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My Review(s) of Call of Duty 4 and Battlefield 4 Single-Player

It’s my own fault, I suppose.

CoD4 and BF4 both came out in Autumn of last year, but in both cases, I deferred my purchase of them to the Winter, in order to have a couple of other games to play on my XBone, therefore attempting to justify my decision to be an early adopter.  As a result, I played the two games’ single-player campaigns back-to-back.  There were two problems with this plan.

1) I believe, as many of my generation does, that the only proper way to play a first person shooter is with a mouse-and-keyboard.  Hell, I’m an athiest, but I’m pretty sure if there’s a God, he would have included ‘thou wilt play FPS games with mouselook’ as the eleventh commandment.  There are some exceptions – I loved Splinter Cell, but that’s a game where if you shoot your gun, you’re likely doing it wrong anyway.

2) I know, I know, gamemakers have a lot to say on the horrors of war, and hoo-rah and all that, but I kind of like it when my games, including my first person shooters, are, you know, FUN.  I vastly preferred the old Doom and Serious Sam mentalities of ‘mow down comical amounts of very silly enemies’ to what has become the de facto standard for shooters nowadays, which is gameplay that is more akin to the shooting gallery at the county fair.  But even the tone helps – I loved Far Cry: Blood Dragon, and would heartily recommend it to anyone who likes their games to be — you know– FUN.  I was completely able to get into the Bad Company offshoots of Battlefield, largely because they did such a good job making an entertaining band of misfits as your adventuring partners.

By contrast, I pretty much hated both Call of Duty and BF4.  In fact, my favorite part of both games was the loading screen sequences in Call of Duty, which were wonderfully Reznor-on-Acidesque in execution.

Now, I know that these games are really about multiplayer – which is unfortunate, since as an old geezer, I’m going to pretty much refuse to play these on multiplayer.  On a mouse and keyboard, maybe I could hold my own, but I’m pretty sure with a controller, 90% of my time will be spent trying to line up a shot while cursing, and the other 10% of the time will be spent dead.  While still cursing.

So I’m only judging the single-player experience.  Which in both cases, was kind of wretched.

Call of Duty 4’s was so easy and vapid that one hesitates to call it ‘gameplay’.  You simply lurch from shooting gallery to shooting gallery, trivially lining up shots on ineffectual bad guys, then moving to the next set piece.  Most deaths come from world designers being overly cute – spawning a guy behind you.  There was only one mission that I thought was particularly tough – a fight on an oil derrick that seemed to go on forever and that I never could seem to win – but it turns out that it, too, was easy, the mission was just bugged and wouldn’t trigger it’s ending cinematic sequence.

By contrast, BF4 actually had moments that required strategy, planning and tactics, so I guess it gets the nod for actually being a better game.  That being said, a lot of that difficulty comes from the Worldbuilders apparently being allergic to placing save points on levels, and then attempting to lure you into using vehicles halfway through that have all of the durability of a wet paper bag.  Also, their AI is so simplistically psychic that the difficulty is artificially inflated.  There is no sneaking and flanking enemies while your squad holds their fire.  Once shooting starts, all AI will apparently focus on you, which makes most of the gameplay ‘find a corner of the building so that you can edge around it in such a way that only one enemy will have line of sight on you at a time’.  Of particular note, the world is full of rooftop turrets which lure you in, but if you attempt to use them, you will be shredded faster than Richard Nixon’s secret files.

The story in Call of Duty can be charitably described as ‘powerfully stupid’.  Our gigantic space gun is captured by an undetectable small army of astronauts with machine guns that work in space, which results in us being attacked and pretty much conquered by South America.  And by ‘conquered’, I mean that they managed to capture San Diego, but not LA.  But the end result of this is that we have nothing – no army left.  Except for a rag tag group of soldiers including yourself.  And, you know, an aircraft wing.  Also, a column of tanks.  And some high-tech air strike capabilities.  And a dog, who happens to be the single deadliest thing on the whole goddamned battlefield.

Your dad spent his whole life telling you how awesome ‘Ghosts’ were, and coming up with ‘tests’ to prepare you.  These are just described to you – who knows what the hell that means.  Ten years later, he sends you off to rescue a Ghost.  At some point, you are rescued by a Ghost.  Who turns out to be dad.  Surprise!

