28 November 2013

Tablets... the curse of "good enough". [Updated]

I always looked at tablets with slitted eyes. I didn't like them - I didn't really see the need for them and I really didn't think they were useful. After all I had my desktop PC for everything - big, powerful and very versatile. Big is always better, right?

Well, I then came into contact with an iPad - one that I'd rather stupidly bought for my significant other (hey, they wanted one and I don't let my petty grievances or opinions get in the way!) - and... it wasn't so bad. Only, after using the tablet for some time, I am once again veering towards disliking the platform as a user-oriented device.

It's not an Apple vs Android thing, I know this much because I also dislike my Android phone, it's the touch screen... and even the size of the screen that's such a factor in my dislike of them. Tablets and to a lesser extent phones are great for viewing the internet and video files but they're pretty much terrible for any other task that requires a keyboard and/or mouse. Writing a short comment is about as far as I can go nowadays without becoming frustrated with the interface and the shenanigans that the developers of the interface software have gotten to.

Whether it's re-inputting the text I just deleted, jumping back to the beginning of the post after entering half of the sentence at the end of the post, being unable to reliably select text to copy and/or drag the selection markers to where you want them (god forbid you want to scroll at the same time!!) or wanting to correct the spelling of a word by clicking on it and not get bogged down by trying to unselect the autocorrect box that pops up in the way without making the cursor go to another part of the screen... the whole experience is terrible! 

Of course, therein lies the problem: most people don't need to write anything other than a few words using a tablet. 

It's good enough.

More serious users use a linked keyboard that is always cheap (though not in the monetary sense) feeling and mushy - likely to give any person using them for long periods some sort of RSI. They are tiny (to go with their tiny devices) and this is where the next two problems come in.

First of all, the cradles and stands that come for these tablet devices just don't offer any sort of great angle options for tall people and if you manage to position it "just so" you're likely to suffer from a lot of glare and reflection off the screen (assuming you've wiped off all those greasy fingerprints).

Secondly, those keyboards don't work well on the lap - where you want to use the tablet most!! If I want something on the table then I'm going to have a proper sized screen with a proper stand and a proper keyboard. The tablet's use is, at least to my design sensibilities, specifically not for that scenario.

This all isn't even taking into account the quirks of the platform(s) - the constantly having to manage apps in memory by shutting them down or clearing all running programmes, for example. The last time I was regularly doing this was when I was having to write autoexec.exe and config.sys files so that I could get windows 3.11 stable enough to play the game I wanted. I thought tablets are supposed to be easy for non-techie people?
Then there's the problem that the computational power requirements are advancing so quickly that a brand new top of the line tablet will be next to useless in 2-3 years time due to slow down... This is a terrible waste. Though, I've never been one to upgrade my phone every year or two so maybe I don't appreciate this feature.

So what's the take-away from this rant? Not much, really. Tablets aren't as bad as I thought they were but they are also worse than I thought they could be. They're "good enough" devices but, inevitably, they're not good enough for me... yet.


And I've changed my mind: there is a take-away. (I really should learn to sit on posts for longer!!)

The problem is that this radical shift towards these mobile experiences by the mass market is having a huge impact on the traditional PC hardware industry. Everyone wants SOCs and integrated devices and that means that the traditional PC will, in my worried opinion, start to send prices for hardware higher and higher. I remember when a simple 286 or 386 was above £1000 (okay, I'm not that old) but if the only customers of low-end PC parts are corporations and the only customers of mid/high-end parts are gaming enthusiasts and video/audio editing people then we have a hugely shrinking market that's going to see a contraction in the number of companies able to compete, a lower revenue and thus research and thus innovation.

It's scary to think that within 20 years time we could go back to the situation where a high end PC costs multiple thousands of (adjusted) pounds compared to today as a matter of course. It's like imagining if those Casio calculator/programmable watches were the main means of computation in the 80s compared to the vastly more powerful and capable beige desktops that were in very limited use.

In this imaginary future world, PC is no longer a dominant player in the games arena, iOS and Android rule the roost on the casual side whereas consoles (both handheld and the boxes under your TV) rule the roost on the core gamer side. All major access to gaming is controlled by the platform owner and operated out of walled gardens (also in an eerily similar nature to the 80s and early 90s!). PC gamers are suffering the same fate as Mac gamers in the 80s and 90s with very few titles supported. This gets even more fragmented and confusing if you believe that the ARM architecture will make a serious entry into the desktop market.

It's a hellish nightmare of a place (only joking, but it is a very different ecosystem from today.)...

I wonder if this is the future that Valve is seeing and if this is why they've made the move toward their "Steam Box" style of console. If it becomes popular enough then it's the only way a company like Valve can survive in a future such as the one depicted above. Similarly, if companies like those that make devices like Occulus Rift don't get on board with console platform holders (they previously said that they wouldn't even want to get the device to work on consoles) and/or work closely with Valve to ensure Steam box and Linux compatibility then they are doomed to irrelevance.

30 October 2013

Is Batman the best videogame superhero ?

Having spent a large portion of the weekend playing Batman: Arkham Origin's campaign through to completion I wondered why the superhero genre is so poorly represented in my "good games" column in the gaming medium. I guess there are several aspects to the reasons behind this so I thought I'd jot down my thoughts on the issue:
  • Emotional and social connection/understanding (relatability)
  • Variation of powers/abilities (or lack thereof)
  • World building
Many, not all, popular heroes are nothing like normal human beings. Superman, Wonder Woman, a lot of the X-Men, Iron Man and Captain America are all beings that are very powerful and, in many ways invulnerable. In comparison, they also lack much of the humanity and day-to-day personalities that we might tend to associate with ourselves and our peers.

Emotionally stronger, more "grounded" heroes like Iron Man and Batman essentially rely on a hyper intelligence and deductive reasoning (as if a mating of Einstein and Sherlock Holmes had broached them into reality) along with huge amounts of wealth. Heroes in general are overly intelligent and these guys lie at different points on that intelligence/reasoning spectrum, especially Iron Man who is a bit skewed toward omnipotence, but the two of them basically tend to lean heavily on their vast amounts of wealth in order to succeed.

None of these aspects are very relatable for the general human populace - they're great for show piece scenes in a movie but leave little to nothing backing up those scenes during the character development. It's one of the reasons why Spiderman, despite some middling cinematic appearances, continues to be popular - he's smart, young and struggles with life: as much as we all do... and yet making a good game using that character has also proven difficult to pull off with quite a few flops to the franchises' name.

Despite that popularity, Spiderman isn't that great a hero to play because he's so young (or at least is usually portrayed in that high school life). His great motivation was is his Uncle's morality system - "With great power comes great responsibility." - and that's fine, except that it doesn't really cause much of an interesting decision because he always tries to do the right thing (which usually isn't all that hard to fathom) and, as far as I've ever seen, doesn't question this stance once that initial lesson is learned. That may be why Spiderman always has a good/great origin story - because that lesson can be learned and understood by the audience... everything after that is as pulpy as a 1930s action show like Flash Gordon. Now, I enjoy Spiderman a lot so that's not to say that the content there isn't good, I just don't think it makes a good game to play through.

Ask any fan of Spiderman which game is the best and why. While the favourite game might be different (Usually Spiderman 2 or one of the more recent releases such as Web of Shadows) the reason is always "web-slinging'. Just that simple act of movement around a cityscape is very rewarding - the freedom of movement, speed and agility (despite the unreality of always having something above you! ;) ) is the primary motivator for the gameplay feel.

Spiderman isn't primarily a combatant - he's superstrong (very much so!) but he's an agile opponent who uses sneakier, less obvious tactics than a brawler. He's not out there, getting bad guys for a reason - he just gets them when he sees them because he must - with the exception of his nemeses.

Batman, in contrast, appears to be almost perfect as a hero for players to identify with: Physically powerful enough to stand his ground. Agile enough to escape. Smart enough to figure out clues and ways of escaping situations. An emotional motivation that people can relate to that characterises his response to criminals and events in the world and provides an interesting dilemma by which to hinge decent stories on.

