Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Dues Ex 3 Impressions

A few days ago I started playing Deus Ex 3. I was a big fan of the first game, I still consider it one of the best fps games ever. In theory that should bias me such that I would disappointed if this deviates too greatly from the mold set by the original, but that doesn't necessarily mean that I would be satisfied with a carbon copy with a facelift either; a difficult proposition for the developers I imagine.

I have put a large number of hours into the game over the last four or five days, as I found it quite engaging - engaging, but not always very much fun. My issue is mainly with the combat, which makes the details hard to pin down, but there are some things I can say.

One of the big things about this game is that it's really a hybrid between first and third person. In fact, I would say it's more third person than first. It all comes down to the cover system; when you press the cover button to hug the nearest wall, the camera jumps to a third person view. This works very well for stealth, which is a big part of the game, and for shooting from cover. In fact I would say that these two areas are exactly what third person control schemes are best at, and at least one of their main weaknesses - traversing cramped interior environments - isn't an issue here since you move around in first person. So that's actually very well designed.

But what really pushes it over the line into third person territory is that the combat doesn't work in first person. Getting into a gunfight in the open is a sure invitation for a very, very quick death. So you're forced to play combat as a third person game. In fact it's less forgiving than most third person cover shooters because if you get caught out in the open when the bullets start flying there's a very good chance you won't even make it to cover – in a third person game its' easier to back away and jump behind something than it is to either run backwards or turn away and search for cover in a first person game. And moving between cover is not smooth as you either have to use the set transitions or step back into first person, which is disorientating (especially as the camera pops into a close up view of the wall you were pressed up against).

So while the story is engaging and the open world with multiple objectives has drawn me in, I just didn't enjoy the combat very much. The actual stealth gameplay was not bad, but not really deep enough for me to enjoy it that much for it's own sake – dedicated stealth games like Hitman tend to have more technique involved. Or perhaps it just wasn't forgiving enough for me: it's very, very easy to mess up and give yourself away, at which point you're often in a bad position. And while if you're in a good position combat is not very hard (or interesting), getting caught in a bad position or getting flanked is a real problem since you die so quickly. The load times are surprisingly long, making dying a real pain.

Then I tried the Rage demo. After a few minutes of tedium as I changed costume and delivered a letter, I was blasting away at mutants and having so much fun that I almost gave up on Deus Ex. In fact Rage is some of the most fun I've had just playing a shooter in a very long time, and that was just the demo. I felt as if finally I was playing a proper FPS again.

The graphics really impressed me, the combat was fast and fluid, the enemies surprised me with their speed, aggression, and acrobatics. The weapons had great impact with some very nice hit reacts. It looks like you can carry a bunch, and the different ammunition and upgrades look like they will add depth and keep things interesting. The combination of a weapon wheel and quick swap seems to have the best of both worlds, with a little set-up you can have special weapons like the crossbow swapped instantly for a close range piece like the shotgun.

I'm not saying that Deus Ex isn't a good game. In fact I really appreciate how close it is in many ways to the original, and it does do a lot of things quite well. I just don't really enjoy the slow, deliberate, unforgiving third-person cover shooting nature of the combat.

I wasn't sure whether to mention some specific points in detail, but since I'm not sure if I'll actually finish the game so I don't know if I'll ever write a proper review, I decided I might as well.

Controls are just a little sluggish compared to a dedicated FPS and the aim assist is weak. Dodging or side-strafing seems to be completely useless – all your enemies have great aim. All of this forces you to hide behind cover and makes it impossible to actually fight in the first person.

Speaking of controls, who the hell decided you wouldn't be allowed to change them at all? This is simply unforgivable. Whoever the hell you are, your favourite control scheme is not better than mine, just different. If you want people to play it as a stealth game and not a shooter, fine, force them to use the default scheme in the opening level so they see how it works but allow them to change it later, or if you absolutely must, limit some swaps (so if you really are so arrogant that you're completely convinced that no-one could possible enjoy the game without the cover button being a trigger, force it to be one of the triggers), but there's no reason not to allow anything to be changed (what if they're left handed and like to shoot with the left finger and use use the right trigger for cover?), like the face buttons: you cannot tell me that there's only one possibly way to use them. Hell, Devil May Cry used Y as the jump button!

You seem to do an ammo check whenever you pull out a pistol, even when you're getting shot at. In fact taking out your weapon is always a bit slow, which is especially annoying when a cut-scene forces you to put it away, then it ends and the guy you were talking to pulls out his pistol and shoots you twice before you finish drawing your weapon. Aren't you supposed to be some sort of experienced combat specialist?

If you pick up a weapon you don't already have it is added to your inventory, but if you already have one all you get are a few rounds of ammo (surprisingly few, typically just two or three when picking up an automatic weapon) and the weapon itself disappears. This is a bigger deal than it sounds: you can sell the unwanted ammo for a few dollars, but the weapon itself can fetch several hundred dollars. This means casually picking up weapons is like throwing away money, ferrying them to a dealer one by one can easily net you a few thousand dollars.

Of course doing this is so tedious that not even I can be bothered with it - but that doesn't stop me from being unhappy about watching cash evaporate. Besides, it encourages you to keep as few weapons in your inventory as possible so that you maximise your profits - just sell that shotgun, you'll pick up another soon and you'll be up a few hundred for it. The problem here is upgrades.

Upgrades are applied to the specific weapon - drop your upgraded pistol and the next one you pick will still be bog standard. This encourages you to either hoard weapons or severely limit what you upgrade. Since there's no safe box or anything for you to store weapons, this forces you to fill your inventory with weapons and ammo that you don't use much but aren't willing to drop or sell (or drop them on the floor somewhere and hope they don't disappear - functional but unpleasant). Upgrades cannot be removed from a weapon and don't even raise it's resale value (at least not all upgrades seem to).

Added to this is the difficulty in finding some weapons and the rarity and expense of upgrades (and the inventory space they take, which forces you to use them quickly). It's all a big hassle, at least if you care about your kit. Yes, I know the original was pretty much the same, but this one area where I would have liked to see some kind of an improvement. Just make it so weapons don't disappear, but you take the ammo automatically when you walk over them and only pick up the weapon when you click on it, and give you access to a locker that you know you will always be able to come back to, and it would be so much better. Oh, and make upgrades increase the monetary value of a weapon.

Oh, and why the hell does the pistol take up more than half as much room a the silenced sniper rifle? It is neither half the size nor half the weight. Pistols should take 4 spaces tops, right?

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