Tuesday, December 8

The Role of Interpretation in Prince of Persia

Today, I've published an article on GameCareerGuide examining the role of interpretation in Ubisoft's 2008 Prince of Persia. This is my first professionally published essay, and I am pleased with how it turned out. I would like to thank my parents for never giving me a ride to school, and the GameCareerGuide editor who took a chance on an unknown kid. Read the essay at GameCareerGuide.

I would love any comments on the essay. Feel free to leave a comment under this post or to email me at finnhaverkamp@gmail.com

Sunday, December 6

Shattered Horizon Review

Entering silent running mode, the world fades away. Silence looms as all space is emptied of sound. The stuttered inhalations and exhalations in my helmet are my only companion and the only confirmation that I still live. I maneuver around an asteroid, praying to not be seen. Radar is dead; all I know is that which I can see. As I round the rock, a yellow-clad astronaut glows before me, his back to my face, the giant sphere of planet Earth blue in the distance. I hear nothing as I unload a burst shot into his tank. White gases whirl from the explosion, and the astronaut's grip on life is lost. He drifts into space, a puppet to fate.

The space-combat sim is the vision of Futuremark's Shattered Horizon, and for this vision, nothing is compromised. Each gameplay aspect is tuned, each element geared, a cog in the vision, each contributing to the play experience. And the experience is wonderful.

Scarce resources necessitate bitter war between the Moon Mining Company (MMC) and the International Space Agency (ISA). A string of disembodied rocks, an asteroid belt, serves as battleground; the International Space Station, as well, a mega-structure of reflective panels and sheet-metal middled in a disarray of rock chunks and cargo boxes; a mining facility, a tunnel gaping, bored through an enormous asteroid, filled with splitting, angular passageways, electronic posts, and a “Zero-G Spot” theatre for off-duty miners. Though levels initially seem nonsensically formed, each is specifically constructed to promote tactical positioning. Multiple entrance paths access each command post, creating dynamic choke-points and allowing for unexpected assaults. Astronauts turned militant (up to thirty-two) strive to control and defend command posts throughout each level, or occasionally, seek only bloodshed.

Zero G is the keystone to all other elements of Shattered Horizon, impacting the emotional experience, the level design, and tactical combat. Zero gravity forces players to think tactics not along a singe plane but to be considerate of multiple axes. Levels are structured as guidelines, not binding rules, allowing for variance in strategy, tactical experimentation, and surprise. Indeed, direct assaults are overtly visible, only marginally effective, and ruthlessly dissuaded, encouraging spontaneous, creative approaches. The strategic topography of any situation is constantly shifting, enemies and allies, like lightning, never occupying the exact places twice. Players must be adaptive in their tactics or else be quickly gunned down.

Shattered Horizon offers one armament: a scope-equipped assault rifle and three grenade types, all of which are available on the fly. The lack of choice feels not limiting, but helps to dampen the gap between newer players and experienced; hard-boiled experience, instead, takes place as the prime player-skill differential. Veteran players are light-years ahead of newer players, dead-eye aim and sharply honed strategy acquired from thousands of kills notched on their rifles. Veteran presence is currently overwhelming, and new players are brutally taught through the time-proven art of failure. The learning curve is harsh and requires that players have significant patience. However, I was rarely frustrated by my failures, recognizing them as necessary steps towards mastery. And being an at least averagely frustrated gamer, I would say that my lack of anger towards the game is due to the sheer joy of each combat experience, success or no.

Combat success, as it were, is shared equally between aiming skill, proper use of grenades, and tactical positioning. Good aiming is vital. Headshots and tank shots, bullets to large oxygen tanks strapped to players' backs, are severely pronounced. Body shots, comparatively, are practically useless. Round after round unloaded into an astronaut's suit will yield nothing but the alerting of the target to your very loud presence. Headshots and tank shots, however, are rewarded with near-instant kills and are absolutely mandatory for survival. Players may also to cling to any surface: walls, crates, and terrain. Walking, naturally, slows movement speed but drastically improves aiming steadiness, a tactical trade-off between being an easy target and a better shot.

Rifles have powerful scopes and make sniping a viable and oft-used technique. A brief animation bridges the entering and exiting of scoped mode and necessarily ensures that players cannot point-blank spam the ten-shot burst. Grenades, also, may not be fired in scoped mode. Additionally, scoped shots fire in bursts of ten bullets, severely damaging targets if hit (even in the body), if not outright killing them.

