Game Overdose: Cut Cocktail: Skyrim, Bastion and Uncharted 3 (revisited)
This game is huge. I mean, I’ve been struggling to do a massive cross-game comparison between Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas and this game dwarfs their combined size and scope. So, I can’t really talk too hugely about the entirety of the game, so I’ll instead talk about something I hated in Oblivion, its predecessor.
Levelling – Oblivion
Oblivions levelling system was largely focussed around “gameplay driven levelling”. What I mean by that is how you play directly affected the character you ended up with. This is different from the levelling system in say Fallout, where you choose to assign points to a character and then try to play the character to those strengths and weaknesses, in Oblivion your strengths and weaknesses mapped to what you did or didn’t do a lot in the game respectively.
Now, this was done by 2 seperate stat-growths. Skills were at the core, and reflected “things you learned and practiced” so if you swung your sword a bit, your one-armed weapons would increase. Want to be a better potion brewer? Brew some potions to up your Alchemy! Heavy armour? Get smashed in the face a lot while you’ve got a bucket over your head.
The second aspect were Attributes, which reflected more innate aspects of your character, such as their intelligence and strength. Attributes were also taken into account on the use of skills, but tended to be linked to multiple skills. It helped promote synergy across abilities, I mean you may have never used a two-handed weapon in your life, but all that time swinging around a one-hander should at least mean you’ve got the muscle mass to lift it! Attributes also affected more innate aspects of your character, such as carrying capacity, health, magicka pool etc.
Levelling up happened by upgrading 3 “class skills” a certain number of times. These skills were chosen at character creation and could not be changed. At level up you were allowed to select 3 attributes to increase as well. The Catch? The amount the attributes could be increased was directly linked to the amount their relevant skills had been increased, whether a class skill or not. This meant that if you’d played a Jack of all trades-style, you’d get less of a stat injection then someone that had specialised more, so overall a weaker character at the same level.
While in and of itself the above doesn’t seem to bad, you have to take into account how levelling reflected upon the rest of the game world. Your “Character level” was used for everything, from the loot you found or received in quest rewards to the strength of enemies. If you had a character that received low points every level, the rest of the game would quickly outclass you, and neurotically focussing on skills that level up passively through general actions in the game does nothing for my OCD.
Seriously, there was an Athletics skill that levelled up while you ran. Try not running anywhere in a game like Oblivion so as not to unbalance your stat growth. There was one instance where I was hiding on the roof of a house, slowly chipping away at some behemoth’s health the game had decided was appropriate for me level, dreading the eventual running-out of arrows.
The only way I found around this was to select 3 class skills that reflected on the abilities I levelled the least in the game. So my sneaky archer with a bit of magic had heavy armour, two handed weapons and blacksmithing as his class abilities. So I could have my skills become more powerful without having to face tougher enemies. Somewhat counter-intuitive…
This broke the game and ruined the entire experience for me. Really, really bad design. In a game where the levelling is essentially done for you, it should almost be completely out of sight and mind of the player. They aren’t choosing their character, you’re making it for them based on how they play!
Levelling – Skyrim
Skyrim did away with many of these problems by simplifying the system. There’s no attributes and no Class Skills.
All skills count towards your character levelling up. And while enemies still do level to you, there are still low-level ones that hang around.
This means that the levelling system is far more organic than in Oblivion, and while I do have a sneaky suspicion that if you chose to solely level up the crafting-abilities you could end up facing some very powerful enemies, it’s no-where near as easy to break as Oblivion was, which you could do just by playing the game…
When you level up you choose to invest in Health, Magicka or Fatigue (which raises one of those bars a small amount) and receive a perk-point.
Perks are another new aspect, borrowed from Fallout. In Oblivion when you reached certain levels of Skills you gained a new ability related to that Skill, eg. At 25 archery it no longer cost fatigue to cock an arrow. In Skyrim, many of these “benchmark abilities” as well as numerous others have been littered through a sort-of talent-tree. There’s a talent tree for each Skill, and most of them give extra functionality to that skill, whether it’s unlocking new crafting recipes, allowing for special moves, or simply increasing its effectiveness through a +20% mark.
These perks tend to have a certain skill requirement, as their Fallout brothers. Another great addition is that you can “store” perk points until later, meaning that if there’s a particular tree you want to invest in heavily but have yet to aquire the right skill-level you can simply save that perk til later on. Hell, you don’t even need to do it at level-up!
