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Action Gameplay

I’m still making my way through Nier, and it’s an interesting experience to analyze in situ.

Aside from the moments when it turns into a bullet-hell shoot-them-up, Nier is an action game in the vein of Devil May Cry. You have a Light attack, a Heavy attack, a Ranged attack, and a special skill. There are technically combos, I think, but I’m not sure it’s especially more productive than just mashing buttons. The only real “decision” is when to press the Dodge button. Which, by the way, can be spammed with no penalty to essentially gain infinite invincibility frames.

The end result is a relatively simplistic combat system. And it’s… still fun? I guess.

One of the common complaints regarding older MMOs like WoW is that tab-targeting combat is boring. Or mindless. 111211131141. While Nier is certainly more active from a combat perspective, I’m not sure that it is less mindless. XXXYYYXXY with some RT in there (on a controller) to dodge. If I just stood there and didn’t dodge in Nier, sure, the enemies I’m fighting might be able to kill me; conversely, most enemies in WoW can be face-tanked. But does that really matter?

The whole situation kind of reminds me of the difference between driving to the movie theater and watching the movie. The action of driving somewhere is much more involved than watching the screen – there are thousands of more individual choices and reactions necessary to drive somewhere safely. But is it more engaging? At the end of the night, which do you remember more?

And really, this is a problem with Action games even in the absence of thousands of incidental enemies you have to mow down. Furi features action combat that focuses just on bosses. I played it for a few hours, got to the second boss, and ended up setting the game down. It’s just not particularly compelling. Sure, it feels good to be able to perform the button presses necessary to avoid death. That’s a sense of personal progression.

But… I don’t know. Just like with driving, I kind of zone out the experience when I’m killing enemies in Action games. Or rather, become so hyper-focused on the moment-to-moment reactions to stimuli that I lose the overall plot. Once I get to my destination safely, the process by which I got there exits my short-term memory and becomes no more than a fuzzy recollection of time spent.

Perhaps this is less an indictment of Action combat generally, and more a specific Nier issue. Perhaps I should crank up the Difficulty slider up a notch. But I’m not sure that that would accomplish anything more than slippery road conditions would “improve” the driving experience. Common enemies would require greater focus, and yet the “reward” would be the same.

Maybe that’s just it: action combat is typically less overtly rewarding. Nier enemies drop currency and occasionally crafting mats, but it’s not on the same scale as a WoW mob. There are simply more and multi-faceted reward types in RPG-esque games than Action ones. Action games focus on the action, and generally try to reduce downtime. Go too far, and you end up the Borderlands Zone where you have to take a 5-second break after each gun drop to compare it to your equipped arsenal. That sort of thing completely breaks the flow in a way that, say, Skyrim does not.

I dunno. I’m not even through my first playthrough of Nier – New Game+ is apparently mandatory to see the rest of the plot – and I think that I had better buckle down and ignore sidequests from here on out. If I don’t, I think there is a serious chance that the combat becomes too boring to finish.

[Fake Edit]: Completed both A & B endings this weekend. Combat got more boring in B, which I didn’t think was possible. Let’s just hope C+ is a bit better…

Borderlands 2 Masochism

I finally beat Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep a few nights ago. It was… painful.

The DLC itself was fine – it is humorous and touching and has a lot of D&D/MMO jokes. What ended up happening with my situation though is that I completed the DLC on Ultimate Vault Hunter Mode, aka the highest difficulty (well, I guess it goes higher now). This decision was sort of cemented when one of the Treant mobs dropped The Bee, which is a legendary shield whose shield stats are kinda lame, but adds something like 50,000 damage per shot when you fire with full shields. Either intentionally or unintentionally, that extra 50k damage is added per bullet to my Double Penetrating Unkempt Harold (DPUK), which means mobs typically melted in the fury of 2+ million damage with each trigger pull.

