On Dark Souls and difficulty
It's been a while since I've posted anything here. That's not because there's been a shortage of good and interesting game releases - in fact, since the start of September there's been an absolute deluge of new titles. However, with one exception, none of the releases from the last two months or so have prompted me to write anything beyond what can be found in any number of reviews out there; reviews far more professionally written than anything I could manage.
There is, however, that one exception; Dark Souls. Before I go any further, a few comments on my own gaming preferences; I do not, these days, like to be annoyed by games. My leisure time is much more limited than it was five (or even three) years ago and when I play a game, I want to enjoy myself. On that basis, it was a bit of an odd decision for me to even pick up Dark Souls, let alone throw the 22 hours into it that I have thus far (which has apparently taken me about a third of the way through the game). After all, this is a game which was marketed on the basis of its insane difficulty; a game whose developers talked at length about the pleasure they took in making life hard for the player.
I think in the end, it was a desire to see whether I still "had it" that got me to buy the game. After all, back in my days as a postgrad student and as a fresh-faced new entrant to the graduate workforce, I was, by the standards of the gaming population in general, pretty skilled. I was never at the level of pro-gamers, but in online games like Counter-Strike and Warcraft 3, I was probably only one tier below that. As my leisure time grew more restricted, I drifted away from competitive multiplayer; getting abused by an aimbotting German teenager isn't so funny when it has ruined a significant chunk of the time you have for gaming during that week. I drifted into co-operative play via MMOs, was among the first English-speakers to down some of Final Fantasy's XI bosses, and again found a niche in a just-below-top-level World of Warcraft guild through Burning Crusade and Lich King. But again, I drifted on from that about 18 months ago; with leisure time increasingly restricted, I just didn't have the inclination for "wipe nights" any more.
Since then, I've been predominantly a single-player gamer - and I've started to wonder whether my skills have fallen as a result. Ok, I tend to play campaigns on hard difficulty, but those are still generally pitched pretty easy. So Dark Souls was a test to myself; did I still have the skills required to get through a game that even hardcore twitch-shooter and MMO gamers were claiming was incredibly hard? My decision was also swayed by the emphasis of many reviews on the fact that even if you strip away the difficulty, Dark Souls is an extremely good game.
And they're right. This game has combat mechanics that God of War would die for, combined with exploration and problem solving elements that make Zelda look like a rail-shooter. This is a beautifully designed, expertly crafted game, which seemlessly marries cutting edge visuals to incredibly solid gameplay mechanics. I have never seen an implementation of melee combat in a game of any genre - RPG, fps, third person shooter, brawler, fighting game, hack'n'slash, anything - which gives a better *feel* for the impact of sword upon shield. I've never found a game that makes me so intimately aware of the physical presence of both my character and her weapon in the game world (yes, I rolled a female character - and named her Miki Sayaka for the frequency with which I expected her to die - and if that references shoots over your head, don't worry). Swords feel versatile, but somewhat predictable. Axes are powerful, but you really feel the penalty they incur from having such a small strike-area. Two handed weapons are fantastically handled - they are slow and unwieldy and cripple your defensive abilities, but the benefit you gain in the width of your swings is epic - until you try using one in a confined space. It's not just the combat; for the most part (and more on this later) the design of areas in both an aesthetic and a gameplay sense is simply stunning.
And the difficulty? Yeah, it's hard. Seriously hard. To be honest, if you go back and play a lot of the notoriously hard games from your youth, you'll find they're actually nothing like as difficult as you remember. I went back to Battle Isle 2, a game that tormented me mercilessly during my teenaged years, just last month and breezed through it effortlessly. Notorious games from earlier still - Paradroid on the C64 stands out in my mind - seem even more trivial. We've gotten a lot better at games over the years, and control systems have evolved alongside us, making things easier still. But Dark Souls? Dark Souls is as hard as those old classics are in your memories. It's a bit like... if you go back and play your old SNES or Genesis titles after a decade and a half (or more) away from them, the first thing you will think is "eeew, these are much uglier than I remember". But then you get a game which deliberately mimics the look of those titles but updates it for modern design budgets and technology - something like Aliens: Infestation on the DS (which is amazingly good), or the Bionic Commando reboot on XBLA/PSN - and somehow it's much more true to your memories of how those games looked and felt than the actual games themselves. That's how Dark Souls is for difficulty.
The key question, for me, comes down to one of "fair" vs "unfair". The philosophy behind Dark Souls is that while you die constantly, every death teaches you something. That you are not, therefore, banging your head repeatedly against impassable brick walls, but instead making subtle progress every time you die. If that's true, it gets around one of my biggest issues with deaths (and checkpointing) in games - the need to senselessly repeat content. If it's not true, then the game fails. One of the things that drove me out of online gaming was the "unfair" element inherant in online play. You can lose a match, or lose progress, because of events that would not, in an ideal world, be present in the game. In Counter-Strike, your opponent might have an aimbot. In World of Warcraft, your main tank's connection might crap out when the boss is on 25% health. And there's nothing you can do but howl in frustration and wait for the next match, or the next pull of the boss, despite knowing that you could have won if not for that "unfair" factor.
