Friday, March 29, 2013

Disclosure Alert: Alpha Protocol: Episode 17: That Deng Boss

So now we finally reach the finale of Taipei. And I find an entire different reason to bitch about Taipei.

First off, the cape drop is supposed to be badass, but all it communicates to me is that Omen Deng is trying too hard.

I'll say it right now, the bosses in this game really, truly suck. They are almost universally unfun and unfair. As we'll also see in Moscow and Rome, this game turns from an interesting spy thriller into "just another video game boss fight" whenever we get the a hub's finale. I just don't understand the choice to have such rigid boss fights and to not allow you at least the option of talking your way out of them. (Especially for an Obsidian game like this, where conversation is really the most interesting part.) In all 3 of these points, all the problems with the gameplay just come together all at once and it's really frustrating.

Omen Deng has a bullshit version of Shadow Operative that Thorton won't even be able to get at Rank 15. The game does not allow you to use Shadow Operative if the enemy knows where you are and can see you. Here, we see Omen Deng vanish into thin air, which we shouldn't be able to see. You'll also see that his Cooldown is somewhere close to 0 where ours is around 90 seconds. I'm all for the bosses having player skills, but they should not have skills even a master in that discipline couldn't have.

I really hate combat taunts. I especially hate when they sound so mechanical. The only reasons I recall this otherwise uninteresting boss fight are that I died a lot on my first playthrough (to the other bosses as well) and that he kept telling me that "You're in, over your head." It's almost as bad as the Naked Muscle Man boss fight in Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Not quite that bad, but getting there.

I am honestly legitimately surprised that Aldowyn only took two tries to take him down. This is not because Aldowyn is unskilled. This is because there is almost always some wayward grenade incendiary device that will kill you almost instantly. Also, if Omen Deng decides to bum rush you with his martial arts, you have no way to defend yourself against it and no way to counter-attack. And you saw how much more health and defense this guy has compared to us. He took hundreds of shotgun slugs. Even on Easy, we can't take anywhere near that much punishment.

This conversation with Heck at the end of Taipei is one of my favorites. If he hates you, then he'll just take the deal and blame Mike for the assassination. If he likes you, he'll kill the VCI agent sent to blackmail him and set Wen Shu up for the fall, which he will later be executed for. I feel bad for Wen because as far as I can tell, he's done absolutely nothing wrong aside from get involved with Steven Heck for reasons unknown.

Overall, I like the concepts behind Taipei. I also like the overall structure of the Hub's mission. I take issue with the way they framed the whole plot. The moral choice is interesting, but set up in such a way as to frustrate players. The red-herring isn't an inherently bad idea, but there's no real reason to suspect him to be the would-be assassin. I promise you that the other two hubs are significantly better than this one. Taipei had great potential, but squandered it.

Lastly, it would be sinful for me to not link Shamus Young's comic detailing how comically stupid this particular boss battle is. Also of note is that while fighting him in the area with the statue, Deng makes the remark: "Here, before the eyes of our Nation's founder, you will die." Make of that what you will. Anaphysik and I have been discussing it, and we've got no clue exactly which person was meant to be referred to here.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Disclosure Alert: Alpha Protocol: Episode 16: Swan Sung

In this episode, I want to kill President Sung. Also, we spoil who the assassin actually is from 5:30 - 8:20. If you're following along, yet haven't beaten the game yet, skip that section of the video. Also, I spoil it in the second to last paragraph in the text following the video.

I took what anaphysik said to heart and really thought about. And then I realized something. In either interpretation of President Sung's character, he's a complete and total moron. For the sake of argument, I'm going to give the game the benefit of the doubt and assume that we can prove that the riots will occur without even hinting at a potential assassination, even if that makes no sense.

In my interpretation as a typical amoral politician, when Sung is confronted by the possibility that he could die for his cause, then he would take the side of caution in favor of his life when you can prove that their is at least one genuine threat at his rally (a riot) and put on a bulletproof vest. He wouldn't be afraid of "showing his weakness to the world" because there would exist the possibility of Mike being right on both counts. If Mike can prove one threat, but insists there is two, any typical politician would want to be as safe as possible. That's why gov'ts have highly trained security detail. He would not dismiss an assassination as "merely your conjecture."

In anaphysik's interpretation, where Sung is a wanna-be martyr trying to die for his people, he's stupid for a different reason under an entirely different circumstance. Sure, I'll give anaphysik that it makes sense if you choose to prove the riots. However, if you choose to prove the assassination, then why not put measures in place to quell the riots anyway. It's not like your in danger of "looking like a petty dictator" if it turns out that people were really trying to cause a riot. And besides, we would have literally just proved and attempt on Sung's life. In that case, he's justified in bringing extra guards on that merit alone. Any savior-of-his-people would want to place their safety and the hands of rioters as a top priority. They would not dismiss the riots that would kill innocent people as "merely your conjecture."

So if Sung's a moron by either interpretation, then I conclude that he is a moron.

