Monday, June 24, 2013

SEA Majors 2013 afterthoughts

Okay this is going pretty much going to be a rather long post with not much direction, quite a bit of storytelling and possibly tagents. It's been forever since I blogged about fighting games, which is funny because fighting games are a big part of my life growing up, as compared to other genre of games. The thing is, I get really deep into fighting game technicalities but never tried to go far as a player. This is because I see really talented and smart players around me, who has better reaction, sharper wits, stronger fundamentals and sometimes plays the game more than I do. It developed a mental block telling me how weak I am that stemmed from the CVS2 days, to my Guilty Gear days and eventually the glorious SSF4 era. That's why I never blog about fighting games; because it won't be about the game, more of a constant whining about my incompetence, praising other players, and pointless 'maybe I should have' statements without much solid ground (If I think I should have done something, I should be hitting training mode instead of stating it over a blog).  

When SEA Majors 2013 was announced, I find myself wondering if there is a point for me to spend $40 to take part in UMVC3. It bugged me for a whole week before I signed up. Okay I'm going off to a tangent here. You see, I have not been serious about fighting games since at least 5 years ago. That was around the time when I started taking a relaxed mentally at fighting games and began to realize all the dumb crap I have been wasting my 50 cents to at the arcades. However, it was a little too late. National Service came to took 2+ years away. I signed up for the craziest program under SIT to study at Digipen and that also took 2+ years away. That was also the time when I discovered and fell in love with Games development, which took up a lot of my free time. During that time, Marvel appeared and I picked it up casually because I find the concept of team building incredibly interesting as a gamer and as a games developer. 

So Marvel sort of became my main fighting game which I don't practice often...on average once a week. However, the fact remains that I have spent months searching for a team which I am satisfied with, which is Taskmaster/Spencer/Akuma. People who played with me over the weekends know how often I switch teams, despite not having time to practice. I still spend some my free time practising and playing Marvel, even if it's just once a week. Unfortunately at that time, I was in the mentality that I have mostly 'moved on' from fighting games and concentrate on my passion that is game development. There was a need to improve, but there was not much of a 'burning desire' to improve like I had back in the Guilty Gear days when I would spent hours and hours doing Baiken's tatami FRCs straight (do 10 straight, if drop 1, restart from 0. If completed, raise it requirement by 10, repeat). Nowadays I just play to practice combos here and there, and look for any interesting synergies between characters. I still love doing combos, finding out things and showing off, which is why, I think, I still play fighting games.

Then the simple question had to be asked, "Do I think I am good enough to participate in SEA Majors 2013?" To be honest, I didn't think so. I have never considered myself as a strong player (jokes aside), and I believe many others have the same opinion about me. I have horrible clutch, bad reactions and do stupid things. On top of that, I have a history of playing badly in tournaments, mostly because my opponents are way more experienced than me (CVS2 Revival tournament), or I am simply too new to the game (Guilty Gear VS tournaments). Not to mention I was usually placed horribly in UMVC3 BFFs. Results are still results. No matter how good I think I am, I have nothing to fall back on but bad results. This feeds to the mental block I had. 

But I won't know unless I try again right? I have nothing to lose and everything to gain. If I lose twice in a row and get 3-0'ed, so be it. What I really want to know is whether my Task/Spencer/Akuma team can do anything in my hands. It has given me good results in casuals, but I haven't tried it in a tourney (BFFs were somehow organized on Fridays when I'm not free), so what better way to find out than to participate in a major? On top of that, I have never been to a major before so this is great timing for me, before UMVC3 phases out. So I signed up, telling myself that I'm just going to do what I always do, no pressure, try my best, no unneeded risks, do simple combos that I can definitely do and see how far I can go. 

When I went to SEA major on Saturday, it was officially the first time I am showing off what I know internationally. Usually all my techs were known only to a few individuals who play me on weekends.  I played casuals with some players, and as much as I was impressed by some of their techs (those who play teams I have never seen before, always props to those people), they were impressed by mine. That made me rather happy. I didn't get to show my Tron team much though T_T

Tournament time came and I saw my brackets. I would face Mike Ross if I beat my first opponent SLX. I know it's going to be a battle of two fraudulents if we meet. I don't play the game much (as much as it is my main game) and neither does he, but he is still an FGC celebrity with great fighting game sense. The good thing is, I know his team, and he doesn't know mine. The bad thing is, he's using Hulk backed by drones, one of the few combinations I feel that will rape my one trick pony team that is Shield Skills + Tatsu. But all that does not matter if I don't beat my first opponent, so as usual, I expect the expected (which is to lose). 

