Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Something less than a Mass Effect

There's no accounting for taste or so they say...

Which is why it should come as no surprise that popular culture frequently veers off into left field when it takes up a cause elevating the inconsequential to the lead on the nightly news.

Outrage over the ridiculous can take on the gravity of SOPA if you mess with somebody's hero, virtual or otherwise.

So it was with Mass Effect 3.  A sci-fi themed RPG morality play with elements of an FPS thrown in for good measure. Two years ago it was a triple-A title from a franchise rivaled only by Call of Duty and Battlefield in the gaming community. 

But a month after its release it became the center of a firestorm of controversy. 

Why?  Because fans didn't like the ending.  Bioware, the developer, had made it abundantly clear that the storyline was coming to close with Mass Effect 3.  Meaning that while decisions made during the game ultimately affected the outcome, that outcome would always lead to the same conclusion.

But it seems that wasn't enough for fans.  Too many loose ends, the hero dying and huge plot holes you could drive a truck through were too much for them.  (sorry if there's any spoilers there)

So why do I bring a tired subject up now, 2 years later?  Well, mostly because Origin had a sale on Mass Effect 3 and I picked it up for $5 a few weeks ago.  To me, that was a fair price and if I was disappointed at least I had the benefit of personal experience from which to lob my criticisms. 

It took me a total of 37 hours over 2 weeks to complete the single player game.  I found it to be slightly less engaging than Bioware's other blockbuster, Bioshock, with characters and gameplay that seemed more mechanical than other Bioware titles I've played.  It was more something to get through than to get excited about. 

But that was ok.  It was a game not a life changing event.  I found myself contemplating my actions a bit more carefully after seeing the effects of an ill considered decision but in the end it wasn't really of any consequence.  You were still going to fight the "real" bad guys and unless you managed to slight every conceivable race that could help you, the game was going to end the same. 

If I really cared about the story I suppose I'd be upset.  For example at the end of the game there were races of aliens that were supposedly joining in the effort that were notably absent when the time came.  There was also scant explanation as to how a safe haven for 35 of my 37 hours had suddenly turned into a chamber of horrors. 

To be honest, I found Bioshock a better franchise with a more compelling story even when it veered off into the insane.  A lot of the same elements were there including the grinding boss battles but the story never failed to support the game.  Mass Effect 3 was the direct opposite with a disjointed story and irrelevant character interactions frequently getting in the way of the game.

From the perspective of the game and not the narrative, however, it was still textbook Bioware.  You were led down a tightly controlled path that led you to visually stunning but minimally interactive environments.  Then there were technical issues such as the mannequin-like interactions between you and other NPC's and frequent map glitches that could get you trapped in scenery.  That could be said for any modern title, however.

I'm not going to get bogged down in specifics though.  Mostly because it's just a game (at this point a $5 game) and as such it lived up to its potential.  That being an entertainment medium and not a personal relationship...

Look, games are just products and as such their only real function is to entertain.  Mass Effect 3 did that better than other games that weren't trading on their narrative like Battlefield 4.   Technically, nothing about the story would keep your character from advancing on his skill tree or blowing away the waves of bad guys.

It would just waste your time dealing with things that didn't save the galaxy.

In fact I would have preferred a more technical and less narrative experience in Mass Effect 3.  There were times when I became annoyed at the moral and sexual ambiguities of the game.  Yes, I said "sexual" ambiguities. 

Let's be honest, if I'm playing a game where I'm supposed to be saving the whole freaking galaxy do I really need to concern myself with my love life?  Remember, you can sleep with anyone you want, alienate the aliens and be as saintly or satanic as  you want and still get the same ending.

So why are we pandering to sexual orientation? 

Maybe this is where the outrage came from.  Mass Effect 3 is full of dead ends and the inclusion of political correctness may have led players down the path to a false conclusion. 

That being that the game is something more than it actually is.

To be honest, the only game that's really moved me in recent years was (of all things) a Call of Duty title and it had nothing to do with whether or not the sarge went "commando."

It was Call of Duty: World at War and while I was playing the game I began to feel like I had a better understanding of what a World War 2 veteran went through in the closing days of the war.  It was full of pain and grit and moral ambiguity and I loved every minute of it.

That's where a good story improves a good game.  I cared about characters that were every bit as fictional as Mass Effect's but it never got in the way of the core game. 

Unlike Mass Effect 3 that had me worrying less about the fate of the universe and more about who would end up in the captain's cabin for a nightcap.

That's a fail.