And another question, if Omen Deng is such a great intelligence agent, should he not be aware that the guy who is supposedly trying to kill President Sung walked right up to the guy with proof of a conspiracy against him, trying to convince him there is a genuine threat to his life? For being a boogeyman in the intelligence scene, he looks dumber and dumber the more you get into this plot and the longer you analyze it. At the very least this would cause some doubt to creep in. And don't say that he wouldn't know. After all, the point to him being here is stopping the president's assassination. He'd have someone on watch.

And then Scarlet Lake appears. Really, her being the assassin would've been a great twist had we spent a bit more time getting to know her character and allowing her to feed you misinformation. It'd be perfect to have her use her journalist cover to her advantage in that way, making Omen Deng make sense. And the bullshit about not doing collateral damage which she tells you if you confront her on it later  makes zero sense. Basically, the whole plot to Taipei is stupid and doesn't make a lick of sense. Don't worry, I promise the other two are better.

Lastly, it is really weird that I'm so bloodthirsty in these LPs because when I play these kinds of games I'm such a White Knight Paragon that it's almost disgusting to other people. Also, the LA Noire video he and I reference is this one, which highlights how dumb LA Noire's interrogations can get at times.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Disclosure Alert: Alpha Protocol: Episode 15: We Kneed More Junk

In this episode, we steal some intel and make a very poorly framed choice.

Aldowyn and anaphysik bring up a very good point here, which is that Michael Thorton has the same problem Adam Jensen would go on to have in Deus Ex: Human Revolution. The problem being that players could sneak through an entire mission without ever being detected or raising alarms, yet still walk into the wide open rooms and expose themselves for no reason in a cutscene. It's one of those times where it almost feels like the player character is trolling the player. There is a way to set up this scene so that Thorton looks a bit more competent.
On the other hand, that room is the exact same room where Steven Heck can blow away all of your enemies with a machine gun mounted to a subway train if you buy the intel. This is again why people tend to like Steven Heck.

And now I can get into why exactly Taipei's plot chaps my hide. (But I will first concede that making it so that Mike hacks the flash drive himself instead of Mina if his Technical Aptitude is high enough is really cool. Do more stuff like that, developers!) We know that someone (supposedly Deng, but that's dumb) is planning to kill Sung at his rally, starting a series of riots that will no doubt claim more than a few innocent lives. This flash drive gives us the proof of the whole plan, but the data self-destructs once it's hacked into and gives us only enough time to save either the proof of the riots or the proof of the assassination. Sung will only believe in the threat that we can prove when we go to meet him, so your choice here could save the lives of thousands, or the life of a very influential person.

I theoretically don't mind this kind of moral choice. "Is it better to save a lot of innocent people or one very influential political figure looking out for them?" is a very interesting and ambiguous decision to make. I highly dislike the way it was framed. Since Omen Deng is apparently trying to get this information out to Sung and his people, why would he and his spies bother encrypting it in such a way that it would self-destruct the moment it is hacked into? What would he gain by destroying the information that proves the very thing he's trying to prevent is going to happen once someone besides his staff accesses it? Seems counter-intuitive to me. And as I mentioned, since the plan is to have the assassination trigger the riots, it's a bit far-fetched to have this proof be structured in such a way as to be able to prove the effect will happen without proving the cause of that effect. I have no idea how one would go about that. Once we actually meet Sung for real, I'll have even more to say on that.

I do want to call attention to the fact that the damage bonus you can on bosses with a completed dossier is only 5%. That's not a huge amount by any stretch and you're collecting dossiers more for background than any practical benefit. This isn't the difference between 20 and 30 damage. It's the difference between 20 and 21 damage and hardly worth worrying about.

Lastly, anaphysik made a reference to Delicious Cinnamon, which is a YouTube LP group you can find here.  Also, apparently "Does the Pope shit in the woods?" is just a bad reference.

#59: The “Essential” Problem With Skyrim

A few days ago, as of the time of writing, I had a conversation with my friend Aldowyn discussing The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. The particular topic for discussion was an often contested feature of Skyrim's design, the use of the “essential” flag. As many of you are no doubt aware, non-player characters in the game who are involved with any of the game's vast number of quests often receive the distinction of being marked “essential” by the system. This distinction gives such NPCs and inability to be killed by anything in the game, even the player. The reason such a mark would exist in Skyrim, just as it did in it's predecessor Oblivion and the third main entry in the Fallout franchise, is so that their exists no possible way for the player to miss out of any of the quests offered. Since these NPCs cannot die, their contributions to the plot points and overall progression of any given quest can be assured. While I understand the logic behind this, I do not believe that the “essential” flag is necessary to making a good open-world RPG. In fact, I would go so far as to say that their current implementation is fundamentally flawed, which is the topic for this week's post.

