tempest in a teacup

the pointless musings of a strange recluse

Making excuses

The ‘big’ release of last month was Duke Nukem Forever, a game that’s been about fourteen years in the making, mainly due to purported incompetence on the part of 3D Realms. At least year’s PAX, Gearbox officially announced they were taking over development after 3D Realms was shuttered and promised to finish the game. And that’s what finally launched last week.

And apparently, it’s terrible. But that’s not what I’m intent on talking about here – there are plenty of places you can go to find out about the problems with what Gearbox has just shat out (I recommend Rock Paper Shotgun’s take). No, my peeve has to do with how some people are reacting to the bad reviews – the same way a lot of people react to bad reviews of anything. One particular phrase.

“It’s good in its own right.”

Now what the hell is that supposed to mean?

To realise how silly that statement is, you have to think about what we mean when we say ‘good.’ There isn’t any universally accepted scale of ‘goodness’ – you can’t say that a cake is good because it’s a 500 on the goodness scale. On top of that coming up with a universal scale would also be very difficult because goodness is highly subjective. Therefore all judgments of quality are necessarily relative.

Given that, saying that something is ‘good in its own right’ is the same as claiming to be able to judge the quality of it without comparing it to anything else. Which is quite clearly nonsense. Even unqualified statements of quality have an implicit comparison embedded in them – for instance, when I say that the Duke Nukem Forever demo failed to convince me that the final product would be any good, I’m implicitly evaluating DNF’s mechanics against those from the best FPSes I’ve played, and realising that it falls short in several areas.

What I suspect that people who pull the above statement are trying to say instead is “I liked this game.” Which is reasonable – there’s no real accounting for taste. But to say that you like something is not the same as saying that it’s good. I mean, hell, I play games that aren’t quite as good as popular opinion would have you believe (for instance, Team Fortress 2). It’s entirely possible (and up to a point, acceptable) to say you like something while admitting that in the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t really hold up.

So please, by all means, go ahead and like Duke Nukem Forever, or KOF XII, or any number of games that were generally received poorly. But if you’re going to claim that they’re good by some arbitrary standard, then my inevitable follow-up question is going to be ‘compared to what?’

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Things about TF2 that need to change

Just some thoughts I’ve been meaning to pen down for a while. They’re rather long, so I’ve hidden them behind a jump.

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Gaming odds and ends

This post might be a little disjointed – I’ve been playing a bunch of games recently and thought I’d just pen down my thoughts in one single post since I don’t really want to write five separate posts in one night.

Team Fortress 2

Valve has patched the game twice since the Scout update, yet the Sandman remains unfixed (although they did manage to break rocket jumping while trying to fix an exploit that made it harder for Snipers to get headshots, and they did break Natascha’s slowdown effect yet again). I’ve played in a few big games since the update, and I’d say the stun is overpowered even if you discount the fact that it affects ubercharges. I have not yet seen a single Scout that doesn’t try to tag me with the ball the moment I see them, and in a few circumstances they’ve managed to stun me for extended periods at close range, allowing them a free kill. One particular incident that comes to mind occurred on the second point of the second stage of Dustbowl – I was playing Soldier and standing on the point when a Scout ran out from the central tunnel, ran up to the point and threw his ball at me. I was stunned for a good 3 seconds or so, and this was from being tagged at close range.

The response from the competitive community has been very clear. CEVO has banned the Sandman, and from what I’ve heard a bunch of the other leagues like ETF2L have followed suit. Keep in mind that this is the first unlockable weapon that they’ve actually banned. If I recall correctly they didn’t even ban the Pyro’s Backburner back when it granted a ridiculous 50-point health bonus.

The response from the rest of the TF2 community has been less distinct. While there are a few players who recognise that the weapon is clearly overpowered, the vast majority of the community’s response has been ‘LOL LERN2TEAMWORK.’ By this they’re implying that somehow Pyros need to have their entire team with them when they try to circle behind enemy lines to attempt an ambush, so that they can successfully fend off a class that they were previously on a reasonably even footing against. And of course, if your Medic successfully builds up an ubercharge by being a good healer and deploys it on a friendly Demoman in order to take out a Sentry farm, only to have his uber rendered useless by a flying baseball, that’s his fault for not being a team player.