So, is Dark Souls "fair"?
Based on what I've seen so far, 90% of the time - yes, it is.
The combat system works, for the most part, brilliantly. You have a huge toolkit at your disposal - multiple types of strike per weapon, the ability to swap weapons and spells mid fight and any number of trade-offs to make between armour and mobility. I've lost count of the number of times I'd been making little headway with a boss (or even with a non-boss fight), only to find that changing my weapon, or even holding my weapon with two hands rather than one, or perhaps taking a different approach to movement or making better use of my surroundings, would change the fight massively and open up a path to victory. Better still, your path to victory will change depending on your character; this is an incredibly hard game to make proper walkthroughs for, because the tactics needed change so much based on choices the player makes around his or her character. A certain fight might be easily defeated using a sword-and-shield using heavy-armoured knight, but might require much fine-tuning of careful tactics as a caster. Then the next fight you run into might reverse that. Working out how to take down a boss using a character who is clearly not ideal for fighting him is incredibly hard and may take hours of effort - but the emotional pay-off is worth it, and at no point do you feel like you have hit a brick wall.
Some of the non-combat mechanics are on the harsh side - particularly the need to "corpse run" after a death if you don't want to lose the souls you'd gathered. There were a few times I felt like I'd been punished unjustly, but for the most part, this is clearly acting as an incentive to keep trying and push through whatever barrier you've reached.
And yet, there are a few aspects of the game that do feel genuinely unfair.
First of all, there are framerate issues (at least on the 360, I can't speak for the PS3 version). Sometimes serious ones. Now, thus far, thank god, none of the areas affected have included boss-fights. But I have certainly taken deaths to trash mobs, sometimes when quite a long way from a respawn point, which have been a direct consequence of a single-figure frame-rate.
Second, the controls are not quite optimum. They're not bad, certainly. But there are two serious issues - one relating to combat commands and one to camera. The first is the most serious - because it is the most frequent. You have two "normal" types of strike in this game - a "fast" strike on RB (presumably R1 on the PS3) and a "heavy" strike on RT (presumably R2 on the PS3). That's fine. What isn't fine is the forward+attack combo for each of these. See, if you tap forward+RB, your character kicks rather than swinging his weapon - this does no damage, but it can unbalance smaller enemies, breaking their guard. If you tap forward+RT, your character does a forward leap with a heavy swing. Now, these are great options to have - but they are an absolute pain in the backside to use in combat. I continually find that I kick when I didn't mean to (which can be devastating if you were trying to land a killing blow quickly and find you've instead used a no-damage attack) and I find the timing of the jumping attack very difficult to activate properly, meaning I often just do a normal "heavy" swing and my attack falls short of the enemy. Given that there are quite a few controls mapped to a single key-press that could easily have been on more obscure combinations (such as switching between holding a weapon with 1 and 2 hands), I can't help wonder whether priorities didn't go a bit askew here. Having kick, at the very least, on its own button would have been a godsend.
Third, there are some clipping issues. Not many, but they do exist and they are irritating - potentially fatal. There are a couple of upward slopes where the player will run into an invisible wall. Sometimes you will pass through these after a few seconds, sometimes you can dodge-roll through them and sometimes you can't do either of those, but can somehow edge around the outskirts of the invisible wall, passing slowly over what looks like empty space. I've taken a few deaths after running into one of these bounced me off a ledge and I was never impressed by the experience.
Fourth, there is one area of the game which departs from the normal, excellent area design. Blight Town. That place - as you will see from any number of player comments - is an absolute hell-hole. It's overly dark, it's badly designed and it has the worst framerate issues I've encountered thus far. It's hard to say which bits are worse - the upper levels, where you will get repeatedly knocked off tiny ledges by enemies with huge knockback attacks, or the lower levels, where you trudge round at half speed in poisonous sludge, fending off waves of infinitely respawning mosquitos. It's as though the level designers who crafted the rest of the game went on leave for a week and told the interns to "cobble together something difficult" while they were away - without giving any advice on how to also make it fun. On the plus side, at least it feels nice when you are finally done with that section.
