Tag Archives: thief

What’s Dishonored 2 Really About?

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I finally just finished up Dishonored 2, and while I’m not going to “review” it, I have a couple fairly broad things to write about my experience with the game overall. Its later parts certainly live up to what I’d played at the time I put it in my 2016 game of the year list. What stands out to me coming off it though is that while Bethesda and Arkane billed it a stealth game about eliminating targets, I spent a whole lot of time doing nothing related to eliminating targets.

There was a point in the final level where I was about to enter the area where the final boss resided and I remembered I’d forgotten to figure out some extra objective way back at the beginning of the level, so I spent a few hours backtracking. This was supposed to be the climax of the game and I just put it on hold because I wanted to find more generally useless crap. Continue reading

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I Want MGSV To Be The Next AAA Game Everyone Copies

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Maybe I’ve said it in previous posts before, but I think it’s about time we saw an increase in sandbox shooters. When I say “sandbox,” I don’t mean games that give you a huge open world with a bunch of junk to collect. I mean games that put you in the middle of map, give you some objectives, and say “go.”

The reason I bring this up is because Metal Gear Solid V just might be the initiator of trend that could resurrect this type of design in tactical games. Release date lists for the next 12 months or so contain a handful of games that could get the ball rolling. Continue reading

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Solarix And Other Indie Immersive Sim Games

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If you didn’t see it in the notes previously, I reviewed a little game called Solarix last week for Paste Magazine. As I wrote in the review, I see it as kind of the beginning of a possible wave of immersive simulators from indie developers. I imagine that’s a relatively difficult and expensive type of game to make, but it seems like we’re finally getting there. Continue reading

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Splinter Cell Chaos Theory 10 Years On: What Makes A Simulation Game

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Today is the 10th anniversary of what is often called one of the best stealth games ever and one of my personal favorite games of all time. I spent all weekend re-examining Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory partly because it’s still an excellent game and partly to re-approach it. Continue reading

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Stop Saying Every Year is the Best Year of Gaming Ever

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2015 is looking like it’s going to be a pretty good year, but I swear if I see a bunch of publications making “Is 2015 going to be the greatest year of gaming ever?” stories, I’m going to lose it. Every time these discussions come up I have to remind people that 1998 was and still is the greatest year ever in terms of software releases.

There have definitely been great years since, but something separates almost all of them from 1998. We’ll continue to have years seen as greater than most others, but I honestly don’t know if we’ll get another “1998” in the near future. It was a product of circumstances unique to that time I don’t see arising today. Continue reading

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The Difference Between Old And New Stealth Games

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The release of the THIEF reboot has sparked up conversations again about what makes a good or bad stealth game. Over the last few weeks it’s prompted me to take a look back at games from THIEF’s family tree and contrast how they approach things.

Last month I played through Dishonored again — the first time doing so since having beaten the old Thief Gold and Thief II: The Metal Age — and played its DLC. That by itself put Dishonored into perspective in relation to its ancestors and I think gave me a good frame of reference to see where the new THIEF is coming from.

The big shift in many of the stealth games we’ve seen recently, or games that use stealth, is that like shooters, they’ve gone for a more linear approach based on waypoints and sometimes small dynamic environments. The missions in the old Thief games were built to feel like dynamic, working environments, and you’d be thrown into them with a map and multiple objectives, expected to figure out the plan for yourself. The first Crysis game was more or less like this too. Crysis 2 instead just had you head from waypoint to waypoint, taking you through small sneaking arenas filled with clever alternate paths. The missions in the new THIEF do pretty much the same thing. This works for simply providing a stealth experience, but I feel like it forgets the freedom and emergent gameplay of the older games.

Dishonored I feel is somewhere between the two, but closer to the old style. The objective is usually not to simply reach a waypoint, but to do an actual thing which is established as soon as you reach the area. Dishonored’s areas are smaller than those of classic Thief and it’s gated by loading screens, but that basic structure is still there. Some people are down on Dishonored’s validity as a stealth game because of how easily its super powers let players combat enemies. I decided to play through the game without using them, particularly the “blink” teleportation, and it instantly felt very much like a Thief-lite. Blink was basically incorporated for the sake of impatient people. Discarding it instantly forces players to methodically examine enemy patterns and the rest of their environment like a traditional stealth game. If you wanna get real technical, Dishonored’s overall structure is actually much closer to that of the original Deus Ex, which makes sense as both games share a level designer.