Surely the absurdity is obvious.

I’m hoping that, like they did with the Backburner, Valve will realise what a terrible beast they’ve unleashed and make some sort of fix. A popular suggestion seems to be to change the stun effect to something akin to the effect of Team Fortress Classic’s concussion grenades, but honestly I think they need to go back to the drawing board with this unlock. Never mind that there are a few achievements that depend on it – go back to the design phase and get it right this time. And for God’s sake stop getting your unlock ideas from the Steam forums.

I’m starting to wonder if I should be playing Fortress Forever instead…

Lost Planet

This was recently on sale on Steam for the irresistable price of $5. I’d only ever played the demo previous to this, and I thought it was alright, so I decided to see what the full game was like (even though the superior Colonies Edition is out now). I’ve played the first few missions, and it’s not too bad. I can’t quite get 60fps out of it, but shooting up giant bugs in snowy wastelands is pretty fun. My main complaints so far are that the game is kind of easy (I haven’t died once yet) and that Wayne’s default movement speed is a little on the slow side, even when he’s piloting one of the giant VS mechs. I guess I’ll see if these continue to be problems as I progress through the game.

Still, this has me interested in the recently-announced sequel – I wonder what improvements Capcom will bring to the table.

King of Fighters ‘98 Ultimate Match

I started playing KOF (and indeed, fighting games) with King of Fighters ‘99, but I respect KOF’98’s place in the order of things. Given that disclaimer, I rather like ‘98UM. It doesn’t have most of my favourite characters, but the (remarkably solid) system changes they’ve made to the original game make this a must-buy for any KOF fan, I’d say. Most of the changes they’ve made revolve around making Extra mode more interesting, and it seems to have worked. Extra mode users now benefit from the ability to cancel normals into dodges, and to cancel certain special attacks directly into MAX mode. On top of that they can choose when they want to break stock unlike vanilla ‘98 where the bar started draining as soon as it filled up.

In addition, the new Ultimate mode, which allows you to mix-and-match subsystems from both modes, poses some interesting possibilities. Do you want the mobility afforded by the roll, or will you trade that for the ability to dodge and quickly counterattack (and extend your combos using the quick dodge)? Do you want the ability to do SDMs at any life level, or would you rather have the ability to max out in mid-combo for the possibility of turning your otherwise staid B&B combo into a more damaging variant?

As for the quality of the port itself, fortunately the US version of the game seems to have turned out pretty well – progressive scan support is intact, and as far as I can tell the game has been brought over more or less unmolested, which should be a relief for anyone who was horrified by Ignition’s handling of the PAL versions of King of Fighters XI and NeoGeo Battle Coliseum.

So yeah, if you don’t have the import version already, go out and get this one. It’s $20 – you really have no excuse if you claim to be a KOF fan.

Street Fighter IV

I’m still getting used to the physics and timings, but at the very least my win ratio seems to have improved a little (in that it is no longer zero). My MadCatz Tournament Edition FightStick arrived two weeks late, but I used the Amazon gift certificate I was given as compensation to buy a PS2->PS3 controller adapter so I could use my old Tekken 5 Hori stick with the game until it arrived (makes me wonder why I didn’t do it earlier, actually). So far I’ve mainly been sticking to Ryu and Abel, with some failed attempts at using Fei Long and Dhalsim (both of whom apparently have a pretty steep learning curve). I’ve played a few games online, mainly against Orochinagi members; I’ve played a few random strangers, although I haven’t run into any of the Ken players of legend. I suppose I should be thankful.

On a side note, the MadCatz stick doesn’t work for PS2 games. I don’t know why I didn’t see this coming, as this was also the case for the Sega Virtua Stick and the Hori PS3 sticks when they were released. The best I can hope for is for support to be added in the next PS3 firmware update, I guess.

BlazBlue

Now, I haven’t actually had a chance to play this game yet, but PS3 and 360 ports were announced recently. A lot of fighter fans are understandably excited about this, but a potential issue with the port has already been raised. The arcade version of BlazBlue runs at 1280×768/768p, while both current-generation consoles are locked to outputting at 1280×720/720p (and indeed, won’t let you play the game at its native resolution). The full extent of the problem is laid out pretty clearly over at the Insomnia forums.

