UI Done Right (Dead Space)

I finally managed to play a little Dead Space this morning, after years of putting it off and boy am I impressed so far.  The game manages to be incredibly immersive and downright frightening.  I understand that Dead Space and Assassin’s Creed are two very different games, and although AC2 post-dates Dead Space, AC1 came out first, so we can’t blame the AC team for missing the boat on next-gen UI innovation.

A still image does not do it justice

The entire game plays out in front of your character, while you can pause it you are given only the most meager options- all that essentially take place outside the game world such as audio and quitting.  The game’s “camera” is fixed over your silent character, and although you see him in the game world it in no way impacts the immersion into that world.  The truly amazing thing about the UI is that the game world defines it rather than having the game developers layer it on top of the action (see Assassin’s Creed 2).  Although there still exists time tested gaming tropes such as health meter, ammunition and other meters and displays, they’re embedded into the character’s gear- either as a glowing display on his back, or through a projected hologram where all of the game config and narration takes place.

And oh that hologram HUD.  If Isaac (the character you “play” as) switches to the 3D map, he can manipulate it in front of him and if you move the game’s camera around the screen, the map moves with you.  Everything from available armaments to additional (optional) narrative can all be easily accessed from within the game, and the real surprise is when you’re in the middle of reading a note and one of the game’s aliens (“necromorphs”- pity really) decides to pop out of a closet, there’s nothing you can do but try and turn off your HUD and run!  Its hard to describe but it adds considerably to the stress of the game.  And this being of the horror genre, you need that stress.

Game developers have surely taken notice, as the new Splinter Cell pastes its user interface all over the game field.  While that looks interesting, it still fails at bridging the reality of the game world with the game design. Isaac’s suit, his gear and indeed the spaceship he is fighting aboard are the game’s interface.

Additionally, the developers have so thoroughly and carefully designed the ship: As you navigate around the ship, it feels like a (formally) functional mining ship.  I’m not entirely certain why there is a research lab full of mutated fetuses but damn if it isn’t scary.  Hopefully that will be explained.  But this place is lived in, you find audio logs detailing the crews’ lives, litter, posters, crew lockers, everything.  And when everything, I mean everything:  When I decided to see if I could levitate the head off of a decomposing body in the morgue, well, I feel kinda guilty now.

The game has a lot of weight to it.  Your boots slam to the floor and if you have to melee an enemy you feel the thud of heavy equipment impacting into flesh.  And I can’t even remember if the game makes use of built in vibration the Xbox controller uses but I do remember the impact.

On the Audio Tip:

This game deserves an oscar for sound design.  With surround sound speakers and a subwoofer the game comes alive.  Not just the monsters creeping up behind you but clacking debris across metal floors, broken automatic doors slamming open and shut across the hall, whose sound becomes more muffled and no less frightening as you move from room to room.  The protagonist never speaks but if his oxygen gets cut off or he’s badly injured, you can hear his labored breath from inside his welder’s mask.  Voices over comms have an expected level of distortion.  They thought of everything.

In light of Dead Space the makers of Assassin’s Creed 2 have no excuses.

Assassin’s Creed 2’s Big Disconnect

I don’t mean to harp on AC2 as much as I am, but in probably less than a few hours of total game time I just can’t seem to get comfortable with it.  Thinking about it, I believe a lot of my disinterest and frustration comes down to user interface and rewards.

UI and Controls

To say AC2 has a busy interface is to put it mildly.

  • On one corner of the screen you have a map littered with icons.
  • Another shows how much  money you have and (I assume) the weapon you are armed with.
  • The top right shows you the assignments for the four face buttons on the control pad- it needs to because they are context sensitive depending on the situation you are in and whether you are pressing R1.
  • The top left shows your health as well as an Assassin icon whose use I’ve not yet discerned.  There is also a floating double helix behind your health bar.

As you run through the game, there are additional messages displayed in the middle of the right side of the screen, sometimes too quickly if you are actually watching the action on screen.

I’d show a screenshot here but Ubisoft was tricky enough to allow you the option to turn off the GUI so you could take clean shots.  It’s really a shame because when you look at video or stills of the game it seems like this immersive, beautiful game.  The truth of it is that there are a million things to keep track of on screen, constantly taking you out of the moment.

It almost seems as though they made this game that takes place in the middle ages where the player is supposed to be taken in by huge crowds and stunning architecture, then built such a complex interface that they had to create a fiction where you are not actually immersed in the past, but are actually a person in the near future experiencing the memories of an ancestor through a Matrix-like computer interface.  With the artifice firmly in place they are now free to build as much of an intrusive interface on top of what was probably meant to be an immersive, open game.

Its like a second-second person experience.

Rewarding Gameplay

Another issue I have with this game is that in its false immersion, a lot of the kinds of gameplay one is used to in “traditional” games become difficult and unwieldy in the name of realism.  Yes Ezio can parkour around the rooftops of Firenze, but his movements are relatively slow and he cycles through every animation of a man clambering about on walls and windows might actually reflect.  Ubi’s producers may have deemed this necessary but a game like Uncharted 2 is able to produce incredibly fluid, relatively realistic animation much more quickly.

The result is that while you are capable of performing great feats, they come at a cost that ultimately takes the fun (and thus immersion) out of the game.

Another example of this is the looting system.  Most games provide you a very quick button press or even the ability to walk over a downed enemy to pick up any loot they might provide- money or gear etc.  In AC2, you have to hold down a button and wait as a little “looting timer” counts down.  I assume this is integrated into the steal mechanic or perhaps the game’s notoriety system but I don’t really know how.  All I know is that once I’ve beaten someone and I’m getting some money from them, it takes longer than it should and the people standing around call me a thief.

Obviously I’m missing some key gameplay here- there must be a reason why they don’t want me engaging in this behavior, but that reason has not been made apparent, and my interest continues to wane.  Games simplify a lot of “realistic” behaviors not only in the name of limiting budget and getting the game out the door, but because they know a lot of these behaviors don’t make for a fun game.

Also, Desmond (the “meta” character of the game), looks like this:


But sounds like this:

(It's actually Nolan North of Uncharted fame)

When you miss the boat…

I’m borrowing Assassin’s Creed 2 from my brother-in-law, and with only about an hour logged, I am absolutely ready to give up on it.  I avoided the first because I knew I’d get sucked into its reported repetitive, boring gameplay despite myself.  Jumping into the AC2, I’m confronted with an array of menus, prompts and controls that are completely dissimilar to anything I’ve played in recent memory- and that includes “open world” games like Infamous that obviously took some cues from it.

The setting- Italy during the Renaissance- is interesting enough, and I’ve only been mildly embarrassed playing through it with my wife so far; but between the busy interface (completely hidden from all promotional screenshots) with its tiny prompts that go by way too fast, and a control scheme that they do nothing to prepare you for if you’ve not played AC1, there’s just not enough here to keep me going.

Case in point: early in the game you are supposed to race the main character’s brother to the top of a church, and this race is designed to show you the parkour elements of the game.  The problem is there is nothing to ease you into the moment, you simply begin the race and try to catch any instructional prompts as they fly by.  When you fail, you are literally pulled out of the game world and forced to wait through a loading screen to start the race again.  It took me 40 minutes to complete was is essentially a 60 second bit of gameplay.

This comic pretty much sums it up.

I’m not the only person who’s dealt with this, for what its worth.  I’m going to give it another try but unless it really gives me something special its on to Dragon Quest V.

Also, I just made some muffins.  Mmmmmmmmuffins.