Archive for April, 2011

Portal 2

It’s been a while since I bought a new A-list title. I tend to wait for the major heavily-advertised games to be remaindered or even bundled when I have any interest in them at all, which is seldom the case these days: recent blockbusters seem to all be military-themed FPSes. When I hear people around the office talking about such things, it leaves me cold. Hearing them tiptoe around spoilers for Portal 2, on the other hand, just piqued my curiosity. For Portal 2 is a rare thing: a major heavily-advertised puzzle game. I don’t think I’ve seen a puzzle game advertised on bus hoardings since the first Professor Layton. And so, after resolutely ignoring the potato-themed ARG, I finally knuckled under and bought the thing last friday, played through the entire single-player story on Saturday, and on Sunday, instead of writing up the experience, got drawn into playing the two-player co-op mode, again completing it in a single marathon session. (So I’m posting this about a week late. Chalk it up to the difficulty of summarizing the total experience of something so recently well-covered elsewhere.)

Before I start talking plot, I have some general non-spoilery observations. Portal 2 is longer than its predecessor, more detailed, and wackier. Portal wasn’t particularly wacky. It had humor, but the humor was dry, and furthermore, superficial — by which I mean, one could imagine making an alternate version of Portal that plays it completely straight without altering the plot or gameplay at all. (Not that I’d recommend doing so. Much of the game’s charm is in its piquant blend of absurdity and living nightmare.) Portal 2, on the other hand, is more of a tall tale. It makes the ridiculous central to the plot, to the point where it starts to seem strange that this is set in the same universe as Half-Life. It puts me in mind of comic-book continuities, how John Constantine shares a world with the likes of Lobo and Ambush Bug. It seems to me that this shift of emphasis is risky. A light dusting of wit can enhance any game, but in scenes where comedy is the main focus, the game is only as good as it is funny. (I’ve cited MDK2 before as an example of how this can go wrong.) Fortunately, Valve got some pretty good voice-acting talent. I don’t know how much of Stephen Merchant’s lines were ad-libbed, but he has a way of making them sound ad-libbed even when they aren’t.

The puzzle content follows a typical pattern for puzzle games, steadily introducing new elements and exploring how they interact with what’s already been seen. (It’s what I think of as the DROD model.) The original Portal kind of did the same thing, introducing turrets and high-energy pellets one by one, and even doling out the portal gun in pieces, but that all seemed much more basic, like they could have introduced everything at once if they wanted to and they were spacing stuff out purely for the sake of spacing it out. The portal gun itself was the only real puzzle-enabling device, and everything else was just an environmental feature that provided material for portal-puzzles. Portal 2 often feels like it’s the other way around: that the portal gun is just a tool for executing gel-puzzles, laser-puzzles, etc. Crucially, some of the new elements are new means of transporting things or altering their trajectories: excursion funnels, light bridges, even repulsion gel at times, which can be both a means of transportation and a thing that needs to be transported. The original Portal had only one novel way to move objects around at a distance, and thus mainly focused on getting the player character around. A lot of the puzzles in Portal 2 involve moving objects around by novel means while you’re stuck standing on a button or something. In the co-op levels, the thing you’re transporting is often the other player, but the same principles apply.

