Why The Death of Manuals is Bad for Gaming

This is something that I’ve been keeping my eye on for a pretty long time now. Every time I get a new game, I always make a point to look and see if it even has a manual at all these days. More and more I’m seeing less manuals in games in general. The three Xbox One titles I have physical copies of, none have manuals at all. Now I understand why publishers are moving away from manuals – they cost extra money to print, green business practices are all the rage these days, and I think they just want to put everything necessary onto the actual game disc.

Good Manuals

But there’s more to this than just losing a place to stick the controller layout, credits and legal terms. One of my favorite parts of buying a game back in the day was reading through the manuals on my way home – getting familiarized with the story and setting and characters and game mechanics well before I ever put the game in. All of that is lost now, which has actually affected game design. I fully believe that as manuals have disappeared, game developers have been forced to put some of that information into the actual core game. Tutorial levels have gotten longer and more in depth – not to mention more direct with how they are presented. There’s a joke image floating around online of World 1-1 from Super Mario Bros. with a text box explaining that the A Button makes Mario jump. A few years ago, that really was a joke image, but these days, text boxes like that are starting to become the norm – even in simple games like that.

Bad Manuals

This isn’t an anti-tutorial piece either, not by any means. I actually believe that a tutorial level can add to the value of a game, if it’s done correctly. I think that the first two Modern Warfare games do it well – it’s a simple tutorial, but it makes sense within the game world. Same thing for Titanfall – it introduces some of the new mechanics, but in a way that makes sense within the universe. The first BioShock does it in a similar manner – there’s not really a tutorial level, but as new gameplay mechanics are introduced, Atlas helps you with them – using the key phrase “Would Ya Kindly” which ties into the story and game world. I would much rather play through a tutorial like any of them, than a game where simple mechanics are explained through pop-up boxes that stop gameplay. Essentially, I want the game developers to teach me how the game works in a way that fits within the confines of the universe they’ve spent so much time creating.

I don’t think we’ll ever see full game manuals like we used to, unless green printing drops in price tremendously and there’s a strong market demand; but I really think that there still is a place for them in gaming. I also truly believe that by removing them, publishers have affected the way that developers create games – and not always in good ways. This is one of those gaming trends that is still evolving, we just have to wait and see where we go with it.

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How Megaman is an Example of Perfect Game Design

It struck me as I was planning what to write about this week that I had never touched on my favorite series of games – the Mega Man games. The classic series were the very first set of games I can remember clearly loving over other games. As I got older, I played the Mega Man X games, as well the Legends games, and have since played through most of the games. I recently pulled out my X Collection so I could go ahead and replay the older games in the series. One thing that I have been paying attention to ever since I started covering video games is how specific games go about their design. As I have been playing the older games it was pretty awesome to note just how beautiful the gameplay design is in the traditional 2D Mega Man games. So I thought a good topic this week would be to go through and look at just how they do such a good job.

Megaman PAL

First of all, we’ll start with the Classic series – Mega Man through Mega Man 10. I’m including the two new titles, but really all we need to look at are the first few games. The basic tenets of the Mega Man formula allow you to choose the order that you play the levels, which lets you learn the levels at your own pace, making a large portion of the gameplay dependent on the player’s skill. Once you’ve beaten your first boss, you can learn that each new weapon behaves differently, and affects each boss in different ways. As the series progressed, new abilities were added, like the ability to slide in Mega Man 3, which the player can learn will let them traverse through small sections, as well as move quickly – which will let them tackle the bosses using different tactics. In the next game, they gave Mega Man the ability to charge his blaster – which of course lets you do more damage per shot. In game – none of these abilities are explicitly stated to you, but through experimenting the player can learn on their own, which I think is much more satisfying in the end.

Mega Man X

Now ultimately, the Mega Man X series I think has an even more clear example of perfect level/game design. The very first level of Mega Man X does a perfect job of showing the player how the Mega Man X games will work. The very first section of the level introduces enemies that are weak enough to kill with single shots, before introducing a larger enemy that will allow the player to learn that X can charge his blaster by holding the shoot button. As the player traverses the level, he fights a large bee enemy that destroys a section of the bridge, seemingly trapping X at the bottom. It’s here that the player is shown that X can grab onto the walls and climb them with wall jumps. All these little details will be used in every other level to create extra challenges, which the player is prepared for thanks to the design of the intro level. Essentially it amounts to a tutorial level, but without actually spelling it out to the player. As the player progresses, he can add extra abilities through the use of the Dr. Light capsules – again, one is basically given to the player in Chill Penguin’s stage, while the others are of course hidden in the levels.