In short, it looks like the great sprites and backgrounds are in danger of being butchered by scaling. If the blurry upscaled sprites in all of SNK Playmore’s Atomiswave releases bugged you, well, this is just as bad. Possibly worse, since it’s one of the first high-definition 2D fighters, and really deserves more respect.

At this point, given that ArcSys can’t go back in time and re-program the game to output 720p in the first place, the only real thing they can do is to crop 48 lines from the top and bottom of the display to avoid affecting the sprites. This is what they seem to have done, but the screenshots still lack the definition of the arcade version. A rep from Aksys (the company handling the US release) has gone on the record as saying that apparently the screenshots they released of the 360 and PS3 versions were smaller in size to make them ‘download friendly’. This just seems ridiculous to me, given that stuff like this is typically distributed through special press FTP servers where presumably bandwidth wouldn’t be a concern.

We’ll have to see how this shakes out, but I am rather worried that we’ll end up getting a butchered port of one of the first high-def 2D fighters.

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Griping about Valve

A lot of gaming news sites and blogs trumpet Valve as one of the finest developers in the industry, regularly producing excellent games and otherwise shitting gold. I’ve certainly suggested that I think of them highly, both here and elsewhere.

Recent events have shifted this view of mine somewhat – particularly the Team Fortress 2 Scout update.

I don’t think I would draw much ire if I were to state that TF2 isn’t a great competitive game (regardless of what my review says; it was written when I wasn’t really knowledgeable about the game, and I should probably delete it). The game, in the form that it’s played on public servers, tends to revolve around explosive/flamethrower spam, choke points and the use of ubercharges to get past these choke points. The presence of the ubercharge is pretty much the only reason why the game even holds together at this level, if you ask me – it’s the only tool available to get through chokepoints and break stalemates, outside of perhaps an unusually coordinated Spy rush. And let’s not forget about critical hits and random damage.

(The competitive format of the game has none of these problems. obviously – the 6 vs 6 format and class limits on Demomen and Medics mean that spam never becomes an issue. And of course, crits and random damage are turned off)

So given that the ubercharge is pretty much a tool designed to break stalemates (a design goal specifically called out by Valve in their developer commentary for TF2), I have no idea why they thought that giving the Scout a new weapon that would basically nullify ubers would be a good idea. The motivation behind this weapon (and at least one of the other unlocks) seems to have been ‘the Scout doesn’t survive too well in the spam-dominated public game environment, so let’s give him something to cope with them.’

As if that wasn’t enough, the same weapon basically makes the Heavy useless. He already has trouble dealing with Scouts when he doesn’t have his gun spun up, and now he’s basically a walking bullseye target when he does have his gun spun up.

If anything, that betrays a key flaw in the way Valve is approaching TF2 balance – competitive games should be balanced with high-level play in mind. More often than not games that are balanced for high level play (Starcraft, Quake III Arena, any number of great fighting games) end up being good games at lower levels too. Instead of trying to balance the game for pubbers they really should be balancing it according to the needs of competitive players – for instance, making the Heavy, Sniper, Pyro, Spy and Engineer more viable in high-level play than they are now. Granted, if they had done this, the game would probably not be anywhere near as popular as it is now, but shouldn’t good design trump marketing considerations?

On another Valve note – Left 4 Dead.

I’ve been playing Versus mode a lot recently, and I have to say that playing as the Infected is great fun. There’s nothing quite like when a good plan comes together. Unfortunately, the other half of the experience – the Survivors – is considerably less interesting. The best strategy is to camp in a corner or a chokepoint while spamming your melee attack. Melee attacks don’t do that much damage, but they do keep you from taking damage rather effectively, and you can basically spam it infinitely. In theory the Smoker is supposed to counter this tactic, but smoked Survivors can easily be freed by hitting them with a melee attack, and you only ever have at most one Smoker on the Infected team. I really think that the melee attack needs to be given a longer cooldown, or they need to have some sort of timer that prevents you from melee-ing non-stop.

