Metacritical

Because games are about more than headshots

Archive for September 2009

Dead Space Extraction, My Fantasy?

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Sorry about the wait for the Korsokovia +  Radiator post, that’s still in the pipeline. It’s odd that I’ve felt so despondent about writing the piece, seeing as Radiator was my favourite mod of the lot and I feel really fired up about tearing Korsokovia apart, highlighting it’s awful flaws in addition to praising it’s fantastic atmosphere and narrative. However, I’ve  been busy playing through Beyond Good + Evil, which was amazing, especially since I’d blacked myself out to information about the game. Look forward to some detailed thoughts of why it’s so awesome soon. Finally, while I was looking over the search terms via which people find this blog I trawled up some pretty hilarious and unrelated results, so every Friday from here on I’m going to try and publish a post that caters to people who really, found the wrong blog.

Like Prototype, DS:E has some cool alternate box-arts

Like Prototype, DS:E has some cool alternate box-arts

However, today’s content will be a fairly off the cuff and dare I say short post regarding EA’s recently released rail shooter for the Wii, ‘Dead Space: Extraction‘. Now I don’t own myself a Wii, so I’ve been watching a play through of it on youtube as not only am I intrigued by this new rail shooter movement on the Wii, but they’re very overt in terms of game design and I feel irrationally attached to Dead Space’s lackluster story. Finally by the nature of the game, rail shooters are enjoyable to watch.

So I was watching this playthrough of Dead Space: Extraction, and it blew my mind. Since Dead Space was great in terms of it’s core gameplay and audio design, I expected much the same from the Wii spin off.  How wrong I was.

Dead Space: Extraction  has, about half an hour in, the best plot twist in a game I’ve seen since Bioshock. The game has a surprisingly compelling narrative, although apart from the initial twist I haven’t found anything else that’s particularly original. Mainly it’s just a narrative influenced by every horror flick that’s occurred over the last twenty years, but presented in a video game the strong characterisation in Extraction really stands out. Each of the character’s is cliche`d , yet has a hook/strong personality trait that makes them endearing in some way. The story doesn’t have alot of overt humour, but there’s some amusing elements in the overall structure of the plot, where the writers had some fun with traditional structures.  I’ve only watched up until about halfway through chapter 6 so far, so as far as I know the plot could do something crazy or it could wear out it’s welcome and start becoming arbitrary and frustrating (like the original Dead Space’s lackluster narrative did).

Despite so far having less of a narrative role, both of these are far more interesting to than anyone from the original Dead Space, including Isaac

Despite so far having less of a narrative role, both of these are far more interesting to than anyone from the original Dead Space, including Isaac

The main attraction of the original Dead Space was the immersive HUD and the same ethos has gone into designing the spin off, with the perspective so tightly controlled by the developers that you get a real sense of the protagonist. You’re not the protagonist, it’s Caldwell and the writers really use physical elements effectively to enhance the storytelling. It’s everything I was talking about in my Far Cry 2 analysis, although to be fair this sort of thing is not too uncommon within rail shooters but it’s the way I’d like immersion in every game set in the first person going.

You shoot a person with a gun. Rail Shooter/Video game?

You shoot a person with a gun. Rail Shooter/Video game?

Anyways, that’s about all I feel the need to comment on. The gameplay seems pretty standard and as I haven’t actually tried the controls (which seems pretty important for the Wii) I can’t offer an opinion and the visuals and audio elements are all pretty good, especially for the Wii which rarely receives such production values from a third party dev.  My main point is that you should watch the first few chapters of this game which is really stands out in a number of ways, despite being extremely rudimentary in terms of gameplay.