The very first reason the “essential” flag can be problematic is that it can cause unnecessary frustration for the player. Among my friends, we often talk about a very common principle in Bethesda games. I call it the “Law of Inverse Likeability.” This law states that the less likeable (and more irritating) a given NPC is, the higher the odds become that said NPC is marked essential for one reason or another. Because of this condition, whenever player's are angered by NPCs, odds are they will have no recourse despite potentially being one of the most powerful and/or influential people in the entire world. The NPC that best exemplifies this phenomena is Maven Black-Briar, who resides in the city of Riften in Skyrim. Ms. Black-Briar owns and manages the Black-Briar meadery, which distributes their brand of mead, both high and low class, throughout Skyrim. In order to make sure that her business stays as profitable as possible, Maven has contacts in both the Thieves' Guild and the Dark Brotherhood that she uses to keep both legitimate businesses living under constant fear and the criminal underworld firmly in her grasp. Many other people in town also note that she is the unofficial ruler of The Rift, the region of Skyrim where Riften is the capital. Though well-meaning, the Jarl, ruler of the region, is easily manipulated by Maven through her steward and other members of her staff.
When players talk to Maven Black-Briar, she speaks to them in a very condescending voice, telling them that if they step out of line, she will have her contacts in the Dark Brotherhood get rid of them. While there are several other problems with that, including the fact that the player could have possibly systematically slaughtered the entirety of the Dark Brotherhood (which I will get to in a moment), the real issue stems from what happens when the player attacks her (and it is extremely hard to resist the temptation to do that). Once the player knocks Maven's HP down to 0, she falls over, waits for a few seconds, then gets back up and is instantly healed. This is because despite being one of the most pointlessly smug and arrogant characters in the game, she is marked “essential”. Most players I know want to kill her, but are unable to without the aid of console commands (which players on the PS3 and 360 do not even have access to). Even when the questlines involving her are all completed, the game never removes the essential flag from her, meaning there is no legitimate way to permanently dispose of her. Like many other characters in Bethesda games, most notably children (even if their essential flags are significantly more justified), she is character who is unbearably smug and suffers no consequences for it. This is a character who knows she has Plot Armor, knows players cannot harm her, and knows that she will always be on top. In a game without the essential flag, the writers would be more cautious about presenting such a character because the possibility exists that the player could just hack them to pieces in a drunken, psychotic rage. It would require skill either in positioning her character or changing around her interactions with the player to make her more palatable. Her annoyance is only made possible because of the way the essential flag is implemented.

The other problem I have with the essential flag is that it can often hamper the possibility for role-playing in games like Skyrim. The best way to explain this is to use an example of a time where the absence of an essential flag really increased the role-playing potential. Oddly enough, the scenario I am thinking of also comes from Skyrim, in one the best questlines in the entire game: The Dark Brotherhood. After completing a quest involving the death of a vicious and cruel matron of a small orphanage in Riften at the request of a young child who ran away from it, players can initiate the questline of this infamous guild of assassins by sleeping in a bed. When the player sleeps, they will awaken in the small shack with 4 others present, 3 of which are bound in front of the player with bags on their heads, the other 1 in a black outfit, watching the whole thing play out. The woman in black, named Astrid, explains that the slaying of the orphanage matron was a Dark Brotherhood contract, which the player stole. While this would normally anger her, she was impressed by the player's guts and skill, so she decided to test him/her. In order to escape and join the Dark Brotherhood, the player needs to kill one of the other 3. The woman ends her explanation by saying that no one leaves until “someone dies.” Contrary to what one might assume, players do not have to take their blade to one of the 3 bound “guests”. The alternative is for the player to ready their weapon and strike out at Astrid, initiating combat. Should they win, she dies permanently and the alternate version of the questline, where it is possible to eliminate the Dark Brotherhood in their own hideout, becomes available.
Imagine what this would be like if Astrid was marked as essential to the Dark Brotherhood questline and given the privilege of Plot Armor. Instead of killing Astrid, players would merely knock her out and still have to kill one of the 3 others to join the Dark Brotherhood. By choosing not to abuse the nature of the essential flag, Bethesda gave players an entirely new reality to explore and see what would happen as a result. While Skyrim only made this possible in the Dark Brotherhood questline, there are a number of other placed where similar alternate paths are plausible. It should be possible to sell out the Thieves' Guild to the authorities and go from there. When the Companions reveal their plot twist, it would make sense for the player to question whether or not they want to stay and consider betraying them from the inside. Lastly, what if killing the head of the player's chosen faction during the Civil War initiated a quest that let them defect to the other side or destroy both factions. The fact that players can kill anyone is part of why people praise Fallout: New Vegas. Contrary to belief, it is not because players are omnicidal maniacs who want everyone to die (I am sure that is just me). It is because it creates a significantly greater opportunity to role play and make interesting choices.

Despite all of my ramblings, I do still see merit in having a system that flags NPCs who are essential to quests. This is because while players might want to have agency, very few people like it when a quirk in the script of the AI, combined with the random spawning of enemies, results in the death of a very important NPC or shopkeeper. I do not hate the idea of an essential flag, what I take issue with is its current implementation. What I propose is a system where NPCs flagged as essential can still be killed, but only by the player. Other NPCs and enemies attacking them should not be able to kill them. While no one would shed a tear for the death of Maven Black-Briar, it would be immensely frustrating to fail a quest because a dragon chose the wrong moment and place to spawn in town, killing an entire town's worth of people. If only the player can kill essential NPCs, then they become the architects of the game. They can choose for themselves whether or not failing a quest is worth killing an NPC who is unnecessarily smug or downright detrimental to a society. In an RPG like Skyrim, designers want to encourage players to do their own thing and find their own path. This would be one of the easiest ways to do that.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Disclosure Alert: Alpha Protocol: Episode 14: Vampire: The Mike-arade

Sorry about the massive delay in posting this episode. There are quite a few reasons for the delay. Truthfully, Aldowyn finished the initial cut of this chunk of episodes almost 2 weeks ago. We were initially planning to release them last week. However, Aldowyn decided to use the clip montage for the credits that we used for the last set of videos, just with new subtitles. Since I wanted to get them out in time, knowing the Aldowyn would not be around due to Spring Break, I agreed.

