Sandbox Games

January 5, 2012

I will find a way to critcize you. Have no fear.

Hello readers, death-threat writers, and people who randomly got here by trying to Google something else entirely. Today, we shall be crit-I mean ‘talking’ about sandbox games.

First, lets be clear on what a sandbox game is. Well, it’s clearly not a game actually set in a sandbox (although that would be a good idea for a game). It is a game in which, generally speaking, you are free to do whatever you wish wherever you wish within the bounds of the game. Sounds really free-form and open, doesn’t it? Well, unfortunately, a true sandbox game (and there have been a few made) usually -only- focus on the general choices, never have a story, and are more or less as niche-centric as a low-level comic book publisher. Others throw away concepts of open-ended factions and choice in favor of more controlled action and keeping it interesting, this can result in a few flavors:

Vanilla — Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption are both good examples of this. They aim for a semi-realistic, almost action-grit style sandbox. In the latest GTA games, you can even do things like go down to comedy clubs, play darts and pool; and even watch TV shows that are exclusively in-game. The problem is, their narratives are as linear as can be, and rarely is there a moral compass for the player’s story outside of how the NPCS (computer generated people populating the world) around the player react when he appears. So you can be a mass-murdering lunatic or a Christian-robin hood style character, but the main plot characters won’t give a crap either way.

Chocolate — Fallout and Elder Scrolls fall more or less into this category. They try to be the best of both worlds. Now I’ve already spoken before about how the present Elder Scrolls games handle it, but from what I hear, Fallout actually does a decent job of conveying story, choice, faction relations, and even makes it possible for the player to complete the game without killing a single person (also, it’s latest iteration, Fallout: New Vegas, has more ending variations than almost any RPG — about 59-65, if I remember correctly)

Strawberry — Dragon Age, and arguably Deus Ex: Human Revolution fall into this category, although not entirely. The first game is from Bioware, who prefers branching narrative and a focus on making the player feel important and involved in the story. Deus Ex: Human Revolution does this, but not as much to the extent of a Bioware game. It’s just as willing to let you sit back, ignore the story for a little while and just hunt around in the sewers or amongst the cities to find something to do.

That One Flavor You Cannot Discern — Japanese Role Playing Games, they could be applied here, but I’m just saying now that they won’t be. They are almost always entirely linear affairs, outside of a few (and I mean it when I saw FEW) series. We’ll devote another post to this topic at a later date.

Rocky Road — Red Faction: Guerilla, Just Cause 2 and Saints Row are those type of sandbox game that wants to be like Red Dead Redemption and GTA, but really aren’t. In Red Faction’s case, it is a semi-open world game plagued with a bipolar focus that rarely actually makes its key talent be the center piece. In Saints Row’s case, it finally gives up trying to emulate after the first game, made a very popular (and violent) sequel. We will also be doing an analysis of Red Faction: Guerilla (perhaps today, depending on how long this lectu-erm, ‘post’ takes). Just Cause 2 is essentially an unintentional hybrid of Saints Row and Red Faction: Guerilla.

*breathes in briefly* Now that we’ve covered the general sand-boxy games, the problems with them:

Realism is always an issue, and as I’ve experienced, the only games to ever handle realism well have been Red Dead Redemption and Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Why? Because they do it -within the context of their fiction-. GTA can’t decide if its the Sopranos or is Better Off Ted. Also, to lightly prod a dead horse, Skyrim’s AI, dialogue, faction handling, and quest decisions are rather often break immersion due to their unrealistic behavior (I killed just one chicken, that’s all. If everyone got wanted for that, McDonalds would be an illegal crime syndicate).

Spreading itself too thin. No game is a better example on this list than Red Faction: Guerilla of how to not compliment your best feature. It’s main mechanics is it’s very well done destruction engine that lets you destroy whole buildings with just a hammer or with a dozen explosives. Despite this it also has sniping missions, interior-combat missions, horrible driving-centric missions, duck-and-cover missions, and stealth missions. Why? Because apparently Volition thinks that despite the fact you can clean most of the EDF out of an area in about 2-3 hours, you need a bunch of additional things that would make sense if you weren’t making a game that centers on running in, blowing things up, and then running back out. Seriously, why am I defending a random hill from 5 enemy tanks with no cover when I could be destroying that giant mineral processing plant two miles away? I can see it from here Volition, don’t tell me it’s a mirage. This isn’t the first time a game’s tried to be something its not in order to try and increase it’s marketability, but it is especially clear and sloppy in this game.

