Journey came out in 2012, when financially I was firmly in the “can I afford a third tomato this week” phase of life. I bought used PS2 games for $5 or less, played on a console my parents had bought when I was in middle school. My high school laptop, a gasping Toshiba that I carefully squeezed every last bit of use out of, was too far on its last legs for me to even be thinking about getting new games on it. Instead I played emulated NES games and 2007 MMOs that had gone free-to-play with the graphics turned all the way down. Possibly this machine still could’ve handled Journey, but I wasn’t even looking at new releases, so I missed it. The asking price of fifteen whole dollars was a bit rich for my blood, anyway.

My finances have become considerably less dire since then, and at some point I picked up Journey, probably from a Humble Bundle because it only lasts 90 minutes and yet it took me until today (May 29th, 2022) to actually play it, which suggests I probably got it packaged with a bunch of other stuff and didn’t immediately play it for a full session. I know I at least booted it up and got as far as retrieving the scarf, but I didn’t get more than 5-10 minutes in with that first session before leaving it alone for however many years.

Masterfully designed indie darling that it is, someone even casually interested in game design was inevitably going to get the basic gist of Journey after waiting ten years to play it, so I knew that it was primarily a two-player game. You’d get matched with a random companion fairly early on as long as you’re connected to wifi. I’ve played so many MMOs, though, that the idea of a game ten years past release still having a sufficiently active population that you’ll actually bump into them outside of a single trade hub, the final bastion of player interactivity, seemed intuitively impossible to me. When I play a “multiplayer” game, unless I’ve specifically arranged to get some friends to play it with me, I’ll be walking through the remains of a dead community, full of wide, empty spaces between NPCs intended to hold crowds of players who’ve long since moved on. Sometimes it’s the boarded up shell of a ghost town that once bustled with dozens of inhabitants active at once. Sometimes it’s the ruins of an empire millions strong. What it isn’t, ever, is alive.

Journey, of course, isn’t an MMO. It’s got about ninety minutes of content and so long as any other player anywhere in the world is playing the same stage as you while connected to the internet, you will be matched with that player.

So, when I reached the ruined bridge and started figuring out how to rebuild it, I logically should’ve known immediately what I was looking at when I saw another figure that looked identical to me. They weren’t moving, so my first thought was “is this some kind of mirage?” And I started running towards them to see what would happen when I got close. They started running towards me, with what was unmistakably player-directed movement – purposeful but rigid, constrained by the inputs of a controller, yet not totally precise, making minor course corrections along the way rather than pointing themselves exactly at where they want to go like a computer. Somehow the idea that a ten-year-old game would still have other players seemed so impossible that I still didn’t get it. “Is this some kind of recording of me, playing back my own entrance to this valley?” I thought, which seemed weird because you’d think such a mechanic would’ve come up in discussions of the game, even if it only affected a small section near the start.

It wasn’t until they got close and I saw how much longer their scarf was that it finally hit me. Of course. Another player. The two of us stood next to one another, and exchanged a few notes of song. The only thing you can really use to communicate in Journey, besides the game’s movement mechanics, is the song produced by a single button, so it’s kind of like honking your car horn except it’s much more melodious. Still, you can’t even sing a specific tune, let alone add lyrics, so it’s pretty limited. So I’m sure my companion had no idea what exactly I was trying to sing at them.

“I thought for sure I was the only one left.”

Fantastical Combined Arms

I really like it when a story has fantastical combined arms. For the uninitiated, “combined arms” refers to using different weapon systems operated by different soldiers together to cover for each other’s weaknesses and maximize effectiveness. The one that’s been going around the news lately is using infantry and armor (which mostly means tanks) together so that enemy infantry don’t blow up all your tanks with javelin ambushes. Primitive militaries (even when their gear is high-tech, like modern armies with pure armor units with no infantry attached) tend to sort units by weapon type, because that’s simpler and more straightforward for the commander, who is in charge, but advanced militaries (even when their gear is low-tech, like iron age armies with infantry and artillery (i.e. archers and/or slingers) mixed together in a single unit) mix different troop types together, training them to support one another for more tactical effectiveness.

Having fantastical combined arms not only improves verisimilitude, since combined arms is effective across so many technological and geographic landscapes in the real world that it’s hard to imagine a fantasy setting where that wouldn’t also apply, they also make for more interesting gameplay and more varied fight scenes.

As recent posts suggest, I’ve been playing through the Force Awakens recently, and while that game is mostly pretty meh, its unit variety is occasionally really good. They have a decent variety of different stormtroopers and stuff, which is cool but not a big enough deal to justify an entire blog post, but what really caught my attention was the penultimate battle on the first visit to Felucia (right before Shaak Ti). The Felucians have tamed rancors, a bunch of melee warrior mooks, a powerful chieftain in front, and a shaman who provides buffs in back, and they all cover for each other really well.

The rancors are the headliners, of course, with powerful melee and ranged attacks (they can hurl boulders at you) that will deal most of the damage to Starkiller. They’re vulnerable to being kited with Force lightning, though. You can blast them with lightning, during which time they’re stunned and can’t retaliate, and then run away while your force recharges to blast them again. Their hurled boulders aren’t hard to dodge if you’re focused on a rancor alone.

This is where the warriors and especially chieftain come in. The warriors can swarm you while you’re blasting the rancor with lightning, hitting you while your hands are occupied and you can’t defend yourself, and the chieftain has a much faster ranged attack that can interrupt both your Force lightning and your melee combos. The chieftain and warriors can both be defeated by giving them a quick blast with lightning, and then moving in for a full damage lightsaber combo before they recover from the shock, but the Force shaman can give the warriors a shield making them immune to lightsaber attacks. Due to their sheer numbers, blasting them all down with lightning is impractical.