Finally, there's the "curse" status ailment. Most of the reviews mention this one. This is the ailment you can pick up from the smelly-breathed frog monsters in a few areas. It instantly kills you - and then halves your health bar - an effect that persists through future deaths. Curing it involves a long, long, long trek to one of two NPCs, through some seriously dangerous areas - with half a health bar, don't forget - and then a hefty payment for the cure itself. When the game was first released, it was possible for curse to "stack", reducing your maximum health down to a tiny sliver. This was genuinely game-breaking and lead to players with 15 hours of play under their belt having to restart the game - so it's good that it was fixed by a patch. But even the patched version feels overly sadistic - a way of punishing the player that doesn't actually add anything to the game.
Anyway, on balance, I am greatly enjoying Dark Souls. It needs another patch to fix the clipping bugs. It wouldn't hurt if said patch also toned down the "curse" status effect even further by adding more means of removing it. Blight Town is probably, sadly, beyond repair. But set against the brilliance on display elsewhere in the game, these are forgivable faults.
This isn't a review and I wasn't planning to put a score on the game, but I think that if I did, it would be 9/10. Without those "unfair" flaws, it would have been 10/10.
Duke Nukem Forever - demo thoughts
Gearbox took the unusual step of restricting access to Duke Nukem Forever's demo - at least until the game's release - to those with pre-orders for the game. This might seem a strange move; after all, a demo is typically intended to sway the curious and the wavering into making a purchase. Those with pre-orders are rather more committed than that (particularly if they have a Steam pre-order, in which case they'll already have paid for the game on a non-refundable basis). Unfortunately, there is actually a very simple explanation for Gearbox's behaviour; the demo is utterly dreadful.
Let me back up a step here. I was a huge fan of Duke Nukem 3d, back in the 1990s. I still maintain that despite its technical inferiority, it was a better game than Quake by quite some margin. DN3D put fun ahead of balance, gameplay innovation ahead of technical polish and laughs ahead of brooding. My defining deathmatch memories aren't of dreary 1-sided Quakeworld duels, but of elaborate holoduke tricks designed to lure my opponent into standing right next to those cunningly concealed pipe-bombs. Duke himself might be a stereotypical meat-head, but DN3D's gameplay often rewarded cunning and flexibility over aim and twitch skills. I loved it.
And I want to love Duke Nukem Forever. Sadly, after playing the demo, I very much doubt that I'm going to find this possible. I played the (20 minute long) demo through twice and could find almost nothing about it to love. In fact, the only thing that stirred any affection at all was the intro movie. After all these years, it's great to hear the theme music kicking up again and the intro does a good job of capturing the over-blown beyond-parody tone of DN3D. From there, it's all downhill.
For those who haven't played the demo or watched a playthrough on Youtube, here's a quick run down. There are two gameplay sections on offer in the demo. The first - clearly from the game's opening sequences, has Duke engaged in a fight against a large boss - in fact, against an easier version of DN3D's final boss. The fight is framed by a few story sections, which are generally obnoxious; Duke was funny when he was confined to a few throw-away comments, but quickly grows tiring in any scene that goes on for longer than a few seconds. The boss fight is distinctly old-school in nature. It's the player, the boss, a few ammo resupplies and not much else. Now, there's nothing particularly wrong with that. It's recalling classic boss fights such as Doom's Cyberdemon and Spider-brain fights, both of which worked just fine in a similar arena-type setting (as did DN3D's boss fights). Unfortunately, this is not a well done fight and it makes for a poor way to start the game. Being the first fight of the game, it has to be pitched extremely easy, so provided you keep moving, the boss will never hit you. Ever. He does, however, have quite a lot of health. End result? A couple of minutes of circle-strafing around a near-stationary target, occasionally being forced to wait for an ammo resupply to spawn.
The second demo section is, if anything, worse. It clearly takes place later in the game; there's no story continuity from the first sequence (this isn't a criticism - I'm quite happy for a demo to jump around like this). Initially, you're in an ugly, blocky monster truck, driving across an ugly, blocky desert landscape. The truck has all the agility and handling responsiveness of a dead walrus. You wobble unconvincingly through canyons for a minute or two, optionally running over the occasional enemy that appears. You jump over a canyon and then... run out of gas. Duke dismounts and you now begin the largest and most significant part of the demo - the on-foot fps stuff. And this is where any final hopes that somehow survived the demo to this point will be cruelly dashed.
Duke moves through a bland, uninspired and graphically underwhelming desert, shooting at brain-dead enemies. He uses a reasonable selection of weapons - some imports from DN3D and some new creations to do so. Unfortunately, and for NO GOOD REASON, he is restricted to holding two weapons at any given time. Sorry, guys, this is NOT Operation Flashpoint. If the Duke wants to carry 10 weapons at once, he should be able to. Weapon limitations discourage the use of the weirder and wackier parts of Duke's arsenal. You'd have thought they'd have learned from the Resistance series. If your game is all about crazy and unconventional weapons, then a 2-weapon restriction DOES NOT WORK, as Insomniac found (hence the return to the weapon-wheel for Resistance 3). As it is, 95% of DNF players are likely to spend their only playthrough of the game clutching the ripper and the shotgun - simply because experimenting with anything else is too risky when you have limited choices.
