The Frag Limit

Battlefield: Bad Company 2 – The Importance of Graphics
December 23, 2012, 12:19 pm
Filed under: Side Strafe | Tags: , ,

A few months ago I wrote a short blog post discussing the importance of sound in Bad Company 2. After playing the game some more since that time (bringing my total time played close to 150 hours) I have also come to realize that there is more than just sound at work in the game. Due to this epiphany it seems that now would be a good time to discuss the importance of graphics in this game (and in all modern day FPS games for that matter).

Similar to how sound operates in Bad Company 2 the graphics of the game help create an “added value” to the gameplay experience. While some believe that the gorgeous graphics may not be necessary, I tend to disagree and think that the graphics of the game are an integral part of the entire experience. The graphics lend themselves to creating a better game instead of distracting players from it, as critics suggest. While I understand the argument about perserving the purity of gameplay, I can’t agree that graphics, in the case of Bad Company 2, detract or distort the overall gameplay structure. Let’s take a look at why I have come to this conclusion.

In older competitive games, and even occasionally in newer ones, gameplay was king. Quake 3, Return to Castle Wolfenstein, Counter-Strike, Tribes, Unreal and so forth all emphasized gameplay. Gameplay was first and graphics were second. Sure some of these games had decent graphics, but the graphics were always part and parcel to the gameplay experience itself. The graphics never rose above their lot in life than to just “pretty up” the place where the action occurred. In the overwhelming majority of these cases maps where created for gameplay purposes alone and graphics were added to just “put the lipstick on the pig” if you will. This approach was widely accepted through the “caulk block” style of mapmaking (a term from the Quake mapmaking lineage which focuses on designing maps for gameplay first and then for asthetics).

Nowadays we have an almost reverse situation: Graphics are king. In most of the important games today (Call of Duty and Battlefield series) most of the emphasis is on graphics and perhaps less is on gameplay. While gameplay is still strongly considered, it has probably lost a lot of clout that it once had – or, at least, it is not as “critical” as it once was. Gamers today appreciate great graphics and, as long as the games play well, they are not so concerned with really outstanding gameplay (this of course refers only to competitive, multiplayer FPS gaming). To get an example of what I mean here simply consider the older games to the newer ones (Tribes 2 to Tribes: Ascend, RTCW to Wolfenstein (2009), and Call of Duty: United Offensive to MW3, etc).

But what about Bad Company 2? Or in that case, what about all of these other games which I just said focused less on gameplay than on graphics? Does Bad Company 2 really suffer gameplay wise because of its graphics? Or does it just seem like that (especially when studied from the lens of a late 90’s/early 2000’s point of view)? Is Bad Company 2 really any less of a game (gameplay wise) because of it’s superb graphics? Perhaps the game is just different; and as a result of its focus on providing high quality graphics the gameplay is different as well. Perhaps it is not even fair to consider the two seperate eras of multiplayer gaming in the same way in the gameplay department. I believe this may be true because; the graphics of today’s FPS games lend themselves to increase gameplay opportunities. It is the very graphics which are despised by some groups that lend themselves to manifest an abudent gameplay environment. Let me explain.

In Bad Company 2 (and in other contemporary titles), the graphics are often “bettered” or “improved” by adding additional world objects. For instance, if we look at the video above, we see a comparision of the same map in both Battlefield 1942 (2002) and Battlefield 3 (2011). One thing that is immediately noticeable when comparing the two maps is that the original map has far less world objects than the newer version of the map. The BF3 version contians a whole range of different objects which “litter” the landscape. Such things as busted-up concrete walls, oil drums, fences, crates, wires, antennas, shrubs, signs, billboards, heavy machinery, light machinery, rock structures, garbage and so on and so forth. All of this stuff which makes the game “better” in a graphic sense (or, at least, makes it more realistic), also adds to the gameplay experience. In essence, all of this stuff allows for more opportunities to hide and conceal oneself. And due to this new opportunity to hide and conceal the tactical and strategic opportunities for the overall gameplay aspect increase. Indeed, the gameplay increases proportionally to the amount of junk littering the landscape (to an extent). For this reason, one can now say that the graphics are not just there to make the world “prettier” or “more realistic”, but instead are there to also help encourage a finer gameplay experience.