Batman ignores the travails of his personal life (for the most part) eschewing the normality that he wishes to protect from encroachment of the criminal element. It's never questioned why he's out there doing his thing... Spiderman isn't so easily universally justified in his work/life/hero ratio. Certainly he is sometimes portrayed as more egotistical - which fits in with his fame-seeking hero antics - but this isn't always so clear cut. Is "doing the right thing" stopping crime? Or should it be using his intelligence to solve the world's problems or his neogenics/whatever origin story to improve the lot of disfigured and disabled people around the world? Spiderman is complicated in a messy way - one that ultimately, in my opinion, proves less interesting.

The character also has many strings to his bow - many of which are underutilised. His title as the Sherlock Holmes-esque "The World's Greatest Detective" is rarely justified in any game he appears in (though it's getting better since the Arkham series was born) as are his strategic and interpersonal skills that help him spawn such a network of supporters, followers and super hero entities and partnerships. His physicality and the gadgets are the defining features that most people are familiar with and, even there, we have quite a lot of variation for players to latch onto.

Spiderman has one ability - or piece of equipment, depending on his origin story - the web shooter. Batman has whatever the storyteller needs. Spiderman typically has only one costume per continuum. Batman has whatever costumes the creator wants to include (though some are not canon) because it's expected that Batman's equipment evolves over time as he improves it and he gains experience. Spiderman doesn't need this because of his lack of physical vulnerability though there are cool alternate reality versions of Spiderman.

Now, a lot of these positives (from a gameplay perspective) for Batman, also apply to heroes like Iron Man and Blue Beetle (though not as popular) but I think that the depth of these characters is shallower than Batman and they also lack the most important aspect of the Batman's arsenal: his antagonists.

The strongest Batman stories are framed against these antagonists - they tend to be reflections of some aspect of humanity that Batman himself should be tempted to partake in and yet does not. The whole Batman/Joker dichotomy revolves around this and even some antagonists are born from it (e.g. Harvey Dent). Iron Man just fights things that need fighting - they come to him (one way or another) because he is powerful. The world that spawned Batman also spawned these other personalities and the themes are parallel to our own world and that makes them, at least from my perspective, intrinsically more interesting to play in and with.

Also, coming back to that strategic network I mentioned earlier, because Batman doesn't originate from any [insert poorly understood science] accident or off-world genesis he can procreate: he can seed new characters. As a result of this Batman as a defined character arc that spans angst/anger-ridden childhood that spawns psychological issues, tearaway teenage years and early twenties to caped crusader early years through to adoptive protector and trainer later years... and, finally, to passing on the torch to the next generation (Batman Beyond).

Other heroes can't do this. Spiderman can't pass on his genetic abilities to a new Spiderman (well, maybe a baby?) any more than Superman can. In order for them to team up with other people or heroes those people have to be their own super beings - with all the baggage and expectation that entails. Since Batman isn't super-powered, he is able to generate other characters from which to interface and work with - each of which being able to have their own character and flaws independent of being a hero because they're only human and don't have to adhere to being something more than the rest of us.

If you look at something like the X-Men, it's not really about one particular mutant (yes, I know, "Wolverine"! though he's really the Superman of that universe) but about the group of them together - individually they are not that strong as characters or in powers and I tend to see them as a collective 'hero' rather than a collection of heroes. Sort of like seeing the Armed Forces in a movie as being the hero instead of the super-powered monstrosities that are generally used to manifest human superiority in the movies.

I'd like to see a next gen Arkham game that takes place in between the dereliction of City but after Origins' lone soldier where Batman takes the other Batman family of characters under his wing (so to speak) and learning to deal with that. Origins already had a very, very brief stint with another character fighting alongside you and City had you dealing with your allies. You could even call the "wards" in or send them off on missions like in Assassin's Creed Brotherhood. They could level up in skill and experience based on how much you use them in combat or by sending them off on side missions. If they're not up to the task they could fail or be captured - with Batman having to rescue them. This could even lead to co-op play in the open world with a friend or two! Bagsy Batman!

There's plenty more material to explore in a Batman game that hasn't been covered yet and I hope they manage to really delve deep into this character and world.

23 October 2013

Goodbye GamesIndustry.biz...? [Updated]

I've been an avid reader and poster on GamesIndustry.biz for a good few years now but recent changes are pushing me away from the site.

First off the site content has slowly become more tabloid in nature since their joining with a US-based entity - I have forgotten the site name at the moment! It's generally not so bad and I wasn't planning on stopping being involved with the community there but today or maybe yesterday they made one further change: even though I have an account with them I am no longer able to post comments on articles.

Now, it's not like the site in question hasn't gone through some changes over the last few years. Originally you could track the posts you have participated in - which was really useful when continuing conversations with other developers on the site - but got rid of that feature right around the time they merged with the US site.

Then they blocked all pages from people without an account. They rescinded that choice once I'm sure they saw their relevance and page views death-spiral off a cliff! GI.biz then implemented a commenting rating system with "stars" which people could click on to show they liked a post (I had quite a few starred posts).

Now, finally, they're reducing the conversation to only those with "verified" accounts. Whatever that means! I mean, if I'm a freelancer - which I am - how do I verify myself? Why is my account - that was presumably in good standing - no longer verified?

The other thing that really hurts the site is that now there is no critical feedback from smaller devs or people interested in the community. It creates a walled garden composed of mostly like-minded people who echo their opinions on whatever topics are brought into view by the site itself. This is a bad thing for GI.biz and for the games industry in general.

Yes, there may be a feeling that having "outsiders" (who don't know what they're talking about!) devalues the conversation or that they have no reason or need to be there but those outside views are very important to retain balance within the industry - within any industry. It is vital to the health of any industry that they allow conversations between both those within and without otherwise mindsets will tend to stagnate and people lose touch with those of differing opinions. Like it or not, differing opinions help us challenge and grow - even if those opinions are not correct, they make us analyse the paths we are travelling on.

Hopefully, this will be another move that is rescinded or at least easily passed as I enjoyed the conversations that popped up on there from time to time. I will update here with how the "verification process" goes.

It appears I've been "reinstated". No communication, no nothing. I'm not a fan of these sorts of things in the first place - it's really bad in a general business sense (from experience in my current sphere of work) but also terrible from a user perspective. No reason is given - yet you somehow manage to flail through the system regardless...

[Update 2]
I received an email from James Grant (Commercial & HR Manager) explaining the decision:

Specifically, with your recent experience of re-entering the verification process, we simply wanted to get away from very generic professions on profiles.

This is fair enough and I can understand their wanting to do this - even if I disagree with them on what effect it can have on the commentary and discussions within a site. However, effectively locking a person's account to do so really did give a poor user experience which may have been better served through a user form or survey.

22 October 2013

PC was all about the hardware, now it's all about the Hardware...

I remember, if you will permit the brief reminiscing, when PC gaming was all about the hardware and, to a lesser extent, the software. Back in those heady days of the late 80s and early-mid 90s it seemed like each new game that I purchased required some new PC upgrade in order to function properly. CD-ROMs, dedicated graphics cards, new RAM, monitors (CGA/VGA etc), new, infinitely more powerful, CPUs.... SOUNDCARDS!

I used to lie there on my bed, a magazine in my hands or draped across my chest in a haze of imagining. It was a drug that I was happy to partake in; a fuel for dreams of the future. The sad thing is that this wasn't really a happy time. There was too much vendor lock-in, too many things that didn't play well together and which ended up being abandoned after a low adoption by players and/or the industry.

Luckily, we sort of got over that phase. Things calmed down in the early 2000s, tech became cheaper and, whilst upgrades were still required, a decent video card, sound card and CPU would basically cover you for everything for a couple of years (and then a GPU upgrade!). Monitors were very stable too. It got even better in the mid-2000s, with integrated sound chips on the motherboard and overall improved hardware and OSes that required less-tweaking and "expert" knowledge.

I think that, in some respects, we've been in a bit of a golden age since about 2006-2013. Tech slowed down enough that a single mid/high-range PC might last you 4-6 years as long as you weren't obsessed about ever increasing your desktop resolution or achieving perfect anti-aliasing. I myself was still using a 17" CRT until 2009 (and I still use it when I visit home!). Even now I'm on a 1600x900 LCD and the PC I have is into its third year with no sign of needing an update to play games on medium or high settings. Sure, the GPU fan is loud - I can't do anything about that and I'm not convinced that switching up to a much more expensive GPU at the same resolution will really fix that issue - but otherwise the box itself is perfect for my needs.