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Written by Aonshix

September 29, 2009 at 11:06 pm

Adventures in First Person, Or how I came to Love the Mod

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Inspired by the recent release of ‘thechineseroom‘ ‘s survival horror ‘Korsakovia‘, I decided to do a one day binge of some of the Source engine mod’s I had missed over the last year or two, with an eye to the artistic or innovative. After scouring Rock, Paper, Shotgun and Moddb for an hour or two, I ended up with the following list of (mostly) excellent mods, to which I owe each a few lines of commentary, which you will find below. All of these mods are highly narrative (at least in their own way) so the commentary will contain SPOILERS, so I recommend you download and play through each before reading, links will be scattered throughout the article and bar Korsakovia none are particularly time consuming. The mods which will be discussed today are all independently made with fairly small teams, although thechineseroom mod team (led by Dan Pinchbeck of Portsmouth University) did receive a grant from the UK’s board of interactive entertainment, a grant which was worth approximately $10,000 according to one of the commenters on Rock, Paper, Shotgun (RPS). The mods all have a tendency towards the artistic, experimenting with immersion and storytelling techniques within the first person and all tell quite different stories from those we’re used to in video games. The mods I will discuss today are as follows;

  1. Dear Esther
  2. Reverie (Chapters 1 +2)
  3. Radiator (Chapter 1, ‘Polaris’ and Chapter 2 ‘Handle with Care’)
  4. And finally Korsakovia, the hot property on everyone’s lips.

As a good rule of thumb, these mods will require Half Life 2: Episode 2 to work but to be perfectly honest, I would be surprised if anyone who had the prevention to read a blog on game design didn’t already own Valve’s latest masterpiece.

Of the mods presented here, Dear Esther is probably the most disconcerting a feature accomplished in no small part due to the randomized order in which the narrative is revealed to the player. As part of the grant that thechineseroom received from the British board of Interactivity all of their mods are in some form an experiment and that of Dear Esther was into randomized storytelling, which while interesting as an experiment is frustrating as a player.  Probably #1 on my list of complaints about the choice is that it makes the already disjointed tale told in Dear Esther even harder to properly discern, as secondary playthroughs will produce a different tale. When in one game the crashed ship would be accompanied by a tale of illness and death on the island the next playthrough may have the ship linked with Paul’s journey to Damascus, stripping the ship of any contextual symbolic value and leaving it totally up to the player to decide what it means, since it has no intrinsic place in the narrative. The order the player is introduced to the narrative also creates large dissonance within the story, for while every playthrough will probably arrive at the conclusion that central character was involved in an accident which killed his wife, a playthrough which has the religious bits all placed at the start leads itself into a reading that the island is a representation of the centeral character’s mind and that the player is a psychologist of sorts, while if the same clips are clumped together at the end of the game it becomes far more logical to read it as the player being the centeral character on his journey to oblivion.

Found underwater in a cave

Found underwater in a cave

A voice at the back of my head asks whether such an experience is less valuable or ‘correct’ because it’s unique and unplanned, whether my desire for a central and definitive narrative is bourne out of my literary education being grounded in traditional and linear mediums.  Is it not a marvel that the one piece of art can manifest itself in so many ways? Is it not merely an extension of any game with multiple narrative paths, such as Mass Effect or Far Cry 2? However (still talking to myself) I then consider that both of the aforementioned titles feature narrative dissonance as a result of player choice, thus making the altered narrative reflective of the player, while in Dear Esther it is an arbitrary change with no bearing to authorial intent from either Pinchbeck or the player. Perhaps illogically this fact that the story reflects neither the person who wrote it or the player in definitive terms detracts from the poignancy of the piece in addition to making any serious discussion of it horrendously confusing.  Although one thing it does do for the player is reinforce the mood of the piece, supporting the themes of madness with a story which can be told to the player in an order totally lacking rhyme or reason. In this regard I regret knowing the purpose of this ‘experiement’ before playing, whereby I might have had a cooler experience if I had been able to attribute the illogical information flow to the broken mind in the story rather than it merely breaking the 4th wall every time I heard something which was totally out of whack.  Still, a great story with incredible atmosphere and hopefully a worthwhile experiment for the guys over in Portsmouth. Highlights for me was the first time I was presented with a 20m drop as my only path forward (I do love this sort of black humour) and dropping into the water with all of the cars, which aside from looking very cool was the first point I was really keyed into my personal reading of the island being a subconscious representation. Also the bit with the crow/gull as you exit the house scared me more than just about anything in Dead Space.