On a side note, I’ve recently been playing Quake Live, and if anything it’s revealed to me how terrible I really am at multiplayer FPSes. Of course, I’ll be playing it a lot more because it’s basically Quake III, and Quake III is awesome.

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Achieving nothing

I was reading a thread about the upcoming Left 4 Dead Survival Pack on one of the Internet forums I frequent today, and I came across a rather strange quote from one of the forum regulars:

I think all DLC that doesn’t bring in new achievements with it should be free, and if it’s not, it should be pretty cheap. I’m talking 100MSP.

It wasn’t the fact that he was willing to pay for DLC that struck me as strange (that seems to be a fixture of our times) – it was that he viewed achievements as worth paying for.

I have quite a bit to say on the subject of achievements in video games, but I’ll start off by saying that anyone whose buy/not-to-buy decision is based on the availability of achievements for a particular game is a gibbering idiot.

Harsh? Maybe. But I can’t really put it any other way. Achievements are largely pointless in the grand scheme of things. They’re really just a way to artificially prolong replay value by adding silly tasks for players to do, some of which run contrary to the whole point of the game. They’re a bonus, nothing more, and they’re most definitely not worth anything.

For instance, take the infamous gnome achievement in Half-Life 2: Episode Two. This achievement gives you credit for successfully bringing a lawn gnome, found near the start of the game, to the final area and stowing it in a rocket before the end of the game. Keep in mind that while doing this the game has you drive a car (which the gnome has the habit of frequently falling out of) over a large distance while engaging in several large gun battles. Is the ability to do this rather ridiculous task really worth any money at all? Is the game worse off for their exclusion? Obviously not.

Alright, admittedly it’s not such a big problem in single-player games. Heck, I’ll admit to going back and replaying HL2: Ep Two while trying to get the achievement where you squish all the antlion grubs (which is pretty much where I drew the line). It’s when the spectre of achievement farmers begins to haunt multiplayer games that I start to take umbrage. As a prime example, here’s a revealing quote from madlep, one of the main contributors to ubercharged.net (a major Team Fortress 2 blog):

You know how I mentioned that I top scored as pyro at the beginning of the post? IT WAS BECAUSE THE ENTIRE SERVER WAS FULL OF MEDICS TRYING TO UBER DEMOMEN JUMPING OFF CLIFFS, MEDICS TRYING TO UBER SCOUTS, OR MEDICS TRYING TO UBER FIST HEAVIES (or the scouts or heavies or whatever from their clan helping them out)

Ridiculous stuff. What the hell did valve think would happen when they put such moronic criteria for the achievements in there?

You can read the rest of his post, which deals with the mentality of achievement farmers, here.

That post was written shortly after the first content update for Team Fortress 2, where Valve added three new weapons and 36 new achievements for the Medic class. The achievements would have been harmless by themselves, but Valve tied the new weapons to your progress in obtaining the achievements, resulting in the tomfoolery that madlep described above.

The problem with adding achievements to multiplayer games is pretty clear – the rules and mechanics of the game are already sending you a strong signal as to how you should be playing (this is true of single player games as well, but like I said above I don’t consider achievement farmers in single player games to be that big a deal). Good Team Fortress 2 players know that Scouts should almost never be ubered, that Medics who run off trying to kill enemies with their syringe gun aren’t doing their job, and that Heavies running around punching people while ubered are colossal morons. Yet the achievements tell players to do these things, and say that they will be rewarded for doing so! Absolutely asinine.

Valve, perhaps realising this would be a problem, has made the criteria for the subsequent achievement packs much more reasonable – the Pyro and Heavy Achievements stick more closely to what players are expected to do with those classes (although there are still some pretty weird ones in there). Still, the fact that players needed to unlock them in order to access the new content rendered the game almost unplayable for the week following the respective updates. You would see teams with six Pyros per side, with pretty much all the other players on fire at the same time. Classes like the Scout and the Medic became practically useless – It was a truly ridiculous state of affairs.

The game is already telling you how it should be played – why not listen to it for a change?

