It sometimes astonishes me how certain game design decisions make it off an office whiteboard and into real, live games played by people. Like, do the designers realize how bad the idea is at the time, but think it’s the least bad idea of their available options? Or do they simply not think it through?
In a video posted to the official Fallout Twitter account, Jeff Gardiner, project lead for Fallout 76, was asked: “How do sneak perks and detection work in Fallout 76?”
“As soon as you crouch, which engages our stealth mode, the dot [AKA your character marker] will very quickly fade away, so other players won’t be able to find you.”
There is still some confusion about this mechanism on Reddit, considering that there are two “dots” to which this can refer: the pip on the compass ribbon, or your character’s dot on the map (which is currently set to display everyone’s position all the time). Regardless, I have seen some celebration going on from people who believe the above is “the answer” to what they were worried about occurring in Fallout 76, e.g. being hunted down by griefers.
Let me explain what will happen in practice: you will be hunted down by griefers while hindering your own gameplay the entire time.
If Fallout 76 launches with the ability to see everyone on the paper map (as it is currently), the people doing the player-hunting will have perfect information regarding your location and direction of travel. “But you’ll be able to see them too, and then know to hide.” Nope. The only time you’ll know they’re coming is if you are running around with the map out, obscuring your view of the game world and otherwise not engaging with it. Not to mention that knowing your target is in a certain area is more than enough to go on for hunting purposes, so the griefer can check that you’re exploring some ruins, and then sneak that direction to intercept.
Suppose you do happen to notice their dot moving towards you… what then? You crouch, they crouch, and the both of you perform a crabwalking game of cat and mouse. Sounds fun. Maybe you just hide in a bathroom, map out, and wait to either surprise them or hope that they go away. Meanwhile, mobs are going to be respawning and attacking you because, you know, you were in the middle of PvE before xXxDethClawz69xXx came to pay you a visit.
Suppose Bethesda removes the map markers for players upon release, and thus this dot is really the compass ribbon. For one thing, that’s a lot better, as it would prevent people from starting to hunt you from across the map. However, we are once again in a situation where you are encouraged – under the threat of player killing – to be Sneaking around 24/7. Except it won’t work as much for you because, again, you are trying to engage in normal PvE and your hypothetical opponent is not. Remember, VATS is real-time, so taking out a sprinting Feral Ghoul while crouched is not going to be easy without an alpha-strike; there are going to be moments when you are map visible.
That there are mechanisms in place to prevent one particular player from killing you over and over is nice, but irrelevant. I prefer to not be killed, even if it “only” costs me a bit of time. Thus, the optimal method of gameplay will be to Sneak all the time, crawling around the floor at 50% speed. That is kinda how I play most Fallout games anyway, but only when I’m actively trying to get Sneak Attack Criticals. I’m not looking forward to doing that as a matter of course, every minute of every play session, while checking the map every 5 seconds.
Like I mentioned before, I get it. There are some emergent stories lost when you become immune to the pointless aggression of other people. There will be the thrill of scavenging in a warehouse while crouched, and see an oblivious stranger appear down the hallway. Or perhaps the triumph of a griefer getting killed, as was shown in the Fallout 76 video. Hell, if there are Bottlecap Mines and other traps, maybe you look forward to seeing people try and fail to take you out.
But there are definitely gameplay costs involved, and I’m not sure how much consideration was given beyond “wouldn’t it be cool if Sneak worked on players?” Presumably people appear on the map because otherwise it would be difficult to find others in such a large game space, right? Well, the game space might be large, but the density likely isn’t, so key resources are likely to draw players to specific locations out of convenience. Then you have the fact that a dangerous (PvE) world is going to involve the firing of a lot of bullets, which other players could hear.
Ultimately, we’ll see how it shakes out in the Beta. And perhaps that is what Bethesda is looking forward to as well. But I remain surprised how often incredibly flawed ideas persist almost all the way until release. Then again, working at my IRL job, I can sometimes see how it happens too.