However, anaphysik did not. Since he is the one who writes the descriptions and takes the videos off "unlisted" status, this caused some trouble. He tried to get into contact with Aldowyn, except Aldowyn was on break and unable to work on "fixing" the credits. So we spent all week with the episodes uploaded and ready, just unlisted.

In other words, this delay was a result of Aldowyn's laziness, anaphysik's standards?, and my haste to get these episodes out regardless of the quality of the credits all colliding in a way such that no one ended up happy and we all share equally in the blame. We deeply apologize for the delay and hope you guys are still eager to watch more Disclosure Alert. Sorry!

Also worth noting is that the posts for this week have also been in limbo, sitting here on my queue waiting to be posted. I barely remember what I said in any of them.

In this episode, we begin the second half of the Taipei hub with a mission that pisses me off in quite a few ways. Oh well, at least Krellen, from the Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines LP, was there to add some new blood to our conversation. (Spoiler Alert: Mike doesn't actually become a vampire.) Also, I should warn you that we basically spoil the entire plot to Taipei in this episode. You have been warned.

Fortunately, for the guys who asked me to stop mocking Aldowyn's play style, this week I FINALLY get to show you I listened. Unfortunately, the fact that we're in the second half of Taipei means that I still have something to bitch about. If it's not one thing, it's another around here.

I... severely dislike this section of the Taipei plot. And I'm going to be extremely transparent and upfront about it. We'll get more into it as this batch of episodes get posted.

But before that, I do like that the Omen Deng conversation does have slight variances to it. It's a decidedly minor detail, but it really does add to the sense that the game is keeping tabs on your every choice and tailoring your experience to those choices. He will comment on both hubs completed (if you did any besides Saudi Arabia) and what armor your wearing. Then again, these small touches are Obsidian's MO. Y'know, I could've sworn being Suave with Deng made him Dislike you slightly, but I guess I was wrong.

I honestly don't like Deng as either a character or a plot device. Aside from obvious similarities (for comparison) to Raidou Kuzunoha from Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner (whose outfit, by the way, looks very out of place in a bright white subway system, especially with the Chinese Secret Police symbol emblazoned on it), there's not a whole lot to his personality. He's very bland and uninteresting, and with a monotone voice that proves to be quite irritating. This is all before we get to his role in the plot to Taipei.

So yeah, as it turns out Deng is not the bad guy. When I played through this mission, I honestly did not even know I was supposed to think he's the bad guy. All I heard was that he's someone worth knowing about from Hong Shi and later on I learned that he was raised by Sung in the dossier "donated" to us by the NSB. The thought that the guy who was raised by Sung as a son would come to kill him never even occurred to me, so I was shocked when the conversation with him became a confrontation. (It makes sense for now because Deng has been somehow led to believe Mike is the one trying to kill Sung. This falls apart later, but we'll get to that when we get to it.) As we go on in the season, you'll see a theme where I confess that I didn't really understand what was going on until my second or third playthrough. I spent most of my first playthrough of the game confused. I want to blame Obsidian, but then I know that back when I first played this game I was a lot dumber than I am now, so it could very well be my fault.

Since these CSP agents are here with Deng and join him during the confrontation where he's trying to save Sung, I have to assume that these guys are also undercover, just like he is. Otherwise, this plot would make even less sense than it does already. Then again, if that's true then why is Omen Deng special. After all, how would Deng have accumulated so many double agents? Did he just hire them all once his cover was secured? Did they kill their families as well? In either case, how does China NOT KNOW that these guys are all secretly working against them. Since Deng can apparently be easily fooled in believing patently false information, I have to call his skills as an intelligence agent into question as well. (The same can be said of Thorton himself.) Why am I asking so many inherently pointless questions? Ugh. Taipei, that's why.

Until we leave Taipei, it's all downhill from here.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

#58: What Makes the Collectible?: Tomb Raider vs. Assassin's Creed

When the new Tomb Raider reboot was being announced, I had initially dismissed the entire thing out of hand because I have been disappointed by prior Tomb Raider games. Without going into much detail (and more importantly, to avoid spoilers since the game came out not too long ago), I was pleasantly surprised by the solid gameplay from the team at Crystal Dynamics and excellent narrative penned by Rihanna Pratchett. One particular element that impressed me was how inoffensive and, dare I say, fun the collectibles were to gather in this game. In the past, I have rallied against collectibles in other video games, most recently and most notably Assassin's Creed 3. It crossed my mind that analyzing exactly why one game's collectibles intrigue me while another game's collectibles repel and disgust me may be worth writing an article for, so it became the topic of this week. Since I am talking about only the collectibles in Tomb Raider, I promise to keep discourse on it spoiler-free, since people are still finishing it up.