Things are changing though. The traditional PC sector is having a bit of trouble in driving sales, partially due to this part stability and partially due to the explosion of "good enough" tablet devices being sold to that majority of people who were previously sold cheap Dells and HPs to browse the web and send emails.

Out of this carnage and the mild associated industry panic, we are seeing an increase in commoditised Hardware. I'm putting a capital 'H' here because these new trend isn't about incremental improvements to your PC but actual sealed unit (or complete kit) improvements. I'm talking about the Oculus Rift, the G-sync monitors, NVidia shield and the steam controller.

Now, I'm not saying that there haven't been peripherals before... Of course there have! However, what I am saying is that there is a movement within the industry to innovate through new hardware experiences. These aren't particularly cheap, either and it's funny to see this parallel coming from that (for me) early period in the 90s where it feels like we may have a similar experience in a few years of not being able to get the best out of a game because we don't have the right hardware to experience it as it was conceived.

I'm also not saying that this is a bad thing either. I think things like the Oculus and Steam controller have the potential to be great additions to the landscape of PC gaming - even if I'm still sceptical of their eventual impact. Other innovations such as the G-sync monitors have more obvious improvements - at least to my mind, but unfortunately are vendor specific... which isn't good.

As lots of people have stated time and time again: History repeats itself. Let's hope these companies are taking into account the mistakes of the past...

7 October 2013

Interesting steam box specs...

Ars Technica have an article on the Steam box specs (also covered over at El Reg). I think the specs show a decent range of configurations and expenses and, also, sizes of box and cooling solutions needed. An i3 coupled with a GTX660 is going to be a weak-ish system that will play the majority of games on Steam but it isn't going to break the bank or (hopefully) sound like an aeroplane during take-off. What's quite confusing is the memory configurations on these machines.

16GB of RAM for a low and mid-end machine doesn't really make any sense... for the high end, maybe... though I don't know how many games are able to fully address that much or would benefit from it over 8GB of RAM. I guess the theory is "RAM is cheap" and they're just stuffing in as much as they can comfortably afford. The video RAM is a bit of a different story. 
Apparently these are off-the-shelf parts that can be replaced by the end user if they so desire, so it's a bit weird to see outlets reporting 3GB as standard for each graphics card when the GTX660 is mostly a 2GB card (there is at least one 3GB variant from EVGA though) and the Titan is a 6GB beast that doesn't (as far as I can find) have a 3GB equivalent. I would hope that this is an error in the reporting because I can see the Titan being memory constrained and the 660 not really making the full use of the vRAM in games of the next generation that it struggles to play anyway.

Another consideration is noise levels. If these are off-the-shelf parts are they going to come with stock coolers? The reason I wonder is that stock graphics coolers are rarely very quiet - Nvidia especially in my experience. I currently run a GTX560 and, despite having massive diameter case fans that (as far as I can feel) are pulling only cool air out of the case, that thing is almost as loud as my vacuum cleaner on the lowest setting! Now, maybe that's a driver issue but I'm pretty certain that FTL isn't taxing the GPU that much. However, as a living room machine, the Steam boxes (boxen?) need to be quiet: quieter than the launch 360s with the noisy DVD drives and inefficient cooling systems.

As everyone and their dog is noting it's very interesting how the Steam box specs are entirely Intel and Nvidia whilst the next gen consoles are entirely AMD/ATI. Now, this could be just a reflection of the hardware configurations that appear in the Steam survey (though with more RAM and higher end graphics cards) or it could be that, in general, both Intel and Nvidia provide more support to their hardware implementations under Linux than AMD so presumably there'll be less effort and hassle in putting the OS with the hardware. Probably it's a mixture of both of these reasons.**

It is interesting how none of these setups will be cheap compared to the two upcoming consoles and how, perhaps, any advantage that AMD might have wrought from that console lock-down from developers coding specifically on their hardware might be mitigated by this move. I also find it strange that Valve have gone so power hungry in these configurations compared to the next gen consoles. People have said that you'll get more power from the hardware under Linux for gaming and when mostly everyone's writing games for the lowest common denominator (the consoles) then it makes me wonder what all this extra power on top of that will be aimed at.

To be fair to Valve, these are just prototype systems and the range of configurations might be just a reflection of trying to find the sweet spot but I would be surprised if they don't settle on a low-end i5 and the GTX760 for initial implementations. I'm still sceptical that they'll use 16GB of system RAM. It's not like the users will be doing video editing to upload videos and commentaries to the Steam Community... yet.

Maybe that will be what the higher end parts are all about: out competing the consoles on their "exclusive" features like the recording of gameplay and let's plays. Yes, I know you can do this on PC - but it's not that easy to set up and you need a pretty beefy rig to be able to pull it off as well... or a second PC and/or a PVR.

This is one aspect I like about gaming - there's rarely a dull moment.


Valve have confirmed that other hardware will be making an appearance in future Steam boxes so it doesn't appear to be a favoured hardware combination for these prototype batches.

4 October 2013

The Emperor's clothes... Steam Controller

This last week has seen the industry transfixed by the announcements from Valve - coming as they have done during a relatively quiet period between industry trades shows and traditionally preferred release windows in October and November: ready for Black Friday and Christmas respectively. While I was impressed by the eventual release of the Steam OS (though I expected them to support Android titles as well) and the push towards a supported architecture of "semi-standard" boxes from various manufacturers that will probably result in a real boon to Linux support of various bits of hardware on the market I was a bit underwhelmed by the reveal of the Steam controller:

[Insert Darth Vadar/Dark Helmet joke here]

"games like first-person shooters that are designed around precise aiming within a large visual field now benefit from the trackpads’ high resolution and absolute position control."

See, I'm not so sure on the trackpads. Not that I think the high resolution trackpads are a bad thing just that I'm not convinced on their use for a control that is used for panning. This is primarily for two reasons:

- Use of a mouse/trackpad is intrinsically different from using a joystick/thumbstick

- Wear and interaction of the user on a trackpad is intrinscially different to joysticks/thumbsticks

First - thumbsticks work great because you just shift in one direction and your movement speed (or acceleration of speed) is proportional to the distance from the centre dead zone. Mice require physically moving the device back across the surface in order to give yourself more space because it's very rare that, in your control of whatever piece of software, you return to the centre and original position and thus the user will run out of control surface very often.

Another aspect of trackpads is that their control surfaces have lag and are slower to operate as a result of not just this lag but also due to the physical limitations of using a trackpad. Switching between W and D on a keyboard to change between forward and backward motion is instantaneous, running your finger from the top of the left pad to the bottom of it to reverse course is a gradual motion - like using a thumbstick - and thus slower. It's a similar story for the pad on the right if you're using that to look. This is assuming that the implementation will be like a thumbstick with gradients of acceleration from the centre. The alternative is that simply moving to a point on the trackpad switches to that setting - which I can't imagine being used for the direction of the camera in any game but which might work for the movement direction. One issue with direct changing of movement like this second option is that you're even more likely to accidentally engage the button underneath and that may not be desirable. Certainly, on both the 360 and PS3 gamepads I've accidentally engaged the thumbstick buttons when in a stressful/exciting situation in a game when I didn't mean to because I was holding the pad with a tighter grip - something that I think is natural. This might also be an issue for the handle buttons too.

Second - trackpads are hard surfaces and hitting them over and over again (like tapping) very quickly results in RSI injuries compared to a mouse/joystick/thumbstick and is, in my opinion, an uncomfortable experience for a general user interface. This is not to mention slower and less accurate as well: clicking on a trackpad or touch surface isn't always accurate because your fingers are not an accurate pointing device at that or any resolution smaller than your fingertip size. Nor do trackpads and touch surfaces always register that an input was entered because the software has decided that the input was a mistake. 

These issues may have been solved by Valve but I'm not confident when the combined might and reckless competition of Apple and Samsung et al. has failed to get around the issues that apply to their products.
However, they might have if the information page (light as it is) is correct.

The Steam Controller is built around a new generation of super-precise haptic feedback, employing dual linear resonant actuators.
As a parlour trick they can even play audio waveforms and function as speakers.