The shaman is extremely vulnerable to any sort of attack, but doesn’t have to be anywhere near the frontlines to boost their allies, so in this fight the shaman hangs back behind the rancors with a couple of warriors around as a last line of defense.

It’s only the mid-point of the game, so the battle still isn’t especially difficult. The extremely agile Starkiller doesn’t have a whole lot of difficulty getting past the rancors without killing them, and taking out the fragile shaman at the back. With the shaman dead, you can thin out the warriors with quick blasts of lightning for stun followed by a combo for damage, dispatching a warrior or two before any of the rancors can catch up and dish out serious damage, and you can use the Force repulse power (which sends out a Force push in all directions, knocking away everyone nearby) if you get surrounded. Once the rancors’ warrior support is too thinned out to interrupt the lightning, you can kite them to wear them down. There’s three of them and they’re too big to be affected by Force repulse (despite the fact that a couple of weeks later at the most, Starkiller literally pulls a star destroyer out of the sky, so you’d think he’d have the whole “size matters not” thing down hard enough to toss a rancor around like a ragdoll, but you’d be wrong), so you have to be careful not to get surrounded, but Starkiller’s agility saves him again, easily able to outmaneuver the lumbering monsters to keep all three on one side.

Then you have to finish them off with a quick time event, which, god, can’t the finishing animation just play automatically? The Force Unleashed usually uses them infrequently enough that they’d be perfectly good as a quick spectacle as a reward for defeating a mini-boss (although this encounter specifically is a bad example, since there’s three rancors at once – probably best to let the first two just die and only use the finishing animation on the last one), but because there’s a quick time event slapped on, I’m distracted from the animation and the sequence feels annoying and anti-climactic instead of rewarding. Oh, well. Nothing’s perfect.

I use a video game example here because that’s what prompted the post, but you can see how this could apply to prose or animation or whatever. The enemies don’t just have extended health bars or deal more damage, the way in which Starkiller fights them is different. He might start out trying to blast the rancors with lightning and get swarmed, then try to fight the warriors and find the shaman keeping him at bay and the rancors catching up with him.

After using his Force-empowered agility to leap through the trees past the frontline and catch the shaman, swiftly dispatching them (after a short chase) with his lightsaber, the rancors would catch up, he’d try to blast them with lightning again, and get swarmed by the warriors and chieftain. After using Force repulse to clear away most of the warriors, he’d have a melee fight with the chieftain while dodging stray warriors and rancor swipes, and then, once the chieftain is down, unleash the full power of his Force lightning to fry the rancors.

You might cut two of the rancors if they feel redundant, and you definitely want the ending to be a single sustained burst of Force lightning, long enough that the audience gets how the warrior swarm was able to interrupt it, but not dragging on the way the game’s kiting strategy would, and you’d also want to rely on Force lightning a lot less for fighting the warriors and chieftain so that it can be reserved as the rancor-killing finisher move, but the basic pace of the fight is the same.

The Force Unleashed Looks Better On PS2

Star Wars: The Force Unleashed is one of those transitional games that was released on two different consoles. One version was released on the PS3 and XBox 360, while the other was released on the PS2 and the Wii. I played the PS2 version growing up, because it took me a long time to get a PS3. The version sold on Steam as part of the May the Fourth sale is the PS3 version, though. The PS2 version exists only on console. I figured that was fine, this would be an upgrade, probably the same basic concept even if the levels were different, and the PS3 version would look much nicer.

Turns out the PS2 version looks better.

Now, the PS3 version plainly has massively more graphical horsepower behind it. Looking at a randomly selected screenshot, the PS3 version looks way better. But the PS2 has better art direction. For starters, the PS2 has Starkiller wield his lightsaber like a regular person, while the PS3 version has him reverse-wielding like a dork. The facial animations on the PS3 version are certainly more detailed, but the animators either weren’t used to the tech, didn’t have enough time, or just weren’t good, because the facial animations are all really bad and uncanny any time there’s a closeup on a human (some aliens’ animations do alright, probably because their faces are sufficiently non-human that my human brain doesn’t notice anything weird). The PS2 facial animations are all blocky and imprecise, as PS2 facial animations are, but they’re at least good at being the level of graphics they’re at, rather than bad at being something better.

The thing that really disappointed me, however, was the stormtrooper designs. In the PS2 version, the opening level playing as Darth Vader on Kashyyyk has troopers that still have blue stripe-y designs like they had at the end of the Clone Wars. In the levels in the Jedi Temple (which don’t exist in the PS3 version, but which take place in the early part of the plot where you’re still Darth Vader’s apprentice), the stormtroopers have the black-and-white color scheme, but their design is different, with the eyes connected together into a single visor and less armor on the legs (they’re not scout troopers, the visor isn’t as big and their upper body is more heavily armored, but they look like a distinct stormtrooper variant the way scout troopers and snowtroopers do). It’s only at the end, during the ambush on Corellia when Darth Vader betrays you, and then on the Death Star as you save the fledgling Rebel Alliance, that the iconic stormtrooper armor is used, thematically linking up the end of Force Unleashed with the beginning of the original trilogy.

In the PS3 version, they’re already using regular stormtroopers even on Kashyyyk, ten (ish) years before A New Hope. It was a real disappointment. The evolution of the stormtroopers was one of my favorite details of the Force Unleashed, and turns out it’s not even in the PC version.

