Sunday, July 5, 2009

Dune: The Ultimate Strategy Game

I'm a big fan of Dune. The original six novels by Frank Herbert are the pinnacle of modern literature. I'm also completely baffled about why no one yet has made an accurate adaptation in other forms of media. Ok, the Sci-fi Channel miniseries was pretty accurate to the storyline, but it got a lot of small details wrong for no real reason. The David Lynch film got so many aspects of the details and atmosphere correct, but completely dropped the ball on the storyline. The "weirding modules" undermined the whole theme of environmental shaping and human ability triumphing over technology. I don't even want to talk about the continuation books by Brian Herbert.

Since this is a video game site, though, I'll talk about my problems with the Dune games. The first Dune game was a graphical adventure game which was alright, but of course took a LOT of liberties with the story. Dune II has the distinction of being the first RTS game as we know the genre today. Dune 2000 is mostly a graphical upgrade to Dune II with a better GUI and more usability features, but not much new. Emperor: Battle for Dune once again sets the bar as Westwood's first 3D RTS, but it was still very similar to the other games. Through the course of the series, environmental aspects such as sandstorms and sandworms were added, but they just serve as random ways to lose a few troops here and there. And these games all share the same very major problems: they feature large armies consisting of gun-wielding soldiers and tanks and walking mechs battling on the open sand of Arrakis.

In Dune, personal shields will block the movement of any fast-moving object. Guns, explosives, fast-moving knives and swords are all useless against shields. Lasguns are useless because they cause a reaction with shields which blow up both shooter and target in a nuclear-sized explosion. The only way to penetrate a shield is a slow-moving blade, usually covered in poison of some kind. Sword and knife fighting is the prevalent form of combat, with a particular style of fast defense and slow offense used to penetrate shielded enemies.

On the open desert of Arrakis, shields can't be used because it drives the giant sandworms crazy. They'll come and attack everything in the area. Know what else summons a giant, hungry sandworm? Any rhythmic vibration on the sand. This means anyone walking around on the sand (except Fremen), as well as vehicles on the sand, will get eaten within a few minutes.

What does this mean? It means that open warfare between large armies on the plains of Arrakis isn't feasible. The only people trained to walk without rhythm on the sands are the Fremen. It is possible, of course, to battle on rocky surfaces, such as in sietch or in the mountains, but then land vehicles would be fairly useless and soldiers would be able to wear shields. In the books, all major fighting takes place in the city of Arrakeen or in the mountains. Combat in the desert is relegated to guerilla attacks by Fremen, or ornithopters outfitted with lasguns. Everywhere besides the desert, warfare consists of shield-fighting.

In the games, large armies fight all over the open sand using tanks, walker mechs, and guns. If a worm comes, it will randomly go after one or two units at a time and kill them if you don't simply run away. The worms in Emperor: Battle for Dune appear to be about five meters wide and don't move very fast. The worms in the books are at least forty meters wide and are probably the fastest things on the sand. When they eat something, they commonly attack from under the sand below their prey, swallowing before the target can even move. The only escape is for a carryall to carry the person or vehicle into the air.

Now, I understand that Westwood would make Dune games be very similar to their Command & Conquer games. Set C&C in the desert, add random sandworm attacks, rename some units and you've got a Dune game. Problem is, this just isn't accurate to the books and I think it can be done better.

Here's my ideal Dune game:

  • Rather than straight RTS, I'd make a mix of a galactic map and real-time battles between armies.
  • The galactic map would function similarly to the Total War series, but real-time rather than turn-based, in a way similar to Sins of a Solar Empire.
  • Your great house would be tasked with taking over planets and gaining share in CHOAM and seats in the Landsraad. Politics would be an important part of the game.
  • Different planets would have environmental factors which recruit different types of units. The environment shaping people and cultures was a major theme of Dune, and it would be a large part of the game as well. People recruited on Caladan or Kaitain might be weaker soldiers than those recruited on Arrakis or Salusa Secundus, but would be cheaper to maintain or take a shorter amount of time to recruit. This could affect resources as well on a per-planet basis, depending on the environment. Of course Arrakis is the home of the spice. Giedi Prime might be a good source of slave labor as well.
  • There would be a way to deal with the Tleilaxu, Ixians, and Spacing Guild. Illegal technology from the Ixians; gholas, face-dancer assassins and twisted mentats from the Tleilaxu, and bribes to the Spacing Guild for secret enemy orbital surveilance.
  • Special agents, such as those found in Total War games, would include Bene Gesserit, Mentats, skilled swordsmen, and various types of assassins. These might help improve the effectiveness of your resource gathering or upkeep costs (mentats), or help with diplomacy (bene gesserit), or improve the effectiveness of an army (swordsmen), or of course kill rivals. It might be an interesting idea for mentats to open up new strategic options based on their intelligence, or perhaps to give advice from time to time on what an opponent is probably up to.
  • When armies of opposing houses meet at a planet (they cannot fight in space, the Spacing Guild owns all space travel), the game goes into a real-time battle. The coexistence of the galactic map and real-time land battles would work similarly to Total War or Star Wars: Empire at War. The galactic map would be paused while a battle goes on. The units you have on that planet in the galactic map will be used in the battle, and the environment will determine how the battle plays.
  • The real-time battles should play out in the style of Total War mixed with Dawn of War. Due to the nature of combat in Dune, battles would consist of smaller squads of highly skilled shield fighters, perhaps with larger squads of less skilled, non-shielded fighters to lead an attack. This would naturally consist entirely of melee fighting - swords, spears, knives. I think Dawn of War/Company of Heroes does smaller-scale squad-based infantry combat very well. Battling over strategic points of the map would fit Dune's more cerebral form of warfare. I would also like the units you start a battle with to be all you have, like Total War. This makes the strategy of the galactic map more important, and makes battles more chess-like.
  • The disciplined legions found in Total War may or may not be accurate to Dune. It could work, but faster movement with more micro would make a better game I think, and especially considering the smaller numbers of units. Total War works the way it does because of the massive armies which seem out of place to me in Dune. On the other hand, no real-time recruitment during a battle also means much shorter battles due to the smaller numbers and faster movement of units. I think that due to the shields, it would take a while for squads of equal skill to kill each other, so strategy in the galactic map would be especially important to ensure you have a superior fighting force going into each battle. Among equal armies, superior strategy should always win out. I suppose each system of combat has its advantages and disadvantages, and the books don't get specific about which is more accurate.
  • Regardless of the specific combat system, I like the stamina and morale system of Total War, and this would be included for each squad. There would be many factors controlling how fast a unit becomes tired or how fast they will rout when losing a battle.
My idea is pretty similar to a once-in-development Dune MMO that has long ago been cancelled, although I'd prefer it as a single-player game with multiplayer battles like Total War. This game could also potentially come about as a mod for one of the Total War games (Rome?). If you're a modder reading this, GET ON IT ALREADY!

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Making fun of a random list I found on the internet

First, take a few minutes and glance through this list of the "20 Games That Changed Gaming Forever." Or is it the "20 Most Innovative Games Ever Made?" The article's title says both, although they mean different things. Keep this list open for reference as we journey through it together:

#20: Portal
This is undeniably an innovative game, unless you want to consider the indie game Narbacular Drop that was the predecessor to Portal, and was essentially the same concept. It was made by the same team, and was pretty rough, so I guess I can concede this one. Portal was the first commercial game of its kind.

#18: Dance Dance Revolution
The article claims "Before DDR, music-based videogames were a virtually unknown niche genre. But DDR changed all of that with its patented "dance platform" that enabled players to bust a move instead of busting their thumbs on a typical game pad." So, while they acknowledge it is not the first music game (which it wasn't), it was the first to utilize a unique controller. I guess they forgot Beatmania, which had a DJ controller and came out a year before DDR? If DDR didn't actually innovate in the way they claim, then maybe it "changed gaming"? I don't know, the guitar hero series seems to have much more in common with Beatmania than DDR. I suppose that's debatable.

#17: Resident Evil
The article says "Alone in the Dark did it first, but Resident Evil made it iconic." didn't innovate, then? I guess it must have "changed gaming", then.

