I've resisted doing this for other games, but now fully into the swing of things with #idevblogaday I've decided to ignore all previous concerns and just get on with... critique and anaylsis of other people's games.
Any experienced game developer will tell you that the best form of testing ideas is by looking at the work of others. With a bit of patience and a lot of 20-achievement-point plays, it gets pretty easy to learn from a game in an hour what the development team spent years on. Okay, they probably learnt at little more - but in terms of testing design ideas you're actually better placed seeing it with fresh eyes (just like the fresh eyes of your audience: the player).
I'm not going to bother explaining how the game works - it's pretty simple. If you've not read them already check out Shawn McGrath's notes on reward and fun and demaning better design. Actually... if you've not played it yet do that first and then then read them. I don't want to give anything away. Oh, hang on - best not read part 3 of this either. Or part 2.
Giving my own game away, you've probably guessed that this is in parts - they go something like this:
- My thoughts from late in the evening after reading one of the early review (before having played it)
- The initial thoughts/reaction of our resident art Goose (an eager sword swinger)
- Some analysis and specific design thoughts I wrote as I was playing through the game
Part 1: Late-night ramblings before playing
...I love the fact that they appear to have thought about how to bring a levelling experience to devices that are _not_ console/PC. The whole 30-minute rinse repeat (with levelling) thing, regardless of whether it's been implemented well, is absolutely on the right track...
...I'm intrigued about how it plays out on both iPhone and iPad given the swipe-sensitive nature of the game -- something that's quite different on each form factor...
...Also: cut scenes with interactivity. Winner. Don't care if it works, it's just showing that they actually -- you know -- fucking thought about it. "It" being watching another bloody cut scene on a i_____ screams "I know how to make CONSOLE games"...
...All of this done with the Unreal engine... the Unreal engine that powers so many "me too" titles elsewhere. There's the flip side of that too: it makes things look good when you actually try...
...I suspect/hope that this, though, will be remembered not for its aesthetics (which will be surpassed soon enough) but for the fact that they brought a graphical iteration as well as device-specific thinking and inspired game design...
Part 2: Initial thoughts / reaction
At first was bowled over at the way it looked but then figured, "you know what? It's not actually that impressive, kind of reminds me of the PS2's Devil May Cry." I'd have probably still been impressed as I haven't yet seen much that looks anywhere like that good on the iPad -- before, that was, I checked out Rage HD recently. Playing Rage changed my view on what is doable.
At first the gameplay made me grin. However, after having to do it again for the umpteenth time i started to get a bit bored -- and massively dissapointed. I thought there would be a large amount of exploration involved but, nothing. Would have been really blown away if there was an ability to explore the awesome looking castles.
The whole thing feels like a demo for an upcoming - and less than great - title. If its going to be a show-case piece then it nees to be more polished. Which reminds me, this would work better with actual buttons to press - or at least touch controls that responded a bit more like buttons. I quickly got fucked off at how many times i took a swing and nothing happened or the dodge button didn't work and i ended up getting twatted as i stood there like a fucking goon.
On difficulty... what the fuck? No real learning curve, if anything it's fucking backwards! One minute everyone is a push over and as slow as a retarded sloth, the next they all have mad ninja skills and fuck you up in a heart beat.
The overall feel (aside from it feeling like a demo) is standard beat em' up, only replacing the ill-placed narrative with, er, some walking. All it's missing is a over-egged vs screen with slide-in introductions surrounded by flames.
Over all it's a shame: I really like the look of all the environment and the equipment and the fighting can be fun at times. Unfortunately though, the only thing that makes me want to play again is my desire to knock that smarmy bastard off his throne and hopefully open up something new in the game.
Part 3: Analysis / design thoughts
So after us both having played it all the way through (well, in so much as you can do that - to the point of actually killing the God King anyhow) we noted some thoughts on the game's design and implementation.
Useful or just a curiosity, this is the kind of stuff we use to evaulate our own game design decisions.
- The eagerly-anticipated "interactive" cut scenes feel more like a severly crippled adventure/looting experience -- not enhanced cut scenes.
- The fast-forward feature during cut-scenes and in-battle interludes is brilliant: it get's around the "i don't to press skip because I might miss somehintg" issue, as well as providing the player with a functional and consistent way of skipping through the juicy bits.
- The button/touch responses are infuriating - so much so that I went for a sheild-heavy build so I didn't have to press the dodge buttons too much.