I'd be lying if I said I fully appreciate what the game's talking about when it mentioned electrical diagrams...

Now I think that Reverie has to be next mod on the list, as it shares so much in common with Dear Esther. Both are essentially ‘Ghost Houses’ linear paths which the players walk through in order to have things jump out and scare them, or in the case of Dear Esther, tell them a sad story (When I think about it, this description seems fairly analagous to my experience in the holocaust museum in New York…). Reverie has a little more interactivity in that in order to progress players must sometimes open doors or examine items and even features two fairly interactive puzzles, one in which the player must walk up to keys then use a door and another in which the player must rips boards of wood off a fence.  Regardless, both mods by and large eschew traditional interactivity in games (shooting things, solving gratuitous puzzles) in favour of reducing interactivity to its rawest state: Progression or Non-progression. As with many things, reducing the number of elements within a system sharpens the focus on the elements which have been maintained and both of these games turn progression into a constant battle against oneself as players have to force themselves to progress through these nightmarish and hostile environments. All of the effort that players usually focus into overcoming obstacles is instead channeled into the world, so players become hyper aware and extremely immersed within the game, making these horror titles so acutely more horrific than other mediums can achieve or even dedicated action horror games such as Silent Hill or Dead Space. Also I find it interesting how much scarier games set in the first person are as compared to the third person, which is surprising considering that the horror genre of video games is so deeply ingrained within the third person.

hospital

Reverie is ‘A game design experiment based in Source, Reverie takes a new approach to environmental storytelling. Players take the role of a coma victim who must traverse their own subconscious to uncover their identity, their life, and ultimately, the traumatizing event that caused the coma.’ according to the website, and with just the first two chapters released, I have to take issue with the claim that it’s taking a new approach to environmental storytelling. Symbolism driven narrative in a surreal environment is hardly anything new and the other way the narrative is told is through text, which is also hardly new. I’m also pretty worried about the prospects of ever seeing the entire story, as the website boats a 20 chapter narrative with a 4 month development time per chapter, coming to 80 months or 6 years, an incredible investment of time for an enthusiast product.  In the early chapters the manifest of the story about the ‘coma’ is minimal, so unless the rest of the narrative is explored, I feel that the story is best viewed as surreal horror instead of much else.  The highlight of this mod for me was the scene where you walked down the hall of shattering glass, which was amazingly tense and shocking, easily evoking the memories of that first dog through the window in Biohazard. I’m not sure what it is about shattering glass, but it sure scares the hell out of just about everyone.

glass

Here I’m going to break up this post as it’s approached 1500 words, Korsakovia and Radiator will be discussed in part 2.  Hope you enjoyed it 🙂

Written by Aonshix

September 25, 2009 at 6:05 pm

Narrative convergence, or how Final Fantasy XII blatantly rips off Star Wars

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Although the Final Fantasy series has always drawn a lot of inspiration from George Lucas’s classic series of space operas, the narrative and character elements ripped for Final Fantasy XII borders on the ludicrous. While the Final Fantasy series has never been renowned for it’s innovative plot elements and is fairly predictable in it’s angst ridden tales, never before have I been able to so accurately guess the plot merely by having a Wikipedia plot synopsis of Star Wars open. What follows below will be far less analytical than usual (although I sort of feel my last post was fairly lacking in analysis as well) and more of a glorified list of the plot details that were shamelessly ripped from the title, which should hopefully be a little entertaining.