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So I just played the RE5 demo on my PS3

I’ve only played the Wii version of Resident Evil 4, so someone please tell me – were the aiming controls as sluggish in the PS2 and GameCube versions of RE4 as they are in RE5? I don’t mind that you can’t run and gun like you can in Uncharted, but seriously even on the ‘Fastest’ setting the cursor moves way too slowly.

The Wii version supports classic controllers, so I suppose I could go figure that out for myself…

On another, happier note, Valve has updated Team Fortress 2 today with what most people would regard as a surprisingly good update. Among the changes are a couple of things that the competitive crowd has been asking for for a long time:

  • The ability to turn off random damage at the server level (something which I alluded to in an earlier post)
  • The ability to turn off weapon models or adjust the weapon models’ FOV (to improve the viewing area)
  • The ability to turn off the ‘nemesis’ icon above characters’ heads (this was giving away enemy positions)

In addition, they’ve made changes to how critical hits and random damage work in the normal game – the ranges for random damage have been reduced from ±25% to ±10%, meaning that we should no longer see the Demoman occasionally one-shotting Scouts and Snipers with his grenades. On top of that critical hits have been changed, and for the better, I think. The base chance to crit that every player has has been reduced from 5% to 2%, and the maximum it can go is now 12% as opposed to 20% before. On the other hand, Valve has also reduced the amount of damage you need to deal in order to get a bonus to your crit chance. The idea (according to them) is to make crits less random and more based on recent performance, which is a good idea – in theory, at least.

There are a bunch of other fixes, most of which are assorted class buffs and bugfixes. They’re mostly being overshadowed by the stuff I mentioned above, though – the Steam forums are honestly going nuts right now. And this is before the Scout update has even been revealed…

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Ruminations on a revival

So, King of Fighters XII.

A lot has been said about the quality of the graphical makeover – I’ll say that based on the 720p screenshots and videos I’ve seen, I do like it a lot. It leaves just about everything else SNK has ever done in the dust; my only gripe is that Kyo’s flame effects still look pretty bad, particularly the ones for his uppercut and DM. You’d think they’d have noticed that by now.

In any case, while I do like the look of the game so far, I have less confident things to say about how the game seems to play at this point.

The clash/offset system seems to be an attempt at introducing something akin to parries into KOF. You cause a clash by performing an attack just as the opponent’s attack is about to hit you. In the process both sides take some damage and do an automatic backstep (or a backwards jump if one party is in midair). However both characters can also cancel the backstep animation into anything they want – a jump, a run or even another attack.

In its current form there’s clearly some risk involved with clashing – you take some damage in exchange for the chance to mount a counterattack. Unlike parries, however, a clash also resets the opponent to a neutral state, so at best you end up going from a disadvantageous position to a neutral position – high risk for a somewhat nebulous reward. On top of that you can apparently clash with fireballs, and there are already a few videos out there that show people stopping uppercuts by clashing with a jump attack (although given the backhop that results from a successful clash this might actually be a disadvantage for the player in the air). It’s definitely a major change, and I’m kind of nervous that it’ll end up breaking the game in some way.

I’m also concerned that the builds shown so far seem to lack super flashes. Just about all the DMs I’ve seen have ridiculously long startup, making them impossible to combo from anything. Since the game we’ve seen so far is so incomplete as to lack a power meter and a hit counter, and even one of the main subsystems (Critical Counter), my assumption is that DM flashes will be added in later, but given the ‘retro’ tone they’re trying to go for I have my doubts.

Speaking of said tone – I can’t say I’m a fan of it. Regressing in terms of looks is one thing, but some characters seem to have regressed in terms of movesets as well, which is…troubling. The most affected one seems to be Kyo, who’s basically gone back to his KOF’95 version. There are some glowing exceptions – Ralf and Iori seem to have gotten complete movelist makeovers, but characters like Terry apparently only have one DM, and Shen Woo seems to have lost some moves as well.  On top of that characters like Andy seem to channel their original Fatal Fury 2 incarnations rather than any recent KOF version. And needless to say, I’m still puzzled at their decision to drop the successful system they had developed for KOF XI to start from a blank slate.

I think we’ll only start to get a real sense for where KOF XII will be in terms of mechanical soundness when the game is complete and ready for beta testing. The game is slated for an April 2009 release in arcades, so that should be pretty soon.

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