I won’t lie that some perk abilities don’t make full sense, and I’m still confused why pickpocketing has been made its own skill, but overall it’s an infinitely better system over the Oblivion one.
Hell, some trees are more powerful than others, like Restoration can give you the power to “heal” both health and fatigue, increase your magicka regen and give you a free “pseudo-resurrect once per day” by healing you when you fall below 10% health.
Having just skills and no attributes does take away some of the Synergy across different skill-sets, but mostly it’s a far bigger benefit to have a system that works over one that doesn’t but “had a good idea”.
Oh, and when it comes to character creation, all the fluff with birthsigns and races has more or less been removed. Choosing a race is a genuine choice now, rather than a “hmm, will that ability actually be useful later on” calculation (answer: NO). They’ve all been balanced to have benefits that make sense and will work throughout the whole game. Though if you’re not a Nord… Pack a jumper.
In short, it’s the best kind of system, because gameplay directly reflects on your character, and you don’t really need to stat-count as heavily as before. If you don’t like the perks down your tree, don’t select them, save the points until you can upgrade a different one. Suffice to say it’s sated my OCD and I can just focus on enjoying the game more!
In other respects…
The combat is far better, the spell system has been overhauled in a slightly Fable 3-esque manner (mixing hands) and there’s a more in depth crafting system in place.
The Menu system and UI are vastly improved over Oblivion, though it loses some slight thematic relevance. It’s not as bad as the Dragon Age 2 interface though, but it’s heading that way.
NPC’s still suffer from “manequin with a voice-box” syndrome, though the voice acting is much better some slight character animation would have been good!
As with the previous game there’s not really any character presence, as each area is almost its own little microcosm that exists outside of every other, no-one really shows up again and you’re like “Hey! That guy! I love that guy!”.
This is odd seeing as the Fallouts that Bethesda have had a hand in have numerous characters that drip with personality. Even the token 1-shot characters stick in my mind, and I can happily name a handful of them from the top of my head. Moira Brown, Three-dog, Augustus Autumn, Sierra Petrovic, Sara Lyons, and loads more, even though I haven’t touched FO3 in about a year. Oblivion? Not so much, and even less in Skyrim which I was playing less than an hour ago!
I mean, Bethesda are no Bioware when it comes to writing characters, but Skyrim feels a slight step back in that regard. It isn’t entirely their fault though, when you have a game that’s as open and sandbox-like as this one, so it’s hard to pace character arcs with your own character randomly marching around. Saying that Obsidian managed it in F:NV…
I haven’t married yet (in the game, but nor in real life…ladies) but it really does raise the question just how deep the relationship will be, or if it’s more like putting your Barbie in the same carboard box as Action man and making pretend.
I can’t help but feel that though the game is good, the hype was making it out to be an even better game than it actually is. Saying that, “Oblivion but better” is a good enough goal for most games to strive for! Hell, even just “Oblivion but not broken” is good enough for me, and Skyrim goes above and beyond.
The world is stunning, the score and use of music is even better than the last game. Every moment drips “good design” through every possibly means of the word, whether for gameplay or just its sheer beauty. It’s going to take me a long time to stop enjoying playing this game!
Get it, you won’t regret it.
Because it was cheap on Steam and I’d heard good things I decided to pick up Bastion. Now, I don’t have a full review for the game yet, because all my gaming has been interrupt by the huge amount of Coursework I have, which in turn has been interrupted by Skyrim (thanks Bethesda…) but it must be said…
“This, THIS is what gaming narrative should be about.”.
So, whatever you’ve heard about Bastion, you’ve probably heard about the Narrator. Ever second of the game is narrated by this disturbingly sexy black man, who (as Yahtzee put it) “appears to have replaced his lungs with chocolate profriteroles”.
Every action, every moment, every little instance of the game that needs narration, this guy supplies it. Conversations with NPC’s, comments about the world, thoughts of the “Kid” (the main character). The pacing is perfect for the game, and even moments you wouldn’t expect that could benefit from the narration do so very well.
It’s informative, adaptable and doesn’t distract.
It really shows the benefit of gaming’s interactive nature as a narrative medium, quite literally in this case!
On top of all this, it’s a very solid top-down action-rpg which only suffers slightly from a lack of variety in enemies. Expect a full mechanics analysis in the some-what near future (Skyrim-time)
Uncharted 3 (again)
I really don’t want to focus on this too much, but I had something of a realisation looking back on the game after replaying an earlier section of Uncharted 2.