Now to be more specific, and hence more spoilery. The game has three distinct runs of “test chambers”, bracketed and to some extent interrupted by behind-the-scenes stuff. The way that the game begins behind the scenes is a pretty big change from the enigmatic opening of the original. There, getting access to the areas outside the enumerated puzzle-game structure was the big twist, but here, it’s just part of the routine. (It reminds me just a little of Unreal, which is mainly structured around a series of building interiors punctuated by brief forays outdoors to get to the next building.) And once you have a routine, there’s a need to break it up with variety, even if it’s fake variety. Thus, reskinning! The middle run of test chambers is set in a long-forgotten section of Aperture Laboratories, implausibly deep below the surface, where we see what mad science testing environments were like in the 1940s and 1970s. This section is to the labs above what Red Alert is to Command & Conquer, replacing the gleaming engineered-looking Weighted Storage Cubes with simple wooden boxes, the glowing indicators with clack boards, and in general the futuristic high tech with precisely equivalent low — for example, the Aperture Science Unstationary Platform from the original, a levitating device that moved back and forth on some sort of energy beam, is replaced by something like a window-washer’s platform hanging from the ceiling by ropes. The very existence of low-tech equivalents underscores the tremendous wastefulness and impracticality of the whole operation. Company founder Cave Johnson, we learn, was in the habit of insisting on his own way against all sane advice, flew into rages at the least provocation (or sometimes none at all), and had enough power within the company that any half-baked idea he blurted out on a whim would be implemented at enormous expense. Even now that he’s gone, his legacy of preferring the complicated and inefficient remains.

Relics of Aperture’s past, along with recorded messages from Cave at various points in the company’s history, tell the story of its fall. Appropriately, this section of the game is precipitated by a literal fall down a shaft on the player’s part. The upper labs, on the other hand, starts off in a fallen state, decayed and overgrown, and it’s a rise up a different shaft, lined with electrical switches that are turned on by your passage, that triggers GLaDOS’s rise from the dead, followed by the gradual restoration of the facility to pristine condition.

GLaDOS herself is in much better condition than before her death, free from the audio glitches and lacunae found in the first game. Presumably such things were the result of the ethical constraint core that you destroyed at the end of the first game, or rather, of the self-sabotage GLaDOS engaged in to work around it. (Similarly, the dropping of the cake meme can be attributed to the destruction of her cake core.) She comes off as smarter, too, anthropomorphizing plainly inanimate things less 1The Weighted Companion Cube is the famous example of specious anthropomorphization from the original Portal, but there were others, such as when she says that the hazard warnings around the High Energy Pellet installations had to be removed because they agitated the pellet. GLaDOS herself is, of course, technically an inanimate object, and seemed to regard human inability to empathize with inanimate objects like herself as a moral failing. and wasting no time on pathetically transparent attempts at deception. I suppose that’s because the time for that is over now that you’re openly enemies, but on a higher level, it’s because the role of humorously incompetent AI has been taken over by Wheatley, your sometime helper before the fall.

Of course, that’s not all Wheatley takes over. Wheatley’s conquest of the Enrichment Center — of Glados’s body, even — is the first moment that a male voice is in control, and things immediately take a turn for the worse — this is the point when both of the game’s strong female characters are literally cast down. For a while, Cave Johnson’s pre-recorded messages take over as antagonist, providing another male voice, but Johnson, as someone confident in his authority, is more of a bad father figure to match GLaDOS’s bad mother, while Wheatley is more like a spoiled kid with too much power. A spoiled pubescent kid, yet: the facility’s systems automatically give him a nagging urge to put humans through test chambers and a jolt of pleasure whenever you solve a puzzle, causing him to moan orgasmically. (I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this section immediately follows the discovery of tubes that spew viscous fluids, either.) This changes the tone of the exercise somewhat: GLaDOS hated you and wanted to murder you, but Wheatley effectively wants to rape you. The one thing that keeps this from being too horrible is that he’s so bad at it.

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1. The Weighted Companion Cube is the famous example of specious anthropomorphization from the original Portal, but there were others, such as when she says that the hazard warnings around the High Energy Pellet installations had to be removed because they agitated the pellet. GLaDOS herself is, of course, technically an inanimate object, and seemed to regard human inability to empathize with inanimate objects like herself as a moral failing.