After finishing the last of the single-player missions in Battlefield 1 this weekend, I sat back and reflected. The missions themselves were varied – each “chapter” followed different people – but they had a commonality that was annoying: stealth. Battlefield 1 is not a stealth game. You can still run and gun for most of them, but it was weird pretending that the game was something it was not.
Facing the Multiplayer screen once again, I then came to a disappointing conclusion: Battlefield 1 is not a Battlefield game.
By that I mean it is not the sort of game I can see myself playing months from now. Or even minutes. It is just… exhausting. I am still trying to examine what specifically is causing this feeling. I don’t think it is the tone or the setting or the weapons necessarily.
Perhaps it is the simple fact that trench warfare is so required by virtue of insanely powerful sniper rifles. Apparently sniper rifles have a sweet spot that will instantly kill you with a body-shot at certain ranges. Pretty sure that has not been a thing in recent Battlefields outside of headshots. Between that, and the crazy power of armored vehicles (few counters), and the general sense of futility in attacking alone, I just get the sense that nothing matters.
Which, again, matches the time period. It just isn’t all that fun to experience.
So I closed Battlefield 1 down and spent around 3 hours playing Titanfall 2. And had fun.
I don’t anticipate Titanfall 2 to be a long-term game for me, certainly not on the same scale as BF2/3/4. But it absolutely is a fine “shoot someone in the face” game with occasional mech action. There happened to be a double-XP event going on this weekend, so I managed to unlock a slew of new weapons/gear, which went a long way in making the matches more interesting. I still think the devs screwed up Pilot vs Titan combat, but at least other parts have improved. And I am hoping that once I unlock Satchel Charges, that particular matchup will be more interesting.
In-between my many WoW sessions, I have been working on Deus Ex: Mankind Divided. The short version is that it is pretty much Human Revolution with new plot and Augments; if you enjoyed the first game, then you will enjoy this one as well.
But one of the things I have noticed over the course of 30 hours is that… well, it’s easy.
I am playing on the highest difficulty – Give Me Deus Ex – and just breezing my way through, even without Augments. Indeed, I spent half the game with 11+ Augment Points banked just waiting for a situation in which I needed to spontaneously develop wall-punching or remote hacking skills. However, this may be more a systemic issue with stealth games generally.
When we talk about stealth games, what we’re really talking about is extremely simplified, often binary, gameplay. If you are outside the cone of an enemy’s vision, you are hidden. The alarm is either raised or it is not. The enemy is fully active or they are incapacitated. This binary nature even extends to after the enemy is alerted, as almost every stealth game features the conceit that guards eventually completely forget that they watched their compatriots die, and go about their usual patrols.
This is not a criticism of stealth gameplay, per se. There is a good reason why “more realistic” behavior is not often implemented: it is less fun. Ever play a stealth game where the enemies patrolled randomly? It’s an exercise in frustration. Without a pattern to recognize and exploit, incapacitating/avoiding guards either requires RNG (which doesn’t feel good) or just attacking them straight out. And if the guards never reset after the alarm is raised, why wouldn’t the average player not simply reload their last save?
So if you are going to have “stealth mechanics” in your game, you have to make some concessions. This means it is incredibly difficult to introduce varying levels of difficulty with stealth mechanics without running afoul of annoying gameplay.
Still, I do have some suggestions. These mostly pertain to Mankind Divided – and especially at the higher difficulties – but I feel like they can be applied more generally as well.
1) Incapacitated Guards wake up.
Some stealth games have this already, but its lack seems especially egregious in Mankind Divided since you are in the same city for most of the game. Basically, once you knock out the guards, they are unconscious permanently. Since you already get more XP for using nonlethal methods, there really is no reason to not knock them out rather than use lethal methods. Yes, unconscious guards can be awoken if discovered by other guards. But considering how easily guards can be taken out – and no one cares about patrols reporting in – this is an irrelevant concern.