It’s not directly related to art design or graphics, but the PS2 version also has you find Jedi Master Rahm Kota on the surface of Nar Shaddaa, rather than in Cloud City on Bespin where you find him in the PS3 version. It is kinda weird that Rahm Kota has apparently gone into hiding on the surface of the planet orbited by the TIE fighter factory he just blew up, but it would’ve given us a higher graphics look at a planet that had previously only been seen in previous gen games like KotOR II (or previous-previous gen games like Dark Forces). Besides, while it’s hardly impossible for the Empire to have sent one elite platoon to Cloud City to kill a Jedi several years before Empire Strikes Back and yet Han and Lando still treat it like neutral territory, it still grates a bit narratively for the Empire to show up on Bespin prior to ESB. The story beat that actually happens on Nar Shaddaa/Bespin is basically identical regardless of which one you use, you just find a drunk old Jedi in a cantina and then escape an Imperial strike team sent to kill him, or maybe you, it’s not clear. Either way, Nar Shaddaa has always been a place where crime lords do the Empire’s dirty work (it’s still kinda weird that there’s a regular old TIE factory in orbit, but Nar Shaddaa is where the Jabba the Hutt was helping the Empire run its Dark Trooper project clear back in Dark Forces when it was first introduced, so clearly this is a place where Imperial presence is not unusual).

On the bright side, the PS3 version’s costumes get unlocked at the start of the planet they make sense, rather than at the end. In the PS2 version, the heavy training outfit is unlocked at the end of Raxus Prime, the toxic and jagged trash world where being all bundled up makes sense, which means if you use it immediately, you’ll be wearing it on the next planet Felucia, the alien jungle where it makes no sense at all. Then at the end of Felucia, you unlock the light training outfit, which means that Starkiller has inexplicably decided to take his shirt off for a visit to the city planet of Nar Shaddaa. It’s at least not the opposite of what makes sense, like with the heavy training outfit on Felucia, so if Starkiller were generally a “shirts are for losers” kind of guy that wouldn’t look out of place on Nar Shaddaa. In the PS3 version, though, you get the heavy training outfit at the start of Raxus Prime and even have it automatically equipped at the start, and the light training outfit for Felucia, where it’s hot and humid and it makes sense that Starkiller would want to be wearing less than normal.

That reverse-wielded lightsaber, though. Can I get a costume that removes that?

EDIT: Also, as an important addendum, the second-to-last level is totally unplayable for me because of how often it crashes, so, uh, be advised that this game can’t necessarily be played on anything more recent than Windows 7.

Why Was Jolee Bindo Even In Knights Of The Old Republic?

Jolee Bindo is a companion character in KotOR, a former Jedi who’s left the order. When it comes out that Player One is Darth Revan, he makes a point of saying he won’t judge them, and there’s a conversation with Bastila where he insists he’s not a Jedi anymore and she shouldn’t think of him that way or expect him to behave like one. In terms of alignment (which can’t be altered by player action for any character except their own customizable protagonist), he’s firmly neutral, leaning only slightly towards the light.

Until you reach the end of the game, when suddenly he insists that you must redeem yourself and turn to the light. He’s read ahead in the script, you see, and knows that there are only two outcomes: You embrace the Jedi Order and save the Republic, or you become an insane psychopath and Sith Emperor. The entire neither-Jedi-nor-Sith thing that Jolee Bindo was carrying water for is chucked completely out the window.

Now, you can only have so many ending cut scenes, so you can’t have endings where you ditch the war and become a pirate or retreat to a hermitage on Dagobah and leave the whole mess behind or destroy both the Sith and the Republic to plunge the galaxy into chaos. Ultimately, the ending of the game is about a battle between the Sith and the Republic and one of those two is going to win, so the ending cut scene will depict one of those two things. That’s fine, resources are limited.

But you could do a lot more with those two cut scenes than they actually do. In the light side ending, you are unambiguously a Jedi who has returned to the order and forsaken the dark side, but the only thing that makes this clear is not-Yoda saying as much.

All it would take is a couple of new voice lines to acknowledge an ending where you reject the Jedi for brainwashing you twice (once through childhood indoctrination, then again with Force powers) but write off the Sith Empire as a failed experiment and defend the Republic. Instead of a line about the return of a prodigal knight, not-Yoda will have a line where he says the Jedi will be waiting to welcome you back if you change your mind about leaving or, if the budget is so tight you can’t even record a few extra lines, just cut that part completely and have the cut scene end with the Republic officer giving you a medal.

Contrariwise, Dark Bastila’s speech announcing the return of Lord Revan can say basically anything and the cut scene would still look the same. This one needs new voice lines to change its context rather than working reasonably well only by removing dialogue, but you don’t need any new animation for an ending that suggests that (whether they will succeed or not) Revan intends to use the Sith Empire to bring justice and order to the galaxy, so that threats like the Mandalorians, the Czerka Corporation, and the Exchange will no longer menace the Outer Rim. You could also have Juhani not turn on you for this one because of her experiences growing up, and have her standing off to the side in this version of the cut scene (the ending cut scene is in-engine, so this addition should be trivial – and if it isn’t, leaving her out of the ending cut scene wouldn’t be the end of the world, Canderous and HK-47 aren’t present either).

A cut scene in which you soak the Republic for millions of credits in exchange for your assassination of Darth Malak would benefit from some new animations in the Republic cut scene, but wouldn’t require a new set or any animations that aren’t used elsewhere in the game. You’d want to stage the cut scene slightly differently so that Canderous Ordo (if you’re dark-leaning) or Mission Vao (if you’re light-leaning) can give a few voice lines about loading all the credits up onto the Ebon Hawk, since the player character is unvoiced (the player clicks on their dialogue options but no lines are ever spoken).

Setting the player up for these different endings could also be accomplished entirely with the existing conversations on Rakata Prime, first at the temple summit and then on the beach where the Ebon Hawk has landed.

Of course, if BioWare wants to make a game which is ultimately about Jedi and the Republic versus Sith and the Empire, and forces you along one of two endings because they want to focus on the primary conflict of the Star Wars universe, that would be fine – but this brings back the question in the post title: Why, then, have Jolee Bindo in the game at all? A character whose whole schtick is rejecting the Jedi but still opposing the Sith?