One of the first things that might explain why the collectibles in Tomb Raider were much better than those in Assassin's Creed 3 is that it makes more sense for Lara Croft to want to collect the items she comes across than it does for Connor to. The lead of Assassin's Creed 3 was focused on murdering Templar agents in pursuit of a better world. Because of this, it made little sense for him to spend his time running around the city to collect pages from Benjamin Franklin's Almanac's, scouring the forest in pursuit of eagle feathers, or going around breaking into chests located throughout the world. With the possible exception of the Peg-Leg trinkets (and even that is running on a pretty weak case in my honest opinion), all the collectibles do not really tie in to the character or the narrative. They seem completely superfluous and only exist for the sake of having them.
This is not true for Lara Croft in the Tomb Raider. Much of what the game lets players collect would make perfect sense for Lara to take the time to gather. Since she is in the middle of a survival situation, it would make sense for her to want to gather salvage and weapon parts from the area. Another easy to explain collectible are all of the various artifacts Lara can find. While some might say that it makes little sense to want to look for these kinds of artifacts in a survival situation, Lara is an archeologist by trade, inherently interested in objects that detail the kind of experiences and lives people on the island would have led. Even in the story, there are several times during the course of the plot where Lara takes a break in order to examine whatever tomb or vestige of the past that she currently occupies. This curiosity of her's extends to collecting the journals left behind by the many inhabitants of the island, both past and present, that players can gather. As someone who studies people and culture, documents of any kind are of intrinsic value to Lara. While it may not be necessarily true for all collectibles, in the general case Lara Croft would have a good reason to collect most of the optional items in the Tomb Raider reboot.

The second reason Tomb Raider has, in my opinion, better collectibles is that players have a better external, in-game motivation to collect them. In Assassin's Creed 3, a lot of the things players could collect did not have much worth in terms of rewards for collecting them. Gathering up all of the eagle feathers scattered throughout the Frontier merely unlocked a Native American tribal garb that visually was not very impressive or distinctive in any way. Another solid example of a lack of rewards are the Almanacs. When Connor finishes collecting a set of Almanac's, they unlock a blueprint for one on Benjamin Franklin's inventions which can be crafted at Connor's Homestead. While this seems like a big deal, the inventions are static objects with no other purpose but to decorate the Homestead, conferring no practical benefits to players. Lastly, the treasure chests do offer material rewards, but I can hardly call them particularly beneficial. What I mean is that chests contain materials, recipes, and money which can all be used in different ways to take advantage of the in-game economy. As I have mentioned in my critique of Assassin's Creed 3, the in-game economy has no real use to players and can be skipped entirely without suffering for it or losing anything that one might get by participating in it. If the chests' rewards feed into a worthless add-on, it can be said that they are also worthless add-ons.
When contrasted that with Tomb Raider, this lack of rewards becomes even more glaringly obvious. Everything that can be collected in the game confers at least some sort of reward. Performing any task, even collecting an object, gives the player XP which are used to get skill points that can be spent to unlock new talents and passive skills for Lara, giving players an extra edge against enemies and the environment. In this way, Tomb Raider already offers more practical rewards than Assassin's Creed 3 ever did, but that is not the only way they reward players. One of the most commonplace and ubiquitous collectibles in the game is “Salvage.” Salvage is like XP in the sense that players can spend salvage to upgrade the weapons Lara finds over the course of her adventure. Each weapon can be upgraded with a limited selection of upgrades. This is where another, slightly less prominent collectible comes in: The weapon parts. Weapon parts come in different categories: bow, pistol, rifle, and shotgun. When the player collects enough parts in a given category, Lara will upgrade the corresponding weapon to a stronger version of itself (with all current upgrades transferring over) when the player reaches a campfire. Upgrading a weapon improves its abilities and unlocks more upgrades which players can use Salvage to unlock. Tomb Raider actively rewards those who take the time to explore and hunt for these collectibles. This makes the process far more enjoyable, even if it is partly due to a Skinner Box-like effect.

This is not the only way in which players get rewarded by what they do. Games can offer more for collecting than simple gameplay benefits. Another way in which Tomb Raider has better collectibles is that collectibles can also further develop the characters and setting of the game. When Lara finds an artifact and picks it up, she gives players a brief description of what it is and what significance it has. These artifacts can tell us a little about past civilizations and people that have landed on the island and lived there for long stretches of time. It helps players understand exactly how many people have been impacted by the island and its many secrets, working as a form of world building. Also, as an archeologist, Lara does not just magically know everything about a given artifact. There are many of them in the game that players can rotate around to a specific angle to learn additional information. One example in particular stands out to me: In one area, Lara can find a small dragon statue, making the remark that it looks like a priceless antique. If one rotates it so that the bottom faces the camera, she will say “Oh! It's a fake. 'Made in China'”. Other examples just help to bring players into the world and the role of Lara Croft.
As I said earlier, the characters are also developed through collectibles, not just the world. This comes in the form of all the logs and journals players can track down. Whenever the player grabs a journal, the character who wrote it narrates the text for the player. This can best be equated to the audio logs made famous by games such as System Shock 2 and its spiritual successor, Bioshock. There is a reason why this often works: It allows the player to learn more about a character and what makes them tick without needing to write up an entire conversation and animate it. Without spoiling anything, these logs make the characters more relatable and understandable. Combined with the artifacts, they also enable much more world building than either could alone. By collecting these items, the island and the people on it feel like a fully fleshed out world, and there lies the beauty in the way Tomb Raider handled them. I would try to find a comparable example from Assassin's Creed 3, but I do not believe one such example exists.

