Archive for the 'Sandbox' Category

Vice City: Money

Vice City‘s plot is about money. The fact that I can even say this is illustrative of the difference between this game and its predecessors: the first two GTAs didn’t have any real plot to speak of, while GTA3 had some kind of revenge premise that only made a difference in the beginning and the end, by which point I had forgotten about it. But this time around, the protagonist has spoken lines, and a fairly large proportion of those lines are “What about the money?”, so it’s harder to forget. The premise is a drug deal gone wrong. A suitcase full of large bills, belonging to Tommy’s boss Forelli, is in the hands of persons unknown, and all your main-arc missions, however generic they may be, indirectly serve the purpose of tracking it down.

Pursuit of money has always been a big part of the series, of course. But previously, it was mostly a matter of game mechanics. Your cash functions as your score. In the first two games, your primary goal on each level was simply to accumulate a certain quantity of money, which would unlock the next level. GTA3, in what I take to be a nod towards the earlier games, made you pay a $100000 fee to access the mission that got you off the first island — but for the first time in the series, it was diegetic, the money being paid to an NPC, ostensibly for the large quantity of explosives that the mission required.

Here in Vice City, there isn’t even a fee. Content is much less locked-away: you need to go through a certian set of missions to get off your initial island, just like in GTA3, but the entire city unlocks all at once. It’s probably more accurate to think of this as completing the tutorial missions. There’s still a strong pressure to keep on accumulating money, though, because there’s so much to buy with it now — in particular, safehouses.

A safehouse is a place where you can save your game, and most of them also have attached garages where you can stash vehicles safely. (Cars tend to disappear when you get too far away from them otherwise.) They’re strictly a convenience, but a safehouse close to the missions or rampages you’re attempting can greatly shorten the die-and-retry cycle. Still, it would be dishonest of me to claim that this is the reason I buy them. I buy them because they’re there. Because they’re available in greater quantities or higher prices than I can afford at any given moment, and that gives me something to strive for. It’s a way to make the ever-increasing cash rewards meaningful.

The suitcase full of cash? That’s cutscene money, in the same sense as cutscene deaths. Unconnected from the quotidian hundreds or thousands that pass through my hands. Getting it presumably means passing it on to Forelli, so it’s not like I’ll spend it. It would be kind of neat if a persistent player could simply do enough crime to pay back Forelli without finding the original, but the game cannily prevents us from making a serious attempt by simply never telling us how much money it is.

Vice City: Rampage!

The Rampage or Kill Frenzy has been a feature of GTA from the very beginning. The basic idea is that you’re temporarily given a weapon with unlimited ammo, and you have two minutes to kill a certain number of enemy gang members (or occasionally innocent bystanders or even cars), which will spawn in greater-than-normal numbers around you while the rampage is in progress. If you succeed, you get a cash reward that increases as you pass more rampages. This could obviously seed a feedback loop that encourages people to keep seeking out new rampages until they’re exhausted, but I personally never got that far into it, even though they’re necessary for 100% completion. Rampages carry the risk of harm, and can sometimes attract police attention. But they are a good opportunity to try out weapons that might not otherwise see much use. In particular, it’s often possible to find a rampage for a weapon before it becomes available in the main game.

The one thing that’s changed from the original GTA kill frenzies is the way that they’re triggered. Originally, the trigger was picking up certain specific weapons lying out in the open. The kill frenzy weapons didn’t look any different from ordinary weapons, so you’d sometimes find yourself in Kill Frenzy mode unexpectedly. Vice City instead uses special rampage icons that float in the air, slowly rotating. I call this an improvement, but it does mean that when you attempt a rampage for the first time, you don’t know in advance whether you’re going to be rampaging with a rocket launcher or a katana. This is a significant piece of information to withhold from the player — particularly if, like me, you’re doing it primarily for combat practice.