There’s other ways you could reinforce the inevitable break between light and dark, Republic and Sith, like having Juhani and Canderous get into a fight over what happened to the Cathar homeworld that results in one or the other of them leaving your party (this would also be a much better way to deliver Juhani’s backstory than the exposition dumps she gives in the game, but that’s true of everyone except Zaalbaar and T3-M4). This would make it clear both that the light and the dark ultimately don’t mix and also side Juhani firmly on the light side, when her fall to darkness (however brief) somewhat implies that she might be more morally flexible than she ultimately is (even if you convince her to kill someone for revenge, she immediately regrets it and does not change alignment or decide to stick with you if you go dark side – I think this might’ve been a planned option that was cut for time). Or you could replace Jolee entirely with a more overtly dark-aligned Force User (a Sith would be politically bizarre, but some kind of Witch of Dathomir type would work, especially since their recruitment on Kashyyyk would be almost unaltered) who plays shoulder devil to Bastila’s shoulder angel, so instead of a character who draws focus towards rejecting the light/dark dichotomy, you have a character who emphasizes it.

But the simplest way of fixing this problem would be to just have Jolee Bindo be an unambiguously light sided character. He hasn’t abandoned the Jedi Order, he’s just communing with the Force on Kashyyyk for a couple of years, a perfectly Jedi-y thing to do. He doesn’t refer to himself as a former Jedi and has no conversation with Bastila where he insists she respect his departure from the Order, because he’s still a Jedi. He can still be less prone to voicing an overt opinion on your decisions compared to Bastila, but even if he’s more reserved about his exact thoughts and feelings, it’d still make sense that he turns on you if you embrace the dark side on Rakata Prime, because he’s a Jedi, plain and simple. Unlike the proposed changes in the previous paragraph, this doesn’t even significantly overhaul the game. A good impressionist (or Kevin Michael Richardson reprising the role) could probably mod this fix into the game without much difficulty. Even easier from the perspective of first building (rather than modding after the fact) the game, you could just not have Jolee Bindo at all. He doesn’t contribute anything to any of the themes that the game actually pays off.

But instead they have Jolee Bindo, Jedi in disguise, who’s there to make you think this game includes alternatives to the Jedi/Sith dichotomy and then gives you a Jedi ending and a Sith ending with no variants or third option whatsoever.

Three Is Not Enough Party Members For A BioWare Game

Back in the golden age of BioWare, their party members set a new standard for what a party member could be in an RPG, especially a western RPG with a (more or less) customizable protagonist. Which is why it’s so infuriating that the party limit for these games is as low as three.

I’m defining the “golden age of BioWare” here as the time between Knights of the Old Republic and Mass Effect 2, inclusive. You can fuss with the exact boundaries of that, and I’ll freely admit that the only reason I’m not including Neverwinter Nights is because I never played it. A quick Google confirms it has a maximum party size of two, and if it’s got the character quality of Baldur’s Gate before or KotOR after, that isn’t nearly enough. But let’s stick to what I have direct experience with.

Continue reading “Three Is Not Enough Party Members For A BioWare Game”

Star Wars: Racer

You can probably tell that I got a bunch of Star Wars games during the May the Fourth sale. It was like thirty dollars for eight of them.

Star Wars: Racer is a podracing game released around the same time as the Phantom Menace, and I have relatively little to say about it, partially because I don’t play racing games much and partially because, at least as far as I can tell, it’s just uncomplicatedly good so there isn’t a whole lot to be said. Criticism requires explanation, but praise is pretty much limited to “it is good at the things that it is doing.” In this case, Star Wars: Racer is a racing game set on many different planets in which you pilot floating space chariots at high speed through dangerous circuits and upgrade your pod between races, and it’s mostly just unambiguously good at that.

What criticisms I have are almost entirely about the upgrade and pit droid system, which is opaque and missing some critical features even after being explained. Your pod is made up of seven different parts which control attributes like acceleration, top speed, traction, and so forth. During the career mode, you use the credits you get from winning races to upgrade. The parts also take damage (randomly?) in each race, and need to be repaired. You start out with one pit droid which repairs one damaged part after each race, and you can buy up to three more, so four out of your seven parts will always be in top condition. You don’t get to choose which four, though, and your base parts are invincible (maximally damaged upgraded parts just reduce their performance down to the base, non-upgraded level) so the optimal strategy is to only ever upgrade four out of the seven stats. Doing this means you will run out of things to buy much faster than if you played intuitively. It’s never a good sign when the optimal strategy is to have less fun.

There are three ways to fix the problem. The first is the most straightforward: Allow the player to buy seven pit droids, thus preserving all seven parts against all damage.

The second requires a bit more doing, but is more interesting in the long run: Allow the player to assign pit droids to repair specific parts, so that they can rotate some of the droids between less important parts to prevent any of them from getting too damaged while keeping their most important parts (like top speed and acceleration) perpetually in top condition. You could remove some of the busywork from this by giving the pit droids two modes, one where they automatically repair the most damaged part, whatever it is, and another where they’re locked to a specific part, always repairing that one. If you want total control, you can keep all pit droids in locked mode and lock them to specific parts between each race, but you can also just pick two or three parts to keep in top condition always and let the leftover pit droid(s) repair whatever happens to be the most damaged.

The third takes a glitch in the game and just makes it a game mechanic. You can sell a damaged part back to Watto for a percentage based on how damaged it is (100% of the price if it’s at maximum durability, 1 credit if it’s so badly damaged it no longer provides any improvement over the base part). If you swap to a different racer, you can then rebuy a fully repaired version of the part you just sold to Watto. Upgrades are shared between racers, so you can then swap back to your original racer and keep the fully repaired part. This effectively allows you to pay some credits to repair a damaged part that your own pit droids aren’t fixing, which is a perfectly fine mechanic that could just be added to the game.