This one will seem a bit odd a point and even more ironically Red Faction: Guerilla is one of the best examples of succeeding against this issue: Making a playable demo for a sandbox game. Now, how did Red Faction succeed where GTA, RDR, Human Revolution, Saints Row and so many others have failed? It used common sense. It’s demo lets you play one of its best missions (arguably the best one in the entire game), and it limits you to have 10 minutes to do whatever you want in the demo (and after playing it about 3 times, you’ll figure out how to destroy most of if not all of the buildings in that time). Another good example is the game Just Cause 2. Now it doesn’t restrict you to one mission (there’s about technically 3-5 you can do in the course of the demo), but it does still give you a limited area to explore and a 30 minute limit on playtime before you have to restart. It seems to be a simple formula, yes? Tell that to your favorite sandbox developers, because so far most of them seem oblivious to the benefit a demo could do for their games.

Now I realize I haven’t covered every sandbox type and every game, but this gives you a general idea. I’ll end this on a more positive note by pointing you to some decent sandbox games that avoid most of the faults mentioned.

inFAMOUS — PS3 exclusive sandbox game centering around being either the ultimate super hero or super villain. In the first game, your powers are exclusively electric, but in the sequel you can get flame or ice abilities. If you like the demo but don’t want to sink $30-60 dollars into a game, get the Festival of Blood standalone DLC from the playstation network, which will only set you back $10 and includes the custom-mission maker that inFAMOUS 2 has. And yes, they let you make your own missions in inFAMOUS 2. If that and a power fantasy don’t have you sold, I don’t know what will.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution — I could spend an entire post listing how good this game is. Yes, it may feel short, because the primary locations are often reused, and the developer has even admitted two other visitable locales were cut due to time constraints. The game’s difficulties are far better in explaining themselves than the basic easy-medium-hard, and the game is very approachable if you’re willing to dig in and think with more than trigger reflexes.

Just Cause 2 — This is not a game for narrative lovers or people who want moral focus. This is a game for people who like to see stuff blown up sky high while the protagonist hang glide-kicks the antagonist off of an airship hotel as they plow 20 bullets into the nearest mercenary opponents. It doesn’t have the destruction of buildings like in Red Faction, but it compensates it with satisfying combat, hillariously corny voice-overs, and a far more forgiving physics engine than the first Just Cause game.



January 5, 2012

Honesty. We all say we want it, that we need it, that we couldn’t live without it.

The reality, genuine honesty could kill us. Think about it. Pick anyone from your life, and have them tell you everything they do for an entire week. If there isn’t at least one thing you don’t like that they do, you are either you are a saint or you are not being honest to yourself.

We lie to ourselves, and other people, daily. We claim that everything is public now, with Facebook, Twitter, etc. — but it really still isn’t, we just put out fluff, things we’d know anyway if we knew the person in real life, and additional lies made in more creative ways.

My closest friends still don’t know things about me that I keep hidden, I won’t claim I’m somehow above the dishonesty. However, I intend to point to how much we hate honesty.

When something in the media is honest, it either is praised and then the point is glazed over, or it is shunned and an excuse is given for its being taken from the spotlight. A good example is the success of The Help whilst Larry Crowne did not garner nearly as much success. Think of Rod Sterling’s Twilight Zone, where he could only point to social and political mistakes via abstract allusions. How in the 60s, most newspapers used naked “free-love” girls as their moniker for what the Hippies were. None of these are by mistake — it’s far easier to look at something as foreign than as something we have to live with.

Another example:
I could probably come up with a story based around the issues of the ideology and/or doctorine of _insert group, faction, or association_ , make it a foreign story, and there’d be no problem. If I instead made it a near-future or present day story, _insert pro-group, faction, or association_ would be on the scene panning it as partisan.

Imagine a world now where everything is plain as day. You know everything about any person the second you meet them. You’re going to have a relatively small circle of people you’ll actually speak to, won’t you? Unless you are insurmountably patient, you wouldn’t be able to be with someone else.