#16: Bioshock
First complaint right off the bat, the article lists it as a 360-only game. I guess they forgot that it released on the PC simultaneously, and was also ported to the PS3 later? Now that that's over with: I just...I have no clue what this is doing here. It was a great game, but it was essentially a dumbed-down, steampunk version of System Shock 2. How does the article claim it innovates? "But the real spark in the BioShock experience was the realization that you could choose to be the hero or the villain"; "BioShock is also enormously influential for advancing steampunk chic." It was the first game with a morality system that let you choose between good and evil actions to affect the outcome of the story? No, that can't be it...that's been a part of gaming for a helluva long time. In fact right now I'm playing through Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic, which gives you moral choices every five minutes and has two fairly different endings to the story based around that. So, Bioshock was the first game with a steampunk art style? Certainly not. That style has been a staple of (mostly japanese) RPGs for a long time. Did Bioshock change gaming? Not that I've noticed...what games after it have tried to emulate anything it has done? I really can't think of anything.

#15: Warcraft
"Though Dune II technically set the modern real-time strategy (RTS) genre into motion, it was Blizzard Entertainment's Warcraft: Orcs & Humans that turned a fringe game style into an international sensation." Changed gaming? Yes. Innovative? No. They admit that Dune II did it first, right in the first darn sentence!

#14: Final Fantasy VII
The article doesn't present a single reason for this game being innovative, because it just wasn't, aside from being 3D. But I can concede that it was definitely influential.

#12: Geometry wars
This entry says flat out that the gameplay itself isn't revolutionary. Anyone who has played Robotron can tell you that. Instead, the article claims that the way that Geometry Wars was digitally distributed has changed gaming by popularizing downloadable games. Um, I don't know about that. Even if we discount the PC and just make this claim for consoles, the first game on XBLA to hit a million downloads was apparently Uno. Maybe that helped just as much as GeoWars? I don't really know.

#11: Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare
Hahahaha! I guess "identical to the previous three games, but this time it's not set in world-war-II! Oh and it added one new feature to the multiplayer that essentially gives players the ability to choose an unfair advantage over others!" means "innovative." I suppose you might make the claim that a few console shooters after CoD4 have copied its perk system for multiplayer, which makes it influential...but the fact that this is on the list but games such as Super Mario Bros. (the first platformer!) or Quake (the game that essentially created online multiplayer deathmatch) or any number of other far more famous and undeniably innovative games are not, is just ridiculous.

#7: Halo
There's no denying that Halo changed console gaming. Practically every FPS since then has had regenerating health, for example. I don't necessarily like the WAY in which Halo changed gaming, but it certainly has. Sigh.

#3: World of Warcraft
"World of Warcraft was by no means the first MMO, but it was the game that perfected the rules and the experience." Once again the article flat-out admits that the game is not innovative. Just because its the most popular game in its genre, does not mean it innovated, or even that it changed gaming! One might argue that MMOs today all try to copy WoW, but one could also just argue that those MMOs are all trying to copy Everquest, since that's what WoW essentially tried to do.

#2: Grand Theft Auto III
Aside from the fact that it was just a 3D version of the standard GTA formula, I guess it did innovate.

#1: Doom
I'm mentioning this one because it's probably the best entry to this list. I mean, it started the FPS genre! Oh, what's that? Wolfenstein was the first FPS, not Doom? Nevermind.

So, now that I've established just how ludicrous this list is, how about all of the games that should be here, but aren't? Like, I don't know, the games that CREATED GAMING AND EVERY GENRE WE PLAY TODAY? Spacewar, Pong, Space Invaders, Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, Wolfenstein, Dune II, Adventure...compared to any of these games, NO game of the last 10 years can even be considered "innovative" or "influential."