Star Wars: Bounty Hunter

Star Wars: Bounty Hunter is a PS2 and Gamecube game starring Jango Fett that depicts a hunt for the leader of a dark Force cult, which Darth Tyrannus is using as a test to find the greatest bounty hunter in the galaxy for cloning. I played it as a kid, and have been replaying it lately. It’s got the foundations of being a great bounty hunter game, but it’s let down by some flaws and missed opportunities.

Flaw the first: Detective vision hadn’t been invented yet. Jango has that little scanner eyepiece dealy that sticks up from his helmet, and in this game you can activate it to scan for bounties. The problem is that it’s a weapon on its own, so you can’t bring it down mid-combat to see if the person you’re aiming at right now has a price on their head. This means the scanner is only useful between combats, either scanning enemies from outside range or scanning civilians who don’t attack you. Both of these feel really cool, but they’re a puny fraction of the game, 80% of which are close range firefights in which enemies are shooting at you from the moment you’re in the same room as them. Making the scanner a detective mode that allows you to keep moving and fighting while you use it rather than a weapon that locks you in place in first-person view (the game is otherwise a third-person shooter) would’ve greatly improved this and made the secondary objective far more manageable. This is big, because most of what makes you feel like a bounty hunter in this game is the process of marking a bounty, zooming in to capture or kill them, and then fighting your way out of their gang of heavily armed buddies.

Flaw the second: No easy target-switching. In order to get around the limitations of console shooting, the game allows you to lock onto opponents. This is good, but without any way of switching targets, it’s extremely difficult to blast away the non-bounty mooks to isolate and capture a bounty. Instead of just tapping a target-switch button to move to the next baddie, you have to fly around the battlefield until the bounty is no longer the nearest enemy. If the quarters are close enough, you can just switch to your cord and capture them immediately, but the cord has a pretty limited range (and having to zoom in close to capture a bounty alive is an important part of the bounty hunter feel), so most of the time this isn’t really an option.

Continue reading “Star Wars: Bounty Hunter”

How To Make A Lego Game

I haven’t played the more recent Lego games. I may get around to them eventually, but right now I’m happy replaying Lego Star Wars, and I’ll see how I feel about tackling Lego Batman once I get there. My understanding is that Lego Batman 2 was kind of a sea change for the series, so maybe what I’m about to say here is really more like “how to make a pre-2012 Lego game.”

The heart of those early games (and maybe also the new ones, I dunno, I’ll see when I get there) is exploration and collection. The combat is perfunctory, and while I think it could be improved, it shouldn’t be a focus. Likewise, I think puzzles leading to optional areas could stand to be a bit more difficult (still easy enough to be solved by casual play, but not as idiot-proofed as the main route has to be to allow six year olds to complete the levels), although it’s hard to write a post about that because each puzzle should be at least a little unique, so at that point I’m doing level-by-level design for an entire game. Neither of these should be as major a focus as the exploration and collection, though, which is what Lego games focus on and what they absolutely nail, which is why I like them despite their deficiencies in their secondary attributes.

But it’s definitely possible to do better. I can see why Lego Star Wars in particular didn’t end up going the route I’m going to propose, but only because it was an early game. “Let’s make a silly Lego version of Star Wars” was a perfectly good starting point, but what it should really be ultimately is “let’s make an explorable Lego world based on Star Wars.” I think one level that gets close to this is level 4-2, Through The Jundland Wastes. This level starts you out in Tusken territory, takes you through a Jawa sandcrawler, and ends you back at the moisture farms. It’s a tour of about half the cool places in Tattooine that starts you off with Luke Skywalker and Ben Kenobi and lets you pick up C3PO and R2D2 along the way. You’re exploring a cool place and collecting cool Lego minifigs with abilities that let you unlock new side areas for additional studs. It’s one of my favorite levels.

To the extent that the exploration in Lego Star Wars: The Complete* Saga isn’t flawless, it’s mainly in that not enough levels are like Through The Jundland Wastes, and even the one that are aren’t as open as I’d like them to be. I don’t think an open world approach is a good fit for every franchise that gets Lego-fied, but I think making the hub-and-levels transition more seamless is a good idea. Later Lego games actually did have a full open world, and I’m not sure that’ll accomplish what I’m getting at here, but I’ll see when I get there. I bought a couple of them on sale about a week ago, so I’ll get around to them.

Enough beating around the bush: How would I do it? I’d have a level that was just Tattooine. You would start at a spaceport of some kind, so in this case, Mos Eisley. I might have Mos Eisley and Mos Espa be separate locations, but more likely I’d combine them into some kind of Lego pun-name like Mos Brickley. It doesn’t have to be a particularly clever pun (although someone better at puns than me might be able to come up with one anyway), but it establishes that this is, in the spirit of Lego, a location built from the components of Tattooine but isn’t necessarily arranged the same way we see in the movies.

This town would contain the cantina, Watto’s shop (he’d probably sell vehicles or let you customize them or something), a place to initiate the pod race mini-game, and basically all the contents of level IV-3, which takes place in Mos Eisley in the game as-is. Leaving town through various paths, you could get to the locations in the Jundland Wastes, and you can also find Jabba’s Palace and the Great Pit of Carkoon, which are also already present in the game. Maybe also have the pod race track go through the Jundland Wastes and let you explore the locations both at mach speed in a pod race and at a slower pace on foot, where your path criss-crosses the track as you find secrets and discover shortcuts.