If you wanna ask between all these which is the best actual stealth game, I guess that’s all on preference due to a bit of irony. Dishonored has more of that dynamic emergent structure, if even only a tiny bit of it, but let’s you tear apart squads of enemies like Deus Ex does. New THIEF would be called dumbed-down by many, but is actually more of a “pure” stealth game where you have to sneak because you can’t fight off five alert enemies.

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What Happened To Objective-Based Level Design?

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My “LTTP Thief” post drew some comparisons between that game and stuff like GoldenEye or the original Perfect Dark. Playing it really reminded me of how open-ended a lot of action games used to be, and of how sad I am those kinds of games pretty much aren’t made anymore.

What happened to the days when each mission of a shooter would simply drop you into a level, give you a list of objectives, and leave you to complete them at your own pace, with your own methods, and in your own order? Now it’s all corridors, shooting galleries, and set pieces in the guise of objectives.

If you go back and play GoldenEye 007 on the N64 today, it’s actually surprising how non-linear the levels in that game feel compared to today’s shooters. The first time I played that game, looking at the mission objectives and reading the briefing — knowing there were many things that could happen in each level but I was there to perform certain specific actions, made me feel like I was being sent to complete real tasks.

The same goes for pouring over the map of a level in Thief and deciding what tools I’m going to bring in accordance. The tactical shooter genre used to be all about this: games like the original Rainbow Six and Ghost Recon were about you creating your own plans to complete missions. Each level in all these games was basically a small sandbox. Overall, it just makes the games feel more intelligent.

A part I really miss is when games would actually add additional objectives on higher difficulties, making the missions more complex and sometimes changing their entire nature. I guess today designers don’t want to put that kind of content in a game that most players would likely miss.

Most of today’s action games do have what they call “objectives,” that are displayed on-screen, but really they’re just a chain of messages that have no meaning other than to guide you down a tight, predetermined path. In games like Call of Duty or Gears of War there’s usually no way to progress unless you keep shooting until the game tells you those objectives are complete, and there’s no way to fail those objectives unless you die. When Nintendo Power advertised GoldenEye, one of the selling points of the game was that there were ways to fail a mission other than dying!

There’s a quote from Wikipedia and one of the guys who worked on GoldenEye explaining the difference in how they designed that game:

Initially, the designers’ priority was purely on the creation of interesting spaces; level design and balance considerations such as the placement of start and exit points, characters and objectives did not begin until this process was complete. According to Martin Hollis, “The benefit of this sloppy unplanned approach was that many of the levels in the game have a realistic and non-linear feel. There are rooms with no direct relevance to the level. There are multiple routes across the level.”

These people didn’t really design video game levels — they tried to design areas that functioned like real places, and then gave you goals in them. Games like Thief seem to have been designed in a similar way.

I’m not against linear games when they’re well-done. I just don’t like how there are virtually no shooters or other action games on today’s hardware built in that objective-based style.

Most of the games that do something close to this on today’s hardware are games like Deus Ex Human Revolution or Fallout or Elder Scrolls. The way quests are completed in those games feels similar in practice, but those games are really descended from the legacy of 3D PC RPGs, so the connection isn’t intentional.

In terms of first person shooters, I would say the best modern example is the first Crysis game. I’ve begged so many people who couldn’t run the PC version of Crysis to try out the PSN and Xbox Live versions because of how different that game is from Crysis 2 and Crysis 3. Surveying an entire village with your binoculars from an adjacent hilltop and planning your approach is something basically no other FPS has done in the six years since. You could even say Crysis advanced this style of level design a bit by making the levels a lot bigger. The last couple Far Cry games kinda tried to do this but with much simpler objectives.

Dishonored is actually another pretty good example, taking direct inspiration from Thief. Hopefully the new THIEF follows suit. It’s bad enough we don’t get enough stealth games that offer a real sense of player autonomy these days. Remember Splinter Cell Chaos Theory? That’s a good example too, and I wish Ubisoft would go back to doing that (disclaimer: I haven’t played Blacklist yet).

Luckily, this style of game design seems to be exactly what KillZone Shadow Fall is doing judging from the E3 demo videos. With all the open-world games seemingly appearing on next-gen consoles I really hope objective-based game design returns in a big way to action games. If we’re lucky, Shadow Fall will be a big hit and lead the way for other developers.

Really, I just miss games that gave you nothing but a place and some goals.