It interests me because this implies that the material is soft - not hard like the traditional touch surfaces and trackpads are and, as such, might get around that issue of injury and weariness that you get when using a touch surface for an extended period of time. Also, since there is a button in each concave circular control surface I'm not sure how that's going to gel with having to want to move in any particular direction and pushing a button within that control surface. It doesn't work all that well on a thumbstick for the 360 and PS3 and usually is implemented as a "this function will apply until the stick is released and returned to the dead zone entirely" - which isn't perfect.

"The most prominent elements of the Steam controller are its two circular trackpads. Driven by the player’s thumbs, each one has a high-resolution trackpad as its base. It is also clickable, allowing the entire surface to act as a button."

So, there's definitely only one button behind each trackpad... but then what the hell is going on with the three functions applied in this image? I've not seen it explained to my satisfaction so far and if anyone has an appropriate link please post it in the comments. The best I can come up with is that where your finger is on the trackpad is linked into the button push - which is less ideal than having more button surfaces in sectors under the trackpad. I can imagine that things like wanting to move diagonally in a sidescroller, like you would using the D-pad on any current controller, isn't going to be as easy or feel as natural when trying to activate a function of the button underneath.

I'm not convinced by those trackbuttons... and what are those three un-labelled buttons going to do, hmmm?? Interesting!
The other aspect of the trackpads that also affects this controller's layout is that ancillary buttons are equally shared between both sides of the controller. Whilst this is good because symmetry means that lefties and righties can use the gamepad as they wish it does cause some concern for people with smaller hands. I don't know how big the pad is but reaching the buttons under the handles at the same time as the four buttons around the touch screen (or the touch screen itself) might be problematic. Compared to a traditional controller layout (i.e. since the PS2) the D-pad and four face buttons provide ease of access while only removing one thumb to do so. In comparison this layout removes one button from each hand's operation and focuses more interaction in the centre of the pad and in my experience the PS/Xbox symbol/start/select are not the most easily accessible buttons on other gamepads.

Overall, my interest is piqued by the controller and I'll reserve my final judgement until I can actually hold one and test it out... but the largest problem with that scenario - and for many people - is that how are you going to test it out? This isn't going to be a device that lots of people own or being shown off in a store. In fact it's so different that it probably really needs a critical mass of users espousing the benefits and feel of the device before it will get wider acceptance and that will be a problem. Like all those specialist control devices/interfaces before it such as TrackIR, GameTrak along with other 3-dimensional mice the market will probably be more of a niche than widely accepted unless Valve can use their juggernaut of industry weight to push it.

To give an example: I recently provided vertical mice to some colleagues that were suffering RSIs from constant computer use and their conditions rapidly improved as a result (in combination with treatment, of course!). Their physiotherapists had never even heard of these sorts of things and were immediately impressed and intrigued by them. It amazes me how difficult it can be to get a product - no matter how great - into peoples' awareness, even those you would think would benefit from them the most...

17 September 2013

Post thoughts: Dead Space 2

I’m actually – perhaps surprisingly – a fan of Dead Space. I felt it was mostly a great game that was very enjoyable and had very few things that detracted from the experience (I’m looking at you, asteroid section!). So why did I hold off on Dead Space 2 for so long? It’s been sitting in my Steam inventory for at least a year now. Having played it recently, I’m not sure why either! Maybe it was reports of EA tinkering with what made the first one work (i.e. the progression mechanics vis á vis what items you can obtain) or whatever... maybe it was just that I wasn’t in the mood for an atmospheric “scary” game. Who knows! As it turns out, it’s good! (See below)

As always: spoilers!

It's dark (relatively) in space...


Dead Space 2 isn’t particularly complicated. I do feel that the opening could spend a little more time explaining what’s going on and who you are for players who didn’t go through the first entry in the series but I guess that’s we can’t all be “Aliens”. Speaking of which, this game benefits from cribbing from that story a lot. Okay, the main plot elements – Ripley’s daughter/abandonment issues, marine rescue force, androids (do we hate them?) – are not present but the general story beats match up almost exactly. 

If I think about it too hard, I kind of wish they had cribbed a little more from Aliens’ answer sheet because there are some missed opportunities here where explanation would have been useful to those new players who weren’t familiar with certain characters and story elements. The section on the Ishimura especially was very eerie for me because of the first game but if I didn’t have the idea of what the planetbreaker was like in my head it would have been inseparable as an experience as the rest of the generic “space station” that the game is set on.

Similarly, there was no “normal” experience of the station for the player like there is in Aliens so there’s no way for them to frame the experiences of the game’s action and I think this diminishes the potential impact of the story and setting somewhat.

I felt that the focus of the story on Isaac’s coming to terms with the loss of his wife was very well done. The hints given through Nolan Stross' dialogue and the internal conversations with the apparition of Isaac’s wife set up the pay-off quite nicely... as well as the twist. Interestingly, there was not just one twist in this game but at least two or three. The first was your betrayal by the Unitologists – a nice little piece that began with a cutscene capture (annoying!) but luckily ended with you being free once more (very refreshing!). The second was Nolan Stross finally going crazy. Maybe some people had seen this event coming but I was unsure as to which direction Nolan Stross' story would go. He seemed like he might have been killed by one of the monsters or by Ellie Langford... or even kill himself like Isaac almost did a few times.

There were three things that I didn’t really understand or, perhaps appreciate, in the game. Ellie and Isaac – despite spending no real time or conversation together – ended up being really “pally”. The second was how Nolan Stross knew what Isaac was seeing in his visions and the key to “activating” the giant marker when it was clear that Nolan Stross had his own separate mental demons to excise. The third was why Nolan Stross wasn’t needed to activate the giant marker like Isaac was, especially since apparently they both built it and the creator has to be assimilated into the unity to fully reach activation/release (whatever sinister event that would result in!).


We all stand together! *Bum Bum*

The space station itself is largely forgettable as a piece of the game world with, I felt, one exception: The Unity Cathedral. The architecture and design in this space was really interesting and a very fresh experience compared to the utilitarian nature of the rest of the environments that Isaac has to navigate. It was also quite scary to read/hear about how far the Unity church movement had infiltrated every aspect of human society – creepier when you think how closely something like this resembles certain “sci-fi” cults. What is interesting to me is that, despite being functional from a level design perspective, the game world also appears lived-in; with apartments and living areas, recreational and shopping areas. It’s a fully encapsulated world that the player gets a chance to explore – along with the requisite engineering back ways and ducts that the common person would not get a chance to see.

Isaac himself is a pretty good character. In both games the player learns something about him and the forces that drive him. We also see him grow as a character emotionally and through experience. Dead Space 1 was Isaac coming to terms with the loss whereas Dead Space 2 was the resolution of him accepting the loss. As a character he also straddles that difficult line between being a silent protagonist or a character we play: Isaac doesn’t talk too much but neither does he just acquiesce to every request, demand or threat. I think the writers have done a good job of giving him just enough personality and the right responses so that the audience will be in the same headspace as the character at the right moment when he does issue an opinion.
Daina Le Guin (the first woman you talk to) is a great echo of Isaac’s wife: she’s soft and cooing to the freshly-woken and confused player and (I didn’t see it coming, okay?!) the betrayal makes a mockery of that mask she wore to achieve the Unity’s goals.

Similarly, in contrast to Daina, Ellie Langford is instantly aggressive and tough but softens up very quickly. I don’t know if it was the purpose of these two characters to mimic or reflect the schizophrenic nature of Isaac’s wife’s apparition but this might be an unconscious theme running throughout the game... and I’m not really sure what that says.

Ellie isn’t really written all that well – at least as character arcs go. She’s very distrusting of Nolan Stross but somehow lets him get the jump on her multiple times, even losing her eye on the final occasion, despite her saying she’ll shoot him if he acts too erratically and her previously being shown as very capable with regards to survival and combat. Her switch of personality also extends to her interactions with Isaac as well and, though it fits in with the beats of the story, there’s little reason for her to care so much about him as they go through no bonding process.

Tiedemann! Damn, that's hard to spell... Wait, what's your motivation again?! I mean, I haven't even really been coming "after you" the whole game. As far as I'm concerned I've just been trying to get off this damn rock!