So… have the guards wake up, randomly. Not immediately, mind you, just over a period of a few minutes or so. This will still give you enough time to stroll through the area, but maybe not enough for a thorough searching of every file cabinet. If you want safety in your looting, you will need to kill the guards instead.
2) Nonlethal takedowns are more difficult.
In the last two Deus Ex games, you get the option of lethal and nonlethal takedowns any time you are within melee distance. In truth, there is just one rational option: nonlethal. Not only do you get more XP with nonlethal, but the actual nonlethal action is quiet, whereas the lethal one makes a lot of noise. Considering you can just shoot sleeping guards in the face with a silenced pistol afterwards, there is zero reason to go lethal initially.
How about we just reverse that? Lethal takedowns are quiet, but nonlethal makes some noise as the target struggles. This can extend to tranquilizer dart weapons as well, considering nobody really seems to care about a huge syringe poking out of their leg, even after it was fired out of a sniper rifle 50 yards away. Let them make some noise for the few seconds of consciousness they have remaining. Or, alternatively, make the tranquilizer take a random amount of time to fully go into affect, so that it’s possible they fall unconscious after walking to a less discreet location.
Because, honestly, the situation with the Tranq rifle in Mankind Divided is just silly broken. Headshots will instantly knock out guards, and body shots take a few seconds more. But, really? The delay is actually a boon. I can tag three guards in a row, all in the leg, and by the time the first dude hits the floor, the others start passing out before they have a chance to raise an alarm. That shit would be impossible with a regular sniper rifle, even a silenced one. Speaking of which…
3) Silencers not being silent.
This is one of those universal videogame/movie sacred cows, but silencers on guns don’t actually make them silent. As it turns out, propelling lead out the end of a metal tube by way of igniting gunpowder is still kinda loud. So let’s have those guns still be loud with silencers attached. This will shorten effective engagement range for stealth runs, thereby increasing the chance that a guard could discover you, e.g. making the gameplay a bit more difficult.
4) Guards check in with each other.
There is a level in Mankind Divided that sees you skulking about a research facility with a PA system. While I was taking out guards left and right, I got a little nervous by what I heard. “West wing reporting all clear.” “Brzezinski, please report to docking bay 12.” Did I already take out Brzezinski? Would he be missed?
Then I remembered I was playing a standard stealth game, and none of that stuff matters.
To an extent, having guards checking in (or being sought by other guards) is one of those realistic features that end up making the gameplay feel worse. After all, if you are going to be so actively punished for taking guards out, you may as well remove the ability to take guards out at all. But what if the mechanics were more nuanced than that? What if you could get some kind of guard manifest that lists which ones need to check in, or figure out when they already checked in such that you are free to take them out afterwards? What if their absence is noted and guards are sent to investigate, but they eventually disperse if they don’t find any foul play?
Basically, instead of having each guard be a puzzle individually, perhaps force the player to consider a more holistic approach to rendering a base unconscious.
5) Blood stains.
Just so it doesn’t seem like all these changes make nonlethal useless compared to lethal methods of infiltration, let’s have guards react to blood stains. And, you know, have blood stains result from wetwork, assuming specific methods are not employed. Moving bodies might still be useful, especially for distraction purposes, but it shouldn’t be a Get Out of Jail Free card either.
I will be honest with you here: I’m not even sure any of the above will result in a better gameplay experience. All I do know is that my current experience with stealth games (and Deus Ex in particular) has made all of them not only play the same, but play easily. If I choose the highest difficulty in a stealth game, that difficulty has to be a function of changing stealth mechanics and not just making it easier for me to die once a firefight starts. Because a firefight will never start when I’ve knocked out every guard everywhere with impunity.
Started Finished playing Shadows of Mordor a few weeks ago, and my experience for most of it has been compelling. The game’s design hits the sweet spot in a whole lot of categories.
