Couple of items on the ol' blog agenda today:
Giant Bomb's GOTY
I'm not making huge awards rebuttal blog like last year. Just a small piece on their choice for 2011 GOTY and why I agree with it, since I know the decision has received a lot of criticism.
SR3 took me about 20 hours to fully complete (plus whatever I needed to hit 30 hours for the achievement - which I spent either idling, throwing gang members off the penthouse roof or attacking people with the run+melee combo) and about 150 hours on Skyrim. Both games cost the same amount of money. Looking back, I probably spent around 40 hours on Saint's Row 2 and slightly over 100 on Oblivion before getting completely sick of it.
While longevity is rarely that important a factor, especially when people can count their WoW total playtime in months and years, it is more prevalent with open world games that pride themselves on the amount of shit to do. Skyrim simply has way more.
As for the end of the actual GOTY discussion, I imagine Ryan just made an executive decision (he's generally more an arbiter and mediator than a duder championing his picks like everyone else) at the four hour mark to give it to Skyrim for possibly similar reasons. You could make the argument that SR3 is probably more what this site's about - i.e. random humorous nonsense - but it's not like Skyrim doesn't have sabre tooth cats getting launched into orbit and dragons flying backwards.
Even without such a prestigious accolade, I feel Volition's learned a lot this year about both their Red Faction and Saint's Row franchises and the directions they should be taking with them. If they put that knowledge to good use, I don't doubt that any future games from either series will be amazing.
Lock-Picking & Hacking Mini-Games
Now for the real meat of this blog and a return to the norm as I continue to explore the minutiae of game design. The lock-picking minigame in recent years has become an ubiquitous feature in many Adventure games and RPGs. It's a particularly telling example of whether or not a game is attempting to innovate the genre in some way or is simply following the motions: Because it's become such a well-worn requisite that any locked chest should have some sort of arbitrary mini-game behind it involving collectible lock-picks and crackerjack timing, you can tell which games are being serious about their game design by the ingenuity and inventiveness they choose to insert into this relatively minor feature. You could then theoretically posit that a similar level of care and innovation has been applied to the rest of the game. Ah, if only that were always the case.
Because I am weird about stuff like this, I'm going to go through a few examples of mini-games designed to separate the unworthy from their filthy lucre. Curiously, though perhaps not inexplicable, most lockpicking and hacking (lockpicking in all but name, since you're breaking through security to reach some sort of reward) minigames are based on far older pre-existing puzzle games.
Mass Effect - Simon, But In Space!
Starting with something simple, the goal of Mass Effect's hacking minigame is to follow the commands using the four face buttons. Harder locks increase the number of commands to follow. It's pretty basic and unobtrusive, yet increasingly tedious. Oddly enough, the PC version was completely different, and I'll go into that one a little later.
It was clearly one of the areas they wanted to improve in Mass Effect 2, which they did by creating two separate mini-games that were assigned to all the consoles, safes and security doors in the game. These, too, were fairly basic though - Either finding three pieces of code in a constant stream of data or matching nodes together in a style similar to that old memory matching game. Not a huge improvement, then, especially when you then add the cure for insomnia that was scanning planets for resources.
Going by what I said earlier, does this prove or disprove the overall creativeness of the game around these mini-games? To an extent, yes. Mass Effect is often derided for its simple squad-based shooter aspirations where most Bioware fans are the sort who cut their teeth on slightly more complex RPGs like Baldur's Gate II and KOTOR. The appeal of Mass Effect is largely grounded in its world and the stories it tells, ultimately.
BioShock - Decent Steampunk Security Is But A Pipe Dream
Bioshock infamously used the old pipe-laying puzzle game Pipe Dream (or Pipe Mania) as its hacking minigame, where the objective is to quickly lay a route between two points of access before a timer counted down and they would be discovered by the alarms (and a moment later by half a dozen insane splicers). It wasn't the first game to repurpose the old Amiga puzzler, though. Anachronox's feisty PAL-18 could hack into special dataports with a similar set-up. However, since that was merely one of seven acquisition mini-games (one for each playable character), it was far less egregious.