So, by now we reach the point of conclusion — neither absolute is good, and it’s a lie to say either is good. To never be honest is to silence your own inner-self, and to be fully honest is alienating. However, we must keep in perspective what needs to be said and what doesn’t. If you’re honest about how often you brush your teeth but lie about infidelity, then you are missing the picture entirely. Besides, who cares how many times you’ve brushed your teeth?

Hello, I am Nit

He will find a way to criticize you. Have no fear.

I am here to talk to you about the elephants you seem to have turned  a blind eye to. Lets start with the most obese yet ignored of them all:

Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion and Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

Now I am a great fan of RPGS. I played KotOR 2 enough times to min-max my best Sith character to be able to beat the final boss fight in the time it takes FOX news to get a fact mixed with fiction. Yes, -that- fast. I’ve got Mass Effect 2 for both PS3 and PC. I eagerly await getting to play more of Deus Ex: Human Revolution (unfortunately real-life always gets in the way). And then, I turn my eye to the wannabe kid in the corner. Yes, I’m talking about the Elder Scrolls series. I have so far played roughly 14 hours of Oblivion (nearly 20 if you count playing a friend’s PC copy), and maybe an hour and a half of Skyrim. The sad thing is, I can’t tell the difference besides graphics and the character creation screen backgrounds. That is the -only- different. The characters are being held prisoner in the uncanny valley, the combat is tediously unrealistic and stick like, the inventory’s concept of “weight” at first sounds neat, but then feels like a shot to the foot the second you actually play it out in practice.  There is seemingly no place to safely keep your gear that isn’t extremely out of the way, so you have to sell or drop whatever you can’t carry. The AI interactions are atrocious — I kill a chicken, and suddenly I’m Bin Laden. I accidentally “steal” a horse owned by a faction I’m allied with, and the NPC I just spent an hour protecting comes at me, throwing every spell he can at me. How the heck does this make sense on a design document? I’ve not even gotten to the hundreds of glitches that are always in Bethesda games, and it seems like these two games should have tanked. How it is that everyone sees past the issues in this series while games like Oni, XIII, and Silent Hill: Shattered Memories are shoved aside, just for trying to be original, is baffling. I’ve probably played Shattered Memories three times as much as Skrim and Oblivion combined. Why? Because Shattered Memories’ only failing was “not appealing to everyone”. And then a game like Amnesia uses almost the exact same game design ideas, and makes huge sales.

*Breathes in* but we’re getting off topic here

Skyrim is Oblivion with a new coat of paint and even worse hair models, without a doubt. The new additions like a “more user friendly” (aka, -more confusing than ever-) inventory system, dual wielding that somehow exists in a world where two swords cannot block an attack, a story that is even more pointless, alien, and disconnected (when will Bethesda learn that we are more invested in a story if you actually give us a motivation besides being ordered or asked to do something?). The environmental navigation it a matter of jumping in the right diagonal line for each mountain, magic is still more effective than arrows or swords, NPCs still give you that creepy vacant stare, there is no middle ground between fighting and talking (unlike in Deus Ex: Human Revolution),  and while the environment looks nice, it doesn’t necessarily appear to be living naturally.

So what does the Elder Scrolls series have going for it at this point? Frankly, just realistic first person platforming (it’s not Mirror’s Edge but at least it’s something) and dungeons. Oh and “details” as someone once argued to me. Forgive me, but what good are details when there’s nothing there besides them?!

*Breathes in again* now to end this

I want to make two things clear before I go further — I wanted desperately to like the Elder Scrolls games. I heard so much praise, so many pleased reviews, that I thought maybe someone had finally cracked making a true sandbox RPG. As of present though, it’s really just a sandbox game pretending to be an RPG. If I wanted just a sandbox game, I would have gotten Just Cause 2, or I’d go back to playing Red Faction: Guerilla (which we will be talking about in the future. I hope you just “love” courier missions!). So, that’s all for now, but I will return!