Lastly, the final reason I liked Tomb Raider's collectibles a lot more is because they are generally more challenging to get. Let me preface this by saying that in both games, all the collectibles are comparatively easy to find. Even if players have difficulty doing so normally, there exists ways players can make discovering the location of collectibles easier: Assassin's Creed 3 has maps which Connor can purchase to point out the location of every collectible in the game, while Tomb Raider allows Lara to upgrade her “Survival Instincts” (similar to Batman's Detective Mode in Arkham City), to highlight them and place them on the map when they are in range. (For the record, that is a good thing.) However, once the collectibles are located, getting to them is different in both games. In Assassin's Creed, it is typically pretty easy. Once Connor is roughly aware of a collectible's location on the map, it is a trivial task for him to get to it with the usual set to traversal mechanics. This is not the case in Tomb Raider. While some are certainly easy to get, many of them will take a degree of problem solving to reach. At other times, it is not even possible to collect a given treasure until a certain piece of Gear has been acquired allowing Lara to bypass an obstacle in her way, like classic Metroidvannia-style games. Having to actually bypass an obstacle by oneself to get a treasure, without the game doing excess hand-holding or making it too easy, gives a feeling of satisfaction that is otherwise absent, making the act of picking up a collectible all the sweeter.

In the end, Tomb Raider managed to do the impossible: It caused me to rethink my stance on collectibles in video games and give them the illustrious title of “Not inherently bad.” The only thing that has been able to remove itself from my shit-list in such a way is the Quick-Time Event. I am glad this game caused me to reevaluate my thinking, because for a long time collectibles were one of the fastest ways games could irritate me. It all started with those abominable feathers in Assassin's Creed 2 which were so annoying to gather up and for such an insignificant payoff. Nonetheless, collectibles are just another tool in a designer's arsenal to use and balance wisely. Like any tool, there are times where it works and times where it does not. A designer's responsibility is to know the difference.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Disclosure Alert: Alpha Protocol: Episode 13: Boozeplate Armor

In this episode, we channel Ocean's 11 and perform an old school hotel-burglary in the name of intelligence.

Okay, so this mission has a pretty simple premise. In order to prepare ourselves to stop the assassination of Ronald Sung, we enlisted the help of Steven Heck and Scarlet Lake to get the skivvy on what's going down by hacking into the NSB's (think Taiwanese KGB or CIA) servers, because if anyone knows about threats to a Taiwanese national's life, it would be the NSB. (I should note that you don't actually have to have done Hong Shi's mission to unlock this, and could therefore have no idea who Omen Deng is. Even if you do know about him, you have no reason to suspect that he has it out for Ronald Sung given the knowledge you have about him. Another interesting fact is that anaphysik assures me that the Grand Hotel is a real life place.)

The scene with Scarlet irritates me, to be perfectly honest. I know she's probably pretending not to know Mike or something like that, but since we literally JUST e-mailed her, it seems totally disingenuous. And in the event that Scarlet says she remembers Mike from the plane, Mike acts surprised, even though he JUST e-mailed her! This is even more stupid if you were like me in my first playthrough and gave Scarlet all the Halbech data. You can literally be at "Friendship", yet still have Mike be surprised that Scarlet remembers him. It's a minor gripe, but it's a gripe nonetheless.

I really like the conversation at the start of the mission. It's so reminiscent of Ocean's 11 and I'm a total sucker for those kinds of Hollywood heists. This really is one of the great things about Alpha Protocol. It's basically an homage to those kinds of movies in all sorts of ways, while staying true to it's core as an RPG. If the game was more polished, I'd be tempted to call it both "cinematic" and "choice-driven" which is something that most games don't even think about combining.

With the exception of one, VERY annoying encounter in Moscow, all of the allies you side with in the game are invulnerable when in the field with you. That eliminates the hassle of protecting them while completing objectives. Since companions don't get hurt, there's no reason to concern themselves with their well-being. They're like children in Fallout 3, but significantly less irritating. Thank the lord for that!

I'm very disappointed that we couldn't frame the Halbech agent for pedophilia. That leads to a hilarious scene where he's escorted out of his room, arrested, and taken off the premise. This removes a few guards and leaves his hotel room open to take everything from. If I had known about this, I would have told the group to be nicer to Scarlet.