For example, running around in stealth and brutally executing orcs makes you feel overpowered. Manually attacking and parrying even a half dozen orcs does not. And so stealth is highly encouraged. And yet it isn’t the end of the world if you get spotted, as outside of specific missions, you can always just run away. Or even just kill every witness and get back to skulking about.
One of the flops though, is the RPG-esque Nemesis system. Or rather, the RNG aspect of some of the combinations.
In a nutshell, the Nemesis system simulates the ascension and power struggles of an orc army as they vie for control and fill in new vacancies made by you stabbing the predecessors in the throat/blowing them up/getting them eaten by wildlife. This specific part is insanely cool – the jockeying around and combat promotions – and is one of those features you kinda wish were in every open-world game from now on.
The issue comes from how the Captains have a random assortment of Strengths, Weaknesses, and combat abilities. Again, this is cool. Except when it’s not.
Witness, Hûmgrat, the Kin-Slayer:
I originally wrote several paragraphs about this guy – having hitherto unsuccessfully taken him out for bullshit reasons¹ – but I’m going to let the video speak for itself. Start at 2:50 (of this 5 minute video) if you want to see the actual “fight.” And keep in mind this is pretty much the only way to take him out, sans getting lucky with fire pit placement/existence or coming back after unlocking Branding (mind-controlled Orcs bypass the usual immunities).
So… yeah. Beginning parts are very fun, and then later ones much less so. You end up either facing more Hûmgrat, or you face an Orc you can practically one-shot. While Hûmgrat left enough of a bad taste in my mouth to almost poison the entire experience, he was not fully successful. And so I would recommend this game to any LotR fans, Batman fans, and/or Assassin Creed fans. If you can dodge the bad RNG orc combinations, there is much fun to be had.
¹ Bullshit reasons usually being other Orc Captains “randomly” appearing in the middle of my 5+ minute stunlock.
As I mentioned last week, I have started playing Kingdoms of Amalur. At one point during the tutorial, the game showcased the ability to perform stealth kills.
So, now I have a dilemma. Do I actually trust the designers to have gone all the way?
Stealth is always a risky game design concept. By its very nature, stealth avoids traditional combat; yet unless a game is stealth-centric – such as Tenchu, Metal Gear Solid, etc – it must feature traditional combat robust enough to satisfy a more action-oriented playstyle. The more robust the traditional combat is though, the more powerful stealth itself becomes. Indeed, as players become stronger and enemies increase in deadliness, stealth can pass a certain threshold of absurdness that makes any other strategy seem poor in comparison.
Few mixed-gameplay games handle stealth well, and even fewer take stealth “all the way.” When I started up Dragon Age: Origins for the first time, I chose to make a dwarf rogue. My thought process at the time was that I always wanted access to lockpicking and trap detection, but the thought of those sneak attack criticals also appealed to the tactical gamer in me.
As it turns out, playing a rogue in DA:O was a pain in the ass. While you can scout out rooms and such, the nature of these sort of games (and most games, actually) is that ambushes are controlled by invisible programming triggers, such as “enter this room.” Sometimes this let me pull some counter-ambush maneuvers, such as flooding a room I knew to be occupied by hidden enemies with fireballs and poison gas. Other times, my rogue was made visible automatically by mini-boss or cut-scene decree. While I could still occasionally score sneak attacks in combat, doing so basically removed my main character from the battle until she could slowly move into position while the rest of the party got battered.
There are only two games in recent memory that I feel handled stealth well. The first is Dishonored. While it is true that the game is stealth-centric and thus shouldn’t really “count,” I was nevertheless impressed by the designers’ gumption to take the stealth mechanics all the way, i.e. even usable on the last boss. Unfortunately, killing the final boss with a single shot also felt horribly dumb, all things considered; it should not have been easier taking out the last boss than the very first enemy you encountered. The opposite wherein bosses are immune to stealth isn’t much fun either, as Deus Ex: Human Revolution demonstrated.