A very utilitarian minigame, where you'd simply locate the sweet spot with a bobby pin until the lock twists all the way down and opens. Anyone who's played a considerable amount of Fallout 3 or Skyrim is probably sick to death of this by now. If this particular mini-game has a virtue, it's the verisimilitude to what actually picking a lock must be like in real life. That it's mostly a crapshoot is probably also applicable to actual lock-picking, though hardly conducive to a player's enjoyment.
Because it was carried into Skyrim verbatim, one could reasonably assume that Bethesda was content to keep this simple, stable mini-game and instead concentrate on the many other new systems in play. A wise move, considering.
Fallout 3 - Mastermind Hacking
Fallout 3's other mini-game, and one I admit to liking a lot, is the hacking mini-game. It involves a series of DOS-esque lines of codes with the occasional coherent word, of which the player must select the one that corresponds to the password. Incorrect guesses will at the very least give you some idea about the actual right answer. Of course, this mini-game is based off the traditional guessing game Mastermind, yet it can be a fun little head-scratcher all the same. Or would be if it wasn't so easy.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution - It's A Future Unix System, I Know This!
DE:HR's hacking mini-game is deceptively simple. It has all the trappings of actual machine code and lingo liberally spread throughout, but it's a cinch to actually play after a little practice. Each instance presents a start point and an end point, which needs to be activated by hitting all the appropriate nodes first. You can also spread to special reward nodes as an added risk vs. reward incentive. You can acquire several perks to make the game easier and make harder hacks possible, and can also acquire special software found as pick-ups in the main game that can also help in a bind. It's a very elaborate and well thought-out system that, again, has some inherent verisimilitude to real life hacking if your favorite movie is Jurassic Park and have never coded before in your life.
Betrayal at Krondor - Riddle Me This, Wordlocks
This is my absolute favorite, because I love the old-school The Hobbit type riddles. Most of Betrayal at Krondor is spent walking up and down roads to various locations to fulfill quests and follow a typically Feist-ian tale of sorcery and warmongering. While leaving the path is generally neither advised nor required, you do occasionally come across chests that have been specially code-locked by the game's intimidatingly intellectual enemy faction, the moredhel.
The contents are well worth the trouble, since supplies are in constant need on the road thanks to a realistic system of constant weapon and armor maintenance and they occasionally have quest items. Yet it's one of the few instances where I'm actually more interested in the chest's lock than its contents.
Two Worlds II & Mass Effect - Tempest? Or Frogger?
Curiously, both Elder Scrolls imitator Two Worlds II (though the many improvements in the sequel suggest this series might come into its own one day much like Saint's Row did) and the PC version of Mass Effect had a similar mini-game. With TW2, the objective is to aim a lockpick down a series of spinning locks in a disorienting Z-axis view similar to the Tempest arcade game. It requires immaculate timing, especially with the harder locks which have many such rings and less time to thread the lockpick all the way to the end. It's tricky to get right, and adds some challenge to an already challenging game (though, much like the first, perhaps challenging for the wrong reasons at times).
Mass Effect has a similarly Z-axis focused hacking game, though the objective this time is to get from the outer ring to the center without disturbing the various obstacles in the way, which feels much more reminiscent of the traffic-dodging classic Frogger.
Sly 3: Honor Among Thieves - Art and Form
As dismissive as I've been of Sucker Punch's inFamous 2 of late, it's only because of how imaginative and fun their older Sly series is in comparison. The third game takes many cues from the trendsetting Sly 2, becoming something of a lesser game as a result, but one of the more memorable instances is having to discover the codes to safes and other locked areas by scouring a painting for a cleverly inserted series of numbers. Likewise, the many thief-like shenanigans the team must perform have a layer of strangeness to their mini-games that make them like nothing I've played before or since.
These are all I can recall off the top of my head. I don't play a lot of stealth games and I imagine there's a considerable amount of roguish lockpicking and stealthy hacking business in those as well. So I open the floor once again to the fine Giant Bomb community: Are there any creative hacking/lockpicking mini-games you recall? Do you prefer that they exist over the option of just using up certain items in the inventory for locked chests, such was the case in Persona 4 or the original Deus Ex? Are you fond of any game that gives you the option to simply smash apart any chests or doors, Gordian Knot style?
Now, if I may skilfully manipulate you towards some..