Combat: End Boss

The level 30 boss turns out to be a sort of flying saucer deal, a big rotating octagon that rises up from a pit in the center of a large room, then sinks again. It alternates between doing two things when it rises: spawning a bunch of assorted tanks and autobombs, and firing those big sweeping lasers from four guns on its periphery — and reversing its direction of rotation while it’s firing them, to make things more difficult. You can destroy the lasers with a great deal of effort, and on one try I even managed to destroy two, but, interestingly, doing so is actually counterproductive. The same lasers destroy any enemy tanks they hit, so disabling them means more tanks hanging around through a complete cycle. You have a lot more to fear from the tanks than from the regular and predictable lasers, so the lasers are really your friends — just the sort of friend you don’t want to hug. And ultimately, all you really have to destroy is the saucer’s central dome, which is briefly level with your guns on its way up and down. The best way to deal with this whole thing, I found, was to basically ignore the tanks and just keep circle-strafing around the pit as fast as you can to make it hard for anything to hit you.

I had to play through this bit several times before I got it right, and every time I did so, I had to play the preceding nine levels first. As usual, I could only bring myself to play one session at a time, rather than start from level 21 again immediately, but being so close to finishing the game off made me keep coming back. You get good at the levels with a little practice; you start to remember the layouts and anticipate what you need to do, and so you rush about with efficiency and confidence. On my final attempt, I even got the Iron Man bonus on level 21 — a score bonus, of enough points for me to snag an extra life, for passing a level without getting hit even once.

Similarly, each pass at level 30 taught me a little more about how to go about it. In fact, only the very first time I reached level 30, with too few lives and no idea of what to expect, did I actually run out of lives and end the game there. On subsequent tries, I managed to slog through it with heavy losses, finishing the level and reaching the real end boss, which was a bit of surprise the first time it happened.

Your final foe is small and agile — well, still about twice the size of your own tank, but small for a boss. It’s hard to aim at, because it does the same thing I was doing on the previous level: circling around quickly, making it difficult to know how much to lead it with your aim, occasionally getting behind the camera so you don’t know which way to turn. It would probably still be a pretty easy fight, though, if it weren’t for one thing: the time limit. You have 60 seconds to beat it or lose. In effect, the game has given up trying to kill you. By getting this far, you’ve proved that you know how to play carefully and conserve your health, and so it throws a different limitation at you. Moreover, it’s a limitation that requires a more or less opposite approach. Where the correct approach for most bosses is caution, this one requires courage. You need to take it down as quickly as possible, and that means getting right up close to it and blasting it as much as you can, heedless of the damage it’s doing to you. Your biggest advantage over it is that you can only lose one hit point at a time, and go through a brief period of flashing invulnerability every time you do.

Combat got poor reviews when it came out, but, while it isn’t the best of the around-the-year-2000 classic-game remakes — that would be Frogger — I found it to be a fairly satisfying experience. It is, in a way, retro-futuristic. Usually that term means the sci-fi visions of the future from the 1950s or earlier, but what I mean here is that it’s the sort of videogame envisioned in 80s sci-fi, from Tron to Zot!. As such, it’s appropriate that it uses so many elements from 80s scrolling shooters: bosses with destructible weapons, power-ups that spread your fire in three directions, etc. Translating stuff like that into 3D was always a challenge, and Combat handles it better than a lot of games of the period — mainly by keeping the action mostly bound to a plane.

Combat: Bosses

I still haven’t reached Combat‘s thirtieth and presumably final level. I think I’ve got up to level 29, but that one’s a real killer. Since all I likely have ahead of me is the end boss, let’s take a look at the other bosses I’ve encountered so far.

The first one you encounter is a spinning octagonal lump that bounces around inside a large square arena. It periodically extends four symmetrically-arranged arms radially until they hit the edge, then sweeps them around for a while, forcing you to circle around with them if you don’t want to get hurt. Each arm ends in a clearly-shootable pod, which explodes, destroying the arm, after a little persistence — the easiest approach is to follow one along an edge so you can keep it lined up with your gun. After all four arms are gone, they’re replaced with guns, which you also have to destroy one by one. It’s pretty straightforward.