Firstly, let’s deal with the characters that FFXII has stolen from Star Wars. The most obvious is Balthier, a charismatic, easy speaking, rogue who only cares about money (at least initially). He’s one of Ivalice’s (the world of the game) notorious ‘Sky Pirates’ which basically just gives him an excuse to fly around in Final Fantasy’s equivalent of the Millennium Falcon. It may be powered ‘Magick’, but regardless, it resembles the Millennium Falcon exactly, right down to the angles it takes off at when flying out the desert world, a cutscene which could have just as easily been the relevant shot of Han Solo escaping from Tatooine in Episode IV. Furthermore, by default he’s the only character who uses firearms among a group of sword users, which is roughly analogous to the party of the original trilogy. Lastly the game makes frequent references to the large bounty on his head and the one of the game’s recurring foes is a bounty hunter after who’s hell bent of capturing Balthier, making balancing evading the hunters with his desire to save the world alongside everyone else one of his character’s concerns, much like in Star Wars. However, without a Chewbacca any comparisons to Han Solo really fall a bit short. Thankfully XII eagerly provides, in the form a tall and sexy bunny girl. While this may initially seem discontinuous with your perception of what a Chewbacca should be, allow me to elaborate. While Fran doesn’t speak only in grunts and roars which are only understandable by Balthier, she does speak extremely rarely and only then to Balthier. She’s quite withdrawn, very proficient with a bow (as opposed to Chewbacca’s bowcaster) and has abandoned her people (who live in a city of trees, much like the Episode III) in order to live a wild life with Balthier, flying around the galaxy and getting up to no good.


Princess Ashe is astoundingly equivalent to Princess Leia; firstly she is the princess of a kingdom which no longer exists and thus a princess in name only, she is the leader of the ‘Resistance’ against the ‘Empire’, much like in the films, she has an initially distrustful relationship with the charming pirate Balthier before they instead settle into a romantic tension and she is obtained by the party after they rescue her from the brig of one of the Empire’s largest battleships, which despite being no Death Star, is later destroyed in a very similar explosion and is thus roughly equivalent to the plot of Episode IV. She is rescued by Vaan and Basch in addition to Balthier and Fran, characters who are; you guessed it, roughly equivalent to Obi-Wan and Luke. Vaan is a nobody at the game’s beginning, an lowly street urchin who’s forced to odd jobs in the desert (I can haz Tatooine?) and dreams of learning to fly (analogous to Luke’s dream of leaving his home and going to the academy.) and becomes on the game’s main sword wielders. Although it has no lasers. As for as I know, he also doesn’t have any blood relationship to Ashe. But like Luke, he is an orphan. Basch, like Vaan is not a perfect match for the character’s in the films, but has a very strong grounding in the character of Obi-Wan. He’s a night of an old, dead kingdom ( the old republic in Star Wars) and is on a quest to rescue the Princess and place her at the head of the resistance. He is the game’s other main sword wielder, lending the lightsaber references some creed. He also appears to be the oldest character in the party, although nowhere near as old as Obi-Wan is in the later films, although he’d be a pretty close match for the Obi-Wan in Episode III.


The game’s main foes, the ‘Empire’ largely consist of soldiers dressed in full armor wearing face plates which look almost exactly like the Stormtroooper masks from Star Wars. The leading enforcers of this ‘Empire’ are called the judges, each of whom wears a suit of heavy mail and a cape which bears an uncanny resemblance to that of Darth Vader. The ‘leading’ Vader is even a brother to Basch, which allows the writers to incorporate some of the tensions of the Luke/Vader Father/Son into the story. The Empire is also an autocracy resting on the vestiges of a murdered senate, much like the on in Star Wars.


Next we’ll move onto locations that have been shamelessly taken from the classic works. First up is the initial setting, which aside from being a very close approximation of Tatooine (as I mentioned earlier) but also features a race of ‘Dune Raiders’ who operate in tribes and who you commit a minor genocide of at one point, Episode III style. An even more carbon copy of the movie location however, is the second main area the party travels to, Bhujerba. Now, Bhujerba is a city which floats on some magick rocks kilometers off the earths surface, just above the cloud line, which has endeavored to stay neutral in the war by making itself economically indefensible to either side through it’s unique mining operations. Ring any bells? What if I were to also tell you that the governor of this cloud city was a long time friend of a party member, who despite pleasant initial greetings eventually hands the entire party over to the evil empire in order to maintain his cities independence? Hmm. Then, this man later sees the error of what he’s done and joins the resistance, leading it in fact. Remind you of anyone? A general perhaps? General Lando Calrissian? This governor even helps the game fulfill it’s racial minority quota, although it does so through a heavy accent instead of skin color.


