Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Bioshock - Actually its a terrific game

I realise looking over my last couple of posts that it may seem that I have nothing but complaints about Bioshock. In actual fact I am really enjoying the game and the further I get into it the better it gets. The story is very good and intriguing, the gameplay is rich and complex. The system of upgrades allows you to customise the way you play to a very large extent. Earlier I complained about the lack of stealth in the game. It turns out there are stealth upgrades which allow for just the type of stealthy game play I love.

On the issue of high system requirements and low frame-rate I should point out that after all my deliberations about resolution and framerate I have finally settled on 1024x768 high quality mode. In fact I am using the default out of the box settings and the game looks great and plays smoothly. Yes my humble 7600GT cannot stay above my desired goal of 30 fps at these settings but the game still feels very smooth and playable.

I am still a bit sceptical about the resurrection system but as long as you don't abuse it it doesn't really spoil the game. There is plenty of depth elsewhere to make up for it.

One final observation I will make is that I have swapped my normal wireless mouse (Logitech MX600) for an old wired mouse (microsoft wheel mouse optical). The wireless mouse was giving very bad mouse lage and jerky control. I have played other shooters with that mouse so I don't know if it is a problem with the mouse or the game but swapping to a wired mouse has solved everything.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Bioshock- I just killed a Big Daddy with my wrench

Well actually I only got him down to 50% health before I got bored with the whack, die, resurrect and repeat cycle I was using to kill the monster with the humblest weapon in the game. However with a bit of persistence it can certainly be done.

The point of this experiment is that I think the resurrection system is a big flaw in Bioshock. Instead of penalising a player for dying the game rewards you with an instant resurrect and a quick shot of health and eve. The enemy you were fighting won't even have recovered health by the time you get back to them so it is possible to whittle the toughest enemies down in a repeated cycle of hit, die and resurrect.

If you reward players for dying then death has no fears. If death has no fears then the game loses most of its tension. This is a crying shame for a game which should be an edge of your seat nail biting ride through a nightmare.

The recent shooter Prey made the same mistake of rewarding players for dying and in my opinion it totally spoiled that game. At least Bioshock has sufficient depth elsewhere to compensate but I think it would be so much better if there was a genuine fear of dying.

The further I get into the game the more I realise that Bioshock bears many striking similarities to it spiritual pre-decessor System Shock 2. SS2 still stands out as one of the tensest games I have ever played - at times I was literally terrified while playing the game. SS2 also had resurrection stations but they were much less forgiving. Firstly you had to find the resurrection station on each new level - not always easy to do given the very nasty enemies that you might encounter on the way. Secondly resurrection was not free - it cost precious nanites to and that was disincentive enough to make players want to stay alive.

I am not against the idea of resurrection in itself. If it fits into the game lore as it does in Bioshock it make a refreshing change from the abuse of quick save. I just don't think the player should be rewarded for dying, there should be a penalty instead.

One suggestion would be to make resurrection cost a small amount of adam. That would certainly make death unpleasant and would also add a new strategic consideration into the game. Do I spend all my adam on upgrades or do I keep some for resurrection?

Another solution would be to automatically reset all enemies to full health after you resurrect. That could be incorporated into the game lore by saying it takes time to resurrect during which the enemies can heal themselves. This would certainly eliminate victory through repeated deaths. It would greatly increase the challenge of the game however. Trying to kill a Big Daddy without dying is extremely hard a task I admit I have only accomplished a couple of times - after managing to call in the assistance of nearby splicers and security bots.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Bioshock

After finally struggling through the 2nd Mortain level I am taking a break from Company of Heroes to play Bioshock. As predicted I managed to scoop a pretty good deal by comparing high street shop prices - €45 all in for the special edition complete with toy Big Daddy. This matches the best price I found on the internet and when you consider that this includes Ireland's hefty 21% VAT (sales tax) it was a pretty good deal all in all.


I won't give away spoilers but I will try to share some of my thoughts so far.