The final character (that I can remember!) is Hans Tiedemann. While he isn’t a particularly effective foil of an adversary for Isaac, at least I remembered his name without having to resort to Wikipedia. I also think he is a little absent throughout the game’s story and that, along with his shallow motives, may be why his interferences were nothing but theatrical appearances of the dame in any Christmas pantomime. I found it very hard to connect with and understand Tiedemann's position because he never served any purpose other than dropping obstacles in the player’s way and, though his actions and motives were hinted at in voice logs and diaries, the game never really delivered on him as a character.


I think this game operated on a “what ain’t broke, don’t fix it!” philosophy and I think that was the right call. The basic mechanics of shoot limbs/stomp/reward work well and didn’t need to be adjusted or messed with to make them any better.

The big, interesting changes were immediate and free access to a number of weapons and suit types and a lack of “timed events”. The first did well to accommodate different play styles through player choice with the suits having various bonuses or attributes applied to them which I thought was a very clever decision. The second was also a correct decision which reduced frustration with those particular encounters (e.g. the tentacles). While I generally enjoyed the variety these gave to the first game they could be frustrating due to the control changes necessary to create a chaotic and challenging event. It also allowed the developers to trick the player with the hallucination of the tentacle attack when returning from the Ishimura.

The upside-down horde mode section also made an appearance in this game and was brought more to my attention due to the event’s inclusion in both Tomb Raider and The Last of Us. I actually didn’t mind these particular encounters as they were quite tense and interesting to play through, though I know some people dislike them for their difficulty. It makes me wonder what the inspiration was for this sort of encounter and which game did it first; was it possibly Dead Space 2? I haven’t played another game that did this that came out before it was released.

Some other small aspects that I don't remember in the first game were the breaking-glass-to-vacuum mechanic where you have to hit the target to close the shutter before you're sucked out into the vast emptiness of space and the telekinesis module that allowed you to throw items at your attackers. 

You don't say? I thought it might cause chocolate cause it's so brown outside!

In my (very honest) opinion, I don't think that these added anything to the game and, when encountered, detracted a little from the experience. Firstly, the shutter mechanic was so rarely used that the second time I accidentally triggered it I died, not remembering what I had to do! Only once I reloaded (and failed to trigger it!) did I remember that I had to shoot the target. It was potentially interesting but not really needed.

Similarly, the telekinesis module was useful for all of ten minutes: mainly because once you got a weapon you generally were okay. Otherwise the module was problematic for moving around the ship because whatever you were wielding at the time would have clipping issues with the level geometry and, since those physics-enabled objects that were most lethal (i.e. spikes) despawned after a really short time period, there wasn't much chance to use the ability because it was just more efficient to aim and shoot with a weapon in the close confines of the station instead.

Technical issues/bugs:

I had no crashes during this game and it appeared to be very stable with no graphical glitches that I observed.

This isn’t a bug but I yearn for the days of manuals again because I encountered an issue where I was unable to stop aiming my weapon on a couple of occasions. The first time it happened the only recourse was to force-quit the game as I couldn’t save at a save point (though I could use the vending machines). The second time, frustrated, I hit the caps lock key by accident and it sorted itself out. It turns out that the key is an aim toggle – though why you’d want this is beyond me – but the game had made no mention of this (that I had seen) during the tutorial section for me to know about this functionality. If I’d had a manual I would have flicked through it to see if there was a setting that did this and discovered the answer.

I guess this is just one of those instances where it might be a good idea to have an indication of what all assigned keys/buttons do or not assign them unless the player desires the functionality to be utilised.


The only game in recent history where people recover from massive trauma to the eye within seconds!! (But they can't cure a little bit of schizophrenia given years!)

Once again, I enjoyed the different pace of the Dead Space series and the relatively good self-contained story. I’m left feeling really interested in Dead Space 3 now (supposed lack of survival horror elements aside!) though I’m not really sure what else can be done with Isaac’s character now that his issues are “resolved” or that the markers and monsters are destroyed or at least neutralised. My gut feeling is that Dead Space is almost literally following the Alien quadrilogy in its trajectory; with the third instalment being a bit of a cop-out compared to the previous two but still an entertaining endeavour on its own merits and the fourth instalment being a jolly dance on the graves of the underpinning ideas of the series and irreverent silliness all around!

Prove me wrong, EA... prove me wrong. :)

Backseat Designing:

Right, time to listen to ME!

There isn’t anything that I’d change in this game, mechanically speaking, but I would love to flesh out Ellie, her relationship with Isaac and Tiedemann specifically. These two are the weakest parts of the game and I think the story would be stronger if Isaac and Ellie interacted more often within the same space (not escort quests!) and if Tiedemann did something other than drop obstacles in the player’s way for no real reason.

Story-wise, I’d also add in a section prior to your release – where you were hallucinating horrors and events from the Ishimura in the mental ward while under observation as well as seeing the marker and Isaac’s dead wife, etc. perhaps set during a transfer of patients to a new holding facility where Isaac escapes and rampages around before realising that he was just imagining everything. 

This would introduce these elements for new players as well as remind players of the first game of those events. It would also give a sense of the “normal” and bring the hallucinations more emphasis and power throughout the game by making the player question whether everything they were experiencing was real or just Isaac losing his mind.

10 September 2013

The problem with The Three Act structure in games...

Warren Spector recently wrote a column for Gamesindustry.biz outlining the rules he used to create Deus Ex by and keep the development focused and on-track. I think that, in general they are great ideas for making sure a game is being developed consistently.

“Every decision we made was filtered through questions implied by rules established right at the beginning of development. This list of commandments and addenda set a good course for the Deus Ex project and helped ensure that all of us stayed ON that course for the three or so years it took to go from concept to shipping game.”

Especially when you can get games – the most glaringly obvious example being Deus Ex: Human Revolution (which Spector was not involved in) where the boss battles did not really fit into the themes and ideas of rest of the game because they were outsourced.

At the end of the article, Warren tried to make a generalised set of “rules” for development and I wanted to address one point in particular:

5. Have a plan for Act 2 

This is a commandment primarily for narrative games. But given how broadly we can define narrative (and, man, do we not have time to get into THAT here), the problem and rules associated with its solution apply to a broader range of games than you might think.

Obviously games can tell stories. So, let's start from the premise that all that Aristotle stuff applies to us. Agreed? Okay, now let's talk about the one narrative problem Aristotle didn't talk about - the one we have to solve that other media don't. I call it the Act 2 Problem.

We're fine setting up a story (Act 1). And we're pretty good at ending one (Act 3). We do denouement well enough. Our beginnings and endings tend to be fairly linear and brief.

I think he’s wrong. Or, more accurately, I think he’s incorrect about one specific part. I think that games are pretty terrible at setting up the story and thus Act 1 and more often than not terrible at the ending as well Act 3. I guess that there’s no hard and fast rule about how these things are supposed to work but a minute or so of CGI (or in-game) footage at the beginning and end of a game doesn’t really constitute an “Act” in my opinion. The player isn’t even involved!

While Warren is specifically calling out Act 2 (and I agree it’s an aspect where games tend to struggle – especially when they are focused on the story), he’s missing the point that Act 2 is worse than it could be because Act 1 and 3 are not properly fulfilled in most games.

What I think he’s inadvertently speaking to rather than the story itself, specifically, is gameplay. In the following paragraphs to those quoted above, Mr Spector focuses on time spent in Act 2, how to keep the tension built and the player occupied with gameplay. Those really are not a problem with the story-telling aspect of Act 2. I mean, many of the great fantasy literary works spend books in Act 2 for different characters and do not suffer for it – David and Leigh Eddings’ novels are good examples of this as is the near ubiquitous The Lord of the Rings.

Ultimately, I think that the entire structure of the game story needs addressing to begin with: Scrap the preconception that the games industry is good at Act 1 and 3 and re-jig the whole setup.

One of the things that I think is different for how games are presented (in general) is that the whole game – from start to finish – is an Act 2. There is no Act 1 or Act 3 and I’m really struggling to think of many games outside of maybe Baldur’s Gate 1 where the player actually goes through the stereotypical hero’s journey with the call to arms, rejection of the challenge, leaving the familiar world and return to the normal and all that jazz. Now, of course, saying that I don’t mean that every game and story has to follow that formula but games tend to eschew all these aspects and this is why I don’t see the Act structure really working for the plots of the majority of gaming experiences... of course, this may also be why many game stories are generally considered as rubbish.

