did so, projecting a feeling of confusion when I spoke the name.

As I began to command the primordial to return to sleep, Crias interrupted me to ask the primordial itself what it would have us do, a possibility I admit I had never considered. The primordial's response... I may still be in shock.

The hope I felt... the future felt truly open. I saw visions of endless ages, and then paradise itself, here on Migdol. The Primordial was telling us that it would use its power to heal the planet, to return it to the lush place it once was, before it was ruled by deserts and lightning.

I could not deny its power and motives, and I believe my companions felt much the same way. The primordial bestowed upon me a vision of burying the amulet on the island we were on, and I felt compelled to do so (though not through any power of the primordial). I did, and the primordial approached. I missed what exactly happened next, but when I looked back to where I had buried it, a sapling had appeared. Again I was overcome with awe - I believe that sapling will grow to become a true wonder of this world, a symbol of the primordial's dedication as guardian and caretaker of Migdol.

We are on our way back to the colony... and I know not what lies in our future. I am loathe to separate from my companions, as we have gone through much together, but I must find Faraday. The only clue I have is that he had been asking questions about the Bellerophon Cascade, an area I have heard little about except superstitious rumors. Perhaps discovering more about the Cascade would be a logical next step.


MMOs, or Massively Multiplayer Online games, have a long history, but most of that is the ubiquitous "MMORPG", from Everquest to World of Warcraft. MMORPGs have always been the dominant form of MMO, but recently there has been a push towards other kinds of MMOs, especially MMOFPS like Planetside 2 and Firefall. In this article I'll discuss why MMORPGs are so popular, some of the issues with the way they're constructed, and why I think games like Planetside 2 more naturally use the MMO concept.

Whenever you make a game, including an MMO, you should consider how all the elements work together. When making an MMO, you have to think about WHY your game is an MMO. I think that if it's constructed properly, playing an MMO 'solo' should be a significantly inferior experience, which often isn't the case for games like WoW and The Old Republic. These are games where the main questing is actually balanced towards solo play. I don't know about you, but that seems pretty counter-intuitive to me.

The MMO part of the game and the rest of it should work together to make the full experience. Consider Planetside 2, where you basically have a MMO version of Battlefield - the game is persistent, with consistent character progression, on a massive MMO-sized map with up to two thousand people on a single map, and up to hundreds in a single fight. The multiplayer parts and the shooting parts mesh together to form a single, cohesive game.

MMORPGs don't do this meshing of design particularly well. You have the RPG parts, where you go questing, kill monsters,and level up and otherwise progress your character, and then you have the "MMO" parts - things like warzones and raids. The end result is that you have two very different experiences in many MMOs, the 'leveling' phase and the 'endgame' (You might add 'PvP' to that list of experiences, depending on the game). The sharp divide between these phases is almost certain to lose a lot of people who were fans of the leveling phase - this is The Old Republic's major failure, in my opinion. I personally much prefer the story/questing phase of the Old Republic to WoW, but from most accounts the endgame and PvP are.. lackluster at best.

The reason these "WoW-clones" are so common is much the same reason modern military shooters are so popular - a follow the leader process. World of Warcraft is a massive cash cow, with 12 million subs at peak and STILL more than 10 million (technically it dipped below 10 mil but it's back above with Cataclysm), and publishers and developers think that if they essentially copy the WoW model but make a few changes, they might be able to get a piece of the pie - but just like with Call of Duty in the shooter market, it hasn't really worked for most. Just like with Call of Duty, after the initial breakthrough, WoW is self-perpetuating - so many people play WoW because so many other people play WoW. It takes something significantly different to get a significant piece of that WoW pie, and that's why games like GW2 tend to emphasize how they are different. Guild Wars 2's dynamic events are a good example of a feature in an otherwise very WoW-like game that use the nature of an MMO in an intelligent manner.