It’s this beautiful game design that is incredibly informative, while also intuitive and non-intrusive, that allows players to gain an incredible amount of skill playing the game. That’s why players are able to speed run the games in unbelievable times – they know exactly how Mega Man will move and can move him incredibly precisely. It’s because of this level of control and design that make the entire franchise my absolute favorite games.

Titanfall Has Landed

I ran through my thoughts on the beta for Titanfall a few weeks ago, but now that the full game is out I thought it would be prudent to give you my impressions of the real deal.

Titanfall

First off, Titanfall has the possibility to really shake up the online shooter space – not only is it a brand new IP that’s getting a major marketing push, but it’s taking a slightly different approach from the Call of Duty/Battlefield path; which is the removal of the traditional single player campaign. I think ultimately with what Titanfall is at heart, this decision works well – the campaign is a great sampling of what the Multiplayer offers, giving you nine maps to experience. I do think a traditional campaign would have been pretty cool to experience, but I think because Respawn has focused on providing a totally unique and fun multiplayer game, the route they decided to go with works just fine.

Not a lot really changed from the beta that was a few weeks ago, aside from the obvious things like adding in all the maps, weapons, Titans and abilities. The balance still is there – Titans can absolutely get taken down by Pilots on foot, and each Titan model feels like they fill a different role on the battlefield. Perhaps most importantly the player movement is still as frenetic as it was in the beta, and really shines on some of the new maps, Rise in particular. Pilots zip around the map, running on the walls to get up to crazy vantage points, using multiple paths throughout every level – it really is a major change from the norm. Instead of trying to find a great cover spot, I find myself trying to run as fast as possible, using crazy wall jumps to get as high as possible to make my runs at the enemy. It’s a total shift from the way I’ve been playing online shooters for the last six years or so, which is absolutely a great thing.


Dropping a Titan on another is supremely satisfying

In general, each map feels different enough to have a unique persona to it, including nice little touches like giant flying creatures or the ability to alter the enemies Spectres. Likewise, the weapons each fill their roles well – they didn’t go overboard with the weapons – there’s pretty much one example of every type of gun you expect in a shooter these days, and each works pretty well. The Burn Cards also adds in a nice little bit of strategy to the game, deciding when to use which cards.

Overall, I’ve absolutely been enjoying my time with Titanfall and it’s a game that I can really see having a pretty long lifespan. It really feels like it’s the first “must-have” game on the Xbox One and definitely is on the right track to being a “game-changer” in the realm of FPS games.

Achievements and What Makes Them Awesome

With Titanfall dropping tomorrow on the Xbox One, and with my playing of Thief and Fable II lately, I’ve been thinking about Achievements again, and I think I should probably talk a little about what I think makes a particular game’s list good or bad. To start, let’s look at basically the two broadest categories of Achievements – singleplayer and multiplayer. Then we’ll get a little more specific to hit a few highlights, before I talk about some good/bad lists.

Fable II

First off, singleplayer achievements – by which I mean, the achievements that you unlock through a game’s singleplayer mode. Generally these tend to be story progression based, but a good list will also include a bunch of different tasks to unlock some. For example – I’ve been playing a lot of Fable II lately – there’s not only the story related achievements (which also hold pretty big point totals) but also smaller ones for silly things like dying all my clothes and hair black (The Goth) or skill based ones like Killing 5 human enemies with a single spell (The Archmage) as well as a few that encourage you to try parts of the game – marriage (The Spouse,) using expressions (The Show-off,) and buying houses and businesses (The Property Magnate and The Ruler of Albion.) The other major category of singleplayer achievements tends to be Collectibles, and this is the kind of achievement that can make or break a game’s list. Some games require you to get every collectible, and each type – again, using Fable II, there is one for getting all the Silver Keys (The Hoarder) as well as all the Gargoyles (The Gargoyle.) Others will just require a certain percent/number Far Cry 3 has an example actually of both – you do need to get all the Memory Cards (Memory to Spare) and all the Letters to the Lost (Dead Letters); but you only need to get 60 of the Relics (Archeology 101) of which I think there are 120 total. The incentive to get the rest of them is to get extra XP to help with other upgrade related achievements. My problem with Collectible achievements comes in when we start talking about numbers – both of Collectibles, and of achievements. Some games will devote too many achievements to Collectibles, turning the game into a grind/scavenger hunt; or they’ll just have an obscene amount of Collectibles to find – Crackdown jumps out – well into the 800 mark for the orbs.