Speaking of which, I think I did in fact gain from my practice, and I intend to switch back to missions in my next session. But I think the main thing I got out of doing multiple rampages was an appreciation of how much easier combat is using mouse/keyboard controls. I had long since given up on using a controller for first-person sniping, but now I’m giving up on it in general. Even driving seems more comfortable with mouse/keyboard controls at this point. Strange, considering how relieved I was to get joystick controls working in GTA3. There may be some grass-is-always-greener in effect here, with any control scheme I’ve recently switched to feeling better simply because it’s different and alleviates the inconveniences I’m aware of at that moment (while introducing others I’m not paying attention to yet). But even taking that into account, mouse just seems like the way to go in any situation where you’re aiming a gun.

Vice City: Back to Packages

I seem to have gotten stuck on missions for the time being. There are three available to me, all involving new vehicles: stealing a fast boat, racing a boat through a series of checkpoints within a time limit, and stealing a tank. I recall stealing a tank back in the original GTA, but this is the first appearance of drivable boats in the series. They handle more or less like extra-swervy cars.

At any rate, I’ve come close to passing the racing mission, and will likely pass it after a few more tries, but the two vehicle-stealing missions are really shooting missions, with more armed guards than I can easily handle. You can’t even try to steal the tank while the driver is still inside, which, if my puzzle-solving skills haven’t failed me, means you have to slaughter its entire escort of soldiers, then park a vehicle in front of it, thereby forcing the driver to get out to move the vehicle instead of just having one of the other soldiers do it. If I’m going to take on an entire platoon single-handed, I’m going to need to get better at handling weapons. This may require further tweaking to the control scheme.

So I spent most of last night’s session not on missions, but on exploring the islands and looking for hidden packages. The packages look different from the ones in GTA3: instead of a rounded bundle presumably full of drugs, they look like a small green idol. If there’s a story to that, I don’t know it. The mechanics haven’t changed, though. As in GTA3, there are 100 of them, and each unique or interesting feature of the city hides exactly one. And every ten packages gets you an additional item that’s always available back at your hideout. With ten packages, you get body armor, which is a must-have for any risky mission. I’ve got twenty now, and was disappointed that the second reward turned out to be a chainsaw, which is only situationally helpful — you’d be hard-pressed to get close enough to those soldiers for it to do any good.

I may be frustrating myself by going about this with the wrong attitude, too. When I played GTA3, I did my first explorations purely for exploration’s sake, not for the sake of an edge in combat. The fact that I found hidden packages was a bonus. Possibly I’ve gotten tired of simply poking around virtual landscapes without a goal. Certainly I did a great deal of that when I was playing World of Warcraft, but it’s in the nature of games that we eventually learn what we needed to learn from them and move on, like a child who’s solved tic-tac-toe. One of the strengths of the GTA “sandbox” model is that it supports multiple activities, so that you can still keep enjoying the game after tiring of one. But my lack of success with the missions is hampering me there.

Having said all that, it strikes me that what I really should be doing is Rampages. Rampages are an aspect of the game that I haven’t really explored much, having pretty much decided that they were too rich for my blood back in GTA3. Plus, doing a bunch of them would help to hone my combat skills. Maybe I’ll post about those next time.

Vice City: Awkwardness Revisited

Well, I’ve made it off the initial island. As in GTA3, progress from one part of the city to another is arbitrarily gated by missions: the ostensible reason you can’t use the bridges just happens to go away the moment you have an in-story reason to be on the other side. Also as in GTA3, the first island’s climactic mission is the one that introduces a gun that you can aim and fire in first-person mode, which is a great deal easier to do with a mouse than with a gamepad. Having been through this situation once, I did not long hesitate to put my controller down.