Elements which have been directly lifted from Star Wars; The Empire, Resistance, Chewbacca, Han Solo, Leia, Tatooine, Cloud City, Lando, Stormtroopers, Millennium Falcon

Elements which have been inspired by Star Wars; Sand People, Luke, Obi-Wan, Darth Vader Family Relationship to Antagonist.

Well, that’s all for now, Dunno what the next post’ll be.

Written by Aonshix

September 6, 2009 at 10:23 am

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Player focus, how League of Legend’s player-centric design makes DOTA accessible

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Since the NDA regarding League of Legends has recently been ‘loosened’ , I figure that I’d focus my first ever mutliplayer analysis upon this seminal DOTA clone (which is what it is, despite being developed by the DOTA team). The ‘loosening’ of the NDA means that I can talk about the game, but not post any screenshots or video, so I’ll have to use all old pictures and splice in a little bit of DOTA where appropriate.

Being totally derived from Defense of the Ancients, it would be silly of my to launch into an explanation of this game without first explaining at least the basics of DOTA. Simply put, it’s a map for Warcraft 3 which places the player in control of a single hero, of which there are five on each team. The map is divided up into three ‘lanes’ along which regularly spawned AI critters march and do battle in an attempt to destroy each others base, which reside at the culmination of the three lanes, much like the delta of a river. The player’s kill these critters (Creeps) of the opposing side for EXP and gold, gaining abilities and power with the EXP and purchasing items with the gold. Later on the players become powerful enough such that the creeps and the base defenses are no longer a threat, and the game becomes more of an 5v5 attack/defense type affair between the players. Destroying the opposing base allows players to win and killing enemy heroes forces them to go through about 40 seconds of inactivity, as well as providing the killer with gold and EXP. That’s the basics of DOTA, in appx. 160 words, however in reality it’s a far more complex game than most, with itemisation, teamwork and the interplay of the different heroes abilities taking the fore.

Now LOL is essentially the same game as DOTA and even made by the same guys by and large. However the fact that the game is built from the ground up instead of being a mod, has afforded the team huge advantages in terms of redesigning the UI and altering the core mechanics to suit new players more than DOTA ever could. Through these means the game has become far more accessible to new players, while still maintaining pretty the majority of DOTA’s strategy and gameplay, which is notoriously inaccessible. A recurring theme behind the usability changes is ‘making the player the focus’ which extends from the UI to most aspects of the gameplay. Where in DOTA players had to focus as much on their opponents actions as their own, while LOL leaves the new player far more able to focus on their own character.

Probably the most important change in this regard is the removal of one of DOTA’s core gameplay tenants, called ‘denying’. This is the practice of players attacking their own creeps when they’re on low health in order to prevent the opponents from gaining EXP and gold from them. The ability to kill one’s own creeps and towers is gone in LOL, meaning that players can focus less on which creeps opponents are going for and more emphasis on killing their own creeps. With the abolition of denying a player’s ability to level and keep themselves in the game is now determined more by their own skill in killing creeps and staying alive, rather than their opponents ability to stop them. While having a skilled player in the same lane as a new player will still lead to the newer player getting killed and gradually falling behind on the leveling curve, it is now very easy for the player to identify what he’s doing wrong and to avoid that mistake, rather than the almost passive disadvantage of having an opponent who can deny effectively. This leads to a far more natural learning curve for new players, who can instead point to their own mistakes as a method of improvement, rather than merely having to hope for an opponent who isn’t quite so skilled.

