Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The weapons of Hot Pursuit

Above: Roadblocked.

Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit shares a little of its DNA in common with games like Mario Kart and Wipeout. It's less fantastic than those games, but at heart it's a combat racing game, just as they are. Playing through career mode requires you to unlock all of the weapons available to you, so at first you may think that Hot Pursuit, like Burnout before it, is more about trading paint and using your car as a battering ram than about blasting your foes with high-powered armaments.

This turns out to be only partly true.

There are two essential things to understand about the weapons of Hot Pursuit:
  1. They take skill to use.
  2. They can't be replenished.
Those two facts make all the difference. Unlike Mario Kart, Hot Pursuit doesn't provide an on-ramp for unskilled racers by gifting them devastating weapons the further behind they fall. Unlike Wipeout, there are no uber-powerful weapons against which there is no defense. And unlike both of those games, the weapons you have at the start of the race are all you will get. There is no magical box, floating above the racecourse, that will re-stock your ammo for you.

So you have to be careful, you have to be skillful, and you have to be tactical. It is all too easy to blow through your weapons by mile 5 of a 14-mile race. Running on empty makes for tense moments, but it doesn't usually lead to victory. You need to deploy your weapons carefully. Each one has strengths and weaknesses. Each can be used to counter another driver's weapons. Each can be countered by another driver's weapons. Each can be confounded by agile driving.

As you progress, you'll gain a slightly different loadout for events in which you are the racer and events in which you are the cop. Either way, you'll find that you unlock the weapons fairly early, and then acquire more powerful versions of each. Getting them is easy; figuring out how to use them is hard.

Both cops and racers can use spike strips, which drop on the ground to slow down or wreck somebody behind you. Spike strips are the easiest weapon to use, especially late in the game when they are upgraded to the point that they can cover a wide swath of the road, and you drop two strips in one shot. Spike strips aren't very powerful, but they're great for slowing down somebody who is trying to ram you, or lock on with an EMP.

Cops and racers can also both use EMPs, bursts of energy that temporarily disable their targets. EMPs take some time to charge up, and need to be locked on in order to work. The EMP is the most "gamey" of the weapons available -- a lot like the Electrovolt in Wipeout. Activate it, and a white box will appear on your screen that you must keep centered on an opponent. You need to keep your target in view for several seconds (lock-on time reduces with each upgrade). Not terribly powerful on its own, the EMP is best used in conjunction with something else, like a road block, a sharp turn, or a well-timed collision.

Things diverge from there. Racers have a jammer, which shuts down all of the cops' tech, including their weapons and their on-screen maps. It's a great way to evade an EMP. Racers also have a turbo boost, which accelerates them to ludicrous speed for several seconds.

Cops can call in a road block, which is set up some distance down the course. As the road block power is upgraded, the road blocks gain more and sturdier vehicles, which can cause a racer to slow down or crash, but every road block has a weak point that racers can easily penetrate. The last tool in the cop's belt is the helicopter, which tracks down racers and drops spike strips in front of them. Forget its effectiveness: nothing beats barreling down a road at 180 mph, hitting a button, and seeing a chopper blast overhead with its searchlight blazing up the road.

All of the weapons collectively bring to mind a game of Rock, Paper, Scissors. Say you're a racer and a cop has an EMP lock on you. You could try to lose him through pure driving skill. You could use your jammer. You could hit the turbo and try to get out of range. Each of these comes with a cost. If your fancy driving doesn't work, or even if it does, you might cost yourself first place. If you use your jammer, you're still in sight and susceptible to crashes and other weapons. If you hit the turbo, you'd better hope there's a straightaway up ahead and not a series of S-curves.

This kind of mental calculation happens dozens of times in every race, all while you're navigating hairpin turns at top speed. You're trying to follow the route, keep an eye on your HUD for hazards, avoid oncoming traffic, and check your rearview for anybody speeding up behind you, all while trying to game-theory your way through your arsenal in the scant seconds you have to do something, dammit! It's enough to short-circuit your brain.

For all this, your car's chassis is still your greatest weapon. It's the one that'll last the whole race, provided you don't wreck, which is no gimme. Driving well is also a better alternative than using your weapons, but it's so much harder than pressing a button to instantly escape. No matter the weapon -- spike strip, EMP, road block -- you can dodge it without reaching into your bag of tricks. Even the racer's turbo power is only as useful as your ability to steer while using it.

If you aim to wreck another car, there's no subsitute for a good, old-fashioned ramming. Most of your weapons merely chip away at your foes' health. You either need to scavenge a takedown, or focus relentlessly on one opponent for your weapons to do much good. But if you can get behind them, hit the boost, and plow into their rear fender, you'll take big chunks off their health bar. It's the only way to go -- until they drop a spike strip, that is.

There have been lots of combat racing games before this one, which is why I started this post by comparing Hot Pursuit to two well-known ones. But none have ever been as deep in their execution.* Never in this game will you find yourself fumbling along, waiting to get bailed out by a lucky drop. Never will you fire your weapons willy-nilly instead of concentrating on the race.

Hot Pursuit has earned accolades for its mind-blowing races and the addictive Autolog feature, but who expected its combat system to be this exacting, even subtle? Forget Mario Kart -- maybe Street Fighter is the better comparison.

*Bold claim unsupported by evidence in post.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Mass Effect 2 debrief

Before I say anything else about Mass Effect 2, I'll say this: I played the whole thing. I can't say the same about many games, especially those that nobody is paying me to play. All told, it took just under 30 hours. I explored every star system I could get to. I completed every mission I found. Whatever criticisms I am about to make, that counts for something.

