Analysis of a Moment: FreeSpace – Playing Judas

Most of what I’ve written about has been about first- or third-person shooters; a lot of it does apply to certain simulation games like MechWarrior or FreeSpace, however, and these games as well have their own lessons we can learn from. FreeSpace was one of those series’ that had a lot more good than bad, and it’s a beloved classic for almost everyone who’s played it. However, there was one mission in the first game in particular that isn’t always remembered fondly.

Playing Judas was the one and only stealth mission in all of the first FreeSpace. In a previous mission, you go through great lengths to capture a Shivan Dragon; a superiority fighter. In Playing Judas, you get to fly that Dragon (refitted for Terran use) flying a stealth recon mission against a Shivan-held jump node. The mission itself entails avoiding a few point-defense turrets and other Dragons patrolling the area as you scan transports and other ships coming through the area. If you get within a certain distance of the patrolling ships, they immediately know you aren’t a Shivan and they open fire on you.

After we scan a few transports, some bigger ships come in, making things a lot more tense if you’re discovered. They can’t tell if you’re friendly or not; it’s only the enemy fighters and turrets that can. To make things worse, also, for some reason your jump drive goes offline temporarily and you can’t jump out of the area if something goes wrong. Then the largest, most dangerous ship we’ve seen from the Shivans jumps in. We have to scan it, then it throws some fighters out, they spot you, there’s a small, frantic skirmish and then you can jump away, ending the mission.

It should be a pretty awesome mission because you’re flying in a Dragon. Dragons are proven before this to the player to be very maneuverable and incredibly powerful. The mission in which you capture it shows it to you in no uncertain terms; you have to disable its engines by hitting it in a certain spot with a particularly slow beam weapon. Missions in which you dogfight them are almost a nightmare, as well, because they’re so dangerous and so hard to hit. Prior to this, you don’t have a single fighter that’s anywhere close to that strength and maneuverability, so you’re practically jumping for joy at having access to this!

Shivan Dragon
The problem is that your Dragon is horribly gimped, and basically equivalent to the Apollo (the first fighter you fly; not the shuttle). You have poor maneuverability, paper-thin armor and cheap weapons, making for a very disappointing experience. Furthermore, you’re constantly threatened by REAL Dragons, almost mocking you. I can see why they did this, though; they gave you this really awesome fighter for STORY PURPOSES, and handicapped it to make this stealth mission still very tense and make it so you can easily fail if you aren’t careful. If you’re caught, you can be torn to pieces by the other Dragons. But they could have done this without playing on your expectations like this.

To accomplish the same goal while giving you a full-strength Dragon, they could have set one or two Lilith-class heavy cruisers (something you couldn’t even try to kill in a superiority fighter) as a constant threat. Up to this point, Liliths are very scary unless you’re a decent bomber and have support, so there’s still a very real threat even if you have that very capable fighter.

Shivan Lilith
Story-wise, it would have made sense as well because that jump node was held by the Shivans in a contested system (if I recall correctly) and would be guarded. Having that constant axe over your head is important in a stealth mission, even with a full-power Dragon. There are other stealth missions in several FreeSpace mods (Shrouding the Light and the Procyon Insurgency, for example) that use overwhelming odds like this.

Of course, what good is having a full-strength Dragon if you can’t use it? At the end of the mission is that small scuffle and dogfight when they spot you, before you can jump out. That’s a perfect opportunity to give the player a short, intense fight with his souped-up fighter. With the Liliths around, it still stresses the player because he knows he can’t win in the long run, but just like in the original mission, he knows he just has to hold out until his jump drive gets back online.

The other major complaint about this mission is that it’s a stealth mission in the middle of a large, shoot-’em-up space fighter simulator. I didn’t think this was as big a deal because there were quite a few types of missions in the game already (escort, assault, disable, etc.), but I can entirely see the issue here. It’s a “Don’t shoot anything!” mission in the middle of a “Shoot stuff that’s red on your radar!” game. The only way you could improve this is to have another stealth mission earlier, so it isn’t as big of a shock. Story-wise, however, I have no idea how they could have worked that in properly, because there’s really no stealth-capable fighter until at least the expansion (and even then that’s not amazingly stealthy).

FreeSpace is one of my favourite games; nearly every aspect of the game is excellent. Unfortunately, the game that has no flaws whatsoever doesn’t exist (besides Lemmings, because honestly, it’s Lemmings), but we can learn from those flaws and make these games better as a result. This article is mostly academic, of course, unless someone uses the map designer to make a new version of that mission that implements these changes. We can speculate how this would work, but until we try to play through the mission, we aren’t totally sure how this would work. I’ve hopefully done a good enough job illustrating and explaining my ideas and why they might improve the mission, though.


Roles of Monsters: The Turret


Most of the offense-oriented roles we’ve covered have been pretty fast as a rule; swarmers have to move quickly and kamikazes have to be able to keep up with their targets. By definition, they’re usually close range as well. It stands to reason that some monsters, however, don’t have to move around much and are still dangerous from a distance. Turrets are one of those monster roles that isn’t very mobile (though they don’t have to be immobile) and usually attacks from a large distance.