If we look at the same video that I posted in my “Bad Company 2 – The Importance of Sound” post, we can see some of the things that I am describing here in action. While the player in the video is mostly “running and gunning” like a maniac, we can still notice how the abundant world objects in the map landscape help “sheild” him from other players. Likewise, he is also “sheilded” from seeing other players to a certain distance. In his first kill in the video, for example, due to the thick shrubbery and forest, the player cannot see the enemy until he is almost right on top of him. In an older game, that enemy would have been spotted a lot earlier due to less world objects in the landscape. If we examine the rest of the video in the same manner we will notice a number of different situations which all have the same type of tactical asthetic to them. The player and the enemy (or enimies) typically don’t spot each other until they are at a somewhat closer range.

The “closeness” of these types of experiences in contemporary FPS games creates a whole new range of gameplay opportunities. While the orginal intention to add these world objects to the landscape may have been driven by a desire to have “better graphics” (or, more “realistic graphics”), the end result is a world environment which is much more lush, dense and finer grained. This “lushness” has, as we have seen here, created a whole new range of gameplay opportunities and situations – ones that we indeed cannot dismiss as being trivial. The lush world of our modern day games has created a whole new gameplay experience. To hide in the thick brush, to take cover behind a low concrete barrier with concrete rumble laid asunder, to sneak up behind an enemy from the maw of a burning pile of tires, to camp out in a destroyed bunker, to wait and then strike and attack from the cover of a pillbox or small antenna radar room – these are the things which make modern games great. These are the things which have been created for “graphics”, but have incidentally improved, to an impressive extent, the world of modern day gameplay.

Creating a Persona in Online FPS Games
August 8, 2012, 10:39 am
Filed under: Side Strafe | Tags: , , ,

Multiplayer FPS games have been around for some time now.  And over the years these games have done a number of different things to create different types of environments for gamers to create “online personas”.  Such things as name tags, clan tags, skins, mods and other customizations have allowed gamers to distinguish themselves in the gaming arena.  Typically, the more of this type of customization in any particular game has made gamers generally happier and more satisfied with the overall game experience of a game as this type of customization has allowed for players to say “this is me” and “this is what I can do”.  Classic games such as Return to Castle Wolfentstein and Quake 3 (among others) specifically allowed players to add a large number of different characters (such as !, $, *, :, ?) and a number of different colors to modify their names.  This, in addition to skins and mods, made these game very personal and unique for each and every player who played.

Moving along into more recent territory, FPS games now-a-days have almost altogether left behind player customization.  With the exception to a handful of games that let players buy or create their own skins, there are almost no games today that feature any kind of mod support to allow players to modify their skins as they see fit.  This is a huge change from the last generation of FPS games where modding was an important part to the overall game experience.   Likewise, games these days have almost altogether disallowed the modification of names and clan tags.  Almost all games these days force players to use a boring white text for their names and also force players to use a “standard” clan tag (for example, using only bracket’s instead of other special characters).  These things may seem relatively minor, but in comparison to the games of yesteryear, there is virtually no way to distinguish oneself inside the game world and this is very unfortunate.

Just comparing the differences between the two screenshots posted here (the screenshot above is from the new game Tribes: Ascend released in 2011 and the screenshot above that is from Return to Castle Wolfenstein released in 2001), one can immediately see the difference in naming convention and how that convention can change the “identity” of the unique individuals in each game.  While it may not seem like an incredibly important difference – and perhaps the screenshot where all the names are white may looks a little prettier – by simply allowing players more flexibility in creating their names, game designers also give players a huge amount of freedom in defining their own unique personalities.  One example is this; in the game Return to Castle Wolfenstein, players could modify their names and clan tags to reflect and adhere to an overall clan “theme”.  For example, there once was a clan called “WolfJeager” and their clan colors were mint green and black.  They used these colors because it was also the same colors that they used for their website, forum posts and other community sites.  Since WolfJeager maintained this consistency between every place they frequented, WolfJeager created a certain “online presence”.  And everywhere one saw the colors mint green and black in the world of RTCW, one immediately was aware that WolfJeager was around.  Unfortunately this type of scenario does not exist anymore do to the fact that colors and detailed name modification no longer exists in most mainstream games.