Things got even more ridiculous when I acquired the Grog Nozzle, a quest gun that doesn’t deal a whole lot of damage by itself, but has a high chance of Slagging enemies (increasing subsequent damage by 200-300%) while also healing you for ~65% of the damage you deal with it equipped. Even more bizarrely, since it is technically a quest gun (that you can take anywhere) it doesn’t take up an inventory slot either.

The “painful” part to all this was simply playing the game at all. All non-legendary item drops were useless, especially any shields given how The Bee was pretty much required to deal damage. I did swap it out for a bit in a few areas, but I was leaning real hard on the DPUK to carry me through. Other weapons were pretty much a joke: dealing 32k/bullet damage is irrelevant to mobs with tens of millions of HP and the ability to regenerate health extremely quickly. At one point around level 54, I entertained the notion of going back to some of the DLCs to acquire some (upgraded) legendaries just to spice things up and not be shooting a pistol all day. The Sand Hawk would have been interesting, for example, as a submachine gun shooting bullets in the pattern of a bird flapping its wings. But that would mean extending my Ultimate Vault Hunter Mode stay in content I already seen twice now just to complete the current DLC after which I was likely to uninstall immediately.

All of this really struck home how important it is for games to have a smooth progression curve. Where I “screwed up” was hitting the level cap at the end of Mister Torgue’s DLC; thereafter I was stuck in a limbo of too-easy content on one side and content that’s designed to challenge the people who farmed legendaries at the old level cap. While I suppose the latter group needs catered to – especially given how they’re likely to be still playing, and thus willing to buy DLC – the end result is an extremely warped play experience. Your weapons are so strong because the enemies are ridiculous, and the ridiculous enemies makes your shields/HP basically irrelevant, which means you are awkwardly trying to dodge their melee/ranged attacks with generic movement, none of which really feels like Borderlands anymore.

By the way, calling it now: Borderlands 3 will have a more formal Dash/Dodge button, ala MMOs these days. If Gearbox doesn’t add this, it’ll be because they’re really dumb because goddamn precision movement is awkward and annoying right now for how much they require you to do it.

And have I mentioned that because the death penalty is a percentage of your wealth, that you end up losing $400,000 each time you respawn? There is also a few places with instant-death traps, which was a lot of fun not at all fun. Granted, you can’t really purchase anything for $5,000,000, but that’s another whole issue entirely. It kinda makes even picking up and vendoring loot a waste of time.

The more I think about it, the more I come to understand that Borderlands 2 basically ends at level 50. A full playthrough of the vanilla game will end around level 35, and that was a fun experience. After that? Still sorta fun, but the “optimal” path was going straight through the story missions again, skipping all sidequests, until you hit 2.5 mode at level 50. Then you can safely do sidequests for the unique rewards that would stay useful. Increasing the level cap basically screwed over everyone that hit the old cap without legendaries, as you get left with a Faustian bargain of farming bosses for hours or doing DLC missions for no reward.

So if you haven’t played Borderlands 2 yet and are waiting for the GotY edition, that is my advice: play the vanilla game while doing everything, then the DLCs in order, and then pat yourself on the back and be done with it. You can get 120 hours (or more) of play time like I did, but the you’ll face some pretty ridiculous diminishing returns on both fun and sanity.

The Lockpicking Corollary

In a game with optional lockpicking mechanics, designers must include chests and doors and such that contain treasure to justify the investment of (usually) finite skill points in an otherwise non-combat skill. This reward cannot be too generous however, as it otherwise moves lockpicking from being an “interesting choice” into becoming the only reasonable option.

If a player got midway through a game only to discover a plot-specific item or one-of-a-kind upgrade was behind a door they could not open, the player would be understandably upset. At the same time, without such incentives the opportunity cost of taking Lockpicking over other skills is usually pretty high.

In games with Lockpicking or Hacking, I almost always pour points into training these skills because the “what’s in the boooooooox” feeling is too strong, despite my inevitable disappointment that it’s just some ammo and currency of negligible value. But what else could the designers really do? It all seems like an inevitable Lose-Lose scenario the very moment you introduce the choice; I feel bad for leaving unopened containers behind, and am disappointed with what they contain.