Using the mouse for first-person aiming makes things easier, but I have to ask: does it improve the experience of the game? I think it does in this instance, because the mission is frustratingly difficult without it. (Even with a mouse, it took me a couple of tries.) But it definitely isn’t the way the game was meant to be played. And it’s not a trivial question, because awkward controls can be a core element of gameplay. Lately there’s been a spate of games based entirely on struggling with humorously awkward control schemes, like Surgeon Simulator 2013, Probably Archery, and Enviro-Bear. Their lineage can probably be traced to QWOP, but the idea of deriving challenge through a suboptimal UI has been played straight for a long time. A colleague of mine once pointed it out as the basis of the 1982 arcade game Gravitar: it gives you a spaceship with a gun on its nose and a thruster on its tail, which means you have to do aerial somersaults to remain aloft while taking out enemies on the ground. Your ship would be a lot more practical, and much easier to use, if it could shoot downward. But where’s the fun in that?

And really, the GTA games pretty much fit into the deliberate-awkward-controls genre. Your control over your vehicle is imperfect, at least to start with. Lacking control, you skid and swerve, run red lights, drive in the wrong lane and on the sidewalk and so forth — in short, you drive recklessly, and that, as I have said before, is the core pleasure of the game. But I suppose it’s different from the other awkward-controls games in that they generally ask you to overcome the awkwardness, rather than indulge and savor it.

Vice City: New Stuff

When I started playing GTA3 seven years ago, I spent a good long time just wandering around, admiring the scenery, driving recklessly, and looking for hidden packages. Enjoying the feel of the thing instead of pursuing goals. Admittedly, this was largely because it took me so long to resolve certain hardware issues. But even taking that into account, I feel like I’ve been pursuing missions a little more single-mindedly in Vice City. It’s still an open world, but I pretty much know how it works by now. I don’t need to go through the initial-experiments phase again.

There are new elements, though. And the designers have been considerate enough to introduce them one by one over the course of the missions. Here’s what I’ve seen so far:

  • Outfits. Several missions require you to be dressed appropriately to fit in, starting with a soiree that you can’t attend until you’ve changed into a Don-Johnson-style T-shirt-and-suit-jacket combo. You can optionally continue to wear these get-ups when they’re no longer necessary. Outfits here are monolithic things, though, with none of the detailed mixing and customization you find in later games in the genre. This was basically just Rockstar experimenting with the idea of outfits to see if it’s something players would want — trying it on, so to speak.
  • Melee weapons. GTA3 gave you only one: the baseball bat. Vice City has a fairly wide assortment, including several sorts of knives, golf clubs, and nightsticks scavenged from fallen police officers, all with different attributes. One assassination mission requires you to use a chainsaw, which is so unwieldy that you can’t run very fast with it. You can still run just a little faster than your target, but the mission goes a lot faster if you think of putting the chainsaw away while running.
  • Motorcycles. They’re smaller than cars, and thus can weave through traffic better, but they afford far less protection. If you run into a brick wall at full speed in a car, it damages the car, but you’re safe. If you do it on a motorcycle, it’s pretty much an instant death. Although there weren’t any motorcycles in GTA3, they aren’t really new to the series. There were motorcycles in the original top-down Grand Theft Auto, which had bonus items that could only be reached through ramp-jumps in places inaccessible by car. The mechanics of the thing are pretty much the same here as there.
  • RC helicopters. GTA3 had this gag involving radio-controlled toy cars with bombs in them. The helicopters here are similar, except flying and much harder to control, which is probably realistic.
  • Purchasing property? I haven’t actually been able to do this yet, and don’t know how much of a mechanic it is. There’s one building I know that has a tag outside that, when activated, informs you that you can’t buy it yet. And I could have sworn I saw another building that instead gave me a price, which I couldn’t afford at the time, but now that I can afford it, I can’t find it again. I know that buying buildings is a big thing in the Saints Row series, a competitor of GTA, so maybe that started here.

GTA: Vice City

So, I’m starting to try to pick up this blog again. We’ll see if it lasts. To give it a foundation, I’ve started by re-reading the posts from the beginning, intending to complete any games that I started and play sequels to any games that have them. The first relevant game is GTA3, and so I’ve started playing its immediate sequel, Vice City.