This is where the plot to Taipei starts to fall apart, and it get's worse from here. From the files given to us by Hong Shi and stolen from the NSB, we know that Omen Deng is involved in the proceedings in Taipei. If not for the contents of the dossiers, this might be enough to suspect Deng of being the assassin, since he is Chinese Secret Police. However, the dossier data shows that Deng was raised by Sung. This should raise suspicions for more critically-minded players.

Mumbles talks about punishing players for pissing people off, and while I respect her opinion, I disagree. I think part of why Alpha Protocol is good is that they never punish you for anything. The entire game is an choice between trade-offs and alliances. While some consequences are better, and may be better for you, than others, none of them are downright bad. That allows players to just role-play instead of panicking over which choice isn't going to screw them over in the end.

Lastly, anaphysik has left you guys with this link detailing the "One-China Policy", since some of you are undoubtedly interested in the world-building of Alpha Protocol. I, for one, thinks it's cool that Obsidian wrote such a detailed history for the game's world. In stretches so far back it's ridiculous. Most of it is stuff that you'd never find in the game. For example, did you know that in Alpha Protocol's world, George Washington was the first president of a country called the United States?

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Disclosure Alert: Alpha Protocol: Episode 12: Are You Shi You're Pronouncing That Right?

In this episode, we deal with the Triads and Shi have a fun time with it.

So yeah, Mumbles and I made fun of a guy with an accent too stereotypical to believe, who turned out to be played by an Asian man. That apparently makes us bad people. Oh well, it's not like it hasn't been done before.

The actual talk with Hong Shi is fairly uninteresting, in my opinion. We contact him because he might have some knowledge of what's going on in Taipei, particularly with the rumored assassination of Taiwanese President Ronald Sung. Unfortunately, because this is an RPG, things are never that simple and he directs us to do a side quest before giving us the intel. If we want him to talk, we need to take care of his three lieutenants who are rebelling against him. [Side Note: I think Thorton says he's a friend of the Shiekh (Ali Shaheed) regardless of if whether or not you let him live. I guess since he's dead, you might as well be his friend. Not like he can tell people you aren't.]

That e-mail with Steven Heck is one of the most humorous in the entire game. Stuff like that is why people love Steven Heck. It's so indicative of Heck's thing where he mostly gets what's going on, but then puts this spin on it that's so outlandish, untrue, and ridiculous that it's comical, much like many real life conspiracy theorists. (Side Note: Anaphysik assures me that many of the conspiracy theories that are discussed by Mike and Heck are real: Interesting.)

As I watch Aldowyn play the game, even it is only on Easy, I start questioning my assertion that Stealth/Pistols is the best option. Again, I know we are playing on Easy, but boy does it look fun to just run around with your fists and a Shotgun mowing down dudes without giving a fuck. Of course, it's a very lethal playstyle, but it makes me wonder how many other archetypes I was denying by only going Stealth/Pistols.

Despite how I usually sound in the LP, I don't blame Aldowyn for getting lost. If anything, the level designer really dropped the ball with the map layout and design. It's an overall linear level, with semi-open layout, the game should not make it this difficult to navigate. Aldowyn made it hard (even though he played the level the day before we recorded), but in the end this is more indicative of the level design than any skill he may or may not have.

As we play through the mission, we get the full story. The first terminal shows us that the list of defectors is 10-pages long, a far cry from the 3 Shi told us to expect. While the player mulls that over in their head, a second terminal tells them that the Triads were dealing with Al-Samad, who you remember as the terrorists from Saudi Arabia. This leaves players with ample time to figure out what's going on before the reveal on the last terminal. As it turns out, Hong Shi's men defected because Shi killed one of them for daring to question the wisdom of dealing with a well-known and public terrorist organization. This knowledge gives the player power over Hong Shi, which we exerted in this episode. I thought it was nice to give players a mission without knowing all the details and then expecting their innate curiosity to compel them to look for it on their own.

Hong Shi, in the grand scheme of things, really is irrelevant. Outside of Taipei, there are no long term consequences for your dealing with him (except he may cut you off from the Triads' Clearinghouse store if you piss him off). And even for the plot in Taipei, he's only good for name dropping Omen Deng, who we'll meet later. Otherwise they could've easily cut him from the game with no consequence.

Lastly, my constantly interrupting anaphysik and his James Hong factoid in order to talk about the game... that was no accident. That's all I wil say on that.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Disclosure Alert: Alpha Protocol: Episode 11: Unnoticed By the Trail of Bodies

In this episode, we kill an alarming number of people in the pursuit of knowledge.

Let me first say that calling Aldowyn an "idiot" was incredibly rude, arrogant, and stupid on my part. That should never have happened and a large part of me feels like I crossed the line there. With that said:

I don't think I've ever completely stealthed this mission. Every time I end up getting detected. Part of me wonders if you get that notice anyway, even if they don't see you (because Albatross ALWAYS talks to you here no matter what).

Speaking of, though most first-time players are more likely to meet them in Moscow before doing meeting them here, this mission does serve as a good introduction to Albatross and his organization, G22. You begin not knowing who these people are and what they are doing in this abandoned warehouse, but as you advance in the mission you realize that these guys have access to a lot of processing power. Once you beat the level, you are introduced to Albatross himself. (As an aside, Thorton will comment on G22 in the introductory scene to this mission by saying "Why are G22 agents here?" instead of "Who're these guys" if you have met them before.)