BULLETS:

  • Nuclear Throne, Vlambeer’s latest, is now available on Steam Early Access. http://t.co/1clFTrQsk5
  • First look at Soma, the next horror game from the guys who did Amnesia the Dark Descent. 2015, PC, PS4. http://t.co/KFJkCBCPJW
  • Giant Bomb interview about the same game. http://t.co/WZsut7zUsv
  • Castle Vidcons: Comic #121- Be Proud – bit.ly/19s2agR
  • I don’t like how Square Enix has been handling some of its iOS ports of classic games, but I’m open to the Dragon Quest series on mobile platforms. http://t.co/P0UTOGA4dX
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Late To The Party: Thief The Dark Project

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When Dishonored came out last year a lot of people said it pretty much ripped off Thief wholesale (I think one of the level designers worked on both games), which was the last straw in convincing me to finally try out the supposedly classic stealth game. After finishing Thief Gold, they were pretty much right. This game from 1998 easily holds up next to stealth rivals that came out in the years after it.

When people drew comparisons between Dishonored and Thief, they mostly went over how similar the settings and stories between the two games are, but what really matters in both is the basic concept — you’re dropped into open-ended levels and told to freely explore your way to each objective. In the tradition of today’s Fallout or yesteryear’s Ultima Underworld (which I covered previously), Thief creates environments based on working systems and not based on linear scripting.

The best thing about this is that I always felt like I had options for how to deal with each situation in the game, whether that was waiting to stab an enemy in the back, use a rope to swing over him, or sneak away in the shadows. This is made possible by both a unique array of tools and incredibly dynamic levels.

If they’d figured out how to do console versions of Thief in the late 90’s or in 2000 I feel it would’ve been a big hit with my buddies and I who played GoldenEye and Perfect Dark on N64. Similar to those games, it drops you into levels simply telling you “Here are your objectives, find a way to do them.” I really miss that style of game design.

They probably wouldn’t have been able to fit the FMVs and voice acting on an N64 cartridge, but the main technical issue for consoles back then was probably Theif’s absolutely massive levels.

Despite being separated from it by 14 years of hardware, Thief’s missions are at least as large and complex as those in Dishonored, and I don’t think there’s anything in the latter that matches up to the Mage Towers or the Opera House. These would’ve probably required many loading screens on consoles back then (like the PS2 version of Deus Ex). That’s another thing that astounds me about the levels in this game — there’s no loading at all. They’re some of the biggest continuous levels I’ve ever seen outside of sandbox games, though I don’t know if that’s because of a mod I had to install. One of the only real issues I have with Thief is that I actually got lost in almost every level.

What I think set’s Thief apart the most though is the variety in what it has you do. Most of the levels do have you break into populated areas to steal things, but the next thing you know you’re avoiding zombies in a tomb doing straight-up Indiana Jones stuff. Another level might have you investigating a haunted town trying to sneak around monsters out of a survival horror game.

The mod I referred to above is pretty much a requirement to get Thief running on modern systems. Some guides might seem pretty complex but I found a version of the mod that’s extremely simple to install if you don’t install the game on the C drive (I think it was actually built for Thief II). Other than that, you might have to remap the controls to get them to resemble modern games. The game supports controllers but you have to map all the functions yourself.

Thief Gold is probably one of the most complete classic games I’ve gone back to play. It gives you a ton of options in large areas, and always kept me guessing as to where I was gonna go next. And people say Thief II is even better.

BULLETS:

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Why Today’s Gamer Should Play System Shock 2

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If you haven’t heard at least a little bit of commotion about it, GoodOldGames just got the first digital re-release of one of the most celebrated PC games of all time. System Shock 2 is more than just a popular thing for PC gamers though. It’s probably one of the most important games in relation to today’s console landscape as well.

If you ever enjoyed relatively recent games like BioShock, Deus Ex Human Revolution, Dishonored, Dead Space, or Fallout 3, you probably owe it to yourself to buy System Shock 2. The current console generation has seen the popularization of what some like to call the “first person simulation RPG” genre — games like the ones I just mentioned that combine elements of first person shooters with RPGs in extremely detailed worlds. SS2 definitely did not invent this style of game (that credit probably goes to Ultima Underworld), but it’s usually considered to be the best example of it, and I would agree.

If you still don’t really know what SS2 is, it is the direct predecessor to BioShock, having been made largely by the same team. The first Dead Space game also probably owes its existence to SS2 (rumors abound that it was originally going to be System Shock 3). Now some might take this to mean that SS2 is a less-advanced version of BioShock or interesting to play merely as a history lesson on where BioShock’s ideas came from. SS2 however is largely considered to be the better game, and I would also agree on that.