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Quick Game Impressions

It's been a while since I posted. There's been no shortage of games to play, so here's what I've been playing:

IL-2 Sturmovik

Most flight sims are a bit too complex for me to take the time to learn them. IL-2 is different because it's not as hard to jump into and shoot up some planes. I especially like it because of all the interesting differences between the capabilities of WWII planes and modern jets. In Aerowings 2, for example, I can do a loop or immelman pretty much anytime because of the afterburner. With a prop plane, speeds are in general much lower, and you don't get enough thrust to do a loop or immelman a lot of the time. This means that height and potential energy plays a far bigger role. Also, because there's no missiles, IL-2 requires you to be right behind another plane, in close proximity, in order to even hit anything accurately with machine guns. It sure is rewarding when you finally do blast an enemy out of the sky, though!

Ghost Master
I remembered hearing about this a long time ago when it was released, and it sounded interesting. It was on sale a while ago so I nabbed it and tried it out. You control ghosts and try to scare all the humans out of a house. It's kind of boring and the controls suck. Luckily I didn't waste much money on it.

Zeno Clash

Here's a unique first-person beat-em-up. The style is some sort of weird mix between prehistoric and . . . I don't really know what. It's a lot of fun, but I wish it had a little more to the combat system. As it is, there's pretty much the regular punch which can become a three-hit combo, plus a charge punch, a grab which leads to two attacks, and a counter-attack. That's about it. There's some weapons, which are also pretty unique, but they're nothing new for the FPS genre. For an indie game, this one is pretty great.

Punch Out!

Nintendo put out a new, good first-party Wii game? Really?! That's right, Punch Out has been remade and updated for the Wii. It has a collection of fighters from the previous games, plus at least one new fighter in Disco Kid. The gameplay itself is exactly the same. You dodge, duck or block punches by recognizing the telegraph of the opponent, and look for an opening to knock his face off. There are no new moves for little mac. When I say it's the same, I mean it's EXACTLY THE SAME. It's not that big of a complaint because the formula is still great fun, but it would have been nice to see a little more gameplay. Being a Wii game, it also features optional motion controls for punching with the wiimote and nunchuk, and I really like it. There's the optional balance board for dodging, but I don't have one. I imagine it wouldn't work out well, because dodging requires a LOT of timing and I don't know if the balance board would be good enough for it.

Empire Total War
Really good! Kind of buggy. Not a big fan of the naval combat, but it's a good addition for those that want it. Just play this!

Saturday, March 14, 2009


This week I decided to buy a new console. And by "new" I mean "I haven't owned one before". This is also the first and likely only console I own made by Sega. If you haven't guessed which console it is by now . . . well you're an idiot because it's in the title and there's a big picture of it right up there ^^^

Just why in the heck did you buy a Dreamcast? you might wonder. My answer: because it has some AWESOME games. Also, because it's just one of the best consoles ever, and here's why:

-it was the first console with online play, and yes people actually played it, and it was actually FREE. And it had cross-platform online play between the Dreamcast and the PC for some games before anyone else was even contemplating it

-it was the first console with mouse+keyboard support, with awesome FPSes supporting it like Half-Life and Quake 3

-It has hardware that's almost identical to NAOMI arcade boards, which means it got some kickass flawless arcade ports like Ikaruga and Under Defeat

-It was a console designed for hardcore gaming - it had simulations, fighters, shmups, platformers, adventure games, puzzle games and also many unique genre-defying games. The small number of FPSes released supported mouse+keyboard controls

-Despite its commercial death at the hands of the PS2, there is a dedicated homebrew and hacking community to this day, and there are still commercial games being made for the system! Karous came out just two years ago for the Dreamcast, and due this year is another shmup called Dux. Incidentally Dux looks like a crappy R-Type clone to me, but I have to give them credit for supporting the Dreamcast, and some people do like R-Type and would probably enjoy Dux

A Dreamcast goes for around $50 these days, and the games go for around $5-$10 at most. However, because of very poor anti-piracy measures implemented in the system, no one has to pay ANYTHING for Dreamcast games aside from the cost of blank CD-Rs. No boot disc or modding is required to play downloaded or backup games on the Dreamcast, and because all of those games are now out of print it's perfectly fine! If you have $50 to blow and you don't really want any of the current generation consoles, consider going back and discovering some gems of the last generation!

