By Mento 4 Comments
Today I've decided to select a title that'll either alienate semantic sticklers or leave a lot of people utterly confused. Did I ever mention I suck at blog titles? Essentially, agoraphobia is a fear of crowds (or large spaces) and kymophobia is a fear of waves. Which ties in, sort of, with the topic I want to discuss today: How video games will, in order to save computing space or mete out their large enemy population in manageable chunks, insist on a wave-based format of enemy encounters rather than the traditional crowds to work one's way through.
I've been playing two games this week that typically contain encounters with large groups of enemies, and handle them in the two ways I've described above. I'm not going to go so far as to say which is better (or which of the two games are better, for that matter), but I'm happy to argue the cases for and against both systems for people to ponder or possibly add more to. I fear I might sound more positive about one than the other regardless of this imposed impartiality:
Game: Might and Magic VII: For Blood and Honor
I recently did one of my little LP/Quick Look/tutorials for New World Computing's CRPG Might and Magic VII, a late entry into a venerable RPG franchise that actually exploits its old way of doing things to set up some insanely huge encounters. Because it's still using sprites in polygonal environments, a graphical system popularized by Doom and Wolfenstein 3D that was already feeling its age in when M&M7 was released in 1999, the game is free to throw as many of these 2D cut-outs at you as it wishes without worrying too much about slowdown on then-modern systems, even when these crowds start hitting several dozen in number. Subsequently, many of the (entirely deliberate) encounters of the game tend to play out as your party against a huge menagerie of monsters, and tactics tend to switch from the usual skirmish options in RPGs of setting everyone against the toughest monster and then working their way down the rest of the opponents and instead focusing on choke points and crowd control. A very common tactic is to kite a large crowd, or pull monsters away from their groups to take them on singularly. It's certainly a style of combat you're likely to see in a CRPG, especially MMOs, but M&M7 was an early proponent of this combat design and takes it to a level that stops just short of all out strategy wargaming or one of Koei's clamorous historical clusterfuck action games.
And I really like this way of doing things. It's easy to make judgement calls when you can see a massive crowd of tough monsters ahead (usually "run!") and tactically taking down a huge horde of enemies in a turn-based mode is, while perhaps a little slow-paced, ultimately quite satisfying. Especially at that moment when the battle is resolved and the player is free to reap all that loot.
Pros: Easier to make tactical decisions if you're able to see all the enemies before starting a fight; crowds look impressive - intimidating, even; if the game allows for area of effect weapons, such weapons will be much more effective with the whole enemy side spread out before you.
Cons: Unless they're all 2D sprites with a few frames of repeating animation, which is increasingly unlikely in this day and age, a massive crowd might do horrible things to one's RAM; can be quite difficult to juggle so many enemies and so many incoming attacks, even when turn-based (or especially, since they all get a turn for each of your team's turns); can occasionally look ridiculous.
Game: Borderlands 2
Like a considerable number of you, I'd imagine, I've been spending some time on Pandora looking for guns and loot and gun loot while incidentally foiling the plans of an obnoxious villain that never shuts up. You know, should foiling those plans ever coincide with the search for more loot. No, seriously, I only do story missions at this point because it levels up the items you get from Mad Moxxi's gambling machines. While I can't really denigrate Borderlands 2 for being more Borderlands, there's plenty new about it that I can't really get on board with (and just as many new things that I actually like, just to keep things in perspective): First and foremost is how the game gypped me out of the fourth weapon slot because of the messed up way co-op tends to work, which is far more aggrieving than accidentally spending my golden key like the rest of the Bomb Crew did; I also really can't stand those Lab Rat enemies that are able to kill you in one hit by throwing junk at your face. Finally, enemies respawn way too quickly; I'm really not sure why they can't make it so enemies only respawn once you leave the region and come back? Is that too much to ask? Sometimes I just want to cross the map and back again for a quest objective without the whole monster population popping back into existence in the meantime.
Honestly, while I can go on like this about minor issues that have soured my experience, they all tend to ring like "first world problems". The overall package is so engrossing and addictive that I'm almost scrabbling for reasons to dislike it, because I sort of resent how much it has its hooks into me. I don't suppose this is really the time and place to discuss whether I'm genuinely enjoying the game or am locked into it like some sort of Skinner Box loop of action -> reward. Like Skyrim or any MMO, it's one of those games that you'll long be done with before it'll be done with you; the question becomes how much time you're willing to invest before you burn out.
Instead, I should get back to what this blog was about: The game's tendency to introduce its enemies in waves. I suppose this is endemic to many modern shooters, but there's something very unfulfilling about having enemies constantly pouring out of doors or manholes or just thin air. I see a chamber with a handful of bandits walking around, the sort of number I would expect to find patrolling a few shacks and maybe a chest or two, but when the fighting starts that number quickly doubles, then triples, then quadruples and continues to increase at a higher rate than your capacity to decrease it. This is, of course, to make the encounters a bit more dynamic and exciting, and create a level of challenge that keeps the game interesting rather than quickly shredding through small packs of enemies and moving on. Even so, there's an aspect to wave-based combat that really doesn't fly outside the genres (FPS/TPS) where such a system is commonplace and thus anticipated. Dragon Age 2, as Hailinel discussed in his recent blog, is a case where the wave-based stuff just feels totally incongruous in what is ostensibly a thoughtful tactical RPG rather than a Serious Sam-esque mindless shooter. Hard for a battle to be thoughtful and tactical when enemies are literally dropping in from nowhere.
Pros: It's far easier on the computer (and the player) if there's, say, 50 enemies in an area but they only ever have to deal with 10 at once; pauses between waves allows for some ammo/health gathering reprieves; it's a system that has seen great returns in other genres, specifically shooters.
Cons: Feels kind of ridiculous outside of its gameplay context: Where exactly are all these enemies coming from? Why didn't they come out right away with their allies?; Having waves means the battles last a lot longer, as there's fewer opportunities to hurt many enemies at the same time; bemusement quickly gives way to frustration when it seems the enemy encounter will never god. damn. end.
Talking about things that just won't seem to end, it's time for...
Might and Magic VII