So... Now I feel I’ve identified the problem, how to fix it?

I honestly think that games need to actually engage the player in all parts of the game and this does not only apply to story-focused games but specifically so. Half Life 2 was lauded for its inclusion of the player in cutscenes and storytelling elements – many games copied that to some extent. No one has evolved this process though – it’s still mostly just being told things during lulls in the action. System Shock 2 (I know there were games with this before but I don’t know them) implemented the log/diary style of storytelling – many games copied this to some extent and, again, no one evolved this any further except to vocalise the concept.
I also believe that core aspects of the storytelling journey must be present for (at least western) audiences to empathise and connect with the plot and characters. Most successful films adhere to these staples of storytelling and the more successful story-focused games tend to do so as well.

So here’s my list of “fixes” for the storytelling in games:

1. Give a sense of the normal.

A core aspect of good stories is a move away from what was known and comfortable – a challenge only comes when a person (and we recognise characters through their anthropomorphism, regardless of whether they are human or not) is rooted from this place and forced to act – whether there is an initial refusal or not.

This also provides an excellent contrast to Act 2 and an important message regarding the conclusion of Act 3. The contrast helps the player appreciate what is different and why it is different. The message is what we take away from our journey through the conflict and change: i.e. whether we end up back where we were in “normalcy” and thus the threat and challenge were completely conquered and pushed back or if we and the world are forever changed through our journey to confront the challenge.

2. Announce your themes in the beginning.

It is important that the player either is consciously or subconsciously aware of the themes that are driving the plot forward and through the conflict at the beginning of the game. You can’t (or at least it’s very difficult) to insert a theme in the middle of Act 2 as part of the conflict that’s already ongoing and it’s even worse when you do so at the end of Act 3 (I’m looking at YOU Mass Effect 3**). The experience will likely fall flat as a result because the player doesn’t know what they’re fighting against.

3. Provide closure and context.

The end isn’t the dying breaths of the boss fight or level: it’s once the story is done and very few stories end on the physical climax unless the hero choosing to fight is the theme of the story. I can’t remember the film off-hand but I’m sure there’s one where it ends just as the protagonist is about to face their foe, their real foe having been their self doubt or whatever, and it’s left up to the viewer to decide what happened at the end. Of course, this isn’t really the climax, the climax is on a more personal note and the changed world/protagonist is what we’re seeing at the end... so, I guess I just contradicted myself – good stories don’t end on the climax.

That little mental wrestle aside, it is important that players achieve closure and the context for that closure. This goes hand-in-hand with point 2 above whereby the themes of your story that you base your conflict on must result in an appropriate closure.

Appropriate closure means that the player gets to continue on after the climax and experience the character and the world they’ve helped to mould.

4. Allow the player to play through points 1-3.

Games are experience – it’s what separates the medium from other artistic forms because the player has more agency within the scope of the work. It’s very important for the player to experience all three acts of a story in order for them to appreciate each of those acts individually and respective of each other. Games like The Last of Us are acclaimed for their story-telling because they allow the player to see the world and characters before and after.

Let me know what you think of these and whether you would add or change anything...

**ME3 comment:

Mass Effect’s main plotline was not about the sentient lifeform vs AI wars inevitability. That was only introduced as a subplot for one of the races: the Quarian/Geth. Even then, this conflict was not particularly terrible and completely incited by the actions of the Quarians – calling into question the logic of “AI will inevitably turn on their creators”.

A better summary of the main plot theme should have been the needless adherence to doctrine in the face of change. The Council and Council races all are guilty of this as are the Reapers (and, by association the god child thingy). It is shown time and time again that sticking to what people know regardless of what evidence is being reported back to them is bad for everyone. All except the player who, time and time again (with his or her crew), go against the established doctrine to successfully accomplish their assigned tasks. Hell, this is what a SPECTRE is all about!

This is one of the reasons why, whether there was a re-write from “the mass effect harming the fabric of space” Star Trek plotline was true or not, reframing the series in the theme of a subplot (at the end) in the final instalment was not well received by a large portion of the fans of the series and, for many, came out of left field. Though, I doubt if you had experienced only ME3 it would have affected your enjoyment badly because that subplot is a large portion of the game due to its resolution – one way or the other.

The game should have been resolved on the note of change – choosing to eschew the policies and power structures in the previous two games that had demonstrably not worked in addressing this new threat with the underlying message being that it isn’t always good to stick to what you know.

6 September 2013

Post Thoughts: Dead Island Riptide

The title art piece isn't especially poignant or imaginative... though, like the teaser trailer for the first game, that's not necessarily indicative of the rest of the game.


Dead Island's story was an unapologetic mess - not the actual lore but the presentation of the story through the cutscenes. In Riptide, Techland have advanced the presentation of the story and as a consequence made it far, far better than the first game. However, that's still not to say that Riptide's story is any good. It's not bad, per se, but it won't be winning any awards and the logic behind some of the twists and turns is questionable. If we're all honest with ourselves, though, the story isn't why we're here... is it? Even Techland would probably admit this but I'm glad they have improved this aspect of the game to raise the overall quality of the product.

As it stands, the story is serviceable: a bog-standard, "we need to get ourselves out of this hell-hole", melodrama with overwrought caricatures splashed over a pastiche of over-saturated and exaggerated pacific island backdrops. What's good about the story and the cutscenes is that you understand what is going on and you can generally follow each plot point from one moment to the next (though there's one part where someone was "shoved" that wasn't really explained and I don't know if I missed out on some exposition before that point or not). Not only is the story coherent, it's also decently voice-acted and easily followed.

Speaking of the voice actors: I can listen to these voice actors - especially Purna - there wasn't a single instance of phoned-in VO that you tend to hear especially in RPGs (e.g. Fallout 3/Mass Effect) for the main characters and the emotions that were poured into the roles were quite refreshing to my ears, even if they bordered on the unbelievable many times. It was just nice to hear dialogue that was not blandly read straight from a script like a robot.

The game feels shorter that the first entry in the series. For some people that might be a bad thing but I think, in general, people felt that the original was padded with lots of needless travelling around the same environment. There's also a lot more fast travel points in this game which is nice and has the effect that you can move around more quickly within the same area if you so wish. I didn't keep a track of how many hours I played the game but it was above 10.


As I said above, the characters are completely overwrought; they're stereotypes from different media - some from film, some from music and others appear to be more "local gossip" in origin. They're cheesy and lighthearted and that's why they get a bit of a pass from me. If this where a serious(TM) story and game then I'd have more of an issue with their skin deep motivations and characterisation but Riptide is not much more of a serious game than Serious Sam.

Your choice of four playable characters in the first game has been expanded to five but, since I had played the first game, I chose to continue on my gun-oriented australian ex-cop femme fatale, Purna. Each of the characters have different skillsets, which are broadly similar in scope so you don't strictly have different classes like you do in other games but they're less similar than in games like Left 4 Dead where everyone fits in the same hole. My character choice lands me with specialisation in both firearms and bladed weapons and that's a pretty good deal for me as it provides a good range of options for taking on encounters.

The remaining characters focus on bladed, unarmed, throwing and blunt weapons... and the new guy? Well, I'm not entirely sure what he does!

The island itself - another veritable character in the game - does not disappoint in comparison. Beautiful in the tropical jungles and tourist paradises and depressing in the shanty towns of the poverty-level locals. However, we had seen this mostly before in Dead Island and where the game's art direction really took a turn for the better for myself was once we headed into the town. The style and architecture that was crammed into that space was truly amazing and really has me wanting Dying Light (the follow-up game from Techland) even more in the wait until its release. It was actually interesting to traverse the alleys and roads in this place and even to visit the few story-based locations like the base and castle/fort and it provided and much-needed change in pace and environment - unlike the first game's switch to the town environment which actually felt worse than being in the resort...
Hanging balconies, metal railings, stonework walls... all set against the backdrop of a tropical island? What's not to like?!
Image courtesy of TruKilla


First off, I still love the fighting mechanics and the pure physicality of the Dead Island games. This is retained perfectly in Riptide and is, IMO, the best all-round fighting system I've ever played. It's a joy to jump-kick advancing zombies to the ground and then de-limb one on the floor whilst rising to meet the charge of another wave of assailants. It's fantastic to learn how to judge weapon wind-ups and attack parameters, finally get to the Japanese blades and decapitate three infected, one after the other whilst sidestepping their attacks. The melee mechanics really do work very, very well and is, along with the exploration, the main reason why I like these games so much.

