Category Archives: Game Reviews

APB is Pretty Damn Good

I have very little faith in MMOs today, mostly because of the horrific design that seems to be plaguing this genre for some reason. I have wrote about this at length and even have several posts waiting to be finished – a seemingly impossible feat, as the more I go down the rabbit hole of MMOs, the harder it is to finish writing about them. Just one of my forthcoming blogs has gone from one post and split into three.

Anyway, it becomes hard to write about how the genre is dying because developers keep making horrible decisions and nothing is changing. Negativity sucks. So I want to write about this instead: APB is awesome.

APB, or All Points Bulletin, is being developed by Scotland based developer Realtime Worlds. New-comers to the MMO industry, working on a project that had been lost in limbo and rumored to be canceled in the past, it’s hard to think that anything good could come of this ill-fated title some years later. However, RTW has really pulled together and created something extremely impressive.

In the simplest of gamer translations, APB is more or less an online version of Grand Theft Auto. Players choose to play as either a criminal or an enforcer and proceed to partake in cops & robbers shenanigans as the game pits them against one another in small packs amidst a large section of city. The way in which the game pushes either faction of players towards one another is two-fold. For one, either faction can receive missions from their contacts. These missions are pretty basic: criminals go set buildings on fire, enforcers investigate crime scenes. Most missions in this game basically boil down to going to an objective location and either using an item, dropping an item off, or holding a point. When players enter missions, the other faction will randomly receive chances to try and stop whatever they’re doing, which pits the players in a mission against one another and lets them slaughter each other with a variety of ballistic and explosive weapons.

The second way of players engaging one another stems from what are called “open world crimes”: criminals can break into storefronts and grab loot, mug pedestrians or simply cause chaos, all of which can be done at any time, in any place. If an enforcer “witnesses” a criminal in the act, and neither player are part of an active mission, the enforcer will have the option to begin a mission involving himself and the criminal regardless of the criminals say so. And yes, this system really does lead to enforcers going out on patrol and looking for criminals, without the game forcibly telling you to do so.

Ram raiding a storefront: a sophisticated crime that can only be pulled off by the brightest of criminal masterminds.

This second system is really interesting to me not only because it literally turns into a game of cops and robbers – which is awesome in it’s own right, but it also shows that APB isn’t afraid to disregard the players consent. If I were to hear about a system like this without first playing the game, I would have been completely unsurprised if I had seen the enforcer having to ask the criminal if it’s OK for him, as a cop, to engage in combat with the criminal. The criminal could then tweak his mustache, adjust his monocle and with a gentlemanly bow be on his merry way. Fortunately, APB is not so gentle, and I was pleasantly surprised with what I did see. Being tagged for an open world crime will toss you in a mission instantly, with no warning, and most of the time with the enforcer behind you ready and waiting with a pair of handcuffs. Or a shotgun.

Daily leaderboards tie into the game via rewards and bragging rights.

This isn’t the only way in which the game tears down the foam padding that newer MMOs have spoiled people with, betraying a players sense of safety while they’re in what are aptly named the action districts. At any time there can be numerous players roaming the map with bounties on their head. After you get to a certain level of notoriety, the game announces to the entire area that a bounty has been placed on your head. Everyone, enforcer and criminal alike, is now free to kill you. The best part? You are now free to kill everyone. Yes, the guy standing at a vending machine trying to decide what outfit he is going to wear today is cannon fodder. A group of people discussing Lady Gaga’s genitals on the sidewalk via the games area-based VoIP can freely be run over by a bountied player in a garbage truck, honking his horn and screaming like a lunatic the entire time. Even better, the game rewards players for going on long kill streaks by again announcing your manly feats to the zone and awarding you extra money per kill. If you manage to get the best kill streak and top the daily leaderboard, you even get a prize sent to you in the in-game mail. And of course, since you do have a bounty on your head, after all – the player who finally ends your rampage will get a nice chunk of change.

Carnage in the Streets

With all this mayhem going on, it might sound a little too chaotic. However, the districts are designed with the 100 player limit per instance in mind and – while disconcerting to think about in comparison to the massive numbers a traditional MMO server holds – this is perfect much a perfect fit. A small enough amount to generate a sort of whimsical “single serving community” of common friends and foes within an instance for the duration of your play session, but also plenty of people to get a steady stream of missions and never have a dull moment.

The district level design is of particular interest, especially being a level designer myself. Like GTA games, APB is set in big city districts and basically lets the player roam free and do as they please. However, every last alleyway and parking garage is crafted with exquisite care as the game can choose nearly anything to be a location for a mission. With this in mind, APB appears more like a series of shooter game levels tied together by roads, and the missions reflect this. In an FPS game, you would play a round on a certain map, then the scoreboard would appear and everyone would load into a new map. In APB, it feels very much the same – only the “loading new map” process is simply getting in a vehicle and driving down the road to the next objective. The thoughtful placement of the mission locations ensures that each area usually has at least a handful of entryways and exits, and plenty of varying ground to get on and cover to get behind. Along with a clever effective range system, this allows for a ton of different play styles and ensures that shotgun users and snipers alike can generally feel useful regardless of where they are in the map; but there is certainly room for planning and strategy.

