The everyday blog of Richard Bartle.
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9:20am on Wednesday, 12th July, 2006:
In Civilizations I-III, there was a tactic you could use whereby you expanded rapidly at the beginning, then consolidated your lands and concentrated on getting ahead technologically while beating off the stacks of doom sent against you. The designers took against this tactic, so with Civilization IV they introduced really tough animals and barbarians. This meant you couldn't expand quickly, because you had to build so many defensive units. This duly put an end to the tactic, as intended, which is a real shame because that's the tactic I used. I can play it and win it as it stands, but it's just not so much fun any more.
One of the other things the Civilization team did which annoyed me, dating back to the earlier games, was to rubber-band the technology levels. If you got too far ahead of the AI players technologically, they were given large boosts of research points to get them back up to speed. In some cases, this made little difference because you could get so far ahead that your tanks were still wiping out their pikemen, but in other cases it did have an impact. These games were generally the ones in which two or three AIs were close behind and were trading each other technology anyway, so you had to keep ahead because otherwise they'd overhaul you. Except, as they were getting bonus research for your being ahead, that meant you had to be even more ahead, which gave them more of a bonus, and so on; you never quite achieved enough velocity to escape the gravity of the rubber-banding.
This flawed idea of levelling the playing field was pitched as one of the great things about The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. In the previous game, Morrowind, players complained that they could walk into a cave and have their heads bitten off before they could even scratch their assailant's armour. Not in Oblivion! All content is matched to the skill of the character, so if you're level 1 or 2 you only ever come up against rats and goblins and wolves, until you get high enough that you can take out bigger creatures. Then, you get the bigger creatures.
I can't say how awful this is. It's supposed to ensure that players are presented with a constant challenge, the vague idea being that it'll keep them in the zone. It does no such thing. It removes the challenge, because it's always the same. What's the point in trying to go up levels if the things you want to be a higher level to defeat go up with you? It's like trying to run to the horizon — it retreats at the same rate you advance. I guess the Oblivion people might say that the point of the game is not reaching the destination but what you see while you strive to reach it, which is fair enough. However, it sort of assumes that everyone wants the same degree of challenge, and that they are able to overcome the challenges within the parameters the designers set. If this is not the case, players have to change the difficulty setting manually so it matches what they want. Wouldn't it be better if they could do that by selecting which foes to tackle next, rather than turning a global easiness knob? Oblivion got very boring very quickly for me.
I don't play Civilization IV or Oblivion any more, but, as I'll explain shortly, that's not because of the gameplay.
Yesterday, I installed Desperados 2: Cooper's Revenge. I enjoyed the first in the series, Desperados: Wanted Dead or Alive, and was quite looking forward to it.
Augh! What have they done?!
What they've done is update the game to a swish new 3D engine from the old 2D engine. Result: it's unplayable. I downloaded the patch and it's still unplayable. The first mission is tutorial-style, where you're given a series of things to do that teach you the interface. The first of these is to knock out an NPC by punching him, which wasn't too hard once I figured out that was what it was asking me to do. The second mission was to shoot the cups in a shooting gallery. Except, I couldn't see any cups. A bit of cursor-wiggling showed me where they were, but I couldn't shoot them. I tried to zoom in really close so I could actually see the targets, but it made the screen go totally black except for the cursor, a state from which it could only be recovered by the use of that old favourite, ctrl-alt-del. This happened several times, so I had to shoot at where I thought the cups were, but emptying the revolver into the space never hit one (although I did hit a civilian, which was game over). Finally, I walked the PC over until he was right next to where the cups were, and then I could see them. I also found that at this range (ie. point blank) the cursor resolved itself from widely-spaced crosshairs into narrow ones. I pulled the trigger and yes! I shot the cup! I then shot the other 5 while standing next to them, too. Surprisingly, the guy owning the shooting range didn't seem to object to my demonstrating my aim in this fashion, and we went onto the next challenge.
Whatever that was.
I suspect that some kind of scripted action was supposed to take place to get me from the shooting gallery to the saloon, but my screen went black again and the game hung on me. I had to bomb out and reload the auto-save (I wanted to restart the mission from the beginning, but every time I tried it just sat there loading, so the auto-save won). I found the PC in a saloon with his knife on the floor. The idea was to pick up the knife and throw it at ... someone. It gave his name, Mulcahy or something like that, but I had no idea which NPC he was. Mouse-overing every NPC I could see gave me no indication as to my target, so I picked up the knife and threw it at the nearest likely suspect. Then I walked a couple of paces and picked the knife up again, because although the crosshairs went narrow he was apparently out of range, and I threw it again. It killed him, he was a civilian, game over. OK, so wrong target, let's reload and ... er, I said let's reload and ... oh. It won't reload. It won't reload from the auto-save and it won't restart the mission. It just sits there, hanging.
I stopped playing Civilization IV not because of the ratty gameplay, but because of the interface. They used a 3D engine when they only needed a 2D engine, and it had knock-on effects for the gameplay. I could have coped with the tough barbarians if the map was bigger, but the 3Disation of it meant they had to reduce the size of the world, so when you do finally get to expand you rapidly come across your neighbours and are penned in anyway. It just doesn't feel like a world any more, and civilisations don't feel like civilisations. Plus they fried my video card.
I stopped playing Oblivion not because of the tedium of the monochallenge — I was prepared to sit back and build my character, follow the narrative and enjoy the scenery — but because of the interface. They wanted people to play it on consoles, seemingly, er, oblivious of the fact that some people would be playing it on a PC. They gave it only a crappy console interface. There were no concessions for the PC. In particular, there were no multiple windows open at the same time, which meant no mini-map. Every few seconds of movement in a dungeon, I have to open a map screen to find where I am. Why, why, why oh why isn't there a mini-map?! The consolitis also means that to do pretty well anything at all you have to stop the action and switch to a new screen, scroll through menus of menus to find the menu you want and then scroll through that to make the change, and then return to the action. Yes, there are the equivalent of hotkeys, which you need to set up in advance (and, given that your challenges are always the damned same, I suppose this isn't as bad as it could be), but what's wrong with letting me keep a window open so I can choose which potion to use as and when I need it? Why do I have to interrupt the action (not only freezing it but removing the frozen image of it from my screen) to do trivial things?
As for Desperados 2, it's not so much that I've stopped playing it because of the interface but that I was unable to play in the first place because of it. I'm going to have to reinstall it (and the patch) just to play through the tutorial again — and I've only completed the two most simple steps so far. I'm not sure I can even be bothered to do that right now, I'm going to have to wait until the memory of the frustration has subsided more. Maybe I'll just continue with my efforts to get York City out of the Conference League in Football Manager 2006.
Three games, ruined by their interfaces.
Oh well, I still have Galactic Civilizations II and Rome: Total War sitting in my pile of "I really must get around to playing these sometime" games.
Referenced by Catastrophic Failure?.
Referenced by Those Karazhan Moments.
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Copyright © 2006 Richard Bartle (firstname.lastname@example.org).