Vore, from Quake
The Vore from the first Quake is one such monster. Of course, the word turret implies something immobile, but the Vore can actually move around. It’s pretty slow, however, and is usually placed far away, across terrain it can’t traverse (across a gap, on a ledge, etc.). Because it’s so suited to long-range, its attack has to be able to hit at those ranges; thus, it has a projectile that homes in on you (famously so, since it’s capable of hunting you around corners) that’s hard to avoid and does a pretty decent amount of damage for what it is. It also has the second-highest health in the game, so it won’t die particularly quickly.

The first problem you run into when designing a turret is what kind of attack to give it. Because they’re usually placed away from your target, projectiles don’t usually have a good chance of hitting. The Vore gets around this by having a famously aggressive seeking projectile. Alternatively, you could use a hitscan attack; an attack with an instant travel-time, like the bullet-based weapons in many older games. Hitscan attacks on turrets do have problems (and indeed, their own class), but I will go into that in detail later. There’s no hard-and-fast rule for these, you’ll just have to plan out how your turret will work and be careful how to design and balance its attack.

Icarus, from Quake 2
The Icarus from Quake 2 was another decent turret, with a twist. It had a quick-moving projectile attack (quick blaster burst), and could take a bit of damage, but the major difference was that it hovered in the air, making it a bit more mobile than the Vore was. Usually they were placed high up where the player wouldn’t expect, also, and it was still pretty slow so most of the time its added mobility was just so it got a better firing angle on you. Its rapid-fire, fast-travel projectile attack also helped it actually hurt the player from far away. It didn’t have any hitscan attacks or homing projectiles, but its attack was so quick that you have a good chance of taking damage from it. They were usually encountered in small groups of two or three in later maps, as well.

Turrets benefit quite a bit from good positioning. If they aren’t placed well, they might not be able to hurt the player, or they can be avoided pretty easily. However, if your turret can fly, like the Icarus, it can reposition itself as it needs. The only major issue with that is that you might not be able to restrict it to a particular area (though if you need it to reposition, you might not want to).

Jackal Sniper, from Halo 2
One more variant of glass cannon is the sniper, and though there are many kinds (Deadeye from Binary Domain, Combine snipers in Half-Life 2, etc.) the best example I can think of is the Jackal Sniper from Halo 2. Like all glass cannons, they died very quickly and had very-damaging attacks. The difference between more ordinary glass cannons and sniper-types is that sniper-types have long-range attacks that are USUALLY (but not necessarily) hitscan. The Jackal Sniper had a Beam Rifle that was capable of wiping out your shields in a single shot, and was very difficult to avoid because the attack instantly hits, so you have to depend on its random chance to miss.

The major downside to sniper-types is that they’re even more of a luck-based challenge than more usual glass cannons. I’ll use an example from a well-known Doom mod; In Ultimate Torment and Torture, there were one or two particular maps that featured Zombie Railgunners and placed them pretty far away. The big problem was that they could hurt you from across the map for a decent chunk of damage every time they hit. In an effort to balance this they’re usually very weak, health-wise, but you still couldn’t easily kill them. Most of their ability to survive is that they’re so far away, and in the case of those Zombie Railgunners they’re impossible to hit with most weapons in the game. Like other glass cannons, they’re very difficult to properly place without being either useless in function or unfair on the player. The upshot is that they can work very well in accomplishing the job turrets are made for, if they’re well-used and well-designed.

Speaking of which, the main reason to use turrets is as area-denial. Sort of like a support, turrets are designed to back up encounters with other monsters, but they do so by reducing the area in which the player can operate. If he does go into the turret’s line of sight while fighting other monsters, he risks taking even more damage than he would otherwise. Because of this, they should be restricted to a certain spot so they can keep an eye on that area (definition of a turret), and they have to do enough damage that the player doesn’t want to draw its attention. Conversely, they should be tanky enough (or far enough, especially in the case of snipers) that they can’t be easily wiped out by the player. You might think flying turrets go against this, but not necessarily; they still might be denying an area, but that area itself is shifting, depending on how you design the area itself and how that flying turret moves. Different flying turrets can move in different ways to cover an area more effectively. For example, The Icarus constantly moves towards you (it’s the standard monster AI for all the early Id Software games), but the Heavy Hovertank from Quake 4 shifts around its position randomly to try to get better angles on you.

Turrets can also work well combined with other roles. The Ravager from Red Faction: Armageddon is a good swarmer/turret; they bounce around back and forth between walls and ledges, doing ever-increasing damage to force the player into or away from an area. Like other swarmers, if you kill one, it reduces the threat, but the effect isn’t completely gone. Depending on the design, turrets can also be tanks, as well; since they do so much to shape the area the player can fight in, they demand some attention (The Vore does this). And fitting the purpose of these articles in general, turrets work well when placed in tandem with other roles. Imagine an arena with some limited cover from a turret, with a tank and swarmers being the real challenge of the encounter. The tank takes your attention while the swarmers try to deal the damage, more effectively because the turret is limiting your movement.