The industry seems to be slowly realizing that making WoW clones isn't the best way to make money. More and more we hear less of 'WoW clones' and more of 'WoW killers' - MMORPGs that are supposed to be BETTER than WoW in fundamental ways, like GW2's world dynamism and SWTOR's emphasis on story and voice acting. There's also been more and more studios experimenting with the MMO concept, implementing it more naturally into the game. Even the line between MMO and just a multiplayer game blurs with games like League of Legends and even some shooters - games that still have 'matches' and no persistent play between them. (I'd consider a game to be an MMO if it doesn't have a single player offline component, although most online shooters like Blacklight: Retribution aren't generally considered MMOs)

Personally, an MMORPG seems like a contradiction to me, although that depends on your definition of RPG (Which I'll talk about in another article.) An RPG should be about roleplaying, IMO, and I've yet to see a system that convincingly allows multiplayer roleplaying. Most roleplaying is done out of the given mechanics. Ironically, the best MMOs for roleplaying are actually not MMORPGs - they're games like EVE, where player and character motivations are essentially the same, and the roleplaying comes naturally from the mechanics. Think about it: MMORPGs are all about raids and PvP, and these are all things that are dominated by player points of view - mostly grinding for equipment or points of some kind. Even in The Old Republic, roleplaying is mostly limited to player character interaction with NPCs, not interaction with each other. It's essentially a single-player experience with MMO conventions like guilds and raids taped on to it. Contrast this to EVE, where you hear about corporate plots years in the making, or to a shooter where you have people calling for fire support or commanding a squad - all, essentially, in-character without any conscious effort to 'roleplay'.

All of the elements of a game should work together to form the whole. MMORPGs don't do this particularly well, due to the way they are constructed. I'm not saying that it's impossible to make a natural feeling MMORPG, just that in my opinion the WoW model isn't the way to do it. That doesn't mean they aren't enjoyable, either, but I think it's pretty much indisputable that they could definitely flow better than they do now, and developers are beginning to realize that and experiment with the current dominant model.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

What's in a name: Gamer

The video game industry and culture is full of badly defined terms that we throw around all the time without realizing that everyone's definition is a little bit different - terms like 'hardcore', 'RPG', and, the one I'll be discussing in this article, 'gamer'.

So, looking at the definition of the word, a gamer is someone who plays games. Simple, right? But, like everything else, the reality is far more complicated. Language is defined by how it is used as least as much as where the term came from. I mean, would you call someone who reads books a 'reader'? (Or worse, a 'booker')

Gaming is unlike most (not all) other forms of media in that an entire culture has formed around it. I see the term 'gamer' as not saying that someone plays games, because that is so general as to be almost meaningless. Almost everyone plays games, even if it's just Angry Birds on their smartphone waiting in line for their morning coffee. A gamer is someone who would identify themselves as a gamer - video games become part of their identity, in much the same way that computers or comic books or whatever become part of the identity of a 'nerd' or 'geek' (two other ill-defined terms whose meaning has changed drastically in recent years).

A gamer, in my opinion, is someone who plays games as more than just a diversion, whether for competition, social interaction (Farmville doesn't count - there's no true interaction there), to hear an interesting story, or some other reason. I would say someone that just buys the latest Call of Duty, Madden, or WoW expansion isn't a gamer in the way I would use the word - a gamer is someone who enjoys games in general, not one game or series to the exclusion of all others.

In short, a gamer is someone who participates in the culture. A gamer is the kind of person who reads a review of something before they buy it, who is interested in new kinds of games, and who is willing to seriously discuss pros and cons of different games.

Of course, many people use other definitions, and the gaming culture that the term is associated with has many, many subcultures (such as the shooter fans, or people who play only MMOs). The key point, I think, is that they understand enough about the games to look at more than just the name or the popularity of something before playing it.

So that's my definition of a 'gamer'. Like I've said many times above, this is just my definition, and although I've tried to make it as definitive and concrete as I can, of course people disagree, and that's just fine. Evolving perceptions of words like these is how languages change.

P.S. I've got a lot of posts planned out, but I've been busy with finals and now holiday trips and things. Hopefully I'll have some semi-regular content pretty soon after break. The XCOM series is still happening at some point, and me and a few other people are planning on doing an Alpha Protocol Let's Play, so look forward to more information on those in a couple weeks!