What I am getting at here is that customization is important.  What many game developers may see as “visual clutter” now-a-days was once considered an important way to support players and their unique identities.  By taking away the flexibility to customize one’s name – and even one’s appearance – games today forfeit the ability to give players a platform for individuality.  Hopefully, one day game developers will realize what has been lost and take the simple steps to remedy this unfortunate state of current affairs.

Battlefield: Bad Company 2 – The Importance of Sound
July 31, 2012, 11:18 am
Filed under: Side Strafe | Tags: , , , ,

Perhaps more than any other game Battlefield: Bad Company 2 requires gamers to pay special attention to sound and the aural environment.  This is particularly true when playing the “hardcore” squad deathmatch gamemode.  In hardcore SQDM, players must use their listening abilities to do a range of a number of different things – from finding enemies to developing offensive tactics to simply staying alive.  The sound is so important in this gamemode because there are no objectives required other than to simply kill the enemy squad members.  Players must focus on things like locating, surprising, routing out and ultimately attacking the enemy instead of doing such things as planting a bomb or capturing an objective.  This shift in gameplay coupled with a game environment that relies heavily on the absence of almost all HUD elements gives gamers a perfect arena to hunt, track and slay enemy opponents.

The use of sound in this multiplayer FPS is quite unique.  Not only is it one of the first games to really focus on delivering a cinematic, high-definition aural experience, but it is also one of the first games to promote the importance of sound as a tool for winning online battles.  Sure other games in the past have had decent sound (like the Call of Duty series) and sure other games have used sound as a gameplay device, but no other game has done it this well and to this extent.  The sound quality in Battlefield: Bad Company 2 is by far the best for any multiplayer FPS to date and the use of sound as a tool is also seminal.  Indeed, some of the greatest multiplayer FPS experiences this blogger has had to date has come from playing Battlefield: Bad Company 2’s hardcore squad deathmatch.

While the more popular Conquest and Rush gamemodes in Bad Company 2 are fun and engaging, nothing comes quite as close to the immediate and extremely personal experience of hardcore squad deathmatch.  In this gamemode everything is real.  The space you occupy is no longer virtual.  Instead, you are “in the game” and the incredibly detailed maps with their lush, sun-lit landscapes consume you.  The sound of a firefight off in the distance piques your interest and gives you a beacon to seek through the fog of war.  The clap of a sniper rifle signals the presence of a recon in the building next to you – hadn’t it been so loud you would have never known how dangerously close he really was.  In another instance, you are in a forest and standing still for a moment you can hear some bushes rustling up ahead – the enemy has just revealed their position.  Little scenarios like these pepper the hardcore squad deathmatch gamemode in Bad Company 2 and give the whole experience something vastly more than the sum of its parts.

This gamemode is a totally different game altogether from the more popular parts of the Battlefield series.  This gamemode isn’t about strength or firepower or even strategy so much.  Instead, this gamemode is about tactics.  And these tactics are all about what you can see and, more importantly, what you can hear in the world immediately in front of you.  It’s not a world for the faint of heart and most players end up dismissing the gamemode as “too difficult” shortly after first playing it.  But for those who stick around, and except the brave new world of multiplayer gaming, it can be quite an amazing experience and not like one that gamers have ever experienced before.

Battlefield 3 – Browser Based Content
May 10, 2012, 5:14 pm
Filed under: Side Strafe | Tags: , , , ,

Dice is doing something new.  Or, at least, they are doing something partially new with the way first-person shooters handle game content.  In Dice’s latest release (Battlefield 3), the company has made the decision to offload a wide array of content that has traditionally been incorporated into each standalone game installation.  They are accomplishing this by exporting this content into a browser-based, web format.  The content that has been offloaded in bf3 includes such things as player statistics, friend communication, friend status, item information, sponsor promotion and even the server browser!  This unique approach to handling this type of content is semi-groundbreaking – it has been done before (Steam, 3rd party modifications, etc.), but never has it been done to this extent.  One question invariably arises from this bold action on Dice’s part, and that is this: Does this system of offloading content actually work or somehow make the game experience any better than the traditional way of doing things?