You’d have a party of characters you could recruit here, who would collectively cover every ability needed to progress through any part of the whole of Tattooine. For example, the local bounty hunter might be Princess Leia in the Boussh outfit. At the spaceport, you can go into your spaceship and swap in any character with capabilities that your local party already has. For example, IG-88 is a ranged fighter, a bounty hunter, and can operate both protocol droid and astromech panels. In order to bring IG-88 to Tattooine, you would need Princess Leia (Boussh), who is a bounty hunter and a ranged character (you could also have Boba Fett be the local bounty hunter, but I’d save him for Bespin), C3PO, and R2-D2, who are of course a protocol and astromech droid respectively. The local Jedi is Ben Kenobi, and the local Sith might be…well, we need Darth Maul for Naboo and we need Emperor Palpatine for Coruscant, so let’s say Savage Opress, so if you unlock Ben Kenobi (who may be available from the start) you can bring in Ki Adi Mundi or Qui-Gon Jinn episode VI Luke or whoever, and if you unlock Savage Opress you can bring in Darth Vader or Count Dooku or whoever.

I’d handle custom characters somewhat differently: You can bring them anywhere, but any abilities that haven’t been unlocked locally are unavailable. If your custom character is a bounty hunter but you haven’t found Princess Leia (Boussh) on Tattooine yet, they can’t use their thermal detonators or open bounty hunter doors.

You could fly to different planets from the space port, and then take different routes to unlock different characters. Each planet would have some kind of main villain whose defeat would be sold as the “primary quest” (possibly requiring all of the other characters available on the planet to reach) and one of the challenge modes would involve speedrunning a reset version of the map to defeat the villain, or defeating the villain without dying, or whatever. True Jedi would be split up by location (so Tattooine would have separate True Jedi tracks for Mos Brickley, the Jundland Wastes, the Great Pit of Carkoon, and Jabba’s Palace) and the studs would reset any time you changed maps. You could have minigames like pod races or bounty hunts scattered around, but there wouldn’t necessarily have to be one on every planet (or just one on any specific planet).

Some other planets you could feature:

-Naboo (main villain: Darth Maul) has a lot of content from episode I you could recycle, but you’d definitely also want to add content for the underwater gungan city, which is too cool not to be an explorable location (hot take: gungans in general are reasonably cool, they just get disliked by association with Jar Jar), and you could condense levels I-3, I-5, and I-6 (which take place in the streets of Theed, the Theed Palace, and the generator room inside the Theed Palace, respectively) to make room. Likewise, the gungan ruins hideout and the plain outside Theed where they fight the battle droids should probably feature, although neither would have to be very big (and the latter is basically just a flat-ish field with gungans and battle droids running around fighting each other, with probably some tanks to destroy or something).

-Geonosis (main villain: Count Dooku) is featured in levels 3-6 of Episode II, which should be plenty enough to make a full planet out of.

-Levels IV-4, IV-5, and VI-5 take place inside one Death Star (main villain: Darth Vader) or another, and levels IV-6 and VI-6 take place in ships outside of them (or inside of them but in a tunnel, in VI-6’s case). Like with Mos Eisley and Mos Espa, I think combining the Death Star is fine, and you can have hangars like the Falcon lands in during episode IV be transition points between the inside walk-around-y bits and the outside fly-around-y bits.

-Hoth (main villain: ???), Endor (”), and Bespin (main villain: Boba Fett) each get two levels. In all cases, I think this is sufficient to make an explorable planet out of and a cool enough location to definitely keep. Likewise, I don’t think any of them particularly need to be expanded, although the interior guts of Cloud City should be a general exploratory level and not a confrontation with Darth Vader (because you want to put Darth Vader on the Death Star instead). I don’t know what you’d use for Hoth or Endor’s main villain, but you can fish some Clone Wars characters like Savage Opress out.

-Coruscant (main villain: The Emperor) is technically a two-level planet, with II-1 being a vehicle level in the “streets” and III-5 taking place in the Jedi Temple. I think it’d be a good idea to keep Coruscant, but it needs to be expanded. There needs to be routes into the scummy underworld like we see at the start of the Episode II movie, some high-class floaty penthouse stuff like we saw Padme hanging out in during the Episode III movie, and we need to be able to visit the Galactic Senate building. Cut whichever of the planets listed below as are necessary to make this happen.

-Dagobah and Kashyyyk both get just one level. They’re both somewhat like Through The Jundland Wastes in that they take you through a bunch of different locations in their respective planets, but they don’t have as much variety. In both cases, I think this is mainly because the planets as depicted in the movies have less stuff in them compared to the Jundland Wastes, and both of them could potentially be improved just by asking the level designers to add some more stuff with the time and effort freed up by cutting some of the levels listed further down (or alternatively, cutting one of Kashyyyk or Dagobah to focus on the other). Since (as we’ll get into in a bit) we’re probably cutting Utapau, Kashyyyk is a good planet with lots of droids to make General Grievous the main villain.

-Kamino (main villain: Jango Fett) is also a one-level planet that I feel could be expanded, although its one level is mainly an extended battle with Jango Fett and doesn’t do as good a job being a scaled down (and more linear) version of the kind of exploration-focused level I’d like to see in a Lego game. The whole Jango Fett battle sequence would be a perfectly good route to have branching off from the main Kamino hub, though. Either way, Kamino would require more expansion than Dagobah or Kashyyyk and isn’t any more iconic than either of them, so it’s a low priority.

-Mustafar (main villain: Anakin Skywalker) is a one-level planet and also its one level revolves around a gameplay mechanic that necessitates linearity, so we probably just need to leave it on the cutting room floor.

-Utapau just needs to be cut. Its one level is purely a fight with General Grievous. It’s a cool environment, but it’s just not as important a location as some of the other planets and there’s almost nothing to build on here. Unless it turns out that making new levels is actually super easy and we can just have more content than the Complete Saga (which combined the efforts of two different games’ worth of development, mind you), Utapau is probably not making it.