The second game that I felt supported stealth all the way was Skyrim. While I am not entirely sure if you could actually stealth around the last boss (such as it is), there was a talent at the end of the Sneak tree that allowed you to temporarily cloak long enough to activate your heightened Sneak Attack critical multipliers for an attack or two. Like with Dishonored, it felt sort of cheesy, but I had been two-shotting sleeping dragons with my bow for hours beforehand, so I already knew the absurd stealth line had been crossed.
Now that I think about it, Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas also supported stealth gameplay all the way. Indeed, sometimes I feel like my playthroughs would have been 20-30 hours shorter, had I not been crouch-crawling through most of the game.
And so now I am left with the Amalur decision. As I level, shall I invest in stealth-based skills and abilities in the hopes they won’t be made irrelevant by boss battles and dungeon design? Or should I ignore the fig-leaf stealth design and instead focus on more mundane, useful abilities that I can actually utilize against 100% of the enemies I face, including the final boss? Or perhaps I should trust in my moment-to-moment stealth gameplay joys, having what fun I can in whatever percentage of the game allows me to stealth through?
It remains a dilemma either way. Many people celebrate having these sort of choices in their videogames, but choice requires trust in designers that one’s choices will actually be meaningful, and most importantly: balanced. When it comes stealth, as fun as it is, sometimes it is not worth letting the player have his or her way.
For some reason, I am definitely getting more of a Singularity vibe than necessarily a Bioshock vibe. It might simply be I am beyond the saturation phase of Unreal engine games:
I got about 3-4 hours of gameplay in yesterday evening, and am a bit past the point where you can start picking up various powers. Blink is pretty cool, although I was initially let down by my inability to Blink through objects. The other power I purchased was a sort of Life-sense ability that I am inclined to believe is stupid-OP. In fact, I feel pretty OP from the get-go, to be honest. In games like Deus Ex: HR, the downside to “stealth” kills were that they weren’t actually stealthy at all. That is not a problem in Dishonored: enemies are stabbed through the neck and die in under 3 seconds, perfectly silent (as far as I can tell).
In fact, given Blink, the Life-sense skill, instant stealth kills, and the verticalness of the beginning areas thus far, Dishonored feels more like a first-person Tenchu game than anything else. That comparison really hit home when I finished the first area and saw this screen:
The Tenchu series is one of my favorite of all time, so it is not a bad analogy.
The main problem I have at such an early stage is the notion that we have another seemingly binary Bioshock situation between good/evil. As in, there are apparently two different endings, and if you go only halfway, you might be stuck with the “evil” one. Which is fine… in a game where it feels more like a legitimate choice. Bioshock, for example, just asked you not to kill the Little Sisters; DE:HR had scores of nonlethal maneuvers and/or weapons, and I think the nonlethal option was the default takedown when you pressed the button. Conversely, Dishonored has your sword attack bound to left-click, and you need to hold down the Ctrl button for a few seconds to knock someone out instead.
It’s fine for the pacifist play-style to be more challenging upfront. A brand new game just loses some of its luster when I am immediately confronted with a screen like this:
Killing is quick, easy, and fun in Dishonored. Dropping down from a 3-story building onto one guard, Blinking behind another with blade flashing, and taking out a third with a crossbow bolt before the first guy stops bleeding feels like I’m playing Ninja Assassin: the Game. It seems a bit too easy at times, but I imagine that is the point when I am on the first real mission and playing on Normal (there are two higher difficulties); later levels are probably more intricate. Tenchu was mainly as difficult as it was when you cared about getting Grandmaster, at least before those ridiculous “one alarm = failure” missions.
That said, I might start over before going further. If I go the nonlethal route, I should probably go all the way. And if I am going to kill ALL the things, I am probably going to need to bump the difficulty up a few notches.