*Goes to hide under desk before Fallen returns*

You know those old games you used to play? You remember them fondly, but also remember how foolish you were back then? Or are they like the Ex you keep trying to leave but keep going back to because you never find anything better. Well, I guess the F.E.A.R. series is straddling in between those two things. The first game was a brilliantly made shooter. Despite that nearly 95% of the time you were fighting the same enemy type, it kept feeling fresh. Why? Because nearly a dozen different weapons were offered you, and practically any combination could be made to work for you (aside from that one boom cannon with four barrels — that might as well have been a tank piloted by gremlins on crystal meth). The AI is still hard to beat even today, and at least parts of the story were genuinely interesting. Yes, the ending to the first game sucked until it finally got to the -very- end, but at least it didn’t have a QTE boss fight, right?
Now I hadn’t played the FEAR series on it’s launch, so I got to play each game in sequence (granted I stopped playing the non-Monolith trilogy rather early on and then waited patiently for FEAR 2 to install). When I first played FEAR 2, I was honestly disappointed (and if you’re a fan, you probably were too) for about the first hour and a half of the game. Instead of throwing new Replica soldiers at us like in the first game, it threw apparently dumber spec-ops soldiers, and gave us the illusion of actually helpful allies (seriously, why do we even count them as more than cheerleaders?. Then, finally we get the enemies back that we wanted, but it still doesn’t feel the same. We can now carry a 4th weapon, but we also now can only carry 3 medkits, we can’t upgrade our health, bullet-time upgrades are far more sparse, and environments are far more industrialized. I’ll admit the game does use more than just gray and brown, but I’d actually argue that at least something like Gears of War or Warhammer: Space Marine had inspired locals, if not colorful ones. FEAR 2 starts in a hospital, and ends on an island or silo somewhere (with the only the truly well handled horror elements happening in the school section that somehow happen just before the end). The nightmare sequence boss fight was a serious upgrade to FEAR’s ending, but the disturbing concept that your protagonist was being raped by an undead ghost sociopath woman certainly just made you go “W…T…F?”

That was my first time through. Afterwards, I tried the multiplayer a little (it’s actually nicely handled, and very polished, but there’s a feeling they are holding players back just to keep it balanced). Then I let it rest as I played through more games. Coming back to it years later, it feels like my expectations are lowered, but not to the same extent you’d have for something like a Resident Evil game. I played it to show a friend it. The fact was.. the game’s flaws were more clear to me, and the serious overtone was broken. I couldn’t feel invested in it, until I tried something some of FEAR’s hardcore fans would call unthinkable:

I started playing Katy Perry’s “Hot n Cold” in the background. Somehow it not only was in sync with the action, but it made the experience feel like it was new again. Because I felt like I was genuinely having fun, I was able to actually perform better in-game, and no longer was I a cover hugging idiot. I would jump into the fray, load bullets into the nearest enemy, slow down time, shotgun the next nearest bastard, toss a grenade, and then get back to cover for just long enough to regen my slow-mo. I felt like I was breezing through the levels, and I died rarely even though I was running head first at enemies. I even managed to get the lift moving in the one section -with- the boss fight mech firing at me. You should have seen the non-visible look on the pilot’s face when I just left to the next level without even giving him a passing glance.

And so, I’ve wasted enough of your time with this Side Note. But be sure to consider trying this idea out one some other game you enjoyed once. Maybe you’ll find it’s a helluvalot better to beat the Covenant senseless while listening to Florence + The Machine .

So, to start this off lets take a look at a flash game, called Flight:

As you can see, Flight isn’t exactly the most challenging game on the market. It also isn’t the most innovative — it’s about a task we can do ourselves in real life. How is it, then, that it is so important? Because, it does what so few games actually genuinely accomplish these days — it inspires an emotion. By listening to I’m Still Here from Treasure Planet (seriously, what’s your excuse for not watching it?) while playing, I almost became one with the plane. I didn’t feel ripped out every minute by a glitch or stupid attempts at “realism”, I was just flying.

Now not everyone will feel the same about this. But the fact is, there are games where you actually feel genuine emotion. Imagine talking down a mad gunman in Deus Ex: HR or trying to survive an apartment fire in Heavy Rain, or the sensation of fear mingled with discovery in Penumbra, or the odd feeling of regret and pity that you have to leave in the ending of Portal 2. These moments should be treasured highly, more highly than they are. They teach us something about ourselves, they make us think, and they make the medium as a whole more than just a “game”.

And so,

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