Level 10 puts us in a sort of maze — not a complicated one, but large, in the sense that the hallways are wide and long. An armored contraption shaped sort of like a minibus patrols this maze, shooting barrages of unusually large bullets and moving far faster than you can go without a speed boost powerup (of which there are several to be found). Fighting it involves shooting from a distance and running away a lot — the temptation is to face off squarely against it, because that works on most enemies, but it’s just the wrong approach here. This is the boss that guards the first automatic save point, and I remember having a very difficult time of it at first, because I couldn’t tell if I was damaging it or not. Unlike the previous boss, it had no obvious vulnerable spots, and no isolated weapon bits to shoot off. All I could do is keep on pelting it and hope that I was having an effect.

The third boss is actually two, a pair of modestly-oversized tanks running on concentric tracks around a solid obstacle, circling faster than your tank can move. The floor drops away on either side of the tracks, as well as between them; there are only a few spots where you can stand with no danger of being run over, and if you just sit motionless on one of those spots, you’ll just get shot instead. However, killing either one of the two tanks means that you can move to its track and safely dodge fire from the other. This is one of the less-satisfying boss levels, mainly because it was so hard to avoid getting hurt that it didn’t seem worth bothering, but also in part because the enemies here just don’t seem as impressive as the others.

The fourth boss is essentially a very big turret, sitting in the void, stationary but rotating to face you as you move around on a U-shaped ledge. It has multiple guns, some firing multiple sprays of scattering bullets, some firing bombs that do splash damage, and apparently some firing souped-up jets, themselves capable of shooting at you. (This last touch was proabably necessary to keep the fight from getting monotonous. Without the jets, the focus of the action would always be on the turret, whether aiming at it or dodging it.) Mainly you pass this stuff by just constantly keeping in motion, which is a good idea in most situations anyway. After the last of the conventional guns goes down, the turret’s outer casing falls off to reveal the last line of defense: a sweeping beam weapon. Just like in a whole bunch of vertical-scrolling shooters, it takes a little while to power up, and then fires continuously for long enough to corner you if you didn’t rush to the other side when you heard the about-to-fire-beam-weapon audio cue.

Level 25 puts you in an open arena with a few unnavigable holes. The boss, however, it puts outside this arena. Just as the level 20 boss was a very large turret, this boss is a very large jet. It goes through a cycle of several attack patterns: zooming across the battlefield to ram you, summoning smaller jets, firing its scatter-guns, laying a line of bombs, using the same sort of sweeping beam as in the end of level 20. The scatter-guns can be destroyed individually, but this just knocks that attack out of the cycle. The peculiar thing is that it’s only shootable at certain moments in its routine. It only descends to tank-level when the attack it’s attempting makes it necessary.

My guess is that the final boss will be a massive tank, because the ending is the time to reiterate the game’s main theme, especially if you’ve been going with variations for a while. But that doesn’t tell me much about what the fight will be like. Because really, when you come down to it, the main thing that distinguishes the boss fights in this game from each other isn’t the bosses so much as the terrain, and the boss’s relation to it. That’s the thing that determines how the player can respond to them, whether it’s possible to dodge or hide, etc.

Combat: Third Batch

I described the look of Combat as Tron-like, but the first two batches of levels are relatively subdued about it. The floors are concrete-textured and the walls look a bit like painted metal, just laid out in a blatantly non-representational way and floating in space. Starting at level 21, however, the game takes on an even more self-consciously artificial tone: the environment is all flat black with faint grid lines, brightly-colored edges and occasional stripes, like neon lights. I wish I had a screenshot to share — the game is resistant to the usual ways of producing them, probably consuming all keyboard input before the OS gets it. At any rate, it’s a striking look, reminiscent of wireframe models, but also basically a look we’ve seen before, in Tron and elsewhere.

The third batch also ramps up the difficulty a great deal. I managed to get through level 20 on the same day that I got through level 10, but progress through the remainder is slower, and requires more adaptation to special situations. But before I describe them, I should describe the types of enemy.