My opinion is yes.  This system (known as Battlelog) does work and it does make the FPS game experience a little bit better (as opposed to not having it at all).  Battlelog is fast, easy and intuitive.  And it is an excellent method for accessing all of the important information and user content that is not directly related to playing the game and being inside the game world itself.  Battlelog allows players to quickly log into Origin (the publisher’s online platform which hosts Battlelog) and then to find a game, review personal statistics, research weapons and communicate with friends, etc, all “on the fly”.  Additionally, there is even a social media aspect to Battlelog as players can view a stream of their friends activity and how they are progressing in throughout the game.  This social element has all the standard things that most social sites have and players can comment on their friends progress, create and maintain a group (clan), message one another and even “like” each other’s activities.

Other advantages of offloading content to Battlelog also means no more relying on varying, and often incompatible, types of 3rd party programs to keep track of statistics, clan communications, player progress and the like.  In the “old days”, players had to download various applications to handle all of the things that are now neatly taken care of by Battlelog.  This centralizing of game content into a form which is consumable and accessible to all players improves ease of use and content effectiveness, while combating problems such as software incompatibilities and technical conflicts.  Additionally, the browser-based structure of Battlelog works well in translating content into different consumable methodologies (given the nature of the internet) and allows players to review Battlelog on their phone, tablet, or other emerging portable device.

Overall, I really like Battlelog and, to be honest, I can’t really think of any major problems with its design, its theory and its execution.  Of course, there may be some minor gripes – such as user experience inconsistencies and the getting use to a “new way of doing things”.  But these complaints are relatively minor.  And I am sure that in the future, as this type of format grows and evolves, issues of juggling between a browser screen and a windowed instance of the game will be resolved – or, at least, will be seen as normal, acceptable and commonplace.  Battlefield 3 may not hit the mark in a number of ways (especially in relation to not providing a worthwhile platform for competition), but in the case of Battlelog, the game succeeds admirably.  And, it is this kind of smart thinking and creative action that we hope to see more of in helping to continue the long, great legacy that is FPS gaming.

Battlefield 3 – Weapon Overload?
May 9, 2012, 4:24 pm
Filed under: Side Strafe | Tags: , ,

Battlefield 3 has a lot of weapons.  In fact there are over 55 different kinds of guns alone.  There are 9 assault rifles, 6 carbines, 7 light machine guns, 8 sniper rifles, 6 sub machine guns, 5 shotguns, 6 rocket launchers and 8 pistols in the game (with several faction variations as well).  In addition to this, there are also a whole host of weapon “modifications” which allow players to tweak their weapon setups with scopes,  barrels, grips, lights, laser-guides and suppressors – among other things.  Furthermore, there are also helping handful of grenades, mines, mortars and c4 explosives to add to the mix.

With all this firepower it makes one wonder how one can survive in such a hostile environment.  It also makes one wonder how the gameplay (and the general sense of player to game interaction) is affected by this extreme arsenal of armaments.  In this post I will consider such questions and try to parse out the true affect (whether it be good or bad or something else) that all these weapons have on the game.  Is this wide choice of weaponry an example of giving gamers the versatility and depth that they want or is this just simply weapon overload?

Playing BF3 is a lot different than playing other modern shooters.  Yes, other games have often have a wide aresenal to choose from – but BF3 is in a league of its own.  Even Battlefield: Bad Company 2 doesn’t offer as many weapons, modifications, gadgets and so forth as Battlefield 3 – indeed, there is nowhere near the same amount of options.  The first question that needs to be answered is why?  Why did Dice choose to go with this route?  Why are there so many weapons?  One answer may be that this is the current trend (although with the sheer scale of unlockables in BF3 it goes beyond the trend considerably).  Another answer – and the answer that I believe to be most realistic – is that Dice wanted to create a structural system of incentives.  Essentially, they wanted to make the game addictive.  And addictive enough so that gamers would be compelled to play the same maps over and over again until new content could be released via expansion packs.  Obviously then, this system of incentives boades well for the company’s bottom line and, in the end, isn’t that what it’s really all about (for Dice anyways)?