-Levels I-1, III-2, and IV-1 take place on space ships, and level III-1 takes place in a space battle between space ships. Level V-3 also sort of takes place in a space battle (more unambiguously so at the beginning). You could combine these into one big space battle, but I think letting ships just be kinda small would also be fine. All of these spaceships are kinda same-y, though, and also similar to the Death Star, so I think they’re good options to cut in favor of expanding other locations. I think the big space battle can stay, but actually getting into the spaceships to run around, while definitely super cool, is the lowest priority on this list.

My recommendations for cut content at the bottom here transition us smoothly into the concept of DLC. I wouldn’t want this to turn into some EA-style scam where you sell the base game for $60 but only ship it with half the levels and sell the others piecemeal, but certainly there are plenty of other planets you could package with new characters and sell as DLC because they would be expanding upon the amount of content sold in the game as it actually exists. Utapau and Mustafar are obvious places to start, along with any of Dagobah, Kashyyyk, and Kamino that ended up having to get cut. Adding explorable space ships for the space battle would also be cool. You could also add planets that weren’t in the original game at all, like Yavin 4, Dathomir, Mandalore, Rhen Var, Korriban, Ord Mantell, Canto Bight, or Scarif.

Better Lego Star Wars Combat

I’m playing through Lego Star Wars: The Complete Saga, a name which has aged poorly, but the game itself has aged pretty well, provided that you go into it with the mindset that this is a charming game intended for ages 6 and up and is not going to be very challenging.

Despite that preamble, my thesis here is that Lego Star Wars’ combat could nevertheless have been better. The thing that keeps the game accessible for kids is first and foremost the True Jedi mechanic, wherein each level has a certain quota of studs (Lego currency) you must gather in order to achieve “True Jedi,” and the penalty for death is that your studs go flying and you may or may not be able to regather them all before they disappear. Coming back from one or two deaths is still pretty easy, but if you’re dying left and right, it’s usually impossible to regather enough of your studs in time to hit True Jedi.

So we have room to make combat more interesting without hurting the game’s accessibility, especially since that is a very low bar to clear. Lego Star Wars has fun platforming, but its combat is easily the least fun part of the game. The game is fun in inverse proportion to how much combat is in it, because the combat boils down to “press the fight button until you win.” As a melee character, the combat button both deflects blaster bolts and attacks the enemy. As a ranged character, it both dodges incoming shots and fires your blaster. The closest thing to a challenge is when you need to fight a melee character, and there the secret is just to use the groundpound attack over and over, because it can’t be countered and melee enemies never think to use it themselves.

You can see how we can make this system more complex without locking out six year olds, particularly when placed alongside the True Jedi system that makes it nearly impossible to actually lose, and instead the actual skill challenge is purely in an optional objective.

Continue reading “Better Lego Star Wars Combat”

Dynasty Warriors 5

Every now and again, I find a video game that’s really good at breaking up chunks of work. It’s fun, challenging enough to keep my mind active but easy enough that it rarely frustrates or stonewalls me, and it’s got obvious stopping points that reliably come every 15-45 minutes, which is long enough that I feel rested when I come back to working on something but short enough that it doesn’t eat my whole day. It was Ace Combat Zero for a while, up until I completed that game so thoroughly that there was absolutely nothing left to accomplish, and for a little bit it was Reus, which is actually on a timer so one round of it will always be 15, 30, or 60 minutes, but unfortunately that last one is too long to be usable and you eventually hit a point where it’s basically impossible to make progress without using a 60-minute game length.

As you’ve likely gathered from the title of this post, my latest success in this regard has been Dynasty Warriors 5. I was in love with the Dynasty Warriors series for about 2-3 years as a kid/young teenager, right around the era of DW4 to DW6, but never wound up playing 6 because my parents never got me a PS3 and I wasn’t in a position to buy one for myself until some five years after DW6 was released, long after I’d forgotten the series. So DW5 was kind of a nostalgia trip.

At this point I’ve beaten most of not only DW5 but also its Xtreme Legends expansialone on Medium difficulty. I don’t know if I’m going to bother going for any higher difficulties, but probably not. While you certainly can win most missions in the game on pure skill, it’s not really fun to tackle a mission if you haven’t done enough grinding to get the character you’re using up to a higher stat level, since you end up ignoring most of the enemy army one way or another to sprint for objectives in order to complete them before your own forces are overrun, as your character’s attack power is far too low to fight through enemy forces at any reasonable pace. And each of 40+ characters has to be leveled up separately if you want to complete all of their story modes on the highest difficulty.

On the other hand, the way that I use these games does actually kind of lend itself towards grind without getting too tedious.

In any case, I’ve seen most of what Dynasty Warriors 5 has to offer at least on medium difficulty, and I feel confident in two things:

First, the Dynasty Warriors series shows a lot more of its fighting game roots than it might seem at first glance (the original DW was a Soul Calibur style weapon fighter, it was only DW2 that introduced the idea of massive combats). Different characters have different movesets and bizarre, often one-note personalities in the way that fighting game characters do, in order to have an interesting diversity of characters that can be communicated in very brief snippets of dialogue. I love how insane this makes some of the DW cast, and I’m sad to see more of the more recent additions to the cast following some fairly bland anime tropes rather than being as crazy as Zhang He the murder-dancer, Wei Yan the barely articulate rage berserker, and Zhou Tai the Chinese samurai.