Before level 21, there were basically four categories of enemies. The most basic ones are missile-like things that spawn, launch themselves at you in a straight line, and explode when they hit a wall or when you shoot them. Next, there are jet-like things that glide about within a plane and can go off the edge without falling; they try to damage you by bumping into you, but tend to go zooming past if you keep moving. Like the missiles, they can be destroyed with a single hit. These two types form the main grunt forces of the game. Next level up, and relatively rare, are the enemy tanks, which come in various varieties, some faster, some with greater firepower, some with more hit points. And finally there are stationary turrets, which are best taken out from a long distance.

Level 21’s high concept is that it’s highly constrained. You’re in a small arena where multiple waves of jets spawn and must be dealt with from close up. After the first few waves, they’re joined by a new type of enemy, a roving bomb that homes in on you and damages you if you’re too close when you destroy it. This quickly becomes the most annoying type of enemy in the game, the sort of thing that you’d genocide if you were playing Nethack.

There’s one level based on the concept of lack of railings. Throughout the game, some areas have low walls around them that your tank bounces off of, and others just let you drop off into the void. So there’s really nothing new in the level I’m describing, except its eagerness to make you fall. There are infinitely-respawning roving bomb units that you can only get past by moving quickly, but they’re located on narrow catwalks where it’s dangerous to move quickly. Also, it’s on this level that we learn that the explosions from the bombs are capable of pushing you short distances.

If I sound like I’m griping, let me offset it by describing one level I quite like. It’s all one big open space, except for a walled-off room in the middle where the exit portal spawns after you’ve survived long enough. In this room, dozens of those jets are spawning all the time, along with an occasional tank. There are power-ups scattered about, including the one that lets you fire three shots at a time in different directions, the one that makes your shots bounce off walls (which can be used in conjunction with the three-at-a-time one), and, most importantly, the one that grants you temporary invulnerability. The power-ups are so crucial, and time out so quickly, that you’re constantly seeking more of them, which means you spend your time zooming all around, sometimes invulnerable. It’s a nicely chaotic battle, a big adrenalin surge in a very adrenalin-oriented game. This game got poor reviews, but here, it satisfies.

Combat: Progress and Regress

I finally made some permanent progress in Combat (2001 Infogrames remake). There was none in my previous two sessions. This game doesn’t have a save/load mechanism, and to a player starting from the beginning (and who hasn’t read the manual thoroughly), it’s not at all clear that there’s any saved state between sessions at all. In fact, beating the first ten levels (including two boss fights) permanently opens up a passage in the starting area (like the passages that let you access the different worlds in the original Quake) that lets you skip to level 11 in the future, and likewise beating level 20 lets you skip to level 21. But there’s no recognition of this in the game itself, no notification of any kind. Only after your game ends (presumably in defeat) and you start a new game do you see that you don’t have to start over from level 1 again. And you’re probably not going to see it immediately. You’re probably not eager to launch into a new session immediately, given that you’ve just got through 10 levels in a single session, something that takes about a half an hour and leaves your hands wrecked, and that you don’t know the first time that you won’t have to start over from level 1 again.

It didn’t come as a surprise to me this time, though, because I remember getting past level 10 in my original attempts at this game, years ago. And in fact now that I’ve gotten that far, I’ve also managed to keep going and breach the second checkpoint — apparently I’ve learned the basic skills needed by the game, and will probably finish it soon. (The main necessary skill, it seems, is assessing when you need to stand and clear the room of enemies and when you need to just make a break for the exit. Either approach is imperative sometimes.) But also, I’m kind of cheesing out. The options menu lets you choose whether you start with three or five lives, and whether your shields at full can withstand three or five hits. Both settings default to 3, and I’ve turned them both up to 5. Without this, I would be starting over from the beginning a lot more, and enjoying the game less (even if I would also be keenly honing my tank-battle skills in the process). But then, a more typical modern game would be giving me infinite lives, or, equivalently, a save/load feature, so all I’m really doing by selecting the easier options is bringing the game closer to being in line with today’s expectations.