I thought for sure I had this on disc — I certainly have the next sequel, San Andreas, still shrinkwrapped on my shelf — but apparently I don’t. I still feel like I had it at one point and possibly lost it. It hardly matters. All these games have been on Steam for ages, and frequently get put on sale for measly sums, so I’ve had it there for a while, just as unplayed as San Andreas. It didn’t work properly with my gamepad at first, but things have gotten a lot easier since my fumblings with its predecessor seven years ago: a mod that replicates the Xbox input scheme on PC was just a web-search away.

What I know going in: This is the one where the controversy really seemed to pick up steam. So far it strikes me as more puerile than offensive, though. Also, this is the first of the GTA games to give the player a specific character, with a name and spoken dialogue. This doesn’t seem to make a whole lot of difference so far: even when he talks, Tommy Vercetti’s personality is no more than the implied personality of the previous games’ mute protagonists. He’s a thug for hire and that’s about it.

Vice City was one of the three cities from the original Grand Theft Auto, and clearly based on Miami as portrayed in Miami Vice: sleek cars, bright sunshine, 80s fashions. Cyan and magenta all over the place. Michael Jackson and Yes on the radio. This is a period piece, much like the London 1969 expansion to the original GTA. It even emphasizes its retroness by starting the intro cutscene with a fake Commodore 64 loading screen. By now, it’s doubly retro, a glimpse of how the 80s looked twelve years ago.

To my eye, it doesn’t look too retro. The character models have hands that are mittens, without distinct fingers, but other than that, once you’ve cranked up the resolution it looks pretty much okay. Except that the women all walk funny, swaying their hips in a way that I guess is supposed to be sexy but just looks rather difficult and uncomfortable.

Solar 2

Two missions remainingSolar 2 is a 2D game that puts you in the role of a heavenly body — first an asteroid, later a planet or star. As the game’s blurb puts it: “In most games you see stars in the background, you shoot asteroids or you live on planets. But in Solar 2 you ARE these objects!” — which is a little disingenuous, because in fact you see stars in the background here as well; it uses a static starfield-with-nebulas image to provide a sense of motion when you go zooming around the vast depths of space. Which is something you can do. Unlike all the other stars and asteroids and so forth you encounter, you scoff at Newton’s laws and roam about under your own power, like the little spaceships sometimes found near life-bearing planets, blasting apart asteroids that get too close.

The way that the spaceships go about their own asteroid-demolition and largely ignore you combines with the free roaming in a very large 2D environment to make it feel at times like a much more relaxed version of Sinistar. The way you grow by accretion, first by ramming into asteroids and later by pulling in planetoids that have gone into orbit around you, is a little Katamari-ish, particularly if you decide to take it to its limit and become a universe-devouring black hole. But, oddly enough, the game that it reminded me of the most is the original Grand Theft Auto. And that’s because of the missions.

Missions are assigned by a godlike disembodied voice (presented in text boxes, not voice acting), which sometimes interrupts partway through a mission to assign new goals, or even just to make snarky comments. A typical mission might involve destroying a particular planet, or drawing another planet to a particular location by tugging it with your gravity, or surviving waves of attacking spaceships, or dodging as the godlike voice throws a bunch of stars at you at high speed. When there’s a particular place you need to go, the familiar GTA-style quest arrow points the way. The voice’s narration provides silly pretexts for them all: the asteroid you’re trying to make bigger is an old friend, the planet that you have to decide whether to destroy or defend is populated entirely by kittens, etc. There’s a touch of GLaDOS in its fantasies.

There are three sets of missions: one set for when you’re an asteroid, another for when you’re a planet, and a third for when you’re a star. (I wasted some time after I first turned into a planet by restarting to see the Asteroid missions I hadn’t seen yet. This is unnecessary; although there’s no in-game way to go back to earlier stages, you can do so through the main menu without losing your progress.) You actually go through more stages than these three — a neutron star, for example, or a life-bearing planet with your own fleet of defensive spaceships — but these sub-forms do not get distinct missions. Black holes get just one mission, assigned automatically, but all other stages get a choice of several.