Something that felt very organic in Uncharted 2 were the stealth sections. They were by or large “take ’em or leave ’em” with some minor benefit for taking them. Let me give you 2 scenarios.
Uncharted 2: In a swamp getting to a small hut at the opposite side. There’s a scattering of about 4 or 5 guards around with more turning up if you get caught. I was jumping around, using rocks as cover, occassionally climbing around the outside of buildings to get behind guards. They didn’t really patrol, which meant the challenge was more in finding the best path to get around, or occasionally waiting for one of them to shift slightly.
Uncharted 3: About 12 guards, all in the equivalent of a parking lot. They patrol around, meaning that timing was of the utmost importance. Due to their positioning, they’d stumble on their mates prone bodies if you didn’t take them out in correct order. There was also very little scope of climbing around, focussing nearly exclusively on using cover and timing to get around. If the alarm is raised everyone plus extras will rush to your opinion and the slaughter will ensue.
So, what’s the problem here? Well, simply put the U3 scenario does not take full advantage of the Uncharted play-style. In the swamp you’re essentially just solving a jumping puzzle, with a few moments of sneaking up on guards to add to the intensity. It was relatively easy to complete in the first instance, didn’t break the flow and was genuinely quite fun to do, with minor repurcussions for failing.
In the parking-lot, there was no real scope to utilise any of the unique free-running capacity Drake possesses, as it’s a relatively flat surface with limited vertical cover. Screwing up hefted a much greater repercussion, but equally the capacity to mess up was also greater due to the patrolling. You do have a silenced pistol, but the opportunity to use it was limited, as shooting without knowing exactly who else was in the area might have killed one guard and alerted all the others, and unlike in the swamp they patrolled around so it’s never certain.
What’s worse, I’m fairly certain the entire scenario was 2 separate paths that slightly overlapped, meaning you had to progress down both in order to not alert anyone, but were physically limited to one person. My verdict? It was made for co-op.
And now that I’ve realised this, other little bits start to make more sense.
Naughty Dog recently posted a big blog post against the recent backlash they got for the subtle change in shooting mechanics. So essentially, the shooting mechanic both required and focussed more on accuracy, with better on-the-fly feedback and recoil to create moments of down-time. Smells to me a lot like something you’d add for a multiplayer focussed game. Hell, part of the clue is in how much they talk about the multi-player for the second half of the post.
This is why so many sections of the game felt more like a shooting gallery, rather than a section you have to sensibly navigate around. Because they were intended for multiple people to shoot in. You can’t make one area a complete dead-zone due to enemy fire when one newbie might still be holed up there.
This is also why enemies seemed to come more in waves, even more so than U2. Because you needed your buddies help to get through it.
Plus from what I’ve read the mutli-player is far deeper at least mechanics-wise than the main game, incorporating a levelling system, weapon mods and loadouts and the like to really play with the game mechanics.
Now I’ll disclaim, I didn’t play the U3 mutliplayer because I had already traded the game in for Skyrim (for a 1 to 1 trade of all things). But it shouldn’t matter. When a game series that has been established to focus on the single player experience incorporates multiplayer, that’s no problem, it adds a new fun angle.
However, if that same series instead focusses more on the multiplayer than the single player, to the point that entire design choices are made at the detriment to solo-play, that is an issue. You’re completely disrupting and indeed abandoning your original consumer base. Fans of the series that only play the single player, and have only ever played the single player are not getting as much love as they should. These are the people that have been buying your games since the beginning, and therefore should be getting the most love. Do not try to appeal to the newcomers!
Fine, have multiplayer, but look after your established fans first and foremost. I genuinely do not think that this was Naughty-dogs intention, but when they altered the mechanics this way they made the whole experience… different. They had to design to the mechanics, which is why the design overall wasn’t as tight.
Spectacular sections that acted solely as a spectacle to the player, limited control.
Shooting sections that felt dated and didn’t take advantage of the full capacity of the games established mechanics.
A tutorial section that felt crowbarred in compared to the organic Museam section of U2.
Hell, even the in-game direction through use of camera wasn’t as good, just panned out to say “dis is big, look at how big it is, we made dis” over “look at how awesome it is… btw go that direction, y’know, the bit we just revealed with this camera angle change”.
Yeah, bad call guys. It just wasn’t as organic or fluid as U2.