Late Feb ’10: The PC Gaming Well’s Run Dry

Thanks largely to Bioshock 2 and Mass Effect 2, the beginning of the month was highly enjoyable.   Unfortunately, the tail end of the month as not fared as well.

If I owned a PS3, then there would be Heavy Rain.  No big loss: I’m not sure it does anything that Shenmue didn’t already do better (except graphics… and that’s hardly surprising considering Shenmue was originally developed for the Dreamcast).

The two big PC games to be excited about over the later half of the month were M.U.D. TV and Supreme Commander 2.  I’ve played the demos of both games, and I’m not impressed.

M.U.D. TV’s main problem is that it has an overly monotonous interface. You manually click to walk your avatar from room to room. Each room’s task is essentially setting up queues.

You walk over to the elevator down to the lobby.  You walk over to the advertising agency and pick up some advertising contracts.  You walk over to another room to buy employees (“wage slaves”) and TV shows.  You walk over to the elevator back up to your TV studio.  You walk over to the archive room to drag your contracts and shows to the archive.  You walk over to your executive office to set up the scheduling of those shows long with the commercials.  Repeat until sick of it – later chapters will merely add more places to walk.

When push comes to shove, the game would have been better served by a GUI that simply gives you a large TV scheduling grid with the ability to pick up/develop new shows and advertising on the side.  This would have prevented a lot of cutesy multimedia from manifesting, but these aspects entertain for only a few seconds anyway.

Supreme Commander 1 started with Total Annihilation‘s excellent mechanic of allowing you to queue a number of orders in advance (regardless of if you had the resources for them at the time of queuing).  Then it added formations and the ability to do this seamless zooming out to an orbital view and back to tactical view to get to where you want.

Supreme Commander 2 starts off on the right foot with a specialized research tree that simultaneously streamlines out the admittedly redundant 3-Tier unit system.  I also sort of appreciated how you no longer need to build storage to increase the cap on the amount of energy and mass you can hold.

However, it’s all downhill from there:

  • You can no longer queue orders in advance because it requires an immediate investment of resources you may not have.   This makes it impossible to queue up elaborate base building orders beyond the first few units.
  • The ability to get units to move in  formations appears to have been removed.  They will automatically attempt to form their own formations… but this removes vital player investment.
  • The experimental units are a lot weaker, if easier to build.  This really removes the whole mystique behind them, as well as their value as a stalemate breaker.
  • You’re no longer able to zoom out and in as accurately or as far out as in the original – the perspective has been shrunk.
  • Even the coloring of the units seems a bit overly toy like – that only reinforces the overall feeling that the sequel has been dumbed down.

Supreme Commander was worthy of the name because you felt like a Supreme Commander.  You had a great deal of power to use as you see fit, and with great power comes the great responsibility that you could really screw up badly if you were careless.   Supreme Commander 2 does the opposite, it severely diminishes the power you have to issue orders specifically to prevent you from overextending yourself.   The result feels a lot more like a standard RTS.   Having lost a great deal of what made it unique, Supreme Commander 2 carries only a tentative grasp on the title, at best.

Games As Unflattering Social Commentary

It worries me.  What is it that motivates a largely Indy developer such as Gas Powered Games to gut the core niche from one of their main franchises in order to conform to a simpler, mediocre standard of gameplay?

The only reasonable answer I can come up with is that their target audience is just a whole lot stupider now than they were 12 years ago when they released Total Annihilation.

Lately, I’ve been playing a lot of X-Com Apocolypse, another 12-year-old game, and grimly noticing that it has oodles more depth and sophistication than games I have played in years.  I felt something I haven’t felt in a long time: gaming satisfaction.

When the entire gaming development world seems to be bent on developing shallower and simpler games, it brings about a crisis of confidence.  Maybe the professionals who make games these days are right.  Maybe I’m wasting my time trying to develop my own game to counter this.  Maybe today’s gaming audience really is that much stupider now than they were 12 years ago.

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