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Promoted blog: It's all about the powers you don't play

7:00 PM on 09.11.2012 // Nic Rowen
  @wrenchfarm

[Dtoid Community Blogger Wrenchfarm longs for more jazz and less pop. Want to see your own words appear on the front page? Go write something! --Mr Andy Dixon]

I'm really excited for Dishonored. Like, really. A Neo-Victorian first-person adventure made by a dream-team of former Deus Ex, Thief, and Half-Life 2 designers? Chock full of creepy masks and more stabbings than the Gathering of the Juggalos? Looks like someone has been reading my dream diary again.

Not only is Dishonored drenched in gorgeous style, it looks like it has some wild gameplay. Our protagonist has a suite of super natural powers at his disposal; he can freeze time, possess rats, swashbuckle like a pro, and use teleporting hops to blink from one place to the next. But oddly enough, it isn't all these abilities that has me the most excited, but the prospect that you won't be able to use them all.

It hasn't been a huge marketing point or anything, but the devs have made a few offhanded comments that players will have to pick and choose their skill set. All of these super cool powers and upgrades run off Runes, and there aren't enough in the game to fill out the whole set. You won't be able to load up your Gothic Assassin up with every trick in the book; you'll have to be selective.

To me, that restraint is a precious thing we don't see enough of in games.

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I always seem to have the most fun in the middle of a game these days, when your character has gotten past the indistinct blob stage of the early levels and some of your personal choices and style has had time to take form. BioShock was great for this. In the middle of the game you could have a vastly different character from your friends depending on how you upgraded your guns, what super-powered Plasmids you bought into, if you harvested or rescued the Little Sisters, and so on. One person could be a steam-punk pistol wielding pyromaniac while another might have a wrench-swinging bruiser who likes to sneak up on Splicers using decoys.

But the further on you got, the more the game just gave and gave you. There were enough upgrade stations to max every single weapon if you looked for them. Even if you rescued the Sisters, you still ended up with enough Adam to buy pretty much every useful plasmid in the game and plenty of slots to load them up in. While I had a very distinct character in the middle of the game, near the end he pretty much blurred into something similar to everyone else.

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I get why developers do it. They go through all the trouble of making these neat toys and powers, so it's only natural they would want people to actually see them. Providing the player with a huge degree of choice and power seems like the most player-friendly option. After all, you don't want to cut anyone off from playing the game the way they want to. I'm sure a lot of people enjoy a robust end-game character who can do it all. But I wonder if the game doesn't lose out in the end by watering down the importance of those early power choices.

Much like BioShock, Deus Ex: Human Revolution was a great game that fell into the same trap. I loved the game and had a lot of fun with it. But if there was one thing that annoyed me, it was how many Praxis kits and skill upgrades you picked up. Even without deep-dicking the game and specifically searching out extra kits, I ended up with several skill-trees maxed out at the end of the game with stuff I didn't even use. I had all the options open to me.

One of the great joys of these open-ended games is discussing it with your friends. Comparing and contrasting the experience. The water-cooler talk of Super-Spies and the slight one-upsmanship involved.

"Hey, did you smash through the wall and break that guy's neck to get into the building?"

"Oh that would have been cool! Nah, I didn't take any strength upgrades so I went on the rooftop and hacked into building security, turned all the drones on 'em."

"I took the big rocket launcher as a reward instead of any upgrades, so I made a ruckus outside and nuked them all in the doorway when they came out to investigate. Quick and easy."

The post-mission shop talk is always a fun insight into the way your friends think and how they saw the game. And it's so much less fun when everyone says

"Oh. I could do that too."

When a game is too generous and you have all the options available to your character, the choices you make become a little less unique. It can still be fun to chat about, but it loses that special quality.

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Of course, the simple solution to this problem in BioShock and Deus Ex: HR is to just not use these powers. There is nothing stopping you from never spending any ADAM or slotting any Praxis kits. Or you could and just decide not to use any of the abilities. I know in my game of Deus Ex I had to load up an earlier save from before I beat it to finally see what that claymore-chest-mine thing I had installed actually did (turns out it blows up).

I still think the game loses something when the player has to artificially trump up the uniqueness of their character in such a deliberate manner, but at least there is a solution. It's the ones that don't offer any recourse that are the worst offenders. At the top of that list would have to be Fallout 3.

Fallout 3 was a wonderful game, and I had a wonderful character for it. A scrawny little weirdo who spent all his character points at the beginning maxing out his luck and agility skills at the expense of any kind of resilience or power.

He couldn't handle the bucking recoil of a wasteland rifle, his computer skills were limited to pressing the ON/OFF button, and his medical knowledge only extended to how to mix a highball of Jet and Med-X and send himself into convulsions; but he knew his bombs. The explosive-obsessed maniac could rig up a mine that would blow the legs off a Behemoth Mutant out of a lunch pail and some bottle caps. He was such a little sneak he could creep up someone's shadow and place that mine right behind them. A charmer too: talked his way out of a few situations that could have ended real messy.