In any case, the conclusion I take away from these fighting game roots is that the game desperately needs a guard breaking attack that’s common to all characters. The basic rock-paper-scissors of most fighting games is a strike that can be intercepted by a block, which can be overcome by some kind of grab or throw move, which can be interrupted by a quicker strike. Dynasty Warriors has the strike and the block but lacks any grab or throw or other means of getting past the block besides running around behind the enemy. This makes duels with enemy officers feel like a frustrating and slow fight against the not-totally-precise movement controls, which gets irritating if the enemy officer is a powerful enough enemy to require several minutes to defeat. The game really wants these to be climactic duels, but they always feel awkward and clunky unless you’re playing a character with a standard (not musou – musou attacks often get around blocks but are too infrequently available to be relied on in the kinds of duels that last long enough to get tedious anyway, and God help you if you’re playing a character like Zhang He whose musou is useless) attack that can get around blocks.

Second, Dynasty Warriors 5 is terrible at communicating the story of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, despite being more character-focused than Dynasty Warriors 4. Each character has their own story mode which takes you through 4-6 battles and is supposed to tell the story of that character, sometimes expanded a bit to give them a satisfactory ending if their novel/historical self got bumped off through random chance because that is how history do and the novel added only occasional embellishments. You’d think this would be great at getting the story across, since it can focus on character moments to really get someone invested, but instead it tends to feel like you’re jumping around the timeline at random, especially for Shu characters who often start out in the Yellow Turban Rebellion or the Coalition Against Dong Zhuo and then skip ahead fifteen years to the battle of Chi Bi, completely ignoring the early shakeout period when lots of small warlords were fighting each other.

And sometimes a character’s story just compresses really poorly, like Guan Yu, who has a major role in both battles against Dong Zhuo, then skips ahead to suddenly he’s working for Cao Cao while his sworn brother Liu Bei is working for Cao Cao’s arch-nemesis Yuan Shao, and you get that Guan Yu and Liu Bei got separated somehow and accidentally wound up on opposite sides of the battle, but it’s totally unclear how, and then you have to flee from Cao Cao’s forces to meet up with Liu Bei again, but the point where you actually meet up with Liu Bei gets totally skipped and the very next battle is about chasing down Cao Cao after he flees a disastrous defeat against Liu Bei and Sun Quan at Chi Bi.

The only stage that seems to follow on from the last one is the very last stage, where after Cao Cao was defeated at Chi Bi, Guan Yu ends up in command of Liu Bei’s holdings in the nearby Jing Province, while Cao Cao’s cousin Cao Ren is in command of Fan Castle, which guards the approach deeper into Cao Cao’s territory. So, okay, after he won at Chi Bi, Liu Bei gained some territory, left Guan Yu in charge of it, and now Guan Yu is trying to expand it by pushing north into Cao Cao’s territory. It goes pretty well until Sun Quan betrays him (he has his reasons, but they’re not important here), and then, since Guan Yu is Player One in this version of the story, Guan Yu wins anyway, capturing Fan Castle. Cao Cao and Sun Quan are both at large, though, so the ending feels kind of abrupt?

You can start to piece together an idea of what’s going on after playing multiple characters’ stories, I guess, but I don’t know how easy it would be to put all those pieces together if I didn’t already know the plot. Dynasty Warriors 4 just had one story mode for each of the titular three kingdoms (plus some unlockable story modes for some of the minor warlords), and that worked way better.

Dynasty Warriors 5 also does a shockingly bad job of covering the entire sweep of the story compared to Dynasty Warriors 4, even if you ignore the Musou Mode and just play through with everything unlocked on Free Mode. For example, Dynasty Warriors 5 does not have any battle for Jing Province even in Xtreme Legends, where it seems like the obvious stage to add for Wei Yan and Huang Zhong, since Liu Bei’s conquest of Jing Province is the start of Wei Yan and Huang Zhong’s story (I almost wonder if Koei wants justice for Han Xian, who was a perfectly good governor that gets recast as a villain for the sake of this story?). Without this battle, Wei Yan and Huang Zhong just kind of appear in Liu Bei’s forces at the battle of Cheng Du. There’s no confrontation with Yuan Shu, Sun Ce’s primary rival, except in that he can show up as reinforcements in a battle between Cao Cao and Lu Bu, neither of whom are Sun Ce. There’s no assassination of Dong Zhuo by Lu Bu and Diao Chan, which is fine for the major characters’ plot arcs since you can just have Dong Zhuo be killed at Hu Lao Gate, but it’s pretty critical for Lu Bu’s story that he was the one who killed Dong Zhuo and was subsequently forced to strike out on his own. There’s no battle at Xu Province, which was the beginning of the rivalry between Liu Bei and Cao Cao which defines like 70% of the Three Kingdoms narrative. DW4 admittedly only added Xu Province in its own Xtreme Legends expansion, but still.

In exchange, DW5 gives us an extra battle in Zhuge Liang’s northern campaigns (Chen Cang Castle) and, in its Xtreme Legends expansion, Ou Xing’s rebellion. Emphasizing the enormity of the undertaking of Zhuge Liang’s northern expansions is definitely a good thing, as is filling out the years between the Yellow Turban Rebellion and the coalition against Dong Zhuo, but they’re not worth punching holes in the story of Cao Cao’s and Sun Ce’s rise to power, what Liu Bei was even doing during that time, and critical story beats for characters like Huang Zhong, Wei Yan, Lu Bu, and Diao Chan. In fact, Ou Xing’s rebellion isn’t even a particularly good way to fill in the years between the Yellow Turbans and Dong Zhuo (although it is an event of the novel), because what’s really needed is a version of the Ten Eunuchs plotline that actually tells the story rather than just referring to it. This is how Dong Zhuo seized power, so it should either be properly told or else Dong Zhuo should be depicted as already more-or-less in power as of the Yellow Turban Rebellion (which he did fight in, so it’s not like it’s a huge stretch to make him commander of the Han forces instead of He Jin, a character who is only important to the Ten Eunuchs plot arc and should absolutely be cut if you’re not going to tell that story properly).

Also, WordPress changed their editor a while ago and I don’t know where the “click to read more” line is in the new one, so this whole post is going on the front page.