The bad guy is also a Ghost.  He apparently holds a grudge because dad had the audacity to leave him for dead when, you know, a reservoir was dumped on him.  Yes, in this reality, governments destroy dams and flood their own cities in order to kill 3 special forces units.

In most games, you get angry when it turns out to be only 3 hours long.  With Call of Duty 4, there was instead a sense of palpable relief that I no longer had to endure that so-called ‘narrative’.

Battlefield, by contrast, is a much more believable story, if you can disregard the preposterous level of badassitude that you apparently have compared to the rest of the army.  Entire US military actions are stalled until your 3-man squad come and save the day.  Humorously, every time you leave the battleship your squad calls home, you’ll return to find that it’s been taken, and your squad has to retake it.  And when I say, ‘your squad’, I mean ‘you’, as if you ever put your controller and watch for five minutes, you’ll quickly discover that your squad is about as lethal as a declawed kitten.

Call of Duty has all of the cast diversity of a klan rally.  If you see a woman or a black man, you can rest assured that they’ll die before the end of the mission you’re in.  Even the primary enemy, the former ghost, is white, assuring homogeniety in cutscenes even as you cut down swaths of South Americans in normal combat.

Battlefield 4 is much more diverse, with the second half of the game putting both a black man AND a woman in your squad!  Of course, they hate each other, and spend most of the time reminding each other – and you – that they don’t like or trust each other.  Despite the fact that you are ostensibly squad leader, there is no hotkey for ‘please, you two, shut the fuck up, we’re STEALTHING here’.  But don’t worry, at some point they’ll suddenly have a whiplash-enducing change of heart so sudden that you’ll be somewhat surprised they don’t pull the jeep over and start dry-humping on the spot.

Both games have the beautiful set pieces you’ve come to expect, but I guess I’m no longer impressed by these, especially since both games had the SAME SET PIECES.  Destroyed dam?  Check.  Enduring an attack on an Aircraft Carrier?  Yep.  Call of Duty does get points for having more LUDICROUS set piece fights, so there’s that (I’m talking about you, airplane rescue scene).

Both games also have the mechanic of ‘hit X to do something cool, special-forces-like and scripted’.  Hit X to rappel on the side of the building, hit X to activate the pumps, hit X to play tiddlywinks, you get the idea.  I get what they’re trying to go, I guess, but the net result is a sense that these moments were designed by people who felt like Quick Time Events would be too complicated.  X OR Y?  Fuck that!  Just X!

Both games also have ‘stealth’ missions, and in both cases, they’re impossible to stealth through.  Battlefield, in particular, has a mission where your boss warns you, for the LOVE of GOD, DON’T SHOOT OR KILL ANYONE.  This mission forces you into a gunfight within 60 seconds of starting, and ends with you blowing up a battalion of tanks before you’re allowed to escape.  Somehow, on your return, your commanding officer neglects to admonish you for apparently kickstarting World War III into gear.

Special mention should be given to ‘the fucking Dog level’ in Call of Duty.  Your dog gets shot in the leg, and you get tasked with carrying the dog for the rest of the mission.  Needless to say, you can’t carry a dog and a gun at the same time, so the whole mission is ‘haul the dog 30 feet, put the dog down, and then attempt to kill all the bad guys, rinse, repeat’.  Note that everytime you put the dog down, your teammates will shout at you to pick it up again, despite the fact that there are still bad guys shooting at you, and that your squadmates seem about as effective on their own as a toddler with a potato gun.

Call of Duty’s saving grace, I suppose, is the ending sequence, which is a triumphant climax involving a well-done tank battle and a moderately well-done train chase, which has a fulfilling and satisfying ending – which immediately after the credits, they torpedo in order to set up the inevitable sequel.

Battlefield 4’s ending, by contrast, is utterly befuddling.  Not to give away any spoilers or anything, but the last 60 seconds involve you choosing which one of your squadmates to sacrifice for the greater good, you pressing the button to blow them up, and then the credits rolling.  Try not to think too hard about that final mission, because if you do, you’ll come to the inevitable conclusion that you have no idea how what you did should really resolve anything.

If I had to play one game again, I would beg you to reconsider what you’re doing to me, but if a gun was involved, I would hesitantly reach for Battlefield 4.  There was just more actual fun and interesting challenge there.  Call of Duty’s terrible single-player is well-documented, enough so that Zero Punctuation named it the worst game of 2013, something I considered to be hyperbole at the time and, while I don’t know if I’d go that far, I definitely see how it merits being in that discussion.

