Sunday, 21 March 2010

Starcraft II's Biggest Flaw

A revised (read: better) version of this article can be read here.

I've been in the Starcraft II beta for a couple of weeks now. For the most part, it's the gleaming, precision-engineered RTS you expect. But there's an issue with the coverage the game has received so far; most previewers seem to have missed that a big piece of the game's multiplayer is seriously not working, and it's unlikely Blizzard will fix it before release.

Before I go into that major flaw, I'll guess why this hasn't been written up in a major gaming outlet (so far as I've read). Many articles I've read wind up sounding a bit like Tom Chick here: "pretty enough, but it seems impossible to win against those hardcore kids online, etc." Other writers don't seem to understand the RTS genre at all ("a crucial area where SC differs from other strategy games is that you need to assign [workers] to build things"? "The focus of the game is pretty much solely economic strategy"?). Most "first impressions" pieces read like their authors didn't spend more than an hour or two playing online. I assume that's why none of them mention that the game's ladder system is completely hosed.    

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

The Best Story in Mass Effect 2

Major spoilers for Mass Effect 2 and Dragon Age follow. Bonus spoiler:  Baldur's Gate.

There's no shortage of fights to pick over Mass Effect 2. Minigames supplant grinding, character quests largely replace a traditional second act, and greater ease of use means fewer stats. Shepard's decisions scale down: she may choose to let a friend commit murder in ME2, but in ME she saved or exterminated an entire species. But none of these changes, however awful/great, had much effect on the game's writing, which remains the reason I play every game Bioware releases. 

The fight I want to start is about character and consequence. To me, the game nearly sabotages a compelling narrative by allowing players to cruise through conversations with little fear of hard negative outcomes. (You have to try hard to screw up in ME2.) It undermines fine characterization by granting the player too much control over others. (Most people do whatever Shepard wants.) Its greatest moments -- and it's a good game -- come when it revisits older RPG traditions, sets limits on the player's influence, and suggests more than it shows.   

Saturday, 6 March 2010

The Future Is A Grind

Jesse Schell's DICE presentation has been circulating recently, and clever responses have already been written. Nevertheless, I'd like to break it down one more time to discuss why it conflicts so strongly with the creative impulses we gamers benefit from.

His advice is like telling novelists that they could learn a lot from marketing copy. Advertisements are much smarter and more efficient about their use of words than novels are, right? Ads get their hooks into people right away, play on their anxieties and dreams, and move product fast; books take a while to get going, don't sell themselves so well, and appeal to niche audiences. People supposedly value books for their "escapism," but advertisements are making crazy money by relating to people's real lives. I predict that in the future, every book will be written on the back of a cereal box, and the toy inside the box will be a merchandising tie-in.