The abilities in the game have also been designed in such a way as to allow the player (at least the new one) to focus more on what he is doing, rather than his opponent. More of LOL’s powers have been changed from automatic hits to actual missiles that fly through the world, allowing the player to focus on dodging them rather than having to be acutely aware of their opponents available mana, cooldown and range. On the same note there are less abilities that stun in the game, a mechanic which often catches new players off guard, as they find it difficult to take into account the idea that they may not have control of their character for part of an engagement,leading to a death that seems unfair. Lastly the game has a large addition over DOTA in that players can choose two spells out of about 16 which are available regardless of which character the player has chosen. The vast majority of these abilities are skewed towards allowing the player to escape and function as a sort of ‘oh shit’ button for new players who may have unknowingly overextended themselves. In this vein the game also includes more escape methods than DOTA did, by having large areas of tall grass where players can hide themselves from their pursuers (although a player who didn’t know the grasses function might find himself being ambushed from it, which might seem both unfair and arbitrary)

The most obvious change towards accessibility in the game however is in the streamlined UI. Instead of player’s having to select their hero in the heat of battle to issue commands, the hero is always selected, placing a larger emphasis on the players decisions rather than his ability to carry them out. Also, the extremely confusing item system from DOTA has been extremely streamlined. Where in DOTA there was about 6 different vendors for items scattered around the map and at the players base, all of whom sold particular goods, in LOL there’s only one shop in the players base, which not only lays out which items can be combined with which for he player, but even offers a premade selection of items for the player to slowly buy, one that has been deigned by the design team as being effective for that particular character. Finally all the items have been separated into clear categories which denote their function, making it a lot easier for the new player to browse.

Lastly, and possibly most importantly, is the metagame elements that’s been implemented within LOL. Through playing games, the player’s level up their profile which unlocks new heroes for them to use, meaning that the designers can start the player with just one, easy to learn hero and slowly build them up to the games full complement of 30 or so, which is a tad overwhelming for the new player. Also by maintaining this profile the designers can have a pretty good idea of how experienced the player is, matching them with people of similar experience and win/loss ratio in order to try and keep matches competitive, unlike in DOTA where many of the ‘NEW PLAYERS ONLY’ rooms within the game are in fact run by quite experienced players looking for an easy match, god knows why.

One area where the developers could improve the experiences of new players however, is the amount of information offered about the characters the player can play. When selecting a character, it would be nice for the player to be able to garner some sort of information about what sort of hero he’s lining up to play, whether it’s a ranged hero or a tank, which abilities are important to playing the hero, etc. This should also be extended into the game, where the tooltip for any enemy or allied hero runs along the lines of ‘this is a hero that will help you/kill you for gold’, where a far more useful tooltip to the player would be ‘Armadillo is a high defense hero who excels at chasing players down. Watch out for when he curls up into a ball, as he gains speed and will slow on impact. ‘ etc, depending on the size available in the box.

Now I’m going to cut the post short as a major update for the game has been released and there might be something related to this topic, so I might have my first ever ‘mini blog vignette’ regarding the changes, if they exist. I’m not sure what my next post is going to be, I’d like to do my FFXII Star Wars reveal, but that might involve rushing through a long game that wasn’t meant to be rushed. So who knows.

Written by Aonshix

September 3, 2009 at 10:51 pm

Progression without merit; character progression in FFXII

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One of the key appeals of an RPG is the sense of ownership and reward that comes with the customisation of your character, growing his stats, abilities and equipment that you have earned through long hours of questing/grinding. This has long been an area in which the Western RPG holds supremacy over it’s Japanese counterparts, with most JRPG’s following the original a fairly linear system which encourages less player association with the characters (as they are designed by the game and not the player) but rather encourages stronger narrative association, as the role and abilities of a character will never be up in the air.


However, in it’s recent iterations the Final Fantasy series has attempted to move away from this model by providing ‘complete’ character customisation in X with the ‘sphere’ system and actually complete freedom in the ‘licence board’ system of XII. Today, I’ll be explaining what went so wrong with the board system of 12 and how it’s execution ruined both the pacing and the sense of attachment that you feel with the game’s characters.