Mind you, lives were already retro in 2001, when this game was released. Functionally, their purpose is to make the player start over from the beginning every once in a while and thus extend gameplay — a goal somewhat undermined by the checkpoints every 10 levels. But extending gameplay by making it more repetitive was more excusable in the old days, when games were fewer and shipped on less capacious media. The weird thing is that, although this is of course a deliberately retro game, the game it seeks to evoke isn’t that kind of retro. The concepts I’m describing here are completely outside of Atari Combat‘s ludic vocabulary. In this context, limited lives are both retro and whatever the opposite of “retro” is. They fit comfortably in neither time.

Spectromancer: Ending

Spectromancer‘s single-player campaign consists of a series of maps with assorted enemies on them. At any given point, you have several available choices of who to fight next, under differing conditions and for differing rewards: some grant new spells, some extra hit points or additional starting mana, some give stranger advantages. You ultimately have to defeat everything on the map to finish it, but the ordering can make a difference to how easy this is. In other words, it’s basically the Mega Man formula, although not nearly as pronounced here as there.

The campaign is pretty short: as I’ve observed about other CCG-derived computer games, it’s probably best regarded as a tutorial for two-player dueling. It provides some nice twists on gameplay at the end, though, such as when the victory condition is to hoard mana, or when you face an opponent who can only cast fire spells but gets five fire mana per turn instead of only one, or when you suddenly have to play a couple of matches as a Spectromancer. Being a Spectromancer means you don’t have the normal fire/water/earth/air elemental spells at all, but instead get five specializations: death, holy, mechanical, illusion, and control.

Illusion had been my own character’s normal specialization, and seemed to be the only one I could choose on my first play-through (probably because I hadn’t yet found the place to enter my registration key and the game was playing in demo mode). The others in that list (as well as a sixth, Chaos) were things I had encountered in enemies — Control seemed a particularly fearful thing to me, because its focus is on depowering the opponent and preventing you from doing stuff. But these are not the only specializations in the game: apparently the Steam bundle that I bought included some DLC defining a few more that I hadn’t seen at all, such as Sorcery and Demonology. Now that I’ve completed the Campaign mode once, I can start over with any of them.

But you know something? I’m probably not going to spend much time with these new options, or with the various other game modes. I’m trying out the remaining specialties in tournament mode (challenging a series of computer-controlled opponents without a plot) to see what they add, but other than that, I’m feeling like I’m pretty much done with this game. I’ve seen what it has to say.

It does have some pretty good ideas. If the campaign took me longer to complete, I could keep writing about one interesting twist per session and not run out of material for some time. I particularly liked the mechanic of the Elementals, a common highest-level summon: their attack power is equal to your mana pool in the corresponding element. This means that their strength is potentially unbounded, but only if you don’t weaken them by spending the mana. So once you have elementals in play, they distort your decisions. Also, if you summon an elemental as soon as you have enough mana, you spend all the mana in the act of summoning it and leave it with no attack strength at all — but it’s usually worth it anyway, because elementals also increase the rate of mana gain for their element.

One more thing I’d like to comment on before closing this: the plot. The campaign mode’s story is mostly forgettable, just your basic dark lord destined to rise again and chosen one seeking out the scattered fragments of an artifact in order to battle the encroaching darkness. But at the end, it manages a twist on the idea that I don’t recall seeing before [SPOILERS]: it ultimately turns out that, in the previous age, after the Sauron wannabe lost his bid for world domination, he repented and started to seek redemption. The player character has forgotten that he is none other than the same dark lord, risen again for the purpose of stopping what he put in motion a thousand years previously. I think the last game that I saw do something this clever with a Chosen One plot was The Longest Journey, which went in a rather different direction. Why are we not seeing more variations like this? Would they grow tiresome if we did?