After all of it, I'm still not sure what to make of the game. None of my complaints about ME2's interface ever subsided. Quite the contrary, I kept discovering more of them. Some of the choices that BioWare makes, while not terribly significant on their own, defy logic. Consider: To upgrade your equipment, you need to mine planets for natural resources. This takes the form of a fairly boring mini-game.

That picture is from the PC version, but it looks the same on the 360 version. I'd like you to take note of the graphs on the right side of the screen. The one on the top shows the prevalence of each type of mineral as detected by your crosshair, which you can see on the surface of the planet to the left. As you move that target around, you'll see spikes and dips in the measurements.

You can tell, relatively, that you're likely to find a certain element when there's a spike. But you have no idea how much. There are no numbers assigned to each step on that scale. Further, the Y-axis is represented in a quasi-3D way, seeming to lean into the screen and away from the player. The vertical segments shrink as the chart gets higher, which may indicate a logarithmic scale, but probably not. Lastly, the graduations fade into nothingness instead of reaching a hard upper limit. It does not make sense.

At least that scale doesn't really need to make sense. All you need to know is that when there's a spike above Palladium, you fire off a probe. Boom -- you've got Palladium. The designers have exchanged usability for flashiness, sure, but it doesn't really harm the experience. Your goal is to mine for resources, and you can do that.

Such is not the case with the green bars underneath it. Those indicate, or are supposed to indicate, the quantity of each element that you already have. The quantities are represented as bar graphs -- they start empty, and fill up with a solid green color as you acquire more of each resource.

It may be hard to tell unless you click on the image above, but take a look at those bars and the numbers beneath them. The bars for Iridium, Platinum, and Palladium are all full, and yet their actual quantities vary: 35149, 41613, and 42602. respectively. Furthermore, the leftmost resource bar appears at least half-full, yet the count is only 14660. What's going on here?

After playing the whole game, I can safely say that the answer to that question is: who the hell knows. All of the bars fill up by the time you get about 25000 of each resource, but there is not actually a limit to how much you can collect. By the later stages of the game, I was rolling deep with about 150000 of everything. The bar graphs had long since ceased to be useful.

There I go again -- I intended to write a post about my fairly positive top-level impressions of Mass Effect 2, and ended up dissecting a minor point. It's not that the game rose or fell on the basis of the mining mini-game, it's that the minimal information that the mining mini-game needed to communicate to the player was totally garbled.

I thought it was perfect when, at the end of the credits, I was presented with another choice. I could either continue the game I'd been playing, and finish exploring the galaxy and completing sidequests, or import my powered-up Shepard into a fresh playthrough. Pretty basic, right? But when I saw the button prompts, I was only about 70% sure which was which. There was "(A) Continue" and "(B) Main Menu."

In other words, only one of the button functions I was presented corresponded to the options I'd been given. The other one bore no relation to what I might have been trying to do. The description of my choices had not included the main menu. I had no idea what might result from my inputs, thanks to the confusing, contradictory, and incomplete information on the screen.

And that was Mass Effect 2 in a nutshell.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Lost in Shadow

Above: Cool shadow, bro

My review of Lost in Shadow is up at Joystiq. I'm trying to remember the last time my reaction to a game followed a similar trajectory to this one. Generally, after a couple of hours, my mind is 90% made up and the rest is a matter of details. Sometimes, games get better after you become more familiar with them, and that can take a long time. In this case, I felt like Lost in Shadow was flirting with greatness at the start, then settled into a trough of acceptable mediocrity, before, eventually, I wanted the damn thing over with.

The things that are good about Lost in Shadow never get better after they're introduced, while the things that are bad about it keep piling up. You can put up with rudimentary combat for a time, awful hit detection and all, but by hour 10, and your second sword upgrade, you ought at least to be able to make contact with your foes more than half the time. And there's very little variety in the enemy type, which wouldn't be a problem if the combat were more fun, but it gets to the point where you return to an area to find all the enemies have respawned and you can't help but sigh.

I'm a sucker for games that look pretty -- that may not have the most graphical horsepower under the hood, but that have interesting and inspired art direction -- and Lost in Shadow does. It definitely cribs from the Ico playbook, but I'll take that over another space-marine corridor shooter any day. And its beauty isn't skin-deep. Forcing your mind to understand the connection between the three-dimensional objects in the foreground, and the two-dimensional shadow in the background, is challenging and novel.

It's because this game started out so strongly that I ended up so disappointed. I really can't recommend Lost in Shadow, especially not at the retail price, but I'm not sorry I played it. An interesting failure can be the most valuable kind of game.

And, hey, it was better than Limbo.

Buy Lost in Shadow from Amazon (affiliate link)

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Winter games preview

Above: My most-anticipated winter game, pretty much by default.

During all the excitement of shoveling snow for three straight days last week, I plum forgot that my winter games preview was going up at thephoenix.com.

Weak slate this year, even as these things go, but it was a fun piece to write for precisely that reason. I have no special insight into any of the games that are coming out, and I'm tired of always giving everything the benefit of the doubt in previews, so instead I decided to go negative. Massively negative. Every entry explores the ways in which the games could fail, even for games I am legitimately looking forward to.

Looks like it worked, since the one commenter on the piece so far called me a massive tool. But I was hurt that he called what I do "mainstream videogame journalism." Only one of those words is accurate.

Happy new year, everyone!