Meanwhile, if you want to play a GOOD single-player shooter-like experience on the console, go play Splinter Cell: Blacklist.

SimCity Engineer Describes Tough Technical Effort

One of the things that programmers hate are designers who can kinda sorta code, and then use that to float wildly optimistic estimates for how long it will take to code a new system.  For example, they might say “I can code a minipet system in 3 days!”  And then they do.  And then they claim the programmers who swore it would take 2 months were sandbagging.

Only it’s not a very good minipet system.  The storage is inefficient, the additional pathfinding chokes the server, they somehow break certain boss fights, there’s no GUI for storing or extracting them, they don’t animate when idling, swimming utterly breaks them, etc, etc, etc.

So now the supposed sandbagging engineers inherit this code, which is now considered ‘part of the game’ because a producer somewhere saw it and said ‘make it so’, and now it takes 3 months to do because you have to deal with the horrible, rotten hacked code that made its way into the system, and any content or player data that depends on said horrible hack.

If you’re a designer, don’t be that guy.

All of this comes to mind from reading the SimCity programming lead’s patient explanation that, yes, it took six months to make SimCity run offline, and even though some modder claimed he could do it in two weeks, it turns out that conversion was… a tad incomplete.

This is just a friendly reminder that if you don’t develop games, you really don’t know how hard it is to do so.  And even if you do, something that is trivial in one codebase may be godawful difficult in another.


The Evils of Up-front Payment

This is a good article on Gamasutra that challenges the notion that the $60 box price necessarily creates better industry practices.

Sticker Shock

Lost in the noise of the holidays was news that Mechwarriors now sells solid gold mechs – for $500 bucks.  Despite the fact that these appear to be mostly cosmetic only (one coworker said “you’re paying $500 bucks to paint a bullseye on you on the battlefield”), the community was, predictably, completely up in arms about this.  It was, predictably, very similar to the Eve Monocle situation.

Only worse.  People right now are still used to the idea of buying a game fully for $60 bucks.  Whether its right or wrong, the mental math a gamer does when he looks at the Mechwarrior page is that, to buy everything in the game, you would need to spend $4000 bucks at least – to get these eight mechs.

Will people spend that much to play a game?  Certainly.  People have paid $10000 or more for items in video games going back, at least, to Gemstone 3 and Dragonrealms.  In Warhammer, a $400 army is a good start.  Buying all of the cards a la carte to build a competitive standard Magic the Gathering deck is $400 bucks as well – and well more if you get into legacy formats.  Devoted fans of a game will spend on that game if they love it – just as fans of any hobby is want to do.  If you’re a high spender in a video game (a ‘whale’), you don’t mind the spend – and hey, maybe even appreciate it (the ‘I have a porsche’ effect).

The question is all about perception.  I saw a talk given by someone who worked at Eve once, and he said that the Monocle was actually a strong financial success.  Tons of people bought them.  But was it worth the beating they took from their fans?

It really is about that sticker shock.  Magic packs sell for $3-4 bucks, and you can easily get into cheaper formats, such as draft, and avoid the high price tag – at least until you’re sure you like the game enough to invest.  Lucky players can get the cards they need for Standard by opening random packs.  Savvy players can trade for them.  A casual magic player is not going to have a huge price tag slapped in their face – a careful like that Wizards walks, particularly given at the top end, it very much is a ‘pay to win’ game design.

One of the most important things to having a successful F2P business is having a good, healthy relationship with your fans, when it comes to the store.  Those who spend money should feel good about doing so, and those who don’t shouldn’t resent those who do.  This is an incredibly tricky line to walk, but vital, given how important long-term relationships with your players are good not only for your bottom line, but also the communities within your games.  Given the outcry over the $500 mechs, that game’s developers may have crossed that line.



Assassin’s Creed 4 Design Review: Oh The Random Directions You Will Jump

It’s odd, but the worst part about Assassin’s Creed 4 is the part that theoretically has gotten the most iteration and polish, which is to say the movement model of running, jumping, climbing, and attacking, which is oddly fickle and difficult to control.  I would say that, roughly, 80% of my deaths in this game are from missed jumps, such as attempting to leap from one mainmast to the other, and instead plunging onto the deck beneath my feet, having jumped in an entirely different direction.

