Friday, January 21, 2011

Chemistry In Space Might Be The Best Thing Ever

Unless you've been living under a rock for the past few months (which probably covers around 1/2 of my audience), you might have heard about this game. It's also been featured here. And later they also did a short interview with its designer. Well, it's about normal length for this kind of thing, really, but I wouldn't mind it being about 4-8 times this size. That guy's mind is a potential goldmine. I particularly like how he divides puzzle games into categories, it's pretty obvious that he's given more thought to this than we ever will. I would also be a lot more smug than he is, for sure. I'd be like: "puzzle games can be divided into categories 1, 2, 3 and 4 and the hardest one to design is #4 which btw, I've totally ACED, bitches!"

So yeah, SpaceChem. It's a rare game that feels so damn perfect (Deus Ex comes to mind - more on that later). I'm not going to tell you WHY it's so awesome. That's for you to decide. I'll just throw some highlights, and hopefully make you try it out for a bit. That's all I can do with this one.

It's a puzzle game. It's a PURE puzzle game. You know Braid? That was a puzzle game too - but a puzzle platformer. There was a disconnect between finding a solution, and solving the puzzle. You had to implement the solution - make your character jump, avoid monsters, reverse time and so on. You could fail on the implementation part. In SpaceChem that gap is very small. There are some spatial constraints - you are limited to the 8x10 grid and 1 symbol of each color on each square of the grid. It is an important constraint which plays a major role on later levels, for sure, but if your solution is reasonable you can usually make it fit somehow. The main thing is solving the puzzle in the first place. And because of the nature of the game, you don't need to stay in front of the computer - you can do that anywhere! Just be careful not to walk into a tree or something while figuring out how to break and reform triple-bonds.

It's a game about industrial chemistry in space. It's not a game about real industrial chemistry (obviously, because real industrial chemistry happens on Earth). Don't be scared that it might have some educational subliminal message. It's all a cover of paint, for the convenience of having something familiar to work with.

It's a game about programming (in a visual medium). If you're reading this, you should probably know how you feel about programming. If you don't yet, it's a good place to start. I think it's IMPORTANT to have the kind of mindset that enjoys programming, in order to be able to enjoy this game. That's the main reason I'm reluctant to recommend this game to absolutely EVERYONE. But if you're ok with that, this should be good for you.

It has the best difficulty progression of any game ever. BAR NONE. Fuck me, that's a tall order - and done to perfection. Let me recall my experience with it:

1. "Ah, the first tutorial level. Ok. I'm just following these instructions. Look at the pretty colors! I don't really have any idea what's happening here but whatever."
2. "Ah, the second tutorial level. Let me get this done with so I can get to the real thing. I mean, I still have no idea what I'm doing, but it's gonna come together at some point, I'm sure."
3. "Huh, where's the tutorial messages? ...."
4. "So, there are these inputs over here... and this output thing over here... so I guess that... yeah."
5. "Hmmmm, that doesn't seem to work."
6. "I DID IT! Hooray! On to the next level! I'm sure it will be a piece of cake, now that I've figured things out!"
7. "Huh, they want me to do WHAT????!"

There are no intermediate levels. There's no slightly more difficult task. Once you've mastered a piece of the game, you're given credit for it. The next thing will be something new. No wonder the players report amazing feelings of accomplishment when solving every puzzle - your intelligence is never insulted with trivial tasks, but always taxed, forced to adapt and discover new things. And it does all that for more than FIFTY freakin levels.

Also, it's a long game. No, really. It might be a 200-something meg game, and it will still take you the best part of a week to complete. From that point of view, it's also RIDICULOUS good value for your money - at $20, it has at least 4 times the total playtime of something like Modern Warfare 2 which is about 3 times as expensive. Yes, you might spend a lot of that time just staring at the screen, but your mind will be working double time.

So, er, that's it! Now for a promotional message from myself: play SpaceChem! (hint: demo here).


Thursday, January 06, 2011

Pretty Unplayable: Alpha Protocol

You know, I'm beginning to believe that the most damaging effect consoles had on PC gaming wasn't the escalation of DRM, or the dumbing down (which may or may not be true), or even those horrible wheel menus. Right now, I'm pretty sure it was, in fact, the introduction of the over-the-shoulder third-person camera.

See, there's very few reasons a 3D game should use that camera in favor of the first-person perspective. Except that... first-person handles much worse on a console (controller, actually, HAR HAR - see previous post). So, theoretically, you could keep the first-person perspective for a friendlier platform, like the PC. Except that... you're on a budget - can barely afford to do all the design and testing and bug-fixing for ONE perspective, let alone two, not to mention all the technical problems that crop up when trying to have both in one game. So, you'll just use the one perspective that works for all platforms, the third-person (and the players will get to admire your exquisite character models - oh yes, that's what they care most about). Except that... when you use third-person, you have to take good care about how you handle the camera movement, because if you don't do it correctly, the camera will keep pointing in all the wrong directions, frustrating the players horribly (we know you also want the players to see the front of the character model, so that you will not feel like 50% of polygons are wasted, but trust me - they prefer to see the backside and be able to actually play the game). No problem though - developers have been doing this for decades already! Surely there are good, effective solutions in place by now (try telling this to Yahtzee to kill him with laughter) - and if not, you can probably implement something workable, how hard could it be, right? Except that... sometimes you still screw up horribly, and then you get Alpha Protocol.

Hilariously, I wasn't expecting it. I hadn't played the game until now, and finally decided it was actually up my alley and I should stop ignoring it. From what I had read about it, the general conclusion was that it's a good game, albeit flawed. People had mentioned the occasional crash bug, or maybe its insistence on making you fight instead of stealthing. So I steeled myself against all of that - and then fell to the sneaky attack of the deadly camera.

The general rule seems to be: if you're next to a wall, and you try to turn, the camera might end up ANYWHERE. And that ANYWHERE is most often not where you'd like it to be. Seriously, it would be freakin' hilarious if I was watching someone play it instead of doing it myself. As it is, I can only scratch my head at the legions of players who managed to complete it, once more mourn the loss of a potential great first-person game, and press quit. I'm not uninstalling - yet. But at this rate, I see that happening in one or two more sessions.

Ah, and for a quick conclusion about the rest of the game - it's decent, and gameplay-wise very much like Mass Effect. Which is also something I don't remember reading anywhere, but it's not such a horrible thing anyway.