Sunday, 6 April 2008

Dead In Seconds: The Frustrations of Computer Games

Aside from blogging and writing fiction, one thing I enjoy, probably like millions of people, especially men, is to play games on my computer. There are two types of game which I favour from the vast range out there. Not surprisingly given my interest in counter-factual history I have always enjoyed historical strategy games and like trying to turn history on its head. One series I have played more than any other is the 'Total War' series: 'Shogun Total War' (2000) and its 'Mongol Invasion' (2001); 'Rome Total War' (2004), its 'Barbarian Invasion' (2005 - set in the 5th century at the end of the Roman Empire) and its 'Alexander' expansion (2006); 'Medieval Total War' (2002 period from 1066 to 1453) and its expansion 'Viking Invasion' (2003 - set in the 8th-10th centuries just in Scandinavia and British Isles) and its follow-up 'Medieval II Total War' (2006) and its expansion, 'Medieval II Total War: Kingdoms' (2007) which allowed various regional campaigns in the Baltic, the Crusades, British Isles and Central America. Anyway these games allow you to build empires and fight real-time battles to often covering centuries. Aside from all the official expansions there are numerous free downloadable alterations and upgrades, often to make the campaigns more historically accurate or totally alter it so you can fight, for example, in the world of 'The Lord of the Rings'.

I have spent many hours playing these games, but am constantly frustrated in how imbalanced the game is between what you can do as a player and what the computer-run opposition can do. Notable problems are the use of catapults, ballistas, etc. When your crews are inexperienced it is difficult for them to hit anything especially when using them on the battlefield rather than in a siege. It is maddening as shots fall short and then long and then to one side and then the other side, anywhere but on where the enemy is standing. In contrast the opponents' catapults open up hitting you with flaming balls in seconds and keep firing very quickly and accurately no matter how fast your soldiers run around. I think the first mode probably reflects the reality, but clearly the creators of the game (who despite having loads of official online discussion groups are now getting very sensitive to criticism) want 'their' side to be strong. The greatest problems comes with the Mongols. In reality they were tough opponents for medieval soldiers, but in certain circumstances. In the original 'Medieval Total War' they were tough but in 'Medieval II Total War' they became almost invincible. Again a key problem is the accuracy of their weapons. They use rockets, which is historically accurate, but even as late as the Napoleonic Wars, 700 years later, these were difficult to keep on track and certainly did not have the ability to keep sustained fire on a particular target and they were certainly not strong enough to bring down walls as they do in this game. The Mongols themselves did have longer-range bows than the Europeans but they could be brought down by a shower of arrows, their horses were generally not armoured, but in the game they ride right through unscathed and even after the battle you find you have not inflicted as many casualties as it seems in-battle. Another problem is with sea battles. Even in the Second World War with spotter aircraft and radar fleets were often difficult to track down. In this game whilst your fleets have to wander up and down coastlines in the hope of stumbling across an enemy fleet (certainly one that is not blockading a port), in contrast they track you down the length of the Mediterranean and then drive you in the grips of another of their fleets or an allied one, even hundreds of miles away. This imbalance in strength between the player who in these games builds up armies and navies and moves them around carefully only to have them eliminated so easily is incredibly off-putting and you just chuck in the towel. Games should be challenging but you lose heart when all your great efforts are simply wiped out arbitrarily and with no come-back for yourself.

The other thing is with cities. These grow in population and people expected more sophisticated buildings to be constructed which you have to raise revenue for. However, very often even when you have a low rate of tax, cities are in constant unrest and you spend more time fighting your rebellions than moving on with the game. Again this does not reflect history. There were uprisings over religion and I can accept that if as a Christian you invade a Muslim area there is going to be tension, but saying that somewhere like Acre in what is now Syria was held by the Crusaders for almost 300 years without an uprising. In England itself we had the Peasants' Revolt in 1381 and it was very notable for the rarity of these events, similarly, the German Peasants' War 1524-5 is called that, not the Fifteenth German Peasants' War as unrest was uncommon and usually very localised. If you heavily tax a city or there are spies from elsewhere or a bad ruler, yes I can accept there will be unrest, but not as regularly and as virulently (often the rebels are far better equipped especially with heavy troops) than the garrison they have just expelled from a city. Such imbalanced behaviour (and this is on the Easy level) makes the game tedious and you just give up.

I guess my gripes are about not feeling I stand a chance. I am a good general I can pull miracles out of the hat on the battlefield and having read a lot of medieval history know the tricks that different forces can use (fight Mongols in woodland, hedgerow country or city streets) and yet they have no benefit in the game. Tweaking the coding either originally or in the various patches and upgrades would remove that sense that you are going to die whatever you might try and arbitrary death is not fun; losing a hard fought battle may be disappointing but encourages you to try again not give up.

The issue of arbitrary death brings me to the issues I have with the other kind of computer game I play: first/third person shooting games. Like a lot of people I love to work off my frustrations running around firing at things in a safe environment. This is a less celebral activity than the strategy games, but enjoyable in a different way. I also enjoy the background and settings for these games. I have played 'James Bond: Nightfire' (2002), 'Die Hard: Nakatomi Plaza' (2002) which had a background of the movie genres, but others from a different background have even more interesting contexts and I would highlight 'No One Lives Forever' (2000) and 'No One Lives Forever 2: A Spy in H.A.R.M.;s Way' (2002) which were set in the slightly tongue-in-cheek spy movies of the mid-to-late 1960s like 'Our Man Flint' (1966) and 'In Like Flint' (1967), 'The Avengers' series and almost all 'The Men From U.N.C.L.E.' movies and TV series. Set in 1967-8, there are over the top Russian spies and even a murderous opera singer and a mime on a unicycle. The heroine Cate Archer has a range of amazing gadgets such as exploding lipsticks, make-up contact communicators and parrot shaped radios as well as guns of the time.

