Sunday, August 16, 2009

Day 16: GTA Chinatown Wars

I’ve had a hate-love relationship with the GTA games over the years. Bottom line is that I just never feel cool playing the games. I find the cars too hard to drive, missions too hard to complete, and I just don’t get into sandbox games that don’t have a nice linear quest line.

The love part is easier to explain. GTA: Vice City had one of my favorite in-game experiences of all time. I was listening to 80s music on the radio, and driving along, and I slowly realized that some of the words to the song were mangled. And then some of the words were completely wrong.

And then I realized that what I was hearing was my character singing along to the music – and he (like I) was screwing up the words as he sang along. Brilliant.

I actually played a big chunk of GTA: IV because of the production values. The writing was excellent and the voice acting and character animations were so immersive and engaging that they kept me motivated to play more. I actually watched the cut scenes. And my wife would shout from the other room “don’t trust that bitch, she’s gonnna set you up!” She was listening in on my phone calls to my love interest and got engaged enough to pipe in.

GTA: Chinatown Wars is one of the highest rated games for the DS and I figured I should try it out. The opening cut scene was cool in terms of music and art style. The writing was a little too cheesy for me, even though I recognize that the cheese was intentional.

Tutorial/Learn as you Play:

The game does a decent job of introducing you to some of the core mechanics. There’s a nice mix of minigames (where you use the stylus and touch screen) and core game mechanics (walking, shooting, kicking, driving).

Most of the tutorial prompts were within the context of game play and fit in with current player goals. That said, there were a few prompts that were unrelated to current player goals and I quickly forgot them. Grabbing a cab was one of the prompts that I missed – and unfortunately no amount of button mashing later on revealed how to do this.

Learning Curve/Progression:

This is where I fail at most GTA games and what drives me to quit. As I’ve talked about in other posts (re: N+ and Trials HD) I don’t mind failing and retrying many times as long as failure is entertaining and it’s super fast and easy to retry the mission that I failed.

This is something that Crackdown did really well. There were generous respawn points, and your super powers (driving or agility) made it so that you could cover huge sections of the map in very little time.

GTA: IV took a big step forward in this area, as well. The GPS device was a great help and made it so much easier for someone like me (who tends to focus more on completing goals and quests and less on freeform game play).

GTA: Chinatown kept the GPS and added additional features that helped keep me on track and make it less painful to replay missions I had failed. Quick presses of the “Start” button (skip movie) and “Select” button (skip me to the mission start) allowed me to replay a mission quickly within a couple of button presses.

Quick restarts were important because I failed early and often. Too early and too often as far as I was concerned. I failed the first mission involving stealing a car because I couldn’t drive the car effectively. It was hard to tell which way the car was facing (so was I supposed to step on the gas? or back up?) I failed the second mission (chase the car driving enemy down) for the same reason.

I failed the third mission (steal 3 cars in X time) because it was calibrated for someone with much more skill than I had. After a few tries I succeeded (barely), but was left to wonder why it was calibrated so hard.

UI & Controls:

One of the hardest parts of playing a touch screen game is knowing what to do with the stylus when you’re trying to play the game, especially when there are large chunks of game play that don’t involve the stylus.

The other interesting part of the game is having a 50:50 ratio of user interface to game window. The touch screen is mostly mini map and PDA functionality and is really only game play during minigame sequences.

  • On the one hand, the large amount of real estate relegated to user interface meant that there was lots of room for help text, the “?” more information system was great, and generally it worked well in terms of providing access to all sorts of information about the world.
  • On the other hand, I still have a tough time monitoring the lower screen UI elements while engaged in complex game play on the upper screen. This mostly means that I have a tough time following the GPS/minimap while trying to complete a mission.

There were several other controls issues I discovered in the first hour or so of game play:

  • As I mentioned above, it was hard to tell car front from back for some of the car models. This meant I didn’t know whether to go forward or reverse when starting a car chase sequence. By itself, it’s not a huge issue, but when combined with camera issues (see below) and tight time constraints to complete a mission (see issue of mission difficulty calibration above), this became a major hassle.
  • Camera control was awkward at times. When I wasn’t under pressure, it was relatively easy to let the camera correct itself (while in a car) or adjust it manually (while on foot). But, in a tight confined space under time constraints, the car felt virtually undrivable at times. This is one of those issues with character relative controls with a fixed camera that is hard to solve.
  • I couldn’t figure out the aiming model (which target would be selected when I pressed the right shoulder button).
  • Sometimes it felt like I had a loaded gun, but it wouldn’t fire when I pressed the A button. I’d mash the button for a while, switch targets, cross my fingers… And eventually the gun would seem to work properly after a few seconds. I haven’t been able to reproduce this reliably, so I don’t have a clear understanding of why this was happening.
  • I could never figure out how to hail a cab. I know it has something to do with pushing and holding the X button, but it never seemed to work for me.

Overall thoughts:

I’m going to keep playing this game. I keep wanting to love the GTA IP and with each new revision it gets closer and closer to the kind of game I want to play. GTA: IV brought polish and production values that got me interested in the story and kept me playing for the first 10-15 hours.

I’m going to give GTA: Chinatown Wars another 2-3 hours to see whether the additional practice will get me to a place where I can succeed more often – or whether the challenge ramps up at a rate that I’ll find frustrating. Mostly I want to get more proficient at driving and figure out how aiming works so that I can be more effective in combat. In some ways I wish that there were some RPG elements to the game so I could level up my driving and weapon skills as per Crackdown. In other words, I’d like these two core aspects of game play to be less motor skill-based and more based on how my character progresses

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