I'll leave you with this.  If the ending of a game is important enough to you to threaten legal action you may need to reassess your priorities. 

It isn't that important, really...

Friday, September 5, 2014

A Fair Fight in Battlefield 4?

Perhaps I'm clairvoyant, clued in or it's all just a coincidence...

Whatever it is, this week Dice published an article on its Battelog webpage on the topic of cheating in Battlefield 4.

What makes it interesting to me is the timing.  Coming almost a week after I posted a video exposing the ongoing problem of blatant cheats available and prevalent in Battlefield 4 comes Dice's renewed commitment to combating the practice. 

Touting its "FairFight" anti cheating system as central to its efforts Dice claims to be administering a Heavy Hand to cheaters. 

So what is this "FairFight" all about?

Simply put, it's one part snitch and one part stat tracking.  In other words it's a whole lot of nothing.  It showed up around the release of Battlefield 4 and was supposed to address the rampant cheating that was going on largely unhindered in Battlefield 3.  FairFight relies on user reports, PunkBuster Bans (aka: PBBANS) and "unusual" player statistics gathered during gameplay.

One of the improvements in Battlefield 4 over its predecessor is real time statistics tracking.  Meaning if you get disconnected from a game you still have your unlocks, kills and other achievements up to that point.  This also allows Dice to monitor gameplay via those same real time stats. 

The theory is that nobody should be able to get say 30 kills with a sniper rifle in as many seconds without a cheat involved. 

Dice has been adamant about the system being largely immune to false triggering due to the performance of a "skilled" player. Ugh...that whole "skill" word in the context of video games drives me nuts.  Yeah I suppose I'm a "skilled" web surfer and toilet flusher too.
Anyway the official line is this...

"Our policy on banning cheaters is very strict – we only ban a player if there’s evidence that he or she is in fact cheating as we don’t want any false positives. I’m not saying that no evidence = no cheating, it’s just that we can’t ban anyone if there’s no solid evidence of it. Suspect players are being monitored a bit closer, and we look for other ways to prove their guilt." (from the Battlelog article)

Which still doesn't address the real problem with online multiplayer gaming on PC's and consoles.  That being the very real disconnect between the online host and the player.  It's the same issue that's caused the failure of cloud gaming services like OnLive except it wasn't lag or price.  Rather it's the layer of abstraction between what you think is happening and what is actually happening.  Real time gaming isn't possible over the Internet, there's always a delay and until Terabit connections happen you can't call it negligible.

As such most online games rely on having as much information about what's going on preloaded on every client.  It lessens the burden on the servers and it's why you rarely see FPS titles with more than 64 player slots available.  It's just too much data to keep track of which provides the perfect opening for cheats.  All a cheat has to do is expose information that's already present but normally hidden from a legitimate player.

Unless someone is dumb enough to upload a video bragging about their exploits to YouTube exposing the hack there's little chance of getting caught.  Meaning we're all on the honor system.  Unless a developer creates hooks into DirectX that monitor for specific changes to the display output they can't possibly know about a hack when it's being deployed.  That would involve a level of coding that would be akin to adding a virus scanner into every game's code.

The only thing FairFight does that even comes close is to monitor certain areas that are considered "off limits "on multiplayer maps.  Off limits is defined as areas that allow players to hide and slaughter their opponents with impunity.  That includes infamous map glitches, "holodeck" walls you can shoot through and areas that can otherwise give an unfair advantage.  A player that enters these areas can be banned instantly but remember that we're still not operating in real time.  It's only the local interaction with the loaded map and not the other players that comes into play here.  You can be sure that every game "update" will have these areas defined in the local map cache on the client.
So what's the answer? 

FairFight isn't it.  I can't see it as anything more than PR tool.  After all, the cheating industry is a multi-million dollar business built on circumventing these types of measures.  Reason being, the technology to combat it is too cumbersome and expensive from both an economic and resource point of view. 

Not to mention the uproar that would result from the ever present eyes of some draconian "Big Brother" watching your every move.

Meaning we're pretty much stuck with a halfhearted attempt. 

Perhaps the problem really doesn't lie with the developers, however.  Perhaps we just need to remember that just because we can do something doesn't mean we should. 

It's human nature to gain the upper hand but as children we're often told that cheaters never prosper.  But it all rings hollow in the face of an easy victory doesn't it.  I can excuse the 12 year olds in the crowd but the rest of you, well...

The only fix for cheating is to resist the temptation to do so.  If you take your gaming seriously then you should also take anything that threatens it seriously as well.