The question following why Dice made the game like this is; does this system of incentives actually work?  Does the large arsenal of weapons, gadgets and customizations, etc., actally pay off and make the game a better game?  Does the large arsenal make gamers want to play more than if it otherwise didn’t exist?  My answer is… is that it probably depends on the player.  Each player has their own unique interpretation about what is and what is not compelling.  Some players may be extremely motivated to unloack each and every item until there is nothing else to unlock – while others may find a “decent” weapon and stick with it indefinately (and not necessarily b compelled to find something better).   Indeed, in my experience with Battlefield 3, the latter case tends to be the most true. 

Having played the game for a little over 40 hours now, I have only unlocked roughly a quarter of everything there is to unlock.  Invariably though, I almost always end up playing with the same “configuration” – I always end up playing with the support class with an AEK, holo sight, grips and supressor.  Ninty percent of the time I select this loadout.  It seems to me that I have found a winning combination (for me) that augments and supports my tendencies to play stealthily, nimbly and quitely (and as medic) and I pretty much have no desire to try anything else.  Indeed, I have tried other things, up till this point, and those things have usually gotten me killed or have otherwise comprimised my ability to play the best I can in the world of Battlefield 3.  For me then, I have no incentive to unlock more and the structural system of incentives that Dice so wanted me to fall for now just seems like a large, bloated, purple elephant in the room.  And I have no intention of messing with that elephant.

I know that others though do enjoy the incentive of constantly unlocking new weapons and assests.  Indeed, on nearly every server I play there are usually about a quarter of the players on that server who have unlocked everything there is too unlock and are now simply playing to bump up their rank and/or just playing simply for fun.  I have nothing against this, of course, and I am glad that those players have gotten as much as they can out of the game.  For me, however, I will probably not be investing that much time in the game as to unlock every item (it would take somewhere in the ballpark of 80 hours of gameplay to get there if I continue at this rate!).

The other major question in regards to the large amount of weapons available in bf3 is gameplay.  How is the balance of the game affected by having over 55 guns to choose from?

To say this least, Battlefield 3, and other modern shooters similar to it, are not like the older shooters that came out a decade ago.  Games like Quake 3, Tribes, and Unreal all had a limited number of weapons that each individual player could use and no additional weapons could be unlocked.  This helped balance these early shooters well and prevented any one player (or team) from dominating the other players (or teams).  Indeed, this balance is what made these games special as the focus was less about configuring the perfect deadly combination of class and weaponry and more on simply playing as best as possible within the confines of the gameworld.  And here is where Battlefield 3 suffers.  Battlefield 3 can not and does not provide the equal playing field that those eariler games provided.  It can not provide that equal gameplay simply because it offers too much.  It’s complexity and it’s structural system of incentives makes the game bloated, heavy and slow – and not to mention, unfair.

Given this, there is always the argument that if every player on a given server (say, in a clan match) has unlocked every weapon and every item, then the game will be fair – or at least, a lot less unfair.  I am uncertain whether this argument is valid or not, as I can understand both sides equally.  Of course, if every player has equal access to every weapon/item then no one player can have a technical advantage over any other player.  Conversely though, the sheer number of weapons available in the game may create an intrinsic imbalance that may be so great that even if everything is unlocked and available to every player the combination of skill and play style, for each specific player, coupled with specific weapons may create a compounded effect larger that what can be accounted for by the other team’s players.  For example, if there was a really good version of me out there (and I’m sure there is), then the combination of using a stealthy/nimble play style with an AEK or silenced sniper rifle may simply overwhelm the competition.  No combination by the opposing team can really resolve that threat – of course unless there was a similar player on that team.  This “sum is greater than its parts” effect is a huge problem for gameplay balance in an competitive environment and I’m not sure anything can remedy it (in Battlefield 3’s current set up).

Overall, of course, Battlefield 3 is just a game and provides a solid amount of entertainment.  In this light, perhaps weapons overload is not an issue and is a real advantage for those who prefer to play the game casually.  For those who want to play the game more “seriously”, or in a competitive manner, the huge number of weapons in bf3 makes the game beyond consideration for competitive use.  The imbalance created by those weapons is just too great – no matter how you cut it.