Spectromancer: Mechanics in Detail

Usually it's not this even at this point.Spectromancer gives you a random assortment of 20 spells in each match, in a grid of four levels and five elements. The levels just correspond to increasing power and mana costs, and in the single-player campaign mode, you don’t have access to the fourth level at first. The elements are fire, water, air, earth, and a specialty that varies with the character — possible specialties include Cleric, Illusionist, Mechanist, and a few others. Each element has its own mana, which builds up at a constant rate of 1 unit per turn, unless altered by magical effects: certain creatures aid you by accumulating mana faster, and at least one creature decreases it for the opponent. This is a mechanic that would probably be unwieldy in an actual card game, but it’s fine when a computer is keeping track of it.

Note that I describe continuing magical effects as properties of creatures. That’s because summoning spells are the only continuing effects in the game. Anything that isn’t a summon is an instant. This is one of the game’s the most severe bits of streamlining. The effect on the design is that things that would be enchantments in a more M:tG-like system are instead things with hit points, and have to be put on the board, where they can be attacked and destroyed.

The board consists of six columns and two rows, one row for each player. When you summon a creature, you choose a column, and for the most part, it doesn’t move from there. This placement takes the place of assigning blockers. When your creatures attack — which they do every turn, with no option of holding them back — they’re blocked by the opposing creature in the same column. I remember seeing a CCG prototype with a similar board mechanic a number of years ago. For all I know, it may be commonplace in the more advanced sort of CCG, but I thought at the time that adding a board to a CCG seemed overly elaborate, too rules-heavy. The difference is that in a tabletop game, you have to read and understand the rules (if not their implications) before you can even begin playing. In Spectromancer, you can just play and learn the rules by observation. The ordering of the columns is usually unimportant, but some creatures have effects on the adjacent columns, which is the closest this game gets to a targeted enchantment. Also, combat gets resolved from left to right, which, in rare cases, can be important: if you kill a creature with a global effect, the combat in the remainder of the columns is resolved without that effect.

Combat is done in a similar manner to M:tG, but with one important difference: creatures have hit points, which persist from round to round. The middling-hardy creatures are effectively impossible to kill in a single turn, and have to be killed by degrees, which means that their owner is guaranteed at least one turn of whatever effects they have.

Spectromancer

The other day, Play This Thing featured Spectromancer as their game du jour. Since I already had a copy from one of those holiday bundles on Steam, this seemed like as good a cue as any to finally give it a try.

A glance at a screenshot is enough to make it clear that this is a Magic: the Gathering imitation, but that’s a misleading thing to call it for a number of reasons. For one thing, it carries the connotation that the designer is riding on Richard Garfield’s coattails, trying to find an untapped vein of the gold mine he discovered. But Spectromancer was co-designed by Richard Garfield himself, apparently with an eye towards correcting the flaws in the original, or what he perceives to be the flaws. The result is something that shares certain mechanics with M:tG, but not the really important ones.

This isn’t really a CCG at all, you see. It’s more accurate to describe it as a CCG-themed board game. Controversially, there’s no deck-building (just like in Duels of the Planeswalkers — perhaps they’re aiming for the same casual used-to-play-Magic-a-little audience). There isn’t even a deck. I once described how Etherlords simplified the “deck” concept into something easier for computers to deal with. Spectromancer takes this a step or two further. The cards that are available to you are chosen at random at the beginning of each match, and every spell that’s chosen is always available to be cast. The only limitation is your mana.

The gameplay does have a very M:tG-ish feel, but it’s almost unbelievably simplified. In M:tG, turns can run pretty long: you untap your cards, perform any upkeep resulting from continuing enchantments, draw a new card, tap lands to get mana, cast spells, choose creatures to attack, resolve combat, cast more spells. Obviously some bits of this can be simplified by a computer interface, but there’s a tendency for certain cards to mess that up, forcing you to make decisions during the upkeep phase or whatever. Here’s what you do on a turn in Spectromancer: You cast a spell. That’s it. You usually have to choose a target (in the case of a summoning spell, a target location), but that’s the only complication. Turns are short and sweet.