Character customization allows for in-depth control including body modificaton, tattoos, and multiple clothing layers.

Perhaps the thing that has generated the most press regarding APB, and what will invariably continue to do so for a long time to come, is the customization system in the game. In what has been a fairly competitive title to claim in the MMO market – who has the better and more in-depth character customization, APB has just abruptly ended the contest for at least a couple of years. The extent that the detail of character customization APB goes into is simply ludicrous. When creating your character, you can only choose body measurements and colors. However, upon entering the social district, a whole new world opens up to you via clothing (which can be applied in realistic-feeling layers), tattoos, vehicle decals, and especially: the symbol designer.

The symbol designer is more or less a light vector editing program. You are given a certain number of shapes to work with out of a large list of basic and more complex unlockable shapes. You can apply various modifiers to these shapes, such as layer order, gradients, outlines, and even masks. Any veteran photoshopper knows the power of masks, and it certainly marks how intricate the APB symbol designer is. Even during my short time in beta I had already seen people create custom clothing and sell it for tons of cash, and turn around and buy a new car or weapon. People have created uncanny images of popular characters and memes. The editor is also very simple to use and I was creating detailed symbols using dozens of shapes in a matter of minutes.

Items and symbols can be sold on the in-game marketplace.

And of course along with the symbols are plenty of places to put them. As well as tattoos on your skin, imagery on your clothing and decals on your cars, your symbols can also be used as your graffiti. Around the districts are various billboards. As mentioned previously, there are leaderboards in-game for players or clans who got the most kills, stole the most cars, or other various objectives. Being top ranked for one of these categories will display your graffiti symbol on the associated billboard for everyone to see. And with the, er, creativity of the denizens of the internet, this makes for an interesting feature. A particularly amusing thought what with the latest innovations of the gold selling community is that, at least in this game, they would have to work for their advertising!

APB is a refreshing breathe of air. While not truly an “MMO” in the traditional sense, I find that even the more basic elements of the game are designed and implemented extremely well and make for a really fun and engaging shooter. The fast-paced arcade feel combined with the terrific mission system pretty much ensures no dull moments are had, and racing around the huge districts from mission to mission guarantees a new change of scenery at every turn. I especially look forward to seeing what is in store for the future of this title, as there are so many ways it can be taken. More cars, more equipment, new leaderboards for stuff like car stunts, minigames in the social district, new action districts with special rulesets like FFA – the possibilities are really endless with where APB can go, and it already has a rock solid gameplay foundation. I look forward to seeing where Realtime takes it, and being there for the ride.

I killed Ronald :(

Indirect Fire: Torchlight

Indirect Fire

I recently had a fling with Runic Games‘ newly released title Torchlight and, as usual, I have too much to talk about so I figured I would sum up my thoughts here in a new quasi-column called Indirect Fire.

The Fate of Torchlight

WildTangent released Fate quite some time ago at this point, and it can still be a fun game today – one of the benefits of being a dungeon romp title is being nearly immune to the effects of time passage. I really enjoyed it when it came out and was pleasantly surprised with the unique pet system and some of the mechanics like enchanting. With a little refinement and polish, it could have been something really special and unique amongst the old and tired genre.

Given this, I was very excited for Torchlight. Coming from the combined efforts of the developers of Fate, the ill-fated original Mythos and the prestigious Diablo, it was poised to incorporate all of the best things about these games with extra polish and love from such an experienced development team. Unfortunately, Runic seemed to learn nothing from Fate or Mythos and repeated some very questionable design decisions. I find this hard to understand as they become quite apparent after playing for more than a few hours, and surely they must have known of their existence. As usual, these design mistakes are fairly simple in nature and shouldn’t require that much labor to fix. Even now the developers are releasing patches in effort to alleviate this issues, but being as the game is already released, the stamp of semi-permanence has seemingly been applied to it and these mechanics certainly need much more than simple alleviation.

What Went Wrong

One of the major problems of the game is in the character classes. Boasting only 3 classes, Torchlight aims to make up for the lack of quantity in that each of them has 3 extensive skill trees, and this design is largely taken from Mythos. Such a system is pretty common in today’s RPG games, however I’ve always felt they were one of the worst aspects of Mythos and the same rings true in Torchlight. Rather than being restricted by previous skill purchases (i.e. requiring 5 points in one ability before being able to purchase the next), you can get any skill at any time as long as you meet the level requirement for it. This promotes heavy skill saving in effort to max out the later more powerful abilities, which – while rewarding players for thinking ahead – drastically removes fun from the beginning of the game.  This is emphasized even more strongly when you realize that abilities have no cooldown, you can use them as often as you’d like. This turns the 3 big trees of skill choices into a simple chore of finding which ability is the most powerful and then maxing it out and using it for the rest of your character’s career (with the possible exception of using pets).