SLX came up to me with an X23 team, backed by Akuma and Strider. I gave away the first match because I was so blur that I only considered his whole team's composition only when I see X-factor 3 Strider in my face. I took a breather and reconsidered my strategy. His team is extremely mobile and covers a lot more space than mine. His strategy is obvious, but very very hard to find a good opening. I have to pin him down somehow. That was when I started playing seriously, like really seriously, because I really wanted to win and face Mike Ross. He made a critical mistake in the end, and I took the game. I felt relieved, because SLX is a  pretty strong player who knows what he's doing (you can tell when both players are playing seriously) and his mixups are ridiculous when you let him do his thing. 

I got to face Mike Ross on stream. Admittedly, I was a little nervous because it is on stream. I don't want to lose like a silly idiot who eat Hulk's standing H, obvious drones mixup and happy birthday ice storms. I was behind Mike when SLX's friend told him that SLX lost. Mike was like "what happened?" and was responded with "stupid shield skills, and that Spencer damage".  What a happy stalker I was. Truth be told though, SLX also talked to his friend IN FRONT OF ME that he died to Shield Skills and he made that critical error popping x-factor 3 on his Akuma. Either I am very unnoticeable, or people in majors really forget random players fast, even if they were beaten by him. I mean, it's understandable that you win and forget the person, but to lose and forget so fast seems strange and a bit disrespectful to me. 

So I fought Mike. I won't say much to discredit him, but his Storm and Sentinel has good fundamentals. I played to my most fraudulent of abilities and we went really close and down to the wire. I made one small little error on my calculations and Mike robbed me of what was supposed to be my win on the last round. Of course, I felt salty, but those 5 games I really felt that I didn't do anything particularly bad, or anything particularly wrong. I don't think I dropped any combos too (maybe 1 or 2 weird ones). I really felt that I played my best, and that gave me insight on what I'm lacking. You can't get this kind of insight when you play casually, when you theory-craft or when you play with the mentality that you are just going to get bodied. It's ridiculous that it took me almost 8 years to figure this out.

I went on to yet again beat someone in my loser's bracket (someone failed to give me his name but I remember his face...he was using Arthur/Doom/Wesker and does weird things like hard tagging Wesker in after giving Arthur gold armor). He plays a solid solid Arthur to the point where I felt that Arthor IS his real anchor not Wesker. Luckily, I play Arthur anchor and casuals so I wasn't that afraid to deal with Chinese New Year super into XF3 into 10000 overhead attempts as compared to dark Wesker. It was obvious, however, that I'm finding it hard to concentrate on my matches after playing seriously for the past 2 matches. Maybe because I'm not used to it? I don't know, maybe veteran major-goers can give me some insight to this. I managed to beat him though, but got to fight SLX again.

SLX came up against me with a vengeance. Despite feeling a bit fatigued, I played my best again. SLX was prepared though. I felt like his strategy changed to a more space-control gameplay. I couldn't pin him down at all. When I finally managed to catch him, I had to snap Strider, which is also very hard to catch with my team since it has no vertical coverage. That when I know he figured my team out; space-control and come in from the air with a safe move. On top of that, he locks me down with Tatsumaki and Vajra assist. I couldn't figure out his adapted gameplay in time and I ultimately lost. And boy he looked so happy defeating me! That made me happy too. I felt a bit like a villain then.

Some players might brand me silly or lousy for thinking that winning 2 games out of 4 games in pools an achievement. But to me, it is. It felt that I can actually do combos and clutch if I put my heart into it. In all 4 games, I didn't feel that I short-changed myself by screwing up badly (the last part against Mike was more of a knowledge problem...'okay I know air blocking Hard Drive is correct...but what next...oh crap'). Still, it feels a little surreal and upsetting that I was literally one right decision away from the alternate universe where I beat Mike Ross and get to fight Don as if it's just another weekend in Tough Cookie. 

I am really glad I joined SEA Major 2013. It was a memorable experience for me, going up on stream, people actually cheering for me, impressed by me, giving me encouragement, not dying for free, not dropping combos, and not making as many dumb decisions as I am notoriously known for, a little bit of playing the hero (almost beating Mike) and a little bit of playing the bad guy (denying SLX). It also gave me a lot of insight implicitly about the state of the community. Yes, I'm a bit upset because I felt that I really could have made it out of my pools, but that actually goes way way way over my initial expectation. This major really helped me a lot in overcoming the mental barrier that I had for the last decade of playing fighting games. I hope no one else had to wait this long for them to overcome theirs.

Anyway I am really grateful for all the people who made SEA possible: the organisers, the commentators, the participants, the stream... arg there's just a really long list that goes on and on. Shoutouts to all of them. Looking back 10 years ago, the FGC has really come a long long way and it will last for many years to come.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Review: "Monaco"

Monaco is a top down 2D colorful pixel art stealth indie game, where players choose different criminals to perform heists. Players can choose to complete the heist by themselves or cooperate with up to 3 other friends.