Call of Duty: Ghosts

Next let’s talk Multiplayer achievements – which is where a list can really break down. Sometimes it’s a game like Tomb Raider, where the focus is really on the Singleplayer, but they add in 15 achievements to get you to play the multiplayer. Now, the MP in Tomb Raider actually wasn’t terrible, but definitely wasn’t the focus. In general, I’m against Multiplayer Achievements if possible. Call of Duty is pretty good at that – especially the Infinity Ward games. There are achievements tied to Spec Ops, but that’s Co-Op, which is totally different than competitive Multiplayer. In general, if a game has to have MP achievements, and I know it will have a good lifespan/player count, I can get behind leveling up achievements and playing on each map achievements. Ones like the Gears of War ones to get 1000 kills with each weapon, when there were only a few kills available in each game are just asinine.

Lastly, let’s quickly talk DLC achievements. On the 360, in order to add in Achievements, some kind of a patch/update is required, but supposedly the Xbox One is going to allow more freedom for developers to add in later achievements. What that amounts to, is on the 360, you’ll generally only see new achievements when a major DLC addition comes out, and all the achievements are tied to that DLC. That isn’t a bad thing, but I think by adding more freedom to the system, it will allow developers to look at how their game is played, and add in achievements to either reward players that are doing that, or drive players to do something maybe they hadn’t yet.

Titanfall

Finally, I want to talk a bit about Titanfall since it comes out tomorrow, and it really is a unique game. It’s pretty much the first game to be exclusively multiplayer – even the story is told through MP. That means that all the achievements are tied to MP – which had me worried at first. When I saw the list though, I felt a lot better, especially since it leaked after the Beta. A lot of the achievements were simply progression based, with a few little skill based ones tossed in – but in general, they were already things I was doing in the Beta. Overall, I don’t think it will end up being a bad list to get most if not all done relatively quickly.

Thief – Not Nearly As Bad As They Say

So last week Thief came out for all platforms, and the reviews were less than stellar to put it kindly. Now, I’ve been pretty excited for Thief pretty much since the first gameplay trailer was released, and had the game pre-ordered, so when I saw the reviews I was a little worried, but I knew I was still going to be playing the game. Now at this point, I’ve put in about 15 hours into the game – taking it slowly this first time around exploring as much as possible. While I haven’t quite beaten the game yet, I definitely feel like I’ve played enough to give my impressions on the overall feel of the game.

Thief

First off – the reviews all mentioned that the story is weak at best. Now, I won’t argue that the story is the best in the world, but it’s nowhere near the worst story I’ve ever played. I think what hurts Thief the most on this front is that the game is very similar to Dishonored, which borrowed heavily from the older Thief games, but had a really strong story and tied in the supernatural elements from the very beginning. But this new Thief game I think struggles to find the core of the story – I believe that there’s an enjoyable story somewhere in there, but it’s strung out a little too much. There’s a lot going on in the story, from Garret trying to recover his memories, to finding out the truth about his former partner Erin, to the conflict between the Baron and the people of the City – and there’s still a few little threads that I could mention. The real issue with the story, in my eyes, is the way that the story is presented – major advances only happen after “main-story” chapters, and only through short cutscenes. I think that having a slower development, that was presented during the actual gameplay would have helped the over-arching story.

Story aside, the most important part of any game is the actual gameplay. And Thief actually does a pretty good job of making the stealth feel really strong, most of the time. Every once in a while the A.I. gets a little dumb, but generally, it feels really satisfying to keep to the shadows and rooftops and get in and out silently. I saw in a couple reviews, people were upset with the map – I have to disagree right there. The map is fine – really all it’s missing that I would like is the ability to set a custom waypoint, but honestly, that’s a minor thing – makes you learn the city better. Plus putting the mini-map on the HUD makes navigation a breeze. And the HUD totally works well, without being super intrusive. Focus mode works pretty well too – especially at keeping you on track.

Ultimately, I would say that Thief is a game that definitely has a few flaws, but it’s nowhere near as bad as the reviews might have you believe. All in all, it’s an enjoyable game, and will definitely be a good second option to Titanfall for the spring for now.