Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Dragon Age: Origins - Where has all the A.I. in PC Games gone?

I finally started my character in Dragon Age: Origins and I have to say I haven't played a game whose story has so quickly sucked me in for a long while...perhaps even since the original Sierra's Homeworld.

Within an hour of playing, I had to make a crucial decision between loyalty to a friend in need, or my duty toward my Elf Mage's 'Headmaster'... twists and turns are already abound, and I truly feel like I am changing the script of the game on the fly, with every decision [one of 5 if I remember] that I choose during conversations in the well-done cinematic moments. While all this is great, and the game itself is very polished and beautiful, (and I am picky) I am missing the elements of deciding strategy in the combat portion of the game. Being not an expert at all of the D&D affiliated Neverwinter Nights/Baldur’s Gate vein, I am guessing that the 'rule book' that seems to be equally a part of this style of play/franchise is the reason.

Yes, you can select when to use that heal, when to use that type of magic, when to use your sacred whatchamacallit at the crucial time…it is still formulaic and ultimately, the odds are still based on mathematical calculations. Up until the recent excellent (and personal fav) Left4dead series by Valve, I’ve seen little evolvement or incorporation of any meaningful A.I. into a PC game as of late. For those that haven’t played those games, the A.I., [Valve call’s the “Director”] constantly monitors many aspects of the in-game human players actions, skill and whereabouts to adjust the gameplay on the fly. This creates a more dynamic, unpredictable, and engaging solution to the game that might otherwise bore players after multiple play-through’s of the same levels.
 Left 4 Dead 2

Nothing whatsoever against Dragon Age in of itself -I'm just going to rant about the 'random-stat' result in games in general. Nothing is worse than when I feel like any strategy that I am learning, or have gained in all my warmongering years on the pc, is completely undermined by a simple, mathematical formula of odds. It changes from an actual strategic decision, to something akin to a digital slot machine.

Quick thought- remember Black & White (1&2)? I couldn’t WAIT to play that game, and found it mostly to my expectations. Randomness worked in that one, in the form of an elegantly complex A.I. that would allow your creature some truly surprising, interesting and sometimes hilarious results. I remember the devs stating how their creature A.I. behavior had actually surprised them with actions they never expected! That was totally groundbreaking territory, and I wish we got more of that in pc games.

All too often, games are released with simple paper-rock-scissor type logic. While some are still extremely fun to play (another favorite-Company of Heroes comes to mind), these are among hundreds I have learned ‘how’ to play. Usually this is against real logic, which is fine when in a fantasy environment, but I feel even these style of games could benefit from allowing the player to use real strategy and logic to out-smart the enemy, not merely play by a very finite limit of game ‘A.I.’

Doesn't matter that I outflanked those troops with the appropriate weapons, setup defenses that prevented that spy from taking out that town [EMPIRE I’m lookin’ at you], ESPECIALLY with most games ‘diplomacy’ options…once you press the conflict button, it’s still a crap-shoot. This is why I am in endless search for a game that allows true freedom to discover, and use your own brain's strategy. Those lend the best reward and enjoyment I have found…

I'm not saying EVERY game needs to have a mandatory awesome A.I. code injected -Despite these wants, I will play Dragon Age feverishly, to simply see the story unfold, for despite any [or lack thereof] dynamic A.I. incorporated, it is still a fun-as-hell and intriguing game in its own right.

 Dragon Age: Origins

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Silent Hunter 5 - patience will reward...

Yes, like a bat outta hell we are blessed with another iteration of one of the best, most earnest and faithful subsims a pc gamer could hope for with Silent Hunter 5 "Battle of the Atlantic". WHoooo HOoooo!

 All is not well, however, since it seems the tradition has held true with this series, that it is inevitably released as a buggy and incomplete mess. A passing glance at the 'ratings' on Amazon indicate the typical 1 star rating for a game released with the infamous DRM anti-theft scheme. It's not that this is the single most restrictive and handicapping version of the piracy 'protecting' code ever, it's also that the game appears [as always] rushed out the door before QA testers apparently got there hands on it. I'm beginning to wonder if developers even have QA testers on their payroll anymore!

As you will read a thousand times on the Amazon reviews, the chosen version of Securom DRM that installs itself with this game requires a constant, full-time internet connection in order to even play the game. If your connection drops, it supposedly saves the current state and brings up a bothersome error, essentially locking you out of your game. Hoping to trade in SH3 for SH5 as a actual Navy seaman on duty at sea? Forget about it, unless you have some high-powered Wi-Fi on your laptop, your days of sinking digital Kriegsmarine are over! Ironic, isn't it?

I write this post as a fan of the series, having played more SH3 [with undeniably necessary Grey Wolves supermod 3.x.] for many years off and on...I have loved that game. The chance to experience the other side of the story, hearing all orders carried out in German, and spurring my curiosity to read much more about the plight of the men of the German U-boats. In SH3 there is a very real sense of 'being out there' in the cold dark Atlantic, the loneliness and boredom all-too real, interrupted by the adrenaline inducing discovery of a looming convoy full targets through the rain. The cries of joy or pain as your torpedoes smash into a gigantic oil tanker, or maddeningly bounce off their hulls in failure...the paranoia of listening for multiple destroyers endlessly searching for you...as they drop their death cans from above.
So regarding this newest addition to the series, Silent Hunter 5: As a fan, I wish to say this, hold your horses. Yes the game is a buggy mess, but patience does reward with this series, if not for a few developer patches to clean things up, but also an entire SubSim Community foaming at the mouth to get their hands on this baby. [SubSim Forums HERE]. There will sure to be quality and game improving mods to come of this. And maybe, just maybe, UbiSoft will, after perhaps reading up a bit on the Spore launch release, loosen the reigns a tad to let people actually enjoy this game. I'm honestly not sure if they will budge from their staunch attempt at anti-piracy, but if their pocketbooks could talk, I think they'd be crying out at the irony of damage from piracy vs. damage done to their image and legitimate sales of their games.

I will wait a bit to see, then most likely still buy it, hoping that things will have been sorted out by then, and those Grew Wolves fellas get the team back together for one last crack at this one. (hint hint)

In the meantime, you can score a copy of Silent Hunter III for a pack of cigarettes!(see above),  Then head to the Grey Wolves site and download the supermod for free..and have years of immersive, engaging fun.
Good Hunting!