I also like how viable throwing your weapons, especially at the thugs and other "tank-like" enemies is. Doing away with all the smaller enemies around a large threat and then dealing damage to the larger threat is pretty fun - as long as your weapons are retrievable.

Firearms are dealt with in a decent manner - they're just guns and there's not much to see here except that apart from your kicking mechanic you also gain a "butt strike" when wielding a firearm. They also seem weak when you first get them and they do also take a long time to start showing up in the game, much like the first Dead Island. One thing I didn't like on the console (PS3) version for the firearm use is that it has a sticky targeting, which means that your gun will aim at the centre of the chest of the zombe you are aiming at when looking down the sights and it is very difficult to move the reticule up to the head or off to a limb without jumping off and away from the enemy entirely.

Weapon modifiers (e.g. Strong, deadly, decapitating, cripling etc.) aren't at all explained and most of them aren't obvious. It's obvious that a decaptitating or cripling weapon modifier will result in a higher percentage chance of the respective debilitation but what about the rest? It would be nice if the game explained it a bit!

They have changed the proficiency and leveling mechanic. What appears to have happened is that, despite your carried-over level from the first game, you have the same power/damage curve as was in the original from level 0. This results in stamina usage being incredibly high as it was when you were very low level in the original game but once you level up your weapon class proficiency you then are able to perform as you had previously in the original. So they have basically managed to reset the player ability through putting these proficiencies in the game.

Combined with this, the kick has had a stamina cost built into it. Reading up on this issue, I found that Techland had implemented this in the original game in an update - though I never played the game with that update. Personally, while it may make logical sense that kicking takes stamina as jumping or dodging does, the amount of stamina cost for one kick (more than swinging a weapon twice) is very high and it did reduce the fun of the mechanic and resultant gameplay early in the game.

Another way that they reset your abilities, without resetting your level, is to only provide you with low-level equipment at the beginning of the game. This is deadly and increases the difficulty exponentially because the enemies scale with your level. So, when bringing a character over from the original game, you are a level 30+ character stuck with weapons that perhaps don't even have a level requirement and since the weapons in the shops are so ridiculously priced it's impossible to even afford anything decent until you happen across something as a drop from an enemy or from an item chest.

The hit detection seems to be a bit dodgy as well. Sometimes your kick will visibly miss an opponent but make them, and other aggressors stumble backwards as if they were hit. This is fine for me since you are looking at them on the screen and you do not know where exactly the foot will make contact with because it is not situated in the centre of the screen: the game is making the (correct) assumption that you were trying to kick those enemies and helps you along a bit. Unfortunately, this only makes the inverse that much more infuriating so that when you think you should have made contact with an enemy both with your kick or with your weapon and you do not it is frustrating - especially because you will most certainly take damage in that situation.

Another mechanic which is dealt with differently in other games (such as Skyrim) is unstoppable animations. These include the head stomp and the new jump attack mechanic. In other games an unstoppable animation makes you invulnerable to enemy damage or, at least, pauses other enemies' attacks. Riptide doesn't and in so doing relegates these mechanics into uselessness. The head stomp, even when upgraded is incredibly slow, both in the wind-up and wind-down. Yes, it automatically kills any enemy on the floor (as long as the hit detection doesn't mess up!) but the thing about this is that only the weakest enemies can be knocked down - the ones that are easiest to kill and have the lowest hit points... which means that it isn't that useful as a combat shortener. Also, since you can be attacked when performing the head stomp, you should not (and really cannot) perform it when in combat with more than two or three enemies nearby as you will take a lot of damage from them - which doesn't interrupt your animation, leaving you helpless. Finally, there is another move available to you which is faster, able to be backed out of and does as much or more damage: the down/up strike.

The down/up strike (my naming) becomes available when you look down at an enemy that is lying on the floor. All's you have to do is hit the attack button once or twice and you will perform a downward swipe or a downward and then follow-up upward swipe respectively. This attack will reliably kill any weak, knockdownable enemy in those two hits. You can also still move around or dodge or interrupt the attack with a jump the same as any of your other normal weapon swipes. This attack will also hit any other enemies in front of you on the upward swipe, knocking them and interrupting their attacks and advance. This makes the head stomp a complete waste of skill point allocation (not that you can undo it from the first game if you had it anyway!) and a complete waste in the game play as well because there is never a real reason to use it. Pretty much the same can be said for the jump attack.

One good thing that this series update does is to reduce your inventory management. In the original, your inventory slot limitation covered throwables and secondary items such as alcohol and medikits. In Riptide only your melee weapons and firearms are counted and this makes the game more enjoyable as a whole as you're not constantly having to either traipse back to a shop or discard items you may want later on. The storage limit (i.e. the guy who holds onto items for you) has also been increased significantly and I never got to the point where I could test the bug that happened in the original whereby you would go over the limit and lose the items that had been put in first...

A change that is a bit peculiar is the addition of a zillion workbenches. In the original, they weren't all that common, meaning that you had to manage your weapon durability and degradation fairly carefully and it was important to have backup weapons in case of your primary weapon becoming unusable or significantly damaged. In Riptide, because there are so many workbenches and repairing items is so cheap, you realistically can get away with equipping one melee weapon and one firearm and maybe, if you want, a grenade or molotov into your quick slots. This change basically does away with the durability mechanic and makes it a non-issue... a puzzling change because in the first game it really had an impact. In Riptide I never went below 40% durability on a weapon.

However, a fantastic change is the addition, at least on the console version, two a complete quick select wheel mechanic for both your equipped slots and the select menu meaning that you can quickly switch between the map and the stats pages instead of having to manually slowly slide through the pages inbetween. In general, I love quick select wheels. I loved it in Neverwinter Nights and I never understood why more games didn't make use of them.

I'm not a big fan of the health mechanic. Your health looks like it has a lot of segments on it but any enemy can and will damage you for at least two of these. I actually don't get how it works in its entireity because strangely, some health will recover sometimes and depending on the attack but other times it does not and sometimes it will regenerate to the nearest bar and other times it will stop mid-bar and not regenerate any further. It's a bit confusing because the difference is never explained. I also dislike the tendency of developers to obscure the action the more injured you get. I dislike this purely because the more injured you get, the harder it becomes to deal with the injury. The Mass Effect series is a prime example of this mechanic and it frustrates me no end. In the same way that you don't get water droplets/steam/blood splatter on your eyes in real life, adrenaline tends to kick in when you are in danger or injured, resulting in heightened senses, faster reactions and stonger muscle tension. I realise that it can be an indication on how you're doing, health-wise, but I feel that some improvement can be made to this aspect of gaming without making it so that the more injured you are, the exponential likelihood it is that you will die.

Speaking of adrenaline, the fury mode/power is still in this game. To be honest, I never used it in the game except twice when I was forced to by the developers and once when I was trying to frantically use my med kit during a fight and I held the button down for too long. I played as Purna, IMO the best character as she gets bonuses to both blade and firearms, and her fury power is to instakill enemies with an unlimited ammo sidearm within a limited period. It's very powerful and is a fine mechanic but... to be honest I just completely forgot about the power. I did the same in the original Dead Island as well and I didn't really miss it. I think that the main problem is that the activation meter (fury meter) is so small and innocuous and doesn't really highlight itself when it's full so you just concentrate on getting along in fights and exploring the environment. For the next game (because I'm pretty sure there will be another game considering the sales chart positions that I've seen) I'd like them to make it more obvious when whatever equivalent skill is ready for use.