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Mirror's Edge

About a month ago the PC version of Mirror's Edge was released. I anticipated this release because the game was a unique and new concept, and now that I've played it the concept does not disappoint. The mechanics of the game are fun and original, and while I was initially skeptical of a first-person platforming game, the game pulls it off wonderfully. The time trials are addicting and fun as well.

Unfortunately, the time trials are the core of the experience, because the story mode is very lacking. The game's developer, DICE, is primarily experienced with multiplayer-only games, and it shows, because the level design just does not work well a lot of the time. The mechanics encourage navigation of obstacles and finding ways to quickly traverse large areas, but the level design favors slow climbing and platforming puzzles. The mechanics also favor avoiding combat, and the player dies very quickly in combat. However, there are a handful of spots in the game which require combat, and these portions seem unfair and generally not fun. Finally, the game is very short, clocking in at perhaps 5 hours. This could be a good thing considering how inconsistent the level design is.

As I said, the real fun of this game is the time trials. I've never dabbled much in speed-running but I can see the appeal now. Experimenting with faster routes and tiny adjustments to squeeze a few more milliseconds off my time is a ton of fun. Once I had 3 stars on almost every time trial map, however, there just isn't much else to do in the game. There's a map pack coming soon, but it costs money, and I generally hate paying for any extra game content unless it's an actual expansion pack.

The mechanics of Mirror's Edge are great and fresh. With better single player level design, this could have been an excellent game. It's a shame how it turned out, but I hope DICE has learned some lessons and will make the sequel far superior.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

System Shock 2

I've only played this for maybe an hour total and it is already scarier than anything I've played before. This includes FEAR, Dead Space, Bioshock, and Resident Evil 4. I'm not much for scary games in general, and as such I find it difficult to play SS2 continuously. I try, though, because it is undeniably a quality game. Here's why:

The gameplay is much like Bioshock. You explore a sort of living envinronment - a nonlinear world with unscripted enemy AI that will attack you on sight. There are weapons - with very limited ammo, of course - as well as "psionic powers", much like Plasmids in Bioshock. These can freeze enemies, move objects telekinetically, or light things on fire. Beyond Bioshock, however, is an extensive RPG-style stat system and inventory. Everything in the game must be dealt with in real-time. Nothing in-game will pause it, including inventory screens, computer interfaces, or stat upgrades. Of course there is an escape menu that lets you save, load, change options or quit, and this does pause the game. A totally real-time gameplay experience is a feature that many people consider Dead Space as famous for developing, but clearly SS2 came first, which surprised me. (On a side note, many people also consider Dead Space innovating the concept of a HUD built into the character's player model. This is also not true, because Roboblitz did it first. Interestingly, Roboblitz is a great game that was the very first to make use of the Unreal Engine 3, something people falsely credit Bioshock with.)

This always-real-time experience is part of what makes System Shock 2 such a scary game. If you want to stop and read a computer screen or a text log, you need to be careful because a mutant could attack you while you do so. If you want to shuffle your inventory around or use some items, you need to keep an eye out for enemies. It's very tense, made even more so by the fact that enemies WILL appear right behind you. The first time I encountered an enemy in the game was most astonishing. I was wandering through a corridor, and saw an item on the ground. I looked down at it to pick it up. When I looked back up and turned around, a mutant was an inch in front of me in the middle of swinging a wrench. I jumped out of my seat, my hands momentarily left the keyboard, and I took damage. When I regained my wits I bludgeoned him with my wrench, pleasantly finding that they only took a couple swings to kill. Every time I met an enemy, I experienced that same feeling of surprise and fear, because enemies appear infrequently and often startle you. As soon as they spot you, they will run straight at you and try to kill you, so any time you spot one of these mutants you have to immediately deal with it. This is different from Bioshock, where splicers will often ignore you if you're not very close.

That's all I'm going to say on this game, because I can't stand to play it too long on account of how I don't particularly like feeling startled a lot. I enjoyed playing Bioshock more, but I understand the reason many people prefer SS2, and even consider it one of the greatest games of all time. It's very high-quality, even if it doesn't appeal to me personally a lot.

Next up, Mirror's Edge!