It was an amazing way to explore the Capital Wasteland. I had a goofy character that kept me on my toes. I had to approach each situation differently and learn to ride the crests and waves of luck-based critical hits to get me through. In a game where combat got stale for a lot of people, I had a character that always kept it fresh.

Well, until level 16 or so.

See, Fallout 3 had a lot of stat bonuses in it. Skill books, Bobbleheads, quest-reward perks, you name it. There were all kinds of ways to boost stats you never even used. If you liked to wander around and focus on all the side-quests and mini story arcs in the game (best part of it IMO) then you tended to collect a lot of them. Maybe too many.

By the time I reached the higher XP levels, I had skills I never intentionally put any points into at impressively high rates. Apparently my character learned to hack computers through osmosis. He conjured a M.D. out of thin air and started performing Wasteland surgery on himself.

Annoying, but what really made it a killer was the level up screen.

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Fallout 3 used a hard level up screen that would freeze the game and not allow you to progress until you assigned the points you earned and selected a perk. What I found in the mid-teen levels was that I already maxed out all the skills I thought were appropriate for my character. But because the screen wouldn't advance without doing something with them, I started dumping them into whatever. Combine that with all those Bobbleheads and other bonuses, and pretty soon my once highly-specialized character was starting to look pretty good at everything.

All of that was disappointing in its own right, but it was the effect this rampant over-powering had on the expanded content of the game that really took a crowbar to my enjoyment of Fallout 3. By the time the large-scale DLC packs for the game like "Point Lookout" and "Broken Steel" hit, I had been scraping the top of the level 20 cap for a long time. I already had a character proficient at everything; and so had most other players apparently.

Evidently, the developers realized that many players had crazy overpowered characters and tried to compensate by introducing ridiculously powerful enemies to balance it out.

"Point Lookout" had its bullet-sponging Swamp Folk and absurdly radioactive Reaver Ghouls to supposedly reintroduce an element of challenge to the Wasteland. "Broken Steel" ludicrously raised the level cap to 30, letting you max out those last few outstanding skills and came packed full of Broken Enemies to match. Security Kill Bots that were little more than kegs of HP with a pair of rocket launchers strapped to their flanks waiting to dust you in the subway. Albino Radscropians that were tougher than the three-story-tall former top-dog Behemoths hiding behind every rock. It was a mess.

There was no way to intelligently engage these enemies. They saw through stealth nine times out of ten, could soak up your best critical backstab or surprise attack, and without the toughest sets of armor could easily one-shot you. The only thing to be done was to whip out your super powered Plasma Gun and 100 point Energy Weapon skill and slug away at them from a distance.

I went from having to approach every encounter with a mix of stealth and cunning (and bombs) to doing the same old V.A.T.S. headshotting routine everyone else complained was boring.

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Letting the players do everything didn't help the variety or intrigue of the game in the end. It cut it down at the knees since they had to balance the content around such overpowered characters.

In New Vegas, on the other hand, they learned from those mistakes. Compared to Jolly Ol' Saint Fallout 3, New Vegas was a stingy shrew. A handful of stat points to assign per level and a perk only graciously bestowed every two. Skill book bonuses were trimmed down and largely replaced with temporary boosters. Perks in general weren't as powerful and had more specific functions.

And you know what? You could still make a powerful character. You just had to be specialized right. You could have a Deadeye gunslinger survivalist. You could make a robotic mastermind hacker. Or a explosive-rigging chatterbox. But you couldn't make a Deadeye-gunslinging-survivalist-robotic-mastermind-hacker-explosive-rigging-chatterbox like in Fallout 3.

The more focused character builds of New Vegas also worked great with its more focused narrative. New Vegas featured a whole slew of factions to join, each with mutually exclusive quests and endings. All the major conflicts in the game could be solved with a number of resolutions benefiting (or screwing) different groups. The game encouraged you to make multiple characters and play through it several times!

I never felt like I "missed out" on any skills or tactics in New Vegas because I made a few different characters to see all the different story branches and they all specialized in their own particular wheel houses.

I had the full experience, just not all at once. It was the difference between going to a few high-class restaurants and plonking down at an all-you-can-eat-buffet. Sure, you could eat more at the buffet, but you would have a better more enriching experience enjoying yourself at those smaller, more well-prepared meals.

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A little restraint intelligently applied can do a game a world of good. The natural inclination might be to dump out all the goodies from the toybox and let the players do what they want, but knowing when to hold something back can make for a much more finely-honed and unique experience for the player.

I'm excited that the devs behind Dishonored get it. I can't imagine it going over well with the guys in marketing, but telling gamers what they won't be able to do might be just the right way to prove their game is being made with care and thought.

I can't wait to get into it.



Nic Rowen, Contributor
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Nic (formerly known as Wrenchfarm) has been an active member of the Dtoid community since 2010. After toiling away in the Cblog mines and Recap Team workhouse for years, he made the jump and bec... more   |   staff directory

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