This is especially frustrating because most of the game mechanics are quite good.  Killing people is fun, being stealthy is fun (although the lack of crouching seems odd), brute force is fun, shooting your pistols is fun, and exploring the world is fun.

And the life of the pirate is very fun – exceptionally so.  Ship-to-ship combat is a novel and engaging experience, with a very smooth advancement curve that has you picking and choosing fights carefully early on, while charging ahead full-steam into a fleet of Man o Wars later on.  The experience also is an absolutely beautiful treat, complete with waves that wash over the deck of your ship and smoke that lingers in the air post-barrage, barely concealing your enemy.

I’ve talked to a number of people who said that they would love to play the Pirate game without the Assassin game.  I’m not one of those people.  I found that the two experiences complement each other very well – once you get a little tired of one experience, you can jump to the other experience, which helps keep you engaged with the game.

I would, however, love to ditch the Assassin’s Creed story on the next go-round.  I’m not hugely familiar with Assassin’s Creed backstory – before this one, these games were consistently games I’d buy then get not-very-far into – but the narrative in AC4 is a muddled mishmash of gibberish and pseudohistory.  They also throw you into the deep end of the core AC story – including the part where you’re just a modern-day nameless person reliving ancestral memories thanks to high technology – which are utterly mystifying if you’re not well-versed in the series.  The game needs a much better on-ramp to the story.

It could also do with a less despisable protagonist.  The character you play, Edward Kenway, isn’t actually an Assassin, he just happens to kill one in the opening act and then pretends he is one for the rest of the game.  True assassins point this out repeatedly – you’re not one of us!  To be fair, Edward is truly a jerk, with almost every action he takes.  Which again, is pointed out to you repeatedly.  The story gives you little choice but to be a jerk, and then other characters reprimand you for the decisions that the writers made for you!

Raiding fortresses is hugely fun, and I wish the payoff was better.  Kenway’s Fleet is half-realized – it is effective at providing goals for the pirate game, but by the time you’ve got a fleet of Man’o’Wars, you no longer need the cash they provide.  The number of alternate activities available – diving, whaling, etc – is impressive, but don’t really add a whole lot to the game experience.  And I realize they are an effective story delivery mechanism without being cutscenes, but cutting the number of ‘tailing’ missions to be about a third of what they are currently – or alternatively making them less fickle or putting effort in reducing loading times between efforts – would be a very strong step.

Overall, I completed 84% of all goals before I finished the main story.  I’m glad that I played the game, although I really wish that it had been slightly less ambitious in order to have time to polish its problem bits.

Collectibles Design

Extra Credits did a couple of great pieces talking about collectables design, discussing for example how Magic: the Gathering is brilliant and Rage of Bahamut is effectively ‘game design strip mining’ that threatens the public’s faith in F2P at the very core.  Worth a view.


More Candy Crush Data

Tommy Palm gave more interesting data about Candy Crush:

  • The game has been downloaded and installed half a billion times.
  • 69% of UK fans play while commuting.
  • 78% of US fans play while watching TV.
  • Level 65 is the biggest cockblock level that forces players to spend.
  • However, 60% of the players who reach level 455 have done so without spending.

“We took the decision at King to make sure that the game can be played from the beginning to the very end without blocking a potential player so they couldn’t progress. It’s a lot about finding a good balance and being generous while at the same time having things that make sense to purchase inside.”

Ender’s Real Genius

ender's real genius

Tomb Raider is Really, Really Good

Here’s a great example of me wondering if I’m having a contrarian opinion just to have one, but here it is anyway: I thought Tomb Raider was a much better game than Last of Us.

I know, Last of Us has a superior story. Tomb Raider’s story could be best described as ‘imagine if the writers of Lost explained what was going on!’  Also, while there were interesting goings-ons in the various journals and artifacts you found throughout the island, the characters with actual speaking roles were little more than caricatures.  Also, I realize that working at Bioware has morphed me into being a VO snob, but other than Lara herself, the VO in TR ranges all the way from ‘bad’ to ‘dear lord godawful’.  There is certainly no one with the writing and depth of Ellie from LoU.

