On the rain-slick precipice of darkness (and medics)
I am torn between my dislike of every little person on the Internet reviewing a new game in a pathetic attempt to seem trendy and original for playing a popular game and my own desire to review a new game in a pathetic attempt to seem trendy and original for playing a popular game. Guess which side of me won?
If you've been paying attention to my Steam account recently, you'll see that in addition to my love of sand I've been playing a great deal of On the rain-slick precipice of darkness episode 1, a game brought to the world by Penny Arcade's prose-elemental Jerry Holkins (known to the world as Tycho) and his artist cohort Mike Krahulik (Gabe).
As you'll recall from my web comic post, Penny Arcade is my favourite comic. After nearly a decade of mercilessly mocking games they set out to make their own series of games based on their own comic. They sold 16 500 copies (scroll down to Gabe's first post) of their game over Xbox, and who-knows-how-many more through their distribution company Greenhouse. In spite of years of being hardasses on their fellow game reviewers, the game is getting rather positive reviews, with better reviews being published as time goes on.
The game itself is designed around a comic look and feel; a design which succeeds tremendously and not just because all of the drawn and written content is from Penny Arcade itself. The 3D graphics are cell-shaded to give it a comic-like look. The in-game dialogue is speech and thought bubbles. Most impressive are the cutscenes. Each cutscene is two-dimensional instead of three. It's difficult to describe, but it's as if each frame in a usual comic were animated, and a page of such an animated comic makes up a cutscene. The cutscenes blend flawlessly with the regular in-game graphics, and indeed your customizable character is featured in full action in the cutscenes.
A game without action and adventure is hardly a game at all, and Precipice is not without its combat. The game plays as if it's meant to be completed, with hints readily available whenever necessary. The story is not so complex that one would ever become confused and there is little to no thinking work required in completing any puzzles. The game's difficulty (and indeed more fun) comes from the combat. Anyone who's played Chrono Trigger is familiar with the active-time battle system Precipice employs, though it introduces a new idea of "tiers". Each character can either use an item immediately, use a weak attack after waiting a short while, or use a very strong attack after a long wait. The strong attacks are augmented with small minigames — the better you do in the minigame, the stronger your attack. The combat is the second-best part of the game (second only to the writing), and I greatly look forward to seeing this system fleshed out and taken to its limits in the future episodes in the series.
The writing is, well, exactly like Penny Arcade. Off-the-wall humour and completely deranged characters are par for the course in this game. If you're the kind of person who can see humour in the more paranormal effects of urinology or perhaps a sack of hoboes, then chances are you're reading Penny Arcade already. If you're not, well, On the rain-slick precipice of darkness is not for you.
While I'm talking about games, I want to revisit my rather pessimistic view on unlockable content in online games. I'm not going to repeat myself and I haven't changed my mind: unlockable content serves to do nothing less than alienate players and create tiers of players based on what they've completed in the past rather than current skill.
Valve has released its version of unlockable content in the multiplayer-only team-based FPS Team Fortress 2 for the medic player class. Players must complete 36 achievements, from relatively easy to nearly impossible, in order to unlock three new medic items. At the time of this post, only 1.4% of TF2 players have completed all 36 achievements.
When Valve released the patch that enabled the new achievements and medic items, servers began to fill with medics. In a typical server at the time, usually about half the players were medics (previously there would be at most two medics on a team of 10-12 players) all trying to get as many achievements as possible with little regard for the game at hand. This overabundance of medics upset the balance of power in many maps, giving teams several easy wins. After a few weeks, this medic flood died out and game balance was restored for the most part. However, in response to the new content, several dozen "grind" servers were created which bent the rules of the game in order to help people get their achievements as fast as possible. I don't know about the rest of the 1.4% of players who got all of their objectives, but I and many others used these servers to great advantage.
I wish I could take pleasure in saying "I told you so" to Valve, but I can't. The hit to the game was too great. Too many players playing one class (out of a total of nine) when that class wasn't the best class to play from the point of view of the team upset the game a great deal and managed to suck the fun right out of some of it. I'm very thankful for the grind servers, since their very existence lets those of us who want to play tell the achievement kiddies that if they want to grind achievements they should go join a grind server.
Achievements would be nice if many players were, like me, stable and understanding enough to grind when on grind servers and play the fucking game on regular servers. I can't tell you how many times I've been screwed over by medic teammates who were just looking out of opportunities to get achievements rather than actually playing the game and helping the team. Good job, guys.