No difficulty mode transference is another big core problem. By this I mean the ability to start a game on Normal, and when finishing Normal you move on to Hard with higher level monsters and such. The absence of such a feature may sound non-important, or even good, but it really takes a lot away from the game. In Torchlight, easier difficulties only serve as a grounds to learn the game before jumping right into the hardest difficulty. Worse, some people get too far on Easy/Normal and then do not wish to start over on a new difficulty, but they also feel that the game is too easy and boring. However you cannot beat the game and move on to a higher difficulty, aside from retiring your character which essentially deletes it and lets you start a new one that inherits one of your items, making it stronger. This sounds tempting but is silly as the inheritance bonus is more or less just enchanting the item (a feature which already exists in the game without having to retire) and then transferring this item to the new character (a feature which again already exists in the form of a shared stash). In the end, retiring a character for the sake of the bonus simply isn’t worth it ever, aside from the case of “I have a character on normal who is close to the end and I want to play very hard” (which is what I did). A shame as this was a highly hyped feature of the game, and a big selling point for replayability.

In place of the standard dungeon monsters being higher level on higher difficulties, the game touts an infinite dungeon. This uses Torchlight’s impressive automatically generated dungeon technology – possibly the best procedural dungeons as of yet. So there’s certainly nothing wrong with the dungeon itself. However, the idea of an “infinite dungeon” really struck me as off-putting. Perhaps if the game was multiplayer this wouldn’t be nearly as much of an issue, if it would be an issue at all – but in a single player game I just can’t justify trudging through a dungeon that never ends for more than a few floors in the pursuit of trivial loot.

Enchanting, This Feature is Not

I touched on this topic a couple of times by now, yet I feel the need to elaborate on it as it is definitely one of the biggest gamebreakers for me personally. Enchanting. Fate had this problem as well and it is easily one of the top two things that I just can’t understand the developers ported into Torchlight without significant design changes. Here’s how it works: you talk to an NPC in town who gives you a dialogue box where you can place a piece of armor or a weapon. Upon doing so he gives you a price. You click the Enchant button and one of a few different things can happen: the item is enchanted, giving it more sockets or magical bonuses; nothing happens at all; or the slim chance that the item is disenchanted and returns to being a plain “white” item. The major problem here is there is no limit on enchanting. You can do it over and over and over, making the only thing between you and amazing gear is money. Even this might not sound so bad, but the cost to enchant barely goes up and is instead defined by the rarity of the item. A common “white” item costs nearly nothing to enchant whereas a unique rare item costs tens of thousands of gold. Ultimately this makes it so starting off with a common basic item that drops all of the time and enchanting it until it greatly surpasses the quality of rare items is very easy to do and more or less ruins the loot gathering component of the game, which is one of the strongest hooks in this genre.

This enchanting problems falls back on a very common issue these days, the problem of automatically generated loot that is perfectly balanced each level, with various possible modifiers (usually altering it’s name based on the modifier). Popularized in World of Warcraft and of course copy-pasted into every game to be released afterwards, this is the main reason so much loot in a lot of MMOs today is extremely boring; when you have the possibility of getting a “dagger” that does 5 damage, or a “dagger of agility” that does 5 damage and gives 1 agility, etc. However, this is another topic completely that I could ramble on about forever.

A Matter of Timing

Torchlight is single player only, which is most likely the biggest downside to to the title overshadowing all of the other issues (of course, all of the other issues would be amplified had it been multiplayer). Curiously, Runic Games is claiming that an MMO component/version is coming, which is a very interesting prospect given that the game is begging for multiplayer. Not so interesting is the fact that the estimated time of arrival for “Torchlight the MMO” is in 1.5 years. Frankly, in such a long timespan I am having trouble understanding why they insist on even calling it the same game – at such a length of time, I question the necessary secondary marketing to be worth it rather than just using Torchlight as a “brought to you by the creators of” reference.

More than just breaking free of the chains of an already marketed and hyped game, they could also use it as a chance to rebalance and design questionable aspects of the game. Certainly, one would hope this to be true as while these issues can be acceptable for a single player title, they would be exponentially worse in a multiplayer environment.

The Light at the End of the Tunnel

With everything I’ve written so far, I guess it is hard to believe that I could still somehow scribble out anything positive about Torchlight. However, it certainly isn’t all bad, and contains many of the elements that made Fate really fun. Of note is that it brought back the pet system from Fate, where you have a permanent companion that runs around with you fighting monsters. You can equip this pet and also send him back to sell your extra loot without you actually having to leave the dungeon. This was also a feature in Fate but as that game was very underrated and not well known, this is new to many people and has caused quite a stir of interest.

