STALKER gets talked about as if it’s a roleplaying game, but it isn’t really an RPG according to any of the half-dozen vague and nebulous definitions out there. It’s an unconventional FPS with some freeform elements to it, but you’re not going to be making any complex moral choices, delving deep into anyone’s backstory, or agonizing over the allocation of skill points.
|Okay, here’s my inventory screen. Say, where is the character screen and “level up” prompt?|
Here is how it happened with me: STALKER put on a sexy little outfit and suggested we should go out and have some fun. I doused myself in cologne and made sure I was wearing my “I roll twenties” boxer shorts. Then halfway through dinner STALKER starts talking about how we’re just friends and that I shouldn’t be getting any funny ideas. Excuse me? Okay, I admit that STALKER never explicitly promised roleplaying, and maybe I was just a little overeager. But still, I think STALKER owes me an apology for sending out some seriously mixed signals here.
|This looks strikingly familiar.|
Part of the problem is an interface one. The game doesn’t have good cues for when you take damage or when your health is low. In other games the interface has several ways to let you know when you take a big hit. The screen fades to deep red for an instant. The character makes pained noises. The view kicks to one side. These effects become stronger for more serious hits, so that you can know when you’re in trouble without looking for your hit points. STALKER doesn’t have this. Most hits feel about the same and make the same fastball-hitting-a-leather-couch sound effect, so you can’t really tell how hard you were just hit unless you look. This lead to a lot of needless deaths because I was focused on the firefight and was unaware of how low my heath was.
But even setting aside the feedback issues, this game is just too dang hard. Mistakes and bad luck can be instantly fatal, and obsessive saving is required if you don’t want to waste time replaying the same areas repeatedly. Some people like a challenge, but not everyone wants to see the loading screen two and three times for every encounter. Some people have a low frustration threshold. Some people are just playing for the story and exploration. Some people just aren’t good at these sorts of games. These people can have fun too, as long as the designers leave room for them on the difficulty scale. STALKER’s difficulty scale has four steps from “novice” to “expert”, but even “novice” is an exercise in frustration. To make matters worse, once you start a game you can’t adjust the difficulty on the fly. If you pick “normal” and then after a few hours discover the constant deaths are sucking the fun out of the game, you can’t just bump it down to “novice”. If you want to play on novice, you have to start over from the beginning.
|Another fun trip to “game over” land.|
Games like this are when I tend to bust out the cheat codes, so I can get through the dang thing without spending my precious allotment of videogame hours staring at the loading screen. I’ve said before that the more likely you are to need them, the less likely you are to have them, and that holds true here. STALKER has not one single cheat code to help you through a tough fight. If you’re going to play STALKER, you’re going to do so on the terms set down by the designers, and they have decided that painstaking trial-and-error is the order of the day.
“But I like a good challenge.”, whines the fan.
That’s what the “hard” difficulty is for. No matter how much challenge you want, easy should still be easy.
“Maybe you just suck”, says the fanboy.
Maybe so, but could they maybe include a way through the game for me anyway? I really don’t think that’s asking too much.
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There's a wonderful way to balance difficulty in RPGs, and designers try to prevent it. For some reason.