Often in Shattered Horizon, you will see an enemy player, in the distance, nested from a sniping position. Being suddenly noticed by the enemy, you scope-in for yourself, hoping to headshot him before he does you. Tensity is rarely experienced like those euphoric levels from a sniping standoff, carefully aiming for his tiny pixels, he aiming for yours, while you count the few precious moments remaining before someone makes the fatal shot first. It is these powerful gameplay moments in Shattered Horizon that define the experience and motivate your desire to improve.

Grenades are a beautifully designed element of Shattered Horizon, cooperating perfectly with other gameplay aspects and augmenting the game's tactical combat. Grenades function as tactical support aides rather than damage bombs, each of the three either jettisoning players, disabling their suit's functioning and slowing their movement, or, like smokescreens, obscuring vision. In both critical moments and prepared strikes, knowing which grenade is equally as important as aiming prowess and consistently means the difference between victory and defeat. But bullets and grenades alone do not win battles, tactical positioning is infinitely valuable. Levels are architecturally arranged so as to promote reactive approaches to enemy strongholds. Walking on ceilings, sneaking from behind, and sidling along asteroids are all suggested maneuvers.

“Silent Running Mode” offers additional tactical options. Activating silent running powers down your suit, losing access to radar, computerized sound simulation, primary thrusters, and vitals information. With no assisted programs, both battlefield intelligence and maneuverability are highly restricted, making you a free kill for enemies by whom you are unlucky enough to be seen. But, alternatively, the tactical advantages and emotional experience are so very grand. Silent running turns out the lights on your suit, making you intrinsically difficult to see and negating your presence on enemy radar and HUD highlighting. But successfully breaching enemy lines and, incognito, dispatching of even one bewildered soldier is exhilarating and awe-inspiring. Space becomes very lonely and very frightening without sound as guidance. With your sensors shut off, unexpected attacks upon yourself come suddenly and harshly and cause you to constantly turn your back in fear. It's spectacular.

Enemies have at their disposal the same tools as you, however. Such open level design means you get ganked, often. Most deaths comes unawares, either from back-stab assassinations or from distant and shadowed snipes. The suddenness of death can be disheartening, especially when repeated, but player moral and friendliness is high, compliments like “nice one” usually rewarded for cool kills instead of hurtful slander. The mood is infectious, and mean-spirited attitudes are swiftly reprimanded by the small, dedicated player-base.

Shattered Horizon falters in one pivotal, prominently featured area: teamwork. And teamwork is lackluster for one primary reason: the lack of voice chat. In an age where voice chat is expected, the absence of the feature feels strange and hampers a lot of potential for synchronized tactics. Text chat being the only means of team coordination at this point, the barrier to cooperative efforts is simply too great. The game plays marvelously well regardless, but voice chat and, subsequently, teamwork could propel the game towards an even greater state of excellence. Fortunately, players and developers alike are well aware of the missing voice chat; it is the most highly requested addition to the game. Upon the inevitable patching-in of voice chat, I will give an updated report on the resulting changes. It should prove interesting.

Shattered Horizon is a unique experience among shooters, but I feel that it has much potential to even further differentiate itself by more specifically emphasizing its tactical, zero gravity gameplay. The drastic difference between headshots/tank shots and body shots, I believe, could be dampened. As the game stands, spatial positioning is important, but rushing headlong into enemies can still be plenty effective, especially when the charging player is experienced and lands headshots easily. Advanced players and beginners are vastly opposed in skill; most teams feed off the success of one-man, herculean professionals for victory, pro players easily quadrupling the kill/death ratio of noobs.

By improving damage dealt to the body, I hypothesize that players would be motivated to assault more tactically more frequently, as even professionals are susceptible to blatant gunfire. This simple change would lessen the valley between pros and noobs and would be less punishing to new players who haven't yet grasped the acuteness of aiming. Tactics and understanding of three-dimensional space would take the primary spots as necessary skills for success and would positively separate Shattered Horizon from other shooters, most of which prioritize headshots over other skill-sets. Tactics is where Shattered Horizon is most interesting, most fun, and most fitting to the space simulation combat, and I feel the game could only benefit from empowering the use tactics even more greatly.

Every aspect of Shattered Horizon is tuned to augment the unique feeling and experience of combat in space. It is the developer's devotion to the experience, palpable when playing, that allows Shattered Horizon to excel as an engaging, fun, and awesome game.