Saturday, May 23, 2009

The Incredible Machine...

... and a bird with a wrench.

Recently, I've been playing Nuts and Bolts, the most recent Banjo-Kazooie game. The previous games aren't really my style, being platformers. This one isn't a platformer. Its a build-your-own-vehicle game. It's pretty much right up my alley.

One of my friends feels the opposite - he likes platformers and not build-your-own-vehiclers. So I'm not making any judgments here, just talking about me. It's what I do best.

Build-your-own-vehicle games are an interesting and fairly rare phenomenon. It doesn't surprise me that I like them a lot, because they are basically the part of RPGs I like refined down into a pure form.

Even when the customization is fairly weak, such as in the various giant robot games, I still love it. Building a working system is great. I also, unsurprisingly, love all the various simulation games such as The Incredible Machine, Evil Genius, Sim City, etc. Sim City's a bit too loosey-goosey for me... but I'm falling off the subject here.

I'd like to talk to you a bit about the way this Banjo & Kazooie game handles the progression of play. Don't worry, there aren't any important spoilers. I'm not sure it's possible to spoil the game, as it's a farce with no plot twists or reveals.

The developers decided to start the game off really slowly. It was a good thing I picked it up during a slow week, because if I had tried getting into it on a normal schedule, I would have given up: it takes five hours before the game gets interesting.

Those five hours are spent slowly accumulating very generic parts. Basically, you get wheels and engines and some guns. This really limits the kinds of things you can do, and it's actually deadly dull. I imagine if I started over knowing what I know now, I could probably power through it in two hours, but still...

It's important to note that in the hub world (the "real" game world) you are forced to use a trolley cart, a very basic vehicle, so navigating in that world is extremely dull. In the mission worlds you can use whatever vehicle you want, so it's a bit more interesting, but not a lot when your self-made vehicles are basically just souped up trolleys.

At some point, things slowly pick up. You get the ability to fly, which is a lot of fun, not only in challenges but just in general flying around the mission worlds. Your trolley gains new abilities, allowing you to reach new locations, and exploring the hub world becomes fun and interesting if you're the sort who likes to explore. Which I am. Which is good, because as build-your-owns go, it still wasn't much fun: it's just that the exploration became a bit more fun.

The build-your-own options keep increasing, and it's gotten to the point where it's a lot of fun to build custom vehicles for whatever mission I'm attacking. It's a lot of fun to invent weird approaches, such as using the sticky grapple for air races, or building a glider with no engines or power source.

But should it have taken thirty hours to get here?

I'm all for the gradual curve: give the player more and more options over time. However, that gradual curve can backfire when someone comes in with a lot of skill inherited from other, similar games. It's important to provide a ramp for unskilled players, but it's also important not to apply brakes to skilled ones.

Actually, although I say that, I'm not sure it was the wrong decision. The play is not as deep as I would like, and I spend most of my time trying to figure out ways to do interesting things that the designers never intended (or, at least, don't bother to mention or require). I'm not sure the game would actually be thirty hours long if they let me accrue a lot of interesting parts right near the beginning, because I'm running dry on the building challenges included in the game and beginning to invent my own.

I keep wanting some things that aren't there, like a big ocean so boats are vaguely useful, or a 45-degree angle piece, or the ability to map things to directional presses and buttons in a far more carefully-specified way.

I guess what I really want is a lego-style universe to build and explore. Like Boom Blox, except without the pointless blowing-stuff-up-all-the-time parts and a lot more exploration. Ideally a MMORPG, so I can explore other people's worlds...

Anyhow, those are my thoughts on the matter. How about you?


Ryan said...

I once played an open-source, multiplayer Lego game that was a lot of fun. I really wish I could remember the name of it...

Anyway, you could collaboratively build things with Lego blocks, and then destroy them with various weapons. Playing with a group of people, dividing into teams, and building fortresses before having at each other was incredibly fun. Also, there were some very large maps, so exploration was possible too.

Craig Perko said...

If you remember the name, please tell me!

Ryan said...

I've found it! It's called Blockland. Turns out it's not open source though. I guess I was playing a free beta, or something.

There's no Linux version, but the demo ran okay under Wine. The minimum requirements are quite low too. I might end up buying a copy.

Craig Perko said...

Thanks, I'll look into it. Looks neat!