Monaco's story tells of 4 specialized criminals who performed a prison break and plans to escape Monaco. Along the way, they enlisted help from 4 other criminals to aid their escape. These 8 different criminals are the Locksmith, Pickpocket, Cleaner, Lookout, Mole, Gentleman, Hacker and Redhead.

Line of sight leads to importance of positioning
Stealth games are an interesting genre to me. I think it is safe to say that it is difficult to design one that is 100%  about sneaking aroumd. Usually, stealth games incooperate NPC-disabling aspects in varying degrees, from basic knocking the lights off enemies to permenantly killing them with a stab to the back to plain manslaughter. Metal Gear, Thief, Splinter Cell and Hitman all have the same trend. One of the reasons is that designers would want to empower the players, and empowerment is one of the most powerful ways to provide fun to the players. Not allow players to disable enemies seems rather counter-productive (not saying that it is impossible to create a stealth game like that; I totally believe that it is doable). But one must remember that disabling an enemy will trivialize that area of the level the enemy is at. As an example, if you kill everyone on a level in the stealth games classic Thief, completing that level will be a walk in a park.

Monaco did not move away from the trend. However, Monaco has a very strict limitation on this topic on disabling enemies. Lets throw in some game facts so that we can get a better perspective. The tools players can carry is limited; one tool per player, and each tool's ammo is obtained by collecting every 10 coins which are littered throughout the map. On top of that, only half the tools are actually harmful to enemies (weapons). Also, enemies can revive each other. This makes weapons cost-ineffective for the heists, espacially when the other non-lethal tools are really good (like the Smoke Bomb which blocks enemy line of sight, or the EMP which disables all nearby electronic devices like alarms or cameras).

Information relayed to players is clear and concise

This bring us to the next feature of the game. Monaco features 8 unique professions the players can choose to play. For a new player, I found that I have the most ease completing most of the levels with The Cleaner. Like I mentioned before, disabling enemies in stealth games can trivialize the level. It so happens that The Cleaner does this very well. He is able to disable anyone he touches as long as they are not alerted. After using him for the first time, I could never stop. Only on very specific scenarios will The Cleaner have trouble. In a nutshell, The Cleaner is generally useful in all maps because he can potentially get rid of the greatest threats that is common in them. The other classes are quite the opposite; they are useful on specific maps and can suffer badly if the map does not cater to their abilities.

The Locksmith, who opens locks faster, is good at levels where you have memorized the map and going for speed runs in places with a lot of locks. I do not have much of a problem with him as locks are one of the most common things you encounter.

The Pickpocket, who has a monkey that collects coins, is probably as powerful to me as the Cleaner as he has the potential to avoid the need to interact with enemies. He is easily my second choice to clear a level, should the Cleaner face difficulties. 

The Lookout, who climbs vents and stairs faster and can detect NPCs while sneaking or standing still, is useful in co-op matches because she can help other players detect enemies from hidden places. I do not use her much as her ability is really only good for escaping, and I try not to get myself spotted most of the time.

The Mole, who can destroy walls, might perform really well in levels with lots of walls to break as he can bypass certain obstacles. The only problem is that very few levels give The Mole this chance. Some levels can just simply shut his abilities down with good placement of NPCs and giving very few walls for him to break through without screwing himself.

The Gentleman, who wears disguises (a shield for enemies detecting you), is probably only good for running across security cameras. I have not found a security camera which I have problems bypassing with other characters though.  In my opinion, his ability is the most boring.

The Redhead, who will charm the first person who spot her (you will have to go out of sight to lose them), is very good or very bad depending on the level's NPC placement. I find her really annoying to use because if I charmed the wrong person, I would have to get rid of him as if I was being chased, in which case it is almost no different from getting chased in the first place. 

The Hacker, who hacks computers faster and can hack through power socket, is also very dependant on the level. This is because all characters can inherently hack through computers, so using the hacking mechanic is a common ability. The only difference is the The Hacker can hack faster and hack in more places, and again the extra places the Hacker can hack is dependant on the level (like if some wise-ass designer decides not to give you sockets to hack through). 

I have already mentioned about The Cleaner. So of course, the Cleaner has areas where it is problematic for him, like when there are too many enemies together in one spot. However, that situation is just as problematic for other professions, save maybe the Pickpocket. 

Hector is his monkey
But I must stop myself from going into a tangent about stealth games and its design. The problems I faced with each profession are just my opinions and I can see how each of them cater to different players (maybe people find unlocking doors fast better than disabling enemies, since if they can unlock doors fast, they have less problems running into patrols for example). In the end, because of its limitations of disabling enemies, I find myself sneaking and hiding, bidding myself time as an enemy walks by, more than actually trying to disable enemies (even for The Cleaner). 

Monaco is essentially a very well-executed stealth game. It has interesting mechanics, features and rather well-written scripts and dialogues before each heist (although it sort of went downhill after they met the Hacker). On top of that, it has a really good soundtrack! I would definitely recommend this game for everyone to play, casual or not.