How do you indicate your choice? More quest arrows! Whenever you’re not engaged in a mission, some arbitrary circles of space are assigned to be mission start points, with an arrow pointing to each. And I really do mean “arbitrary”. There’s no permanent terrain in this game, so there’s no particular mission-receiving place. The mission start points are just arranged around wherever you are, and have no particular relationship to the missions. Frequently the first stage in a mission is just to go someplace else. But you have to go to the mission start to be told where.

There’s no real in-game logic for this means of assigning and choosing missions. There are, however, two points of convenience: it requires no additional mechanics beyond what’s already been established for directing the player to locations, and it’s basically familiar to a large portion of the audience from its similarity to GTA. Instead of arbitrary circles placed dynamically in space, GTA used statically-placed pay phones, but the principle was the same. Whenever you weren’t in a mission, you got a quest arrow for each phone that had a mission for you. Choosing your mission by choosing which phone to pick up didn’t really make much more sense there than in Solar 2, but by grounding it in something concrete, it masked the arbitrariness a little better. Solar 2, using the same mechanic, makes it obvious how illogical it always was.

GTA: Challenges vs. Activities

An activityToday I finished GTA3. That is, I finished the last mission, which was indeed the one described in my last post. I’m still missing three hidden packages, and the game itself calls my current state “43% complete”, but I’ve completed the story and triggered the closing credits. The credits roll over a series of views of Liberty City from high vantage points, and as they scrolled by, I tried to spot any sign of the missing Hidden Packages in the background.

Completing the final mission took many tries. At the beginning of the mission, Catalina’s goons take your weapons away, which makes the rest of the mission more difficult. You basically have to start over with just a pistol and scavenge new weapons from progressively better-armed opponents, like the whole game in miniature. After a few attempts like this, I started to wonder if it would be worthwhile to instead go back to my hideout immediately after the mission starts and pick up all the free weapons I had earned by finding hidden packages. There’s a time limit, but the hideout isn’t all that far from where you start the mission. In the end, I did not complete the mission this way, but I think that this approach would have made it much easier if my hideout had had the one weapon capable of bringing down a helicopter: the rocket launcher, earnable by finding all 100 hidden packages.

So I did some more unsuccessful scouting for hidden packages, and while I wandered looking for them, I tried out some of the things to do in Liberty City that I had been neglecting. I think these things can be meaningfully divided into two categories: challenges and activities.

By “challenge”, I mean something resembling a mission: you are assigned a goal, it is difficult to achieve that goal, and once you’ve done it, it’s done. It has some kind of permanent effect on the gameworld, at the very least deleting itself from the pool of available challenges. Optional challenges in GTA3 include Rampages, various missions not connected to the storyline and assigned by payphone, and certain special vehicles that, when entered, offer you an opportunity to earn extra cash by racing through a set of checkpoints before a timer runs out.

By “activity”, I mean something that has no final goal, that is not difficult, that you can do as much or as little as you please, and that, if it’s connected to the larger game at all, provides some incremental benefit rather than a single significant change to game state. In a typical CRPG, killing low-level monsters for the sake of XP would be an activity. Activities in GTA3 mostly involve service vehicles of various kinds. Steal a taxi, and you can drive passengers around for fares. Steal an ambulance and you can deliver wounded people to the hospital. Steal a fire engine and you can extinguish flaming vehicles. Steal a police car and you can go into “vigilante” mode, hunting down and killing assigned criminals. Steal an ice cream truck… well, okay, there isn’t a special activity for ice cream trucks, but there should be.

The fire engine activity is of particular interest, because while you’re doing it, the fire engine seems to be invulnerable. Since it’s also massive and powerful, this makes for the perfect opportunity to smash your way down the road, not caring what happens to the other cars. Indeed, I find that the easiest way to aim your firehose at the car that you’re supposed to be dousing is to just ram it at full speed.

The vigilante activity is also of note, because unlike the other vehicle activities, you can exit the car and continue the hunt. This is crucial, because police cars are prone to flipping over and exploding.

