I’ve now reached the first big milestone. A good amount of time and effort has gone into getting everything up and running, but that shouldn’t distract from the reality that everything in the level is preliminary, and that combat exists only in skeletal form. The space is blocked out, but bots are shoved into place with very little in the way of scripting. For the white box phase, you need to be able to see the fun, off in the distance, buried under a bunch of garbage. The next milestone, orange box, actually needs to be fun. Now comes the process of iteration and refinement, and in some cases, out-and-out overhaul.
What follows is a review of each of the four major combat encounters in the level. I’ve recorded a playthrough of each in its current incarnation, trying to play as realistically as possible in hopes of plainly exposing the flaws that exist in their design and implementation.
1. Ludus Arena
This is the first bit of combat that the player experiences, so it needs to set the mood without being overly difficult. I like the feeling of bots jumping down haphazardly from the balconies above, but it’s too much of an overwhelming assault. I want the player to be taken off guard, but he should also be able to fend off the attacks fairly easily. For one, the bots’ advances could be spaced out a bit more.
There’s also a lack of clearly defined cover. The columns provide some protection, but otherwise there aren’t many good positions to move to without being exposed, and the space feels pretty cramped as a result. The streaming level change that sets up this encounter means that I can go nuts damaging the arena, which might allow me to take some liberties with the space and connect the balcony to the ground floor via holes and collapsed walkways.
First, the setup is awful. Bill runs ahead of the player, and before the player can see what’s going on, Bill says (while staring into a brick wall) “Oh damn! They’ve taken over the gatehouse! I’m gonna stand over here now. Good luck!” The AI companion’s lack of involvement is inexplicable, and the fact that there’s a gatehouse at all comes out in the same breath as the necessity of killing everything inside of it. Anyway, this is a case where we should most certainly invoke the timeless storytelling adage, “show, don’t tell” (or perhaps the timeless video game adage, “do, don’t show”). The encounter needs a better introduction, and I already use the “run around corner and get shot at; run back around corner” cliche later in the level.
Moving on to the encounter itself, there are major problems. The bot on the walkway is an attempt to put some pressure on the player, but generally speaking there’s no impetus for the player to move forward. He can simply stand behind the wall and peek out of cover to slowly take down the enemies in front of him. The bots need to be spread out more, and there should be a compelling reason for the player to move up while still in combat.
As it stands, this is a straight-up combat encounter pitting the player against a large group of NPCs who are guarding a stationary objective. I already have a few of those, so I’m thinking about doing something different here. In its preliminary form, the space leading up to the gatehouse is bland and slipshod. I’m considering radically altering the grounds of the Ludus and extending the encounter into this space. The gatehouse would remain the final objective of the encounter, but the player would have to traverse a more interesting area in order to get there. Instead of a frontal assault, it would be a more stealthy affair in which the player takes out single bots or small groups of bots in more ways than just by shooting them. Such a format would allow the gatehouse to be introduced more gradually, and more methodical combat would allow the AI companion to take an active role alongside the player.
3. Colosseum Basement
This encounter isn’t meant to be too long or complicated — its main purpose is to ease the player into combat in anticipation of the forthcoming Hypogeum encounter. The video shows that the bots don’t flank properly, which is either a minor technical issue or an oversight on my part.
I’m beginning to think that its place in the level could be adjusted. As it stands, the player goes off to find a bomb and immediately runs into this group of bots. The player then ascends an elevator, grabs a bomb, then comes back down and runs back to where he came from. Given the intent I just mentioned, it seems sensible to position this encounter as a surprise for the player as he comes back down the elevator. It’d give the player more downtime post-guardhouse, and it’d put the reintroduction of combat closer to the Hypogeum encounter that it foreshadows.
I’d have to fundamentally reconstruct the room, but I’m more than okay with that, since the room and the encounter were more-or-less copied and pasted from a test map. If I’m going to involve the elevator, maybe I could give the room a mezzanine level, accessible from the elevator, that would allow for a more interesting space for combat.
This one’s coming along fairly well, although the lack of pickups makes it nearly unplayable at the moment. I’ll have to watch some objective playtests to get a better idea, but for the most part I think it’s not too difficult to find the bombs. However, since the exit door is shown to the player before he picks up the last bomb, I’ll need to reinforce that there’s one bomb left so that he won’t leave the Hypogeum before finishing the encounter. On that note, instead of trying to make lines shouted across an arena both convincing and audible, I think I’ll just rely on the everyone-has-a-radio-in-his-ear conceit for the frantic encouragement of the AI companion during the encounter.
My only other problem is with the first group of bots. I want the player to be able to catch them off guard, to play against all the other sudden ambushes in the encounter, but it’s nearly impossible to alert them and they stand lifeless until attacked. I think it’d be best to be more conservative and just provide the player with an opportunity to see them coming instead of creating a straight-up ambush situation.