That being said, Last of Us suffered most from the fact that the game design completely undercut the story – a stealth game where your sidekick girl was too stupid to hide from zombies, in a world where human life is precious but not so precious that you don’t kill every damn person you meet.  Tomb Raider was trying to sell a different fantasy – to make an interactive Indiana Jones movie – and in this regard, they did an admirable job.  In particular, the adrenaline sequences (sliding down waterfalls, dodging avalanches) are masterfully done, and completely pull you in.

A lot of hay has been made about Lara Croft starting vulnerable and weak, but from my point of view, this was one of the strongest thing about the experience.  Everything about Lara starts off hesitant and uncertain, and its really gratifying to play her as she starts to earn her swagger.

Other notes:

  • Unlike LoU, guns actually work on this island!  At any rate, it was possible to kill people with guns.
  • It may be time for me to play a pure stealth game, because I’ve played two games in a row now where it teases you with the potential of stealth, and then forces you into way too many open gunfights.
  • Lara Croft has so many different pain gasps, heavy breathing and other gutteral exclamations that one can only imagine the cold sweats that must have broken out in that recording session.

Would play again.  Next on the docket is Hitman: Absolution, because the trailer promised me leather-clad nuns.


More F2P Fisking

There sure is a whole lot of wrong going on over in this debate.

We both know that someone, somewhere has to pay for the game’s development, and for that idea to work out, you either need to hook some ‘whales’ who pay out a fortune and subsidise everyone else, or you have to constantly nag all of the players to pay for in-game items.

If I can give the gift of great gameplay to three times the number of customers because a handful of heavy users love my game so much they beg me for more opportunities to spend – is that really a bad thing?  And how is this really different from Golf shops that are subsidized by high rollers buying $10000 clubs, magic players buying Black Lotuses, or knitting stores who sell balls of yarn from rare endangered alpacas for $1000 per ball?  Why is this the one industry where people actually feel pity for the hardcore fan who wants to spend?

And is he really that different from other gamers?  Other gamers likely spent $1000 a year on their hobby as well, once you factor in the cost of their console, the cost of the console games they’ve bought, the money they dropped in the Steam summer sale, expansions, DLC, licensed action figures, etc, etc.  The difference is that guy probably used whatever he bought in his F2P whale experience, whereas a Steam Summer Sale leaves me with a backlog of games that I’m never gonna get to.

We wouldn’t tolerate free-plus-microtransactions in other media, why should we tolerate it in gaming?

Um, other media have already been moving heavily to a microtransactions world.  See iTunes, and compare how people now buy one track for .99 cents instead of buying a CD with one hit and 14 terrible songs for $15 bucks.  Or, you can listen to it for free, and even watch the video, if you’re willing to go to Youtube, Spotify, or any number of other services.  If you want concert tickets, T-shirts, posters and the other stuff that denote true music fandom, you’re going to pay more.  This is literally no different.

The other problem is that the game is no longer a shared experience or level playing field. I can now be shot by someone with a gun I didn’t buy, or outrun by a car with engines I haven’t bought.

You’re not complaining about Free 2 Play, you’re complaining about Pay 2 Win.  These are two different concepts, and in North America, for the most part, Pay 2 Win is rejected in many (most?) titles.  A game can be free 2 play without being pay 2 win – see League of Legends, Candy Crush and SWTOR, for example.

The F2P model seems to rely on interrupting the player mid-game to constantly pester them for a few pennies.

Television and Spotify seem to rely on interrupting the viewer/listener occasionally to constantly pester them to buy some shit.  In the case of Spotify, you can pay a subscription to bypass this hassling – this option is also available in many free-to-play titles.

I could just about get by with a thousand true fans by selling them $30 games, and many people do exactly this, like spiderweb software and the guys making hex-based WW2 strategy games. There are many people out there happy to pay $20-40 for a game that they really like. It’s a myth that gamers will only pay $0.99 for a game, it’s just that those gamers are a very loud, shouty minority.

Having seen the numbers, I can tell you that the loud, shouty minority are those who knee-jerkedly reject the notion that any game with a free to play model can have a free to play model that is inviting, non-imposing, fair and fun.  These people are wrong, and its not at all hard to point to examples in this day and age.

Just because some games are doing it poorly doesn’t mean it can’t be done.  And competitive pressures means that the games that do it poorly are going to fail.  And should.