There’s more to say, but I’ll say it tomorrow, after I’ve played a bit more. It’s engaging enough that I’ll probably stick with it until I finish it.

Combat: The Luxury of Style

The 2001 remake of Combat could have easily gone another way: attempted realism. Given the theme of tanks, the developers could have tried to make a tank simulator. Any commercial remake would have had to expand greatly on the original in order to justify the price they intended to charge for it, and going for a detailed depiction of realistic military hardware would be one way to do that.

But they didn’t. They instead chose to make it about videogame tanks, blatantly unreal things that exist nowhere outside of software, gliding around on a sequence of floating platforms and ramps that have no history, serve no purpose but to host tank battles. These tanks don’t even have treads. They’re hovercraft, essentially, zipping along on some kind of glowing antigravity engines. This means that they’re capable of strafing left and right — often a useful technique, I’m finding, as it lets you dodge fire from an enemy you’re facing and at the same time saturate the area in the general direction of said enemy with bullets. (The bullets themselves are essentially sparklers.) You can’t aim your gun independent of the direction you’re facing, but at least you can face in a different direction than you’re moving. Not just by strafing, either: you can build up momentum and then spin around without affecting your trajectory. Sometimes the game feels more like Spacewar or Asteroids than Combat.

There’s a bit of a paradox here. The original Combat, and the arcade game it was based on, were, presumably, designed to give an experience that was the closest thing to a realistic tank battle that their programmers could create on the hardware at hand. The end result was highly stylized, but it was stylized by necessity. It isn’t until you have hardware that’s capable of a more realistic simulation that it becomes possible to choose a stylized approach, and this makes the stylization more conspicuous, even though in absolute terms it’s less extreme than in the original. I recall observing something similar with respect to the King’s Quest series.

Combat

I recently read Nick Montfort and Ian Bogost’s Racing the Beam, a book about the Atari 2600, with a particular focus on how the games written for it were affected by the limitations and affordances of its rather odd hardware design. I highly recommend it to anyone who reads this blog. The Atari 2600 was my childhood console, and reading about it made me nostalgic enough to pull out a game written specifically to prey on this very nostalgia.

The original Combat was the first cartridge to be bundled with the 2600, and, along with Pong, one of the two games that the platform was specifically designed around. Apparently it was an adaptation and extension of an arcade game called Tank, although the cartridge also featured airplane modes. It was a 2D shooter that required two players — there was no expectation of computer-controlled opponents in those days. Matches lasted exactly two minutes and 16 seconds — I have no idea why they chose that specific number — at the end of which whoever got the most hits on the other guy won. Some playfields had obstacles that blocked movement and fire, others were completely open. It was all very simple and abstract: the tanks were single-colored and blocky, the walls even moreso.

But that’s not what I’m playing. I’m playing the 2001 remake, part of the wave of “classic” game remakes that hit the stores around that time. And of all the remakes I’ve played, this is probably the one that has the least to do with the game it’s based on. It’s a single-player level-based 3D shooter, where the goal on each level is to reach an exit point. The designers kept the tanks (and ditched the airplanes), they adapted the simple abstractness into a sort of Tron-like stylization, and they kept the complete lack of backstory (a laudable decision, and one made by too few of these remakes). Everything else about the original, they just ignored.

And honestly, if it had been up to me, I’d probably have made similar decisions. I suppose that Team Fortress 2 has proved that pure time-limited PvP combat is still viable, if you’re willing to spend years honing it. But this game was made with the constraint of trying to be recognizable as Combat, and that must be difficult for a modern game. Even the most formulaic adaptation possible (which this one is pretty close to being) has to add an awful lot. Heck, a formulaic adaptation has to add more than a clever one, because the original was made with a mindset so far-removed from where the game industry eventually wound up going. I’ve joked before that the general formula for the remakes churned out during this period was to just support 3D acceleration in some way and add power-ups, but the original Combat doesn’t just lack 3D and power-ups, it lacks basic concepts like levels, and lives, and an ending.

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