Battlefield control is one of those elements of design that map-designers like to have a lot of flexibility with. Turrets let them design those more interesting encounters, especially in games where the player is especially mobile. Doom 2 and every (single-player) Quake game have these to balance out how capable the player is. We can use these to make the game more challenging, and more fun for the player.

Roles of Monsters: The Kamikaze

Going to be a fairly short article, in comparison to the others. In the fodder article, I did mention a subtype known as glass cannons. Kamikazes are something like that; they’re weak monsters that usually explode next to you. More of a mutating factor for an existing monster class, they can be thought of as a monster with a powerful attack that can be pulled off ONCE (and after that, it may as well be dead because it can’t really do anything after that anyway).

The first kamikaze we look at is the Exploder from Dead Space. The first thing you notice about it is that it’s incredibly distinctive; for one, one of its arms is a large, glowing, chemical-filled pod and odd-shuffling walking animation. Secondly, it makes loud, unmistakable sounds as it moves and sees the player. The game gives you plenty of warning that one is approaching, and they’re pretty slow. They’re pretty easy to deal with (with Dead Space’s limb-severing mechanic, especially), so do you see how these act as glass cannons? When it gets close, it hits you with the large pod on its arm, which detonates, seriously damaging you and actually killing any other monster nearby. If you’re able to respond to them, you can kill them fairly easily, but if you’re inattentive or busy with something else, they suddenly get much more dangerous because they do so much damage.

It is pretty unique among kamikazes, though. With Dead Space’s limb-severing gimmick, you can shoot off the explosive pod off of its arm, and it becomes ordinary fodder, so it’s not an incredible example of the bare-bones, basic kamikaze.


Creeper, from Binary Domain

The Creeper from Binary Domain, though, is a pretty basic kamikaze. It’s a bit more forgiving because it’ll curl up in a ball and charge for a second or two before it detonates, giving the player enough time to get away. To counteract that, however, it moves a bit faster than you do. There are also a LOT more of them in one given area than Exploders, making this a kamikaze/swarmer. They do more damage per-shot than any other non-boss enemy in the game, but not as much (percent-wise) as an Exploder, and don’t take much damage at all. Like with non-kamikaze swarmers, they’re individually not as powerful as you would think, but make up for it with its sheer mass of numbers and ability to swarm you.

And then there’s the Berserker from Red Faction: Armageddon. The Berserker is more of a tank, with high-health and a damaging area-of-effect attack. It’s slow and it packs a punch with ranged attacks, so it really doesn’t fit the classification of kamikaze, right? Until you do enough damage to it, at which point it starts sparking and wildly runs towards you. If you finish it off or if it gets close enough to you, it outright explodes, dealing a large amount of damage to everything around it.

As we can see from this, a suicide mechanic can be a secondary ability and not all a monster centers around; in the case of the Berserker, it augments its ability to play the tank. When you do enough damage to it, it demands even more attention or else you’re punished for it. In other cases, it might not work, because we have a monster that’s already tough that now has a somewhat frustrating ability that makes it even tougher; however, in this case, it works because the transition from tank to kamikaze is very clear. There are visual and audio cues that’s something’s changed. Also, your friendly helper NPC points it out in your first encounter with one, so we get a more-gentle introduction to the monster as a whole (something I usually approve of).

Kamikazes are trickier to balance than your ordinary monster. By definition, the basic kamikaze is a glass cannon. Also, more often than not they also damage other monsters around them, so a single kamikaze can potentially neuter a whole encounter by detonating at the right (or wrong) location, so you have to keep how they’re placed closely in mind. Also, their speed is something else to consider, if it’s a monster that literally runs up to you and explodes. If you’re much faster than they are, they might not be much of a threat, but it can be really frustrating if they’re much faster than you are. Kamikazes kind of have to be distinctive and deal relatively high-damage, as well, in order to fill their role as a kamikaze. If this is a secondary ability like with the Berserker, you have to keep the rest of the monster in mind when you balance it; you could be making an already-difficult monster simply too powerful.

Kamikazes are only really popular when they’re designed well. More so than other monsters, poorly-designed kamikazes can ruin parts of a game because they’re either so frustrating to deal with or they wreck an encounter. However, they can often work very well to give the player some element of panic. There’s no worse feeling in Dead Space (in the actual combat, excluding the cheap scares) than when you turn around and find an Exploder you simply didn’t notice. In Binary Domain, the introduction of the Creeper is one of the most frantic parts of the game as you struggle to shoot them all fast enough. The major downside is that they’re so much harder to strike a proper balance with, but a single kamikaze (and/or a single monster with a kamikaze secondary ability) can often provoke that emotional response, if that balance is struck.