The game is also known to be beautiful, which it certainly is. Being rendered in a stylized manner allows for detailed environments, extravagant spell effects and of course huge packs of monsters.

Speaking of environments, Torchlight also features a very easy to use and fun map editor for which users can create their own mods on the game’s engine. I have to say this really shows just how good the randomized dungeon technology in the game is, especially with how easy it is to make gorgeous and varied environments.

And of course at the end of the day Torchlight is still a very solid dungeon crawler.

Final Thoughts

Torchlight is still easily a great game, well worth $20 in today’s market. It is just a shame that the multiplayer wasn’t near being ready as it is plain to see from user reactions how thirsty gamers are for a Diablo-like experience these days. The design issues, while annoying, don’t really detract from the $20 worth of gameplay; however they easily keep it from being a long-lasting title that you’ll want to invest countless hours in like a Bioware or Bethesda game. Instead I suspect most will keep it at a single play-through, not taking advantage of the game’s infinite dungeon or extensive levels, or at least not for any length of time. The bland skill and loot systems simply ruin the game’s staying power, and this is cause for concern as they are planning to use the Torchlight IP for an MMO later on.

However, I wouldn’t let any of this detract you from buying Torchlight as the pricepoint doesn’t really demand an amazingly long game, and playing it through on the hardest setting will serve more hours of gameplay than most titles can offer currently. My personal suggestion is to just take it easy and enjoy the game for what it is instead of trying to work the system and make your character as strong as possible. I know this is the whole point of anything with RPG elements, but trust me. Just enjoy the ride. Don’t over-analyze it and write a novel about it on your personal blog. Er…

Professor Layton and the Curiously Well-Designed Game

Professor Layton

I’ve never been a big fan of lateral thinking based puzzles, and this is the main reason I have always written off the Professor Layton games on the Nintendo DS and not given them any bit of my attention.

After beating Henry Hatsworth again, trying to recover where I was at in the Dragon Quest IV remake (I can’t for the life of me remember how to get inside the circular mountain range), and grinding out a few levels in the Final Fantasy IV remake, I decided to give Professor Layton and the Curious Village a try after a friend brought it up in conversation.

I have to say I am really glad I finally set my prejudices aside and finally gave this game a go. I’m completely enchanted by it and find myself hard pressed to put it down, even when stuck on a puzzle.

Often I think that games don’t require a lot of extra bells and whistles, and that the core gameplay concept is generally all that is needed – anything else is just for polishing it or making it more appealing to a wider market. I think Layton has proved me wrong in this regard, or at least surprised me. I’m sure that if this game was just a matter of loading it up and being greeted with puzzle after puzzle (the core gameplay), my prior assumptions would have been met and I would dislike the game. However, it has such incredible character and world building that I find the puzzles a pleasure to solve (even though they’re usually only loosely based on where you found the puzzle) and look forward to progressing the story, and of course seeing the fantastically well done cut scenes. The dialogue between characters is terrific as well, and the world is crafted in such a way to actually promote exploring it. Not to mention the character design is as creative as the puzzles themselves, and fits into the quirky world very well. Strange traits for a game based on solving a series of minigame-esque puzzles, but without them it wouldn’t be nearly the same.

I also like how the game really doesn’t take itself seriously at all. Layton and Luke find it completely normal to stop in the middle of chasing down a murderer to solve a puzzle about cats, and will make remarks about doing so accordingly.

Sometimes I will encounter a puzzle that has a very awkward solution and makes me feel more cheated rather than accomplished. However, this is understandable as the game has hundreds of puzzles, and even as someone who is not accustomed to these types of puzzles, they are few and far between (and I’m sure these few esoteric puzzles are probably different for everyone).

Solving puzzles will sometimes reward you with a collection piece for various over-arching puzzles (such as jigsaw pieces), a nice bonus reward on top of the feel of accomplishment. The coin-based hint system is also done very well and again promotes exploring the world. Much like Braid, the game focuses on getting you to solve everything yourself rather than simply giving you answers, and the meta-reward of feeling like you’ve accomplished something is ever present. Again – sometimes puzzles are so awkward that even 3 hints don’t help at all, but you’re never forced to complete a puzzle; regardless of how far along you advance the story, the puzzle will always be in a storage area to try and complete later on – a fact that more than placates completionists such as myself.

While I don’t think I will ever be actively pursuing mind-bender puzzle books as a source of entertainment, Layton has definitely presented them in a way that allows me to enjoy them – I don’t just complete them because they’re “in the way” of the rest of the game, rather the game itself makes the puzzles enjoyable – even though the puzzles are the game itself. An interesting situation. My hats off to Level-5, Layton and his apprentice Luke.