Something New, Done Almost Perfectly
Way back when we thought Next Generation had their head up for giving Die By The Sword a five-star review, as the game was flawed in a variety of ways. I'm now of the feeling that when a game does something totally groundbreaking, they deserve that extra star. FSW has a few problems, but to focus on those problems would be immature. I'm going to anyway, just to make some points about interface and tutorial, but FSW is the best game design I've seen this year. Maybe last year too.
More Crisp Gameplay
Two nights ago, I was talking to Ed Del Castillo of Red Alert and Battle Realms fame. (He also happened to be best man at my wedding.) He said that most problems with videogames aren't problems with the game design but problems with the interface; the game fails to communicate what the rules of the game are to the player. Take Thief: you have to learn through trial & error (or reading the hints it gives you during load times) that an arrow will kill an unaware opponent but only damage an aware opponent. If the game had shown aware opponents dodging, or lifting a wooden shield to block the incoming arrow, the rule would have been more clear. Second best, you could have an icon floating over the victim's head, indicating its status - this isn't quite as good because it breaks immersion a little. (I personally have no problem with a screen full of icons; if my avatar doesn't see 'em, I don't see 'em. Or something. But others do.) This is the route FSW took. A fairly simple, abstract game at its core: when you're in cover, you can't be hit. The various states a unit can be in (cover, engaged, pinned) are represented by icons. You can engage someone with point fire from cover, allowing your other squad limited movement. Fire and motion: one unit fires while the other moves, and you can leapfrog your way through most situations. Add grenades and supression fire and you've got a simple but engaging game of puzzles and resource management.
Time To Think
I was focus-testing War of the Ring for Ed a while ago and he said that I was a weird player - most of the RTS players he watched frantically click on things while I sat there, I guess looking like a deer in headlights, paralyzed with indecision. Although a lot of people really like the fast decision making of your typical RTS, I prefer to be given more time to analyze. (I also prefer hour long chess games to ten minute ones, and when playing Freedom Force I kept a hand over the pause button at all times.) FSW gives me that, because I can hunker a squad down behind permanent cover and they will never get hit, which means I have all the time in the world to come up with a plan. This is a design decision they made on purpose for the retail market: in the original Army training program there is no permanent cover. After a while I felt a bit like Robert Duvall in Apocalypse Now; even though there's a hail of bullets flying and my squad is yelling in terror, I'm sipping a latte and idly wondering whether I should use a grenade launcher or try to flank. The downside, of course, is that I'm not as engaged as I could be; shouldn't being in a warzone be keeping me constantly on the edge of my seat? Until I come up against an enemy with an RPG, anyhow.
As always, any design decision is going to endear you to one group and alienate another group. You can try to get both groups by including some kind of flag in your options. (Pandemic has a cheat code which lets you play with no permanent cover, but very few people are actually going to discover that, in particular reviewers. All the reviewer knows is, "I'm not on the edge of my seat," and that's what you get in your review.) Still, it is good to make these decisions, to try not to please everybody. The goal, when making a groundbreaking game, is to please a group that the current crop of games does not please, and they got me, for example.
FSW has a long tutorial, separate from the single player campaign, and it shows all the problems that having a separate tutorial brings:
- people forget. I did the tutorial, played the whoe thing on the easier difficulty setting, and then did the tutorial again. I had forgotten a bunch of things from the tutorial: how to make my squad face a certain direction, how to break formation and go for the nearest cover when under unexpected fire, and I was never totally clear on the difference between being engaged and being pinned. They fire a *lot* of information at you in the tutorial and expecting you to remember it all is foolish.
- some people skip the tutorial altogether. I looked through some of the online reviews for FSW and it seems to me that some of them skipped the tutorial. Especially for a game like this, you don't want to let people go in untrained.
I, personally, would have done the Peter Molyneux thing, and introduced elements as part of the single player campaign as you go. But it doesn't make a lot of sense for untrained soldiers to be wondering around in a war zone, so the story would have needed some tweaking. There would still be a nonskippable, slimmed down, training portion, that teaches fire and motion with just one squad. Then the story starts, and
you're ambushed, and somehow you end up on your own with no grenadier and no hand grenades. You have some easy gameplay (none of the badguys take cover), and then you rendezvous, and then you get grenades. Now the enemies take cover. Then you get your second squad, and learn fire-and-motion and supression fire. It would take longer than the current tutorial, but not feel like a tutorial.
Pandemic thought it would be good to have tapping a button do one thing and holding it down do another. It's not; it's one of the first things Donald Norman says not to do in Design of Everyday Things. I realize there aren't a lot of buttons on the xbox controller. (Oh boy do I realize.) Still, there had to be a better way to do this. I was continually doing the wrong thing all the way through the game; it wasn't the end of the world because usually you have to confirm an action after you input it, so if you input the wrong thing you can backtrack. I would have cut the radio (which could have been automatic) and the ability to select individual team members (a feature I never used), and used the buttons that freed up so functions wouldn't have had to be doubled on single buttons. And, if there still wasn't enough buttons, I wouldn't have been opposed to having menus pop-up a la Splinter Cell. In the lower-left I would have had icons representing what the buttons did instead of the team roster.
Side note: it's tempting to load functionality on your gamepad with chords, modes, double-taps, combos, and what-not - it makes your game look less complicated than if you put the extra functions on the D-Pad or in menus, for example, and in theory will scare less people away. I'm not sure people get that scared - I mean, look at your typical remote control, a monster that's bristling with buttons, most of which never get used. Aren't people used to a shitload of buttons by now? Hey, if anybody at Microsoft is listening: the next Xbox needs *more* buttons on the controller, not less. I heard a rumor that you're thinking of cutting the black and white buttons (because they get used the least) - don't do it. Don't be retarded. And if you want to give us another set of triggers I'd sure appreciate it.