In order to explain the system of 12, however I shall first touch on what made 20’s system work so well. In 10, there was a very large number (over a thousand) interconnected nodes on a map, roughly divided into connected circles of nodes, which were all roughly themed around one character archetype (warrior, rogue, archer, blue mage etc) and though battling foes, characters earned levels which allowed them to move along between nodes, obtaining the abilities presented. The entirety of a character’s advancement came about due to these spheres, both statistics (strength, speed, HP etc) and the abilities/spells which defined each ‘class’. The layout of the grid encouraged the player to follow certain paths for certain characters, which would lead to fairly diverse characters, comprising a good mix of everything required. However, all the areas were connected, so if a player wanted he could steer the black mage into the warriors section to pick up some extra HP nodes for a usually frail character, sacrificing magical damage in the process. In turn, your fighter characters could even learn the ultimate black magic spell, ‘Ultima’ however it would be fairly useless unless they also invested some levels in magical damage. Also, due to the way that the ability nodes are spread among a large number of stat nodes, the system not only prevents white mages from picking up black magic spells at not cost, but also ensures that characters which obtain certain abilities have the stats to back them up, thus preventing the player from investing in a bunch of largely useless skills which could potentially leave them unable to progress. All in all this was a really good system, which provided freedom to customise characters while simultaneously spacing out rewards such that players felt an achievement in obtaining them and avoided borking their characters. Finally the system ensured diversity within the party due to the good abilities being placed at compass points around the grid.

In the ‘international’ (also PAL 🙂 ) release of FFX, another iteration of the grid was introduced, where there was increased interconnectedness between the paths and all characters starting on the same tile, enforcing customisation of each of the characters roles. However due to the pathed nature of the grid, this still led to characters diverging in both stats and abilities eventually ( they did end up fairly similar early on), unless the player very deliberately created a stacked party.


And now we come to FFXII with the licence board. I shall endeavour to explain it before I rip on it, but I guess we’ll see how that turns out. As the PLACE DIAGRAM ABOVE above diagram shows, it’s loosely two chessboards which are unconnected in any shape or fashion. Every character starts on the same square on both chessboards, and they exist on both equally and simultaneously. From the opening square, the four which surround it are available for purchase using points gained from defeating enemies. The bottom board is for equipment and is the better designed of the two, where you unlock the ability to use various items. The uppermost board allows the unlocking of spells or techniques, as well as a few stat increases, with each of those categories being sequestered off into a corner (the spells are all in the top left, for example). An important difference with the top board as compared to the previous system is that unlocking a spell/ability in the top grid is not enough to be able to use it, you have to purchase them like equipment (although once bought, the whole party can use the relevant gambit assuming it’s unlocked).

Well, now that I type it out it sounds a lot like he system from FFX. So what’s so awful about XII’s system?

Supposed to be the thief, is now the healer/tank

Supposed to be the thief, is now the healer/tank

Firstly, the pacing is entirely off. I chose for one of my characters to become a black mage, so I used whatever license points she accumulated to go into the next level of black magic (1-7) or into black mage style equipment. Putting points into both of these categories, I reached Black Magic 7 by about level 6/7, in a game with a level cap of 80. Seems a little ridiculous, eh? Of course I couldn’t use most of these spells as I was hampered by what the storekeepers would offer me at this point, however my character was technically a supreme master of the black arts. Which made her use of the level one spells seem a little odd. This is a bad thing,as the point of this sort of customisation system is to give the player the feeling that they are in control, while all this roadblock does is make the player start second guessing when the game is going to let his character grow in the way he wants her to, instead of when he can progress his character in such a way.

The issue of my character’s accelerated mastery leads into another, however. If my ‘black mage’ has maxed out black magic by level 8-9, where are the other points going to be allocated? Well, the board offers you an astute suggestion: white magic. You see, as you unlock the black magic path along the board you also unlock the white magic areas, so my master of black magic’s first option upon obtaining the highest level of black magic was to buy the same level in white magic, without first mastering the basics. This is a real problem that is endemic of the entire system, as the rate at which you gain points means that there’s no real variety in character roles. For example, every one of my characters is a white mage to at least rank three, making potions not only largely redundant but also making characters largely interchangeable within battle. I know longer need o protect any characters particularly, as they’re all quite homogenised. RPG’s that aren’t fire emblem or a Roguelike have long struggled to make death meaningful in a land of infinite respawns, but largely these days it is done by having the player lose some important factor in his ability to succeed, something FFXII obviously misses out on with it’s interchangeable characters.