PC elitists might tell you that BioShock is basically the same games as SS2 but dumbed-down for console gamers, that SS2 still has much deeper gameplay and is still scarier despite outdated graphics. That stuff might be true in a manner of speaking. BioShock is definitely a much more action-focused game. SS2 has almost the exact same gameplay mechanics, but is balanced much more heavily towards role-playing and survival horror.

At the beginning of the game you choose a general development path for your character: guns, hacking, or psionics (basically plasmids). You can dabble in all three throughout the game. Experience points are either discovered as items or doled out for completing objectives (this even has a strong connection with the story), so you can’t grind and you really have to watch where you spend them.

This goes into SS2’s heavier emphasis on resource management. Unlike BioShock and more like Human Revolution, you have an actual limited inventory in SS2, and it seems like resources are almost always scarce, especially later in the game. There were several points where I was about sure I’d wasted too much to have a chance at beating the game and nearly decided to start over. I think it was that feeling of constantly being on my last reserves, more than anything else, that made every enemy encounter scary in this game. That’s what a survival horror game is supposed to do.

It would not be a stretch to call SS2 a Resident Evil RPG on a space ship, and people who miss the original structure of that franchise might want to give this game a chance too.

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However, there is one reason above all others why I prefer SS2 over BioShock — how much better the former is at immersing players in its world.

People lauded BioShock for how it presented its world to players in ways console gamers had never seen, but I still think it fell a step short of its predecessor, mainly due to the way it handled its heads up display and conveyed information to the player. BioShock did it basically the same way every game does these days, but that’s exactly the problem with most games these days.

When a character calls me over the radio and tells me where to go, I don’t need the game to then give me an objective marker on the map or a waypoint arrow. If I need to be reminded of what to do, I can just refer back to audio recordings. I don’t need the proper object or switch to glow in front of me, not when the in-game environment is as well-realized as BioShock’s.

In SS2 you get some orders over your radio describing a place and a goal, you look on your map for that place, and simply go there. Signs and other descriptors that would guide any normal person in that environment are enough for you to find your way. Irrational managed to create a world in SS2 that feels so natural and lived-in that you can navigate it as you would if you were really there.

Every time I talk about SS2 I like to talk about the one moment that totally sold me on the game: There’s a section where you need to modify a computer by replacing a circuit board. After a voice recording tells me the registration number of the board I need, I go find the room where it’s supposed to be, expecting a small room where the correct board is the only movable object. What I get is a massive library — several stacks filled with circuit boards, each one able to be picked up and placed in my inventory. When I had to look at the registration number of each individual board until I found the right one, I said to myself “this isn’t a collection of levels anymore, this is a real place.”

SS2’s entire world is built like this. BioShock’s is too, but the difference is that the newer game covers that well-realized world in a bunch of assistance icons instead of trusting the gamer to immerse himself in it. Oh BioShock lets you turn most of that stuff off, but not enough of it in my opinion.

Ultimately, what these kinds of games are all about is immersion — building not a series of levels, but something that feels like an actual simulated environment, with a story that takes place entirely within that environment. That’s why people call them “simulation RPGs.” When it comes to that task, I don’t think any game has done it better than System Shock 2.

Actually Playing the Game

If you’re timid about loading up what may look like such a complex PC game, or maybe have heard some stories about the complexities of running it, you really shouldn’t worry.

For starters, no one should worry about getting this to run on their weak laptop or whatever. SS2 was built for 1999 computers — I’m confident that ANY Windows system built within the last decade will run it without issue. There were issues with getting it to run on modern versions of Windows, but the latest GOG release just cleared all that up. Basically anyone now should be able to buy the game and start playing without a hitch.

Don’t try to play it with a controller though. The inventory system alone ensures that ain’t gonna happen. The whole game is very reliant on having a mouse.

All those things you see now for things like “rebirth” or “SSTool,” are just mods to improve the game beyond the original release. You don’t REALLY need that stuff unless you want the graphics looking a little bit better.

Oh, and SS2 has four-player online co-op through the main storyline.

Lastly, if you actually do check out SS2 and like it, then you have little-to-no excuse to also check out the original Deus Ex (which also has a PS2 version available on PSN), Arx Fatalis (from the guys that made Dishonored), and the Thief games (which a lot of people say Dishonored ripped off).

And no, you don’t need to track down the original System Shock before playing SS2. The story mostly stands on its own, and the original SS game doesn’t hold up nearly as well from what I hear.

BULLETS:

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