- There's no clear indication of what you should be doing and when -- the earliest battles with the God King are so repetitive that you wonder whether you should just let him finish you quickly and wait for a "different" experience to make an actual attempt. It turns out that this is the wrong way about doing it - at some point (generally at the end of Bloodline 5 or 6) you should able to actually beat him. In fact, it turns out you shouldn't expect anything other than an exact repetition of what came before: whether he kills you, you accept default at his prompt or you kill him, it'll be just the same the next time around.
- It's pretty obvious and not particularly worthy of specific comment, but this game is entirely based around artificially rewarding the player. Nothing you receive in reward (xp, cash, loot, levels) changes anything about the game - there's no new content (arguably the additional weapons and armour provide a small reward in the form of new textures) and nothing changes the game mechnic and features (established early on in the first Bloodline).
- The in-menu music is very clever -- dum, dim, dem, diim -- it compells you on, constantly driving your forward for the sake of, well, driving you forwards.
- The affect of enemy levels is just a mess. As there is no "levelling in this game is unlike every other" message or even suggestion of such, you expect something akin to the genre-defined normals unless told otherwise. To illustrate, some specific notes taken as playing through:
- Should i really be able to take on a lvl24 assasin (at level 10) and win?
- I took out the God King at level 17. He was level 50.
- Really what do the levels do... On bloodline 5 I'm encountering a lvl25 Hedge Knight who can't land a hit on me (I was lvl14 at the time) - i can just shield block, block, block break and then take a swing. This was repeated later for level 30-40 enemies (I only ever got to level 22), and the level 50 Death Knight (who provdies no defence whatsoever to the God King himself).
- The pacing and visibility of the battles themselves is too quick and unclear - it's far easier to rely on what it tells you than shows you - i.e. the "block break" thing is the cue to start swinging one's sword.
- Unclear on what options are when you loose a battle -- save and return to start of castle? Does this mean you save your status and go back to castle start or that you save a game or what?
- Seemingly no facility to have more than one campaign -- in a game that does, theoretically, at least, support multiple effective character builds this is just plain irritating. No one else can play it on my iPad, and i can't play it how I'd like. I can live with not being able to share it with others - but I'd really like to do a shield and magic build alongside my shield/attack build.
- Seems on bloodlines 3 and up it's always possible to get the God King down to approximately 60% health without really taking too much damage yourself -- at this point though he'll inevitably break your shield and knock your sword aside. Until you can do some real damage (at Bloodline 5 and up) it doesn't feel like you're getting any more able to defeat him. And then when you do it all happens in one go.
- There's nothing stand out about the graphics (although a good demo for the platform). The visual design is impressive - and a relatively small amount of world space is used to good effect in both battles and battle-to-battle movements (camera angles being the key to this). Unfortunately there are some very specific issues that make things look very poor - best example being the sight of a sword piercing armour in a finishing move -- i say the sight of a sword piercing armour because I'm sure that was what was actually meant -- unfortunately it looks more like a geometry mismatch with the sword texture cleaning intersecting the armour texture. I realise Apple may have kicked back on blood effects but there are lots of other ways to get around this.
- Some battles forgo the pre-battle info screen - I.e. you get a route circle/button, but tapping it moves you to a position and then starts the battle immediately. This wouldn't be so much of an issue (I never needed to re-spec equipment before an encounter based on opponent info) if it weren't for the fact that you expect that pre-battle pause and as such aren't primed and ready with your sheild finger or dodge.
- The dodge buttons just don't work properly. As a result of this, you inevitably end up with a shield technique that gets dull fast.
- Opponents get easier as they increase in level - a lvl 31 assassin (encountered at lvl15) was a lot easier to deal with than a lvl23 assassin on a level previous -- specifically in that it became quicker, but far more predictable and less risky. When doing block, block, block break instead of having to estimate when it starts swinging again, it now blocks your attacks after it recovers from the initial stun of the block break -- so the pattern becomes block, block, block break, attack, attack, get blocked, ready shield to repeat. Previously you were left exposed as you're attacking as it'd just swing straight at you while you were attacking -- because the pace of the mechanics of the thing are so quick, it's not possible to dodge or shield these attacks (unless you only land a couple of blows and then deliberatley stop attacking).
- Very rarely do you have break from this pattern - some enemies attack with their sheild and you have to dodge it and some land very heavy blows and deplete your sheild quickly (depending on your spec, possibly before the end of the battle).
The endless repetition is actually a good idea - I don't mind it at all. It's all the other stuff that gets in the way. The rinse, repeat structure of the game is novel and provdes greater valuable mileage out of limit assets / development time. It could do with being just a bit more interesting though. Groundhog Day gets is a somewhat more refined version of formula, and that doesn't even have swords in it.
This sounds like a lot of criticism, but it obviously got something right - as I've been compelled to write about it.