Thursday, July 29, 2010

"Who's the Best?" An essay by Doug Hancox

I was hanging out at home, playing Starcraft, when a friend of mine came over. He had never played before, but thought it looked like fun, so he wanted to try out a local multiplayer match. I installed a spawn of the game on his laptop and hooked it up to my PC, setting the two systems up back-to-back on my desk. We connected to the LAN and set up the game. I picked Terran because it's the race I've had the most experience with. As I waited for him to pick, he looked over at me and asked, "Who's the best?"

I punched him in the face.

There is something so wrong about this simple question that begs an explanation as to why it even exists. In the interest of competitive spirit, I can understand wanting to be the best. But when you're starting out in a game, you're likely going to get your ass kicked no matter how much of an advantage you have.

I've been asked this question numerous times in various settings. I'd be showing my Magic cards to friends and one of them would ask "What's the best card in the game?" A question like this is not only pointless, but unanswerable. How do you define "best"? and for that matter, wouldn't it simply be one player's opinion in the first place? A card that is good in one deck might be completely useless in another. Or if you get a generally less useful card when the situation begs for you to use it, that's a whole different matter altogether.

The worst insinuation this question makes is that there actually is an answer to it. The primary reason Starcraft is so popular is that it is so wonderfully balanced. There is no "best race." Every race has distinct advantages and disadvantages over the others. Trying to determine the best is folly. And I wouldn't have it any other way.

You should be wary of any game where a player CAN answer this question without thinking about it. In a game like Clayfighter, it doesn't take any thought to pick Blob, because he's just broken as hell. This is indicative of the poor balance in the game, and makes the game that much less fun.

If he were to ask a question like "Who's the easiest to use?" or "Who's the best for beginners?" that would be a much more acceptable query. It shows he doesn't want to be overwhelmed. In Brawl, you don't want to start with a character like Jigglypuff, Olimar, or Luigi, because all of their little nuances require some experience to use effectively. Or in the case of Magic, using a Blue permission deck takes more strategy and knowledge of the game than using a Red spitfire deck or a Green overrun deck.

People who ask "Who's the best?" Almost seem to expect that simply by picking the best character in the game, it can overcome their lack of skill and experience. They don't want to learn anything about the game, they just want to win. They don't want to work to win either, they just want it handed to them.

It's not even a matter of giving the beginner an advantage over the more skilled player to even the playing field, like when I let my friend use Minion in Twisted Metal II. They want to pick the best character because they don't want to waste their time learning any strategies of the lower-tier characters. If they can't be the best, it's not worth their time to even bother playing. This same thing happens in the console wars. People who are only going to buy one system want to buy the best one. But in reality, they can have plenty of fun with any system. There are plenty of enjoyable games available for any system on the market, including the DS and the PSP. If you're a true gamer, you don't let should-haves and might-have-beens get in your way of just enjoying the game.

(Besides, everyone knows the Zerg is the best.)

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Let's Fail Splinter Cell - Mission #00 "Agent Zero"

Wherein Zero encounters his greatest foes... Security cameras and waist-high floors!

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Vlog 7-17-10

Thursday, July 15, 2010

BioShock and Diablo 2 - Retrospective

You may feel cheated when I combine these games together into a single review, but when I stopped to think about it, they are actually very similar games. While they may follow very different control schemes, plots, storylines, are set in different fiction genres, and in fact belong to completely different game genres, the two games are actually quite similar in terms of basic thought processes.

You begin each game in a strange environment. People around you seem to have a vague idea of who you are, but you're more or less a stranger to them. However, they still need your help, and you are given a number of quests that you have to complete in order to progress.

As you play through the games, you will encounter various enemies. How you kill them is your own responsibility. The game does not discriminate against the way you choose to inflict damage, but certain enemies will be resistant or weaker to specific types of attacks. Switching methods of attack on the fly is key to defeating waves of enemies without too much headache.

When you kill enemies, they will give you loot. This loot is randomly generated and not fixed to any specific progression. Depending on what kinds of items your kills give you, you may choose to focus on a different method of attack; favor a different type of weapon. The difference between what weaponry enemies give you, what you choose to use, and what weapon is most effective against them is the general balancing act of the gameplay, mostly by choosing the most effective weapon for each situation, based on range, speed, strength, and ease of use. Necessity (or laziness), however, may tempt the player to focus on one or two main modes of attack, and only use others when absolutely necessary (or when bored).

The number of weapons you have access to in Bioshock is much, MUCH smaller than in Diablo, but the overall number of weapon types are more or less equal. Weapons can be infused with elemental properties: ice attacks will freeze enemies and make them easier targets, but fire and electrical attacks are also available. Certain enemies are much more vulnerable to particular elements, while others are resistant or even completely immune.

While Bioshock and Diablo both follow a more or less linear plot (You complete the same quests in more or less the same order in every playthrough) in Bioshock, every weapon and enemy you face appears in generally the same location every time, and in fact every map is identical to every playthrough. Every key item and weapon you find will be in the same location and found at the same point in the plot; in some cases these are even required in order to progress.

Diablo, however, gives you a wide selection of weapons. While any specific aspect of them can be simplified by attack speed, range, and whether it is used in one or both hands, these weapons are replaced with stronger varieties throughout the game, andyour choice of what you use is made more complex with the addition of magical modifiers. Magical weapons can be found that provide any number of bonuses, from increased attack rating, higher health and mana, elemental properties, and much much more.

Unfortunately, The majority of weapons you find will be completely worthless to you. Modifiers such as "low quality" "crude" "damaged" or "cracked" are just as common as an unmodified or "superior" weapon, and these weapons are generally not even worth picking up to sell back in town; they aren't even worth the space in your inventory. And even when you do find a magical item, odds are you won't be interested in the item's particular modifiers. But when you do finally get that perfect item you've been hoping for, it's one of the best endorphin rushes in gaming.

Replay value in Diablo 2 is made much higher than in Bioshock based purely on the sheer number of ways you can play through it. Every class has 30 skills, each of which has 20 levels of effectiveness. Since it's impossible to gain 600 levels, you will have to choose what skills your character will focus on for any individual playthrough. Multiply this by 5 classes (7 in the expansion) and the infinite number of maps that can be randomly generated, and Diablo 2 is a game that anybody can play through multiple times and never have the exact same experience.

But the burning question is: would you want to?

What Bioshock lacks in complexity, it makes up for in focus. While it doesn't do nearly as much as Diablo 2, what it does do is highly polished and enjoyable. It may not be as long, but the fact that it can be played through and experienced much quicker means the entire narrative arc can be enjoyed in a shorter amount of time, and gratification is easier to come across. The game is too short to become monotonous, and too focused to become diluted.

Diablo's enjoyment comes from the progression of your character and growing him/her based on your method of play. You become attached not only to your character, but even your items. You hesitate to throw away that awesome sword you found in act 1, that served you so well for two entire acts and matches your character's skills perfectly, even though it has been rendered obsolete by newer equipment and is taking up too many of your inventory slots. But eventually you bite your lip and sell it to the merchant with a heavy heart, replacing it with something that may serve you better, but has no nostalgic attachment... yet. But perhaps in time you will learn to appreciate this one just as much.

Which is a better game? Who can say. It's all a matter of how you play it.

Thursday, July 8, 2010