Besides, a lot of the joy is sucked out of the weapons selection (of which a good portion is on show in the demo) by the dreadful enemy design and AI. The enemies are as bland and generic as you could possibly imagine and they just rush towards the player like it was 1993 and they'd just been offered the chance to understudy Doom's pinky-demon. After a few minutes of uninspired on-foot combat (including a redundant and derivative turret sequence) a mini-boss appears, in the form of a dropship that Duke has to shoot down. In true modern-fps fashion (very much one of Half-Life 2's less welcome legacies), this involves picking up the conveniently placed rocket launcher and lurking in the cover placed conveniently next to the ammo resupply crate between shots until the thing finally goes down, opening up the path to the next area. The player then fights a few more boring enemies in a mine, endures a comically bad mine-cart sequence, finds some fuel for his monster truck and returns to it via another pathetic mine-cart sequence. Then the demo ends.
Seriously, if these were the two sections of the (completed) game that were felt to be good enough to pluck out and place in the demo, then I dread to think what the rest of the game is going to be like.
Sadly, I'm still buying it.
The perils of buying a 3DS
I just picked up my Nintendo 3DS on the way into work. I'll post some thoughts on the thing later - right now, I haven't done much more than switch it on and set the time and date. The 3d test-cycle that displays when you first switch the machine on was fairly impressive once my eyes focussed on it properly, but I can't say much more than that.
However, I did want to post a rant about the process of buying the thing - or specifically, the process of buying it from Game (the UK's largest specialist games retailer).
I'd put a pre-order (with deposit) down - after all, hardware is often in short supply when a new console launches. Now, at a basic level, the process worked just fine - I placed my pre-order in a store (a fairly average London branch near my workplace) and, on launch day, was able to collect the thing. However, this summary disguises what was a whole suite of irritations and frustrations.
First of all, when I put down the deposit, the launch titles weren't yet confirmed - the broad range of early releases was known, but not which of the titles would be available on launch-day. Besides, I hadn't particularly felt the need to pre-order any launch titles - these never tend to be particularly hard to get hold of, once you've got the hardware itself. I was a bit surprised, therefore, to get a phone call from Game about 2 weeks before the launch, telling me that if I didn't put down a pre-order, I would be highly unlikely to be able to get any games at all on the day. "We understand", the guy on the phone told me breathlessly, "that Nintendo are only shipping us one game for every four systems". This immediately sets off my "nonsense" detector. However, there is that little seed of doubt; after all, Nintendo are among the gaming companies I trust they least and they do have a bad habit of screwing the UK over when it comes to shipments. So I relent and put down a pre-order (plus deposit) for Pilotwings and Ridge Racer.
I then get a succession of about 4 phone calls in the days leading up to the release, trying, with increasing desperation, to get me to commit to trading in my old DS and its games when I buy the 3DS - in return for what is frankly a pretty poor discount. This is despite the fact that I explain when I get the first call that they wouldn't even take my DS if I offered it - due to it being a US model (yes, I know the original DS is region-free, but they're funny about these things). This ends the first phone call but doesn't stop a succession of others.
This morning, I get up half an hour earlier than usual and make it to the branch of Game in question for their opening. There is a big queue - which is something I had been expecting. What I hadn't been expecting is just how damned slowly it was moving. Once I get to the front, I realise why; every customer who has come in to collect a 3DS pre-order is getting a several-minute long sales pitch for the extended warrenty, in addition to a renewed plea to trade in old DSes. This is a store in the middle of one of London's main business districts and most of the people in the store are increasingly frustrated looking professional types who, like me, can see their arrival at work getting further and further delayed. Requests to skip the pitch are refused on the grounds that "it's company policy", and my comment that "I won't tell if you won't" gets me nowhere. Eventually, 50 minutes after joining the queue, I finally get out of the store.
As I'm leaving, I notice something that moves me from profound irritation to cold, seeting fury - stack upon stack of 3DS games - absolutely no shortage whatsoever.
Having written this rant, I'm not really sure what the point was - as much catharsis as anything, I suspect. But seriously, in an era where bricks and mortar games retailers (including Game) are known to be struggling, you'd think they'd actually try to work out what their customers want. What I want is to be able to order a product and pick it up from the store on the day it's released with no fuss and hassle. Actually, I'd ideally like to be able to do that without a pre-order, but I know that's as much down to the manufacturers as it is to the retailers. What I don't want is weeks of haranguing and badgering about pre-orders and trade-ins, followed by an in-store experience that is as frustrating as they could possibly make it.
Anyway, I'll give the thing a whirl this evening and post some thoughts on the console itself.