From our short "meeting" with Albatross, we can discern all we need to know about him. The fact that he contacted us almost as soon as we reached the end of the level means that he was able to find and detect either the breech or our presence quickly and start dealing with it. Since he already found 5 of our 6 bugs, we know that his organization is tech savvy and/or had code already in place to deal with bug. (Side note: Mumbles mentioned Hollywood Hacking when talking about Albatross. Sadly, this tends to be par for the course. Albatross and G22 are Hollywood hacking incarnate.) Lastly, the fact that he is even speaking to us let's us know that he is willing to let bygones-be-bygones if it means advancing his goals or neutralizing a potential threat. It is a very short scene that only makes about one minute, but the way the scene is framed gives us a lot of information without bogging down the player with exposition.

The Halbech data gives us a very interesting mechanic. As you play through missions in the game, you will find pieces of information that prove Halbech's involvement in a variety of schemes from voter fraud to weapons trafficking. When you collect one of them, you send an e-mail to yourself with the file. From there, you have three choices on what you want to do with the information. You can:

  • Blackmail Halbech: This option will have a Halbech executive pay you $15,000 in exchange for your silence. (One of them remarks that their is a pool of Halbech funds set aside just to make blackmail payments.
  • Give the information to Scarlet: This is why Scarlet needs to meet you on plane, even if you're not heading to Taipei like she is. Without that scene, this option would make no sense. Choosing this option will give the information to Scarlet Lake for use in one of her stories, netting you a $1000 reward from her publisher and +1 Reputation with her.
  • Sell the information on the Black Market: With this choice, Thorton can use the Clearinghouse to sell the information to an anonymous buyer for his/her own use at a price of $5000. You don't know what the buyer will use it for. They could easily use it to bribe Halbech or otherwise get leverage over them and their allies. Or, they could want to expose Halbech. We don't really know. Mix-maxers have no real reason to choose this option over blackmailing Halbech as Halbech gives you more money, but role-players who have it out against Halbech may find this to be an appealing alternative to the small fee Scarlet gives you.
What you do with each piece of Halbech intel document is a very minor choice, but I good way for min/maxers and role-players to better customize their experience. I'm curious what many of you guys do with the Halbech data. I usually sell them on the Black Market because Halbech does not deserve to know it's been compromised.

Anaphysik says at the end "This should be the end of the first episode...." This is because we had planned to make the conversation with Steven Heck and the bugging of G22's servers one episode, but cut it because we underestimated how long these two missions would take and overestimated how long one of the other missions in this chunk would take, so it did even out to four episodes anyway.

Disclosure Alert: Alpha Protocol: Episode 10: One Heck of a Guy

I've been receiving a lot of feedback telling me to let up on Aldowyn. Fortunately, you guys have been heard and I will do my best to correct this in the future. Unfortunately, I was only made aware of this AFTER recording this week's chunk, so you'll have to suck it up for just a little bit longer. Sorry about that!

In much cheerier news, those of you who are fans of Spoiler Warning (as in, almost all of you) will be pleased to see Mumbles make her triumphant return to LPs with week as our special guest. (Such a shame the Thorton can't eat people.)

I really enjoy Steven Heck's character. This is Nolan North as his very best. A lot of people give Nolan North flak for all of the many video games where he stars as an "everyman character" like Nathan Drake. While that is deserved to some degree, the guy is actually a very good voice actor, which is why he gets so many roles in the gaming space. As for the character Heck himself, he's about as lovable and heroic of a psychopath as you could possible find. If he likes you, he'll kill anyone who's out to get you. If he hates you (or if you call him "Steve") watch out. Considering Alpha Protocol is going for the feel of a spy thriller like James Bond or 24, Heck fits in well, even if I disagree with anaphysik that I could plausibly believe that a criminally insane man would be capable of doing what Steven Heck can do, if only for the logistics of it.

The rest of the guys are right when they point out the biggest problem with Scarlet Lake. She is perhaps one of the most cliche characters Obsidian could have included in a Modern-Day Spy RPG. The plucky, red-headed reporter who has a nose for a scoop and is willing to do anything to get it has been played so many times before that most a lot of people just look at it and groan. Mumbles hit the nail on the head when she said that naming a red-headed chick Scarlet is very lazy. It's not particularly game breaking or anything, but compared to other characters, there really isn't a lot of depth to Scarlet, at least not until you get to the end of the game.

To close this comment, I need you guys to help me out with something. I want the Lumberjack beard and I know you guys want it too. If we're going to get that to happen, then I need your help convincing them to give us more beard time. Leave a comment either here or on the official Disclosure Alert twitter profile to let those two know about the awesomeness of the Lumberjack beard. They promised that if enough people comment with their approval, then we'll have at least one episode each week with the Lumberjack beard.*

*This statement may or may not be my attempt to troll those two. Promises might not have actually been made and those two may actually hate the Lumberjack beard.