Despite their varied appearances, they all end up having the same roles in combat

Despite their varied appearances, they all end up having the same roles in combat


The problem is exacerbated by the levelling system, which is independent of the licence boards and basically comprises a character’s statistics. While in FFX the stats of a character were linked to the abilities they gained on the Sphere Grid, the independence of the two in XII means that in order for a players customisation of a characters abilities not to be useless, all the characters have to possess roughly equal strengths in each area. While this means that should you choose to put a character’s points into sword fighting techniques that character will be fairly adept at them, it also means that there is no bonus for specialising a character essentially devaluating both the players interest in developing these characters and the player’s interest in the characters themselves.

So apart from essentially being a botched system that creates homogenised characters which make the already simple battle system even less engaging, what else did the license system mean for XII?

Even in the lowest resolution, the FMV of this Chocobo Knight has to be seen to be believed

Even in the lowest resolution, the FMV of this Chocobo Knight has to be seen to be believed


Well, the one positive is that it forced the writers to create more compelling characters. In X, what differentiated the characters early on in the narrative was largely their role. Without distinct roles the characters would have been a lot less distinct and interesting early on, as the writers guarded whatever emotional dilemmas they had until later on in the narrative. In XII however, they don’t have that crutch to fall back upon and instead had to create characters which were distinct and engaging in their personalities early on, rather than having distinct roles the player cared about. Not the whole way through the story I can’t really claim to know whether this works out, however some characters have obviously had better written any characters in FFX, specifically ashe/vayne/baltheir. Now whether this is an initiative that is realistically influenced by the lack of predefined roles or whether it’s just due to a more mature writing team who knows, but it does lead to characters who fight in cut scenes having to have more a reason, rather than just being the person suited to the fight, which is a good thing.

So to surmise my myriad rants, the downfalls of the system can be seen in the following main areas:

Positives:

  • Forces writers to establish characters through personality more than roles

Negatives:

  • Independent levelling and ability system forces all characters to become effective jack of all trades, homogenising characters.
  • The board is so small and interconnected that it takes almost no investment for characters to skip large areas of progression
  • The rate at which the points to progress on the licence board is too high, leading to characters acquiring a large number of unusable skills (sometimes for up to 20 odd hours)
  • The above problem also leads to characters taking up skills totally unrelated to the initial specialisation, making characters interchangeable.
  • The interchangeability of the characters leads to reduced player care about the characters, something integral to character based RPG’s.

Although FFXII did some amazing things, the licence board system was not one of them. Not to end on a negative note though, the seamless battle transition really increases the immersion within the game and the story is night and day more interesting, incorporating a space opera of mecha-fantasy instead of the angst-fest that was FFX, however good the twist was and however well the former was executed.

The battle system is far more immersive than in previous titles as battles occur within the world for the first time. Although it is frustratingly simplistic.

The battle system is far more immersive than in previous titles as battles occur within the world for the first time. Although it is frustratingly simplistic.

My next post (As with every other post, I’m going to promise to return to a more regular release schedule) shall be a side by side of the plot of Final Fantasy XII as compared to the original Star Wars trilogy, which will be spoiler-full for both and surprising. So look forward to that, as well as some analysis of DOTA clone ‘League of Legends’ (really good fun, by the way. Get a beta invite and watch your life trickle away) and the ways in which the game makes itself accessible now that the NDA has become ‘looser’, in the developers own words. Another post that might be on the radar is some analysis of the design of the ‘duck hunt’ sections of Hideo Kojima’s cult classic ‘Policenauts’ which I’ve been enjoying since the fan translation patch came out a little while ago.

Anyways, thanks for reading and look forward to more content soon.

Written by Aonshix

September 1, 2009 at 8:46 pm