Another very good game in this genre is 'Deus Ex' (2000) which has a fascinating political sub-text that has even been commented on on the BBC webpages. It is set in the near future after a terrorist attack on the Statue of Liberty in New York and it seems that the consequences are being manipulated by various US authorities to tighten their control over the country (sound familiar?). It features lots of genetically modified people and creatures and vicious robots. You begin working for the government but increasingly your character comes to change his outlook. It is a shooting game but with a really interesting context and things to uncover. Also, as with the 'No One Lives Forever' series you can develop your characters physical implants and skills and even how others react to him in different directions. My brother played this game too and we went through the same early section. His character came out being seen by others as a quiet, covert clever assassin, whereas me playing the same element was seen by the gung-ho characters as being one of them, a loud man with big guns.

The other game I did in the shooting genre is 'Hidden and Dangerous' (1999) (there was 'Hidden and Dangerous 2' (2002) but I have not played that) which is slightly different as it is a Second World War set commando game in which you run a team of four soldiers you can switch between, so it is first/third person one whichever one you pick. It was fun as it had kind of 'Guns of Navarone' missions behind enemy lines. Despite being buggy, it was challenging without being impossible and there were benefits from co-ordinating your team and sneaking around and sniping, etc. Nicely rendered landscapes too.

Now, the problem I have with some first/third person shooting games is that they become impossible. Being a Goth I naturally enjoy vampire stories in my games and so was very eager to play 'Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines' (2004) which allowed you to be one of seven very different vampire clans located in Los Angeles each with different characteristics. There was a core story but also the opportunity to go off and do other things and all the morality issue of being a vampire and drinking people's (or rats') blood. It was incredibly buggy and needed 23 patches over about two years before it was usable but once it was it was an excellent game, one of the only games I have played that was truly scary and it is very atmospheric all round. However, like many shooter games you reach the stage of no progression, the monster just becomes too hard that no matter what type of equipment you have or strategy you use or skills you develop you can go no further just when you want find out what happens next. You go back and try a whole slew of different strategies, even going back to earlier in the game to find if different choices would help you, but no you just get killed and killed and killed. Of course, then people turn to cheats and usually I go for ones that simply restore your health or give you more defence rather than invulnerability but yet I have to find a cheat code that will let me progress in the game when facing two baddies in different locations neither of which I can inflict more than minimal damage on before dying.

I am now facing the same with 'Bloodrayne' (2002) which has a great setting in that you are a half-vampire woman fighting the Nazis 1935-8 and the various demons they have released, starting in Louisiana then in Argentina and Germany. You fight against the so-called Gegen-Geist Gruppe with a range of interesting personalities from priests to cyborgs to sorcerors and just tough soldiers. You can replenish yourself by draining others' blood. The game allows some of the most elegant moves I have seen in a computer game with you spinning through the air in slow motion firing at enemies. Again very atmospheric with challenging tasks. However, soon you realise no matter how big a gun you get or acrobatic combat attacks you can carry out, you are going to die. From mid-way through I have been unable to progress without a health replenishing cheat and a cheat so that the monsters suffer more damage and yet I turn a corner and I m eaten in seconds without warning. Now even with cheats I cannot progress beyond the walking robot (think the two-legged ones in the movie 'Return of the Jedi' or those in 'Deus Ex' if you have played it) firing rockets and a minigun faster than I can even bring a gun to bear on it. In 'Bloodrayne' whilst your opponents get stronger you do not nor do you get armour and the people you can feed off for health become fewer all the time. As with 'Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines' I am going to bale out and never find out the end of the story. (There is a third example, a very different game, 'Freelancer' (2003 - it took 4 years to develop) in which you are a space trader in the future uncovering a mystery about alien artifacts and despite becoming incredibly wealthy from trading I cannot buy a spaceship that allows me to survive when whole fleets come after me and just blow me apart in seconds, you cannot avoid encountering them in the story).

I accept that I am not the world's best gamer, but I am certainly far from being the worst. I am persistent and I use walkthroughs to help out when I get stuck so I am not blundering into these things. I want a challenge, but I do not want to get three-quarters of a way through a game or even much less and find that no matter what I do (even using cheats in some cases) I cannot progress. I think it comes down to insufficient games testing or the people they use to do it who probably live games and know how to twist their fingers to hit ten keys simultaneously on a PC keyboard to pull these things off. Yes, the opponents should get tougher, but there should never be a sense that they are unbeatable. Yes, they should be able to kill you but not in seconds, there should at least be a chance of fighting back or finding something or developing some skill that allows you to improve your chances. This is where 'Deus Ex' was so good and 'Bloodrayne' so weak. What is the point of developing a complex story and characters if the bulk of buyers of the product are never going to see them. 'Easy' level should mean 'easy', not 'barely completable'. This goes for strategy and first/third person shooters. Allow the player to truly choose the depth of their challenge otherwise they will choose to buy someone else's products.

P.P. I managed to complete 'BloodRayne' but only through using an invulnerability cheat and even then I lost a couple of times because you have to defeat a demon before it grows too large. I found I was closer to the end than I had realised but given that the final battle involves a vast demon who inflicts immense damage with every blow I have no idea how you are supposed to survive without cheating. It was only at the end that I found out how to target anti-tank weapons, something I had not gathered from the training or information up until then. I notice 'BloodRayne 2' addresses some of the difficulties of the first allowing you to send out your spirit to feed on people at a distance and to build up a range of different attacks.

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