Like cars and trucks, boats can hold more than one person at a time as well - useful for co-op but it has no impact on the single player experience. I can imagine that the issues with kiting enemies are reduced in this scenario...
Image courtesy of Molag Bal

Transport in this game is a bit of a mystery. Automobiles (cars and trucks) have spawn points, they are decent to handle and kill zombies quite easily and at low speeds - not to mention the protection they afford the occupants. If you use an automobile it will remain in the last place you left it until you take another automobile, at which point it will disappear. At the same time, another automobile will spawn at the place you originally took this current "in-use" automobile and, finally, the automobile that is "in-use" will disappear upon exiting the game. Confusingly, this is not how boats work.

They provide faster travel on the water than walking but are not very agile and are quite slow to turn. The occupants are very vulnerable to attack from the drowned dead as these can climb aboard and you are vulnerable to attack from yet another unstoppable animation as you get off the boat (though you can choose which side you get off the boat if you nudge the movement stick in that direction). However, the most frustrating thing about boats is that boats are permanent fixtures in the game world: they stay wherever you leave them, even across play sessions, and do not respawn in their original positions. This results in you running out of water vehicles because you will undoubtedly end up with all the boats in one or two locations. Worse still, when your companions use a boat to get to another plot point they take one of the other boats from the map to do it. I ended up with three boats in one place because of this and, since the roads do not reach all places that travel by water can access, it meant that unless I specifically went out of my way to do so, I could not get rid of these "boat collections".

A whole load of water but nowhere to go...
Image courtesy of Siha

The dirty secret of boats, though, is that it is - like the head stomp - better not to use them. My reasoning is thus: Use of boats will inevitably result in kiting a line of fast-moving enemies that will damage, if not outright kill you as you dismount. Not to mention the "boat collections" I talked about above. It is generally safer to deal with the drowned dead on a one-to-one or one-to-two basis just moving through the waterways yourself.

This brings me onto my next point: the player is restricted in movement speed and ability when in water past a certain depth but zombies are not. This is doubly true for the drowned dead who are super fast but even the basic walkers are able to move at normal or very close to normal speed when in water - especially when performing their lunge-grapple. It feels unfair to have this mechanic in the game. When you're on land you suffer no such penalty and the zombies do not have such a large advantage over your movement ability.

One poorly-implemented idea are the knife-wielding walkers: They will attack you with their knives most of the time and this is fine but they also have a rarely used throw attack... which is an instakill even when you have full health. When you die like this it is very frustrating, especially because there's no wind-up animation (or it's very short) so there's virtually no way you can dodge the knife hurtling towards you.

Luckily, death is a pointless thing in this game and is of no import... but sitting at the 7 second "death screen" is annoying when you feel like you had no way of avoiding it.

Technical issues / Bugs:

When using a bladed weapon (I haven't checked the other melee weapon types) your backhand attack animation will sometimes get stuck in the "up" position, meaning that you are frantically pressing "attack" but only a weak slapping of your elbow is hitting the enemies. I don't know if this is a bug or a feature of the physical combat system in the game.

Weapon damage is a bit of a mystery. The weapons themselves have DPS values but, while for the most part they made sense and matched with what I was seeing on the screen, occasionally they would suddenly drop for no observable reason and then later on I would find them higher again. Let me give an example: I had a number of weapons all dealing around the 1700 damage per second mark but when I went back in to look at them after a while (and this was at full repair) they were dealing around 1650 or less. Later on the values crept back up again without explanation. Finally, late in the game my weapons dropped in their DPS indications but started doing much more damage than they said they could. I had a chinese war sword (awesome weapon) that was said to do 2500 or so DPS but each and every hit did 4000+ damage. If I had a critical hit, it went up to above 6000+ damage. This same scenario played out for all weapons at this point and I had no idea if it was intentional, based on level or weapon proficiency (though supposedly, when you look at the DPS values they are supposed to take these modifiers into account) or if it was just an outright bug. Either way, it was fun to be doing so much damage towards the end of the game and it added to the game's appeal for me, bug or no.

There was also another bug I encountered only once. I accidentally threw a cleaver into the ground in a safe zone and it just disappeared. Every other time I had a weapon thrown I was able to locate it (and I think they can get moved around a bit by explosions and whatnot) but this one time it just disappeared... so it's best to be careful in those places.

So that's where I put it!
Image courtesy of  |tb|JesusRaptor

They still have the save game mission completion bugs that existed in the first game. Despite the game saying it's saving, it will not always update partially completed quests and one time I had the game forget I had even started a quest in the first place. It's a minor annoyance but still quite a simple thing to fix in terms of game complexity which is why it's all the more annoying that it wasn't fixed for this sequel.

Finally, this isn't really a bug, per se, but it's incredibly funny how everyone gets an automatic and instantaneous haircut once they are decapitated... which is made all the more apparent by the game switching into slow motion! I'm not really sure why you'd want to call attention to that.


I really struggled to like Dead Island Riptide at first - as I did, though not to the same extent, the original Dead Island. However, I came to enjoy the game much more in the late-game stages. Not only are there relatively fewer zombies later on in the more confined areas of the city but your power curve has levelled and become very similar to the adversaries which means that you are powerful and able to hold your own in tense situations without your enemies being over- or underpowered in comparison to your character.

Interestingly, I had the same experience with Dead Rising... which really only became enjoyable once I'd unlocked all the equipment slots and health upgrades. While I like the end result, I find that there is a lot of unnecessary work placed on the player to get to this point and, especially early on, there are many frustrating instances that can and would make a player give up and put the game down - perhaps for good!

What I think will happen in the next game is that they will use new characters. The main reason is that they were "forced" to continue on with the story from the first game because of the way it ended and they probably didn't expect it to perform so well so hadn't accounted for that scenario before it was released. What this resulted in was potentially very powerful characters that would be carried over into Riptide which would suffer a complete disparity with newly created characters in the game in terms of potency. This was averted through the introduction of the weapon proficiencies which, if my reckoning is correct, act as the new versions of character levels in this game.

Aside from a potential story reason why there will be new characters in the second sequel, there is only so much of this "depowering" that the developers can do without ridiculous numbers of layers of complexity being added to the character levels and weapon proficiencies... not to mention that the skill trees themselves simply do not really support any more skills being added.

Backseat designing:

I really feel like a fully regenerating health bar would make more sense in this game - especially since death is such a minor inconvenience. I'd keep the food and health kit items though and repurpose them. I would use the food to balance a hunger mechanic which would not kill you if you got hungry but would instead increase stamina costs for all actions as your hunger increased. The med kits I would keep for wounds like those you get in Far Cry 1 and 2. Being attacked and severely injured could have the possibility of resulting in a debilitation: For instance, you could lose the use of one of your arms, restricting which weapons you could wield... or your legs could become injured, reducing your movement speed or stopping you from being able to run or jump entirely. Maybe even include a concussion effect like in Boiling Point, which made the screen go all fuzzy for a few seconds and you could hear tinnitus over the ambient sounds.

I'd also love to include a "hardcore" survival mode. This wouldn't change the above mechanics but would instead spawn a limited number of zombies on the island, mainly concentrated around areas of noise or where people would have been congregated (such as urban centres). Zombies would not respawn and instead their positions would be tracked by the game so that you could lure enemies away from areas you wanted to get to... also the better weapons, such as firearms would be in urban centres, along with medical supplies and food caches which would make for an interesting gameplay intersection between trying to pick off individual or small groups of zombies on the outskirts/wilderness or distracting larger groups that were less manageable earlier on in the game. Since the number of zombies would be limited, victory would be established only when you'd killed them all... and player death would be permanent. So, the regenerating health system would be vital for making this aspect of the game work.

It also might be good to have other objectives in this survival mode and other possible win-scenarios... such as finding a cure, doing the leg work and research to get to the cure would force you to move out of your comfort zones, for example.


Techland have liberally borrowed zombie types from a wide variety of media and put their own spin on them. In Riptide there is a good mix of enemies and they don't throw so many of one type of the special zombie types at you at once. Whereas in Dead Island they really threw a lot of the straitjacketed charging types at you in the city but they toned that down in the sequel and instead varied the types with additions like the Screamers and grenadiers. This change meant that there was never really a feeling that the developers were lacking imagination in a given situation by spawning so many of the same special infected type over again in short time periods.
The Screamer: Relatively easy to take care of unless they let off their eerie howl...
Image courtesy of ♠PRᶤƵ_