Now, although I tried all kinds of challenges and activities this afternoon, I spent most of my time on activities. An activity can be a nice break from a difficult challenge (such as the game’s final mission), and can give you an opportunity to hone your skills in a low-risk environment, which is really what gaming is all about in the broader world. Thus, activities are a good thing in a game, provided that they’re optional.

GTA3: Climax or Transition?

Catalina makes her moveThere’s something peculiar going on at this point in the story. Ray has fled to Miami (what, not Vice City?), Donald Love has vanished without a trace, and Asuka and Maria were abducted by the Colombian cartel. More specifically, they were abducted by a woman named Catalina, who apparently has some bad history with the player character. (It seems this was established in the opening cutscene, but it’s been so long since I watched it that I don’t remember her at all). Catalina is turning into the story’s chief bad guy. No, make that the story’s chief antagonist. Everyone in the game, including the PC, is a bad guy.

So all my former sources of plot-related missions are gone in one way or another. The only mission now available is delivering ransom money to Catalina herself. On receiving it, she breaks her promise to free Maria, insults you with great vehemence, and then leaves her henchmen to kill you while she escapes in a helicopter. What happens when you catch up to her, I can’t say; I haven’t managed to do that yet.

And this leads to the peculiar thing: this could easily be the end of the game. The story has come full circle, everything has funnelled into this one confrontation, and the car-vs-helicopter chase seems kind of ultimate. But it might just be the end of a chapter. The first chapter similarly funnels into a single mission requiring a large amount of cash after you complete all the missions for the Mafia in Portland. As a result of finishing that mission, you gain access to Staunton Island and can get new missions from the Yakuza. The same narrowing of options occurs in the second chapter, and ends when Shoreside Vale becomes available, but you still get your missions in Staunton, even as the content of those missions takes you into the newly-opened territory. Catalina’s ransom demand is the first mission that starts in Shoreside Vale. Maybe this is just the start of a shift to the new area, and a new series of missions will follow, probably involving Catalina in some way.

This uncertainty is something peculiar to games. When reading a book, you always know how far you are from the end. When watching a movie, you may not know exactly, but you know approximately how long it is and how long you’ve been watching it. With a game, all you have to go on is the game’s content. A lot of games make it obvious when you’re approaching the end, by making it clear what your ultimate objective is and providing some metric of how close you are to that objective. For example, if a game is divided into levels, and you’re told in adavance how many levels a game has, the number of levels you’ve completed serves as such a metric. But this sort of thing is the result of deliberate design decisions, and not inherent to the medium. The geography of Liberty City, and the design of the first chapter, suggest that this is a story with three chapters tied to the three districts, but the missions in what I’ve been calling “chapter 3” call this into doubt.

GTA3: Dodo

My proudest momentWith access to the airport comes access to aircraft. Not many, though. There’s a herd of jumbo jets just kind of sitting around, and a pile of helicopters off in one corner, but the only craft you can actually fly is the Dodo, a small prop plane with an absurdly small wingspan.

And when I say you can fly it, I mean this in the loosest possible sense. It isn’t really an airplane designed for flying. (Maybe it would be more aerodynamic if they put the rest of the wings on.) The way it works is: you position yourself on a runway, you push the “go forward” button, you wait until you’ve got a good head of speed, you pull the joystick back, you rise off the ground briefly, you fall back to the ground. Usually you spend two seconds airborne, but with repeated attempts, I find I can spend up to four or even five seconds before touching down. I’ve had longer flights than that in a car.

Perhaps I’m doing something wrong. There are no in-game instructions for flying the dodo (or if there are, they flashed by while I wasn’t paying attention), so it’s possible that there’s some button I should be pushing that I’m not. The thing is, I’m eager to get this contraption aloft if possible, because if it is, there are probably some hidden packages in places that are only accessible that way. There are some promising spots I’d like to look at, such as inside the stadium on Staunton Island. Since I’ve found 96 out of 100 hidden packages so far, this may well be all that stands in the way of a complete collection and, with it, free rocket launchers.

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