Friday, 21 February 2014

What Did FTL's Use of Slavery Say to You? (Video)

In December I did a short talk at the annual IGDA/BAFTA Games Writing Panel, along with cohorts Andy Walsh, James Swallow and Ed Stern. The theme was something to do with the unique demands of interactivity on story, and after reading this post I decided slavery in FTL was the ideal topic. I was interested to think and talk about the creative and moral responsibilities we have as game designers who put out products with unsavory events therein, and how interactivity blurs those lines.

There's some further discussion below, but for now here's the full vid. Apologies for unprofessional lighting / camera angles etc. You can download the slides here.

So it's worth noting first that in front of a crowd I play things up a bit, including how chaotic development really was, because when I say anything positive about anything that I've worked on my first instinct is to immediately self-deprecate.

The truth is that the extent of FTL's planning was largely a factor hidden from me, occurring as it did in the years Justin and Matt were working away at the game before I came onboard. There wasn't no plan; there just wasn't the sort of extensive pre-production narrative design that laid out exactly what we were shooting for that I obsess over on other projects.

Here's what Justin said to me after watching the vid:
"While it's true that the overarching vision of the "story we wanted to tell" was not planned or scripted, this was not something that was due to lack of time or planning - it was entirely intentional. You may recall all the times you wanted to add more focused storyline or mini-stories that take place in events but we consistently tried to hold you back. In retrospect I wish we had made things more ambiguous and abstract. The fact that players could end up with a single crew member, wondering if this person would really want to continue the mission (while not a specific scenario we predicted) was the type of experience that we knew would only be possible if we left a lot of things unsaid."
Matt writes:
"I, like Justin, also wish we were a little more ambiguous with everything by the end. I went digging for an email or something where I voiced my original vision. This snippet with a friend is the closest I could find:
August 8th - 2011 (~5 months into development)

Anton: feel kinda bad murdering them
me: they aren't necessarily supposed to be menacing
me: they aren't supposed to be evil
Anton: oho, cause they seem to engage me without any warning every time...
me: it's a political conflict that you're on the other side of
me: that doesn't make them evil
me: you could be evil
While I think we could have done more to bring this kind of ambiguity to the fore, it warms me that FTL has this kind of philosophy at its core. In the talk I say something like, "As game designers... we have a responsibility that the options we provide the players deliver a coherent message", and this is what I'm talking about.

Matt writes:
"Part of me would argue that our message is coherent: the player's situation is terrible and war is horrific which can drive someone to do morally questionable things. And through the beauty of an interactive medium, the player experiences it first hand. But part of me would say that we specifically set out not to have a message. We just present a series of systems and choices to the player, and they are encouraged to come to their own conclusions and make their own choices without judgement from the designer."
The moment that you write an event for a game like FTL, you're taking some kind of political or ideological stance. Even if your objective is Matt's and Justin's - to present an amoral world and let the player make sense of it their own way - that in itself constitutes a stance of a sort. It says that politics, war and morality are very complex topics, and that decisions in such circumstances are rarely black and white. It says that you are the only one that can decide how you will behave. At the very least it is probably not the sort of stance you would take if your philosophy was one of extreme pacifism, because pacifism just isn't a viable path in that game.

For this reason, the conclusion of my talk was that it would be irresponsible of anyone to put out a game like this without thinking at least a little about the stance they are necessarily taking by making a game at all. Subjects like slavery and war are not simply there for our amusement - when we deploy them in interactive fiction we also need to design the choices and outcomes in a way that doesn't undermine their seriousness, but instead uses it to express something worthwhile. I'm pleased to say that I think FTL does some of that; but the point of the talk was that we can probably all do a little more of it.

There, I said something nice and I self-deprecated. Everybody's happy.

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Plot is Gameplay's Bitch: Most Popular Posts

So here, because I saw another, better blog do it and it seemed like an easy way to generate content, is a quick rundown of the most popular posts on this blog from the last year... or so. This said, I've just noticed that when RPS does it it's a collection of other people's writing on their blog, which now makes me feel a bit self-conscious. I guess I'll just throw some classic interviews to help assuage my guilt.


1. FTL Advanced Edition Announcement - In case you missed it, more FTL, more Chris Avellone, more platforms. I have been playing this for the last four months. Out of fairness, I