First off the bad news: This game is an almighty resource hog. It brings my modest gaming rig to its knees. My rig has a AMD 64 4400x2 with 2Gb Ram and a 7600GT graphics card. At 1280x1024 high detail the game crawls along at between 15 and 20 fps. In my old age I have become kind of fussy and I find that anything less than 30 frames per second hampers game-play and gives me headaches. I can get this by running at 1024x768 in medium to low graphics detail or by running at 800 x 600 in medium to high detail. Both of these resolutions suffer from the fact that they don't fit evenly into my 1280x1024 LCD monitor and I get a blurring of the image as it tries to cram the pixels in. I haven't settled on the optimum compromise yet but I am actually considering 600x480 high detail mode. This does give plenty jagged edges but at least it fits nicely into my monitor at four screen pixels per image pixel and at I do get all the graphical niceties.

Other thoughts - at first I was playing this like a shooter blasting through enemies as they arose. Death is not a problem as you are immediately rejuvenated and can charge right back into a fight before the enemy has regained health. However I realised that playing that way I was missing out on all of the atmosphere of the game. I personally think that the lack of any kind of penalty for dying is a serious mistake. "Prey" made exactly the same mistake and it robs the game of any tension. The toughest enemy in the game can be killed simply by a repetitive process of shoot, die, resurrect, shoot, die and repeat.

So I have changed my playing style drastically. I switched off all the helpful hinty things like the glowing arrow showing you where to go. Items don't glow in the dark anymore so I have to diligently search for useful stuff. I am also trying really hard not to get killed. Prior to a fight I try to suss out my opponents and prepare accordingly - planning and configuring my skills optimally for each encounter.

Although this is a slower way to play it is much more enjoyable. Playing this way the game feels a lot more like System Shock 2 and even a bit like Deus Ex. Sadly stealth does not seem to be as effective as it was in SS2 - it is very hard to sneak up on enemies and observe them unawares.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Company of Heroes: The Price of Complacency

Mission 13 (Mortain Counterattack) is somewhat disappointingly set on the same map as the previous mission but the objectives are different and thankfully there is no timer. Each side starts with a 400 point "life counter". Four victory locations are scattered about the map and in order to win you need to whittle the opponents life counter down to zero by holding a majority of the victory locations.

Fair enough - following my usual instincts I grabbed the nearest two victory points and built strong defenses around them. The Germans grabbed the other two and then launched furious combined assaults at my victory points. After my stalwart defenders had beaten off numerous waves of armoured assault the Germans appeared to give up and intensity of attacks tailed off. After about an hour of playing time the Germans assault had reduced to a trickle of solo infantry units charging to their deaths against my strongpoints.

Remember that at this point we still had an equal share of victory points and the Germans possessed more territory than I did. Still we had reached the mythical tipping point. Freed from the need to focus purely on defense I could start to slowly undermine the enemy. Adopting a cautious approach so as not to provoke a major backlash I sent a lone engineer unit out to scavenge for lightly guarded territories. I also sent a camouflaged sniper deep into enemy territory to wreak some sabotage havoc.

Another hour of careful play saw the lone engineer unit extend my territory to about two thirds of the map, avoiding all strategic zones and picking off lightly guarded zones. Meanwhile the lone sniper had managed to destroy several German fixed gun positions acting as spotter for my own off map artillery while picking off the gun crews with his scoped rifle. Deep behind enemy lines he discovered a heavily fortified German base and managed to direct our artillery to level the German headquarters. Although his travels also revealed a great number of German armoured vehicles the destruction of the headquarters was killer blow which would greatly hamper German ability to replenish any losses in the battle ahead.

Victory was now within my grasp. All that remained was for me to gather my own forces for a crippling assault on the weakened German heartland. It was late in the evening however and Major General MBP decided to save the game and retire for the night, confident that the remaining huns could be mopped up in the morning.

The next morning I fired up the game eager to deliver the coup de-grasse. As I contemplated my next move I was rudely awoken by a massed assault of German armour on one of my key positions. It seemed as if every German unit on the map was converging on this one spot. Too late I realised that the relative calm of the night before had lulled me into a false sense of complacency in which foolish state I had neglected to maintain my defensive shield. My footsoldier defenders armed with nothing more than a few bazookas were facing massed enemy tanks . I sat there stunned as I watched a battle I was sure was won turn against me quickly and devastatingly.

Following the utter defeat of my forces I ruefully contemplated what had happened. Where did those tanks come from. Why had I not detected the beginnings of this assault the night before? Several probing restarts later brought the sorry truth to me. These tanks were the very same my sniper had seen scattered around the map hiding in defensive positions the night before. However whereas they had been content to hide the previous night the morning light had fired them up individually and collectively for a devastating assault on my central strong point.

At one level you could imagine this was a demonstration of superb Artifical intelligence - an emergent behaviour if you like. It is easy to imagine a real life army retiring to their bases after wave upon wave of unsuccessful attacks only to regroup and re-launch a new assault the following morning. A less charitable view would be to attribute this behaviour to a bug in the save game routine. It seems clear to me that while the game saves units and positions it does not save the AI state. The previous night the AI has been intelligent enough to rememeber that repeated assaults on my strongpoints were not working so it had opted for a different more defensive tactic and there it had stuck. This state was wiped on a restart the following morning.

So now I have a dilemma - Do I try to mount a last ditch defense against tanks with my infantry knowing that if I can survive long enough the loss of the headquarters should hamper their ability to replenish any losses or do I start over?

Company of Heroes: Hill 314 you are pwned.

Well I finally beat back the Nazi hordes from the slopes of hill 314 by dint of two strokes of stunning strategic insight:


The first was finally learning the value of the half track unit. Previously I had ignored this unit because it has paper thin amour and dies easily. What I had overlooked is that the half track can be used a a mobile infantry re-generator making it the ideal support vehicle for groups of infantry fighting far from base especially when upgraded with a kick ass flack gun. Add in a bunch of engineers to keep the half track repaired and you have a very self sustaining mobile fighting unit.

My second stroke of insight was to lower the difficulty level from hard to normal, cough. Pride having been well and truly swallowed I think I actually prefer normal difficulty level and am going to stick with it. Normal and hard difficulty levels seem to pit you against similar numbers of enemies who show similar levels of AI. The only difference I can see is that the enemy units are harder to kill in hard mode. This has some unfortunate consequences on game balance in my opinion: For example infantry armed with bazookas have a very hard time taking out a German tank in hard mode virtually forcing you to go the tank route yourself. On normal mode the relative units strengths seem more balanced. Thats my excuse anyway.

The real challenge of that level for me was the timer. I like to play a long slow defensive game gradually building up my strength till the balance of forces is at a tipping point and then grinding out a victory. Timer mission don't allow that.

Speaking of tipping points I had an interesting experience on the next level which cast an interesting light on the subject and highlighted some facets of the computer AI in the game. This is already a long post so for clarity I'll explain in my next post.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Company of Heroes: The Battle for Hill 314

I've been working my way through Company of heroes for about a week now and I have hit a particularly bastard level where I am struggling to defend Hill 314 near the town of Mortain.

I mentioned before that the enemy AI in Company of Heroes is poor. In fact it is often non-existent and most of the enemy actions in the game seem to be nothing more than responses to preset triggers.

The computer starts off most levels with a huge superiority of forces, territory and resources. While an intelligent player in the same situation would throw everything they had at the fledgling opposition to wipe them out before they even got started the computer in CoH is happy to wait for a certain triggers before acting. This allows a player who knows the system to play a very defensive game. If you know that the computer will send a dozen panzers at you after you take a certain point then it is easy to put off taking that point and slowly build up your resources and army until you are strong enough to win.

This sounds like I am complaining but oddly enough I quite enjoy a slow defensive style of play. I generally try to build a strong well defended base before making forays into the country side. In order to give myself some kind of challenge I am playing through on Hard setting and I often set my own private goals. For instance on one level I force myself to play through with infantry only while on another I only use vehicles. A major strength of the game is that it is possible to play and win in such diverse ways.

Some levels have an initial assault or a countdown timer forcing me to change my normal defensive approach but generally I muddle through.

The Mortain level is all about defending a hill so you would imagine that my defensive instincts would work to a tee but the problem is that the hill is virtually indefensible. At the start of the level the game asks you to reinforce a number of outposts which are all remote from the central hilltop and remote from each other. Sending men to these points seems to be a suicidal waste. There is nothing to stop these points being flanked and they cannot be easily reinforced once the enemy attacks.

To make matters worse your headquarters isn't even on the hilltop - it is sitting at the base of the hill on the other side of a road along which panzers will soon be coming. If you try to defend the hilltop and lose the heaquarters you don't immediately lose the game but you are at a severe disadvantage because many abilities depend on having a functioning headquarters.

As if that wasn't enough they game then asks you to defend a town centre which is also disjoint from both hilltop and from the headquarters.

Oh and did I mention that you cannot use tanks in this level even though the computer has a large army of panzers.

My first attempt was to split my forces and try to defend everything. I was annihilated. On my second attempt I abandoned the hilltop and built a reinforced position around the headquarters. This worked well and I was able to hold off anything the computers German army sent against me. Unfortunately I was unable to retake the hilltop before the countdown timer ran out so I still lost the level.

The only saving grace is that the medal (a kind of bonus objective) for this mission is a cinch. You just have to rescue a bunch of rangers pinned down by a couple of German squads. One squad of grunts armed with grenades can do this within minutes of starting the level.

Bioshock PC Demo

Bioshock has been getting such good press that I just had to download the PC demo when it came available on Steam today. Its a pretty short demo - I played it through twice to make sure I didn't miss anything.

First impressions: We would you believe immediate my first impression was a slight disappointment when I realised it was a shooter!!! I know. I know. It says its a shooter, it never said it was anything else but for some odd reason I expected something a bit more like System Shock 2 - with upgrades and skills and stealth and such.

Aside: You could never call SS2 a shooter even though it had plenty of guns - my overriding memory of the game was there was always so little ammo available that actually shooting something was a matter of last resort.

Anyway that misunderstanding aside it looks to me like it is going to be a very good shooter with tonnes of depth and (joy of joys) a rich and engaging storyline. The artwork is superb - a hauntingly creepy 1930's Art Deco style pervades the bits of the game I saw so far.

When I launched the demo it defaulted to a 1024 x 768 resolution at maximum graphics settings. I was a little disappointed to find that my 7600GT struggles a bit at those settings. My definition of playability for an FPS is frame rates consistently above 30fps and in order to achieve this I had to lower the resolution to 800 x 600. It actually ran nicely at that resolution and looks pretty good too particularly once I enabled vertical sync to eliminate tearing. Even at 800 x 600 my 7600GT couldn't lock to the 60Hz screen refresh rate though so I got an every second frame lock giving a consistent 30 fps. This is with graphics settings on max. The actual graphics options are very limited - there is no advanced graphics tab. I hope the full game allows for more tweaking because I suspect I may need to be a bit innovative to get the most out of my graphics card.

Anyway I like the demo enough to convince me to buy the retail game at full price and not wait the usual few months for the price to drop. Steam are offering the game at $55 but by the time they add Irish VAT (21%) this would cost me about €50. I expect to be able to get a hardcopy for not much more than that - perhaps even less. Play.Com (a Channel Islands based online retailer are shipping it for €39. I checked in a local bricks and mortar store and they wouldn't give me a price until the day of release (next Friday) but past experience has shown me that there is often a bit of price competition between stores for big name releases so perhaps I can pick up a bargain by shopping around.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

MMORPGs - What are they???

So I am back from the "holiday of a lifetime" (t.m.) where I spent a few great weeks on the far side of the world with my family. Being on holiday for so long was terrific, spending all that time with my family was terrific, not spending hours every day in front of a PC was terrific, not having to log in to play an MMORPG every day was terrific and actually not having to think about what to write in this blog was also terrific.

So where does that leave my gaming and my blogging now that I am back?

On the gaming front I am playing PC games again but I have avoided logging on to any MMORPGs. I played and finished Half Life 2 Episode 1 (so so) and I am working my way through Company of Heroes single player campaign (excellent in many ways but let down a bit by extremely poor enemy AI).

It's great to be able to spend some time on single player games - a luxury that is denied me when I get heavily into a multplayer game. The timing is just right too because the interweb is abuzz with news and previews of Bioshock. Bioshock comes from the geniuses behind System Shock 2 and it is scoring huge marks in online reviews. Eurogamer give the Xbox360 version 10 out of 10 and this CVG review gives hope that the PC version is just as good. Normally I am a miser and put off buying games until the price drops but this time I may make an exception.

It looks like I'll be playing single player games for a while though so where does that leave blogging? I guess I'll continue to write the odd piece that catches my interest but I doubt if I will be contributing as diligently as I did before the Summer.

P.S. I realise that this was probably the worst summer on record for residents of the UK and Ireland so my sympathy goes out to any of you who had to put up with this while we were enjoying Australia. If it is any consolation the South East of Australia was experiencing one of its coldest winters on record but I can vouch for the fact that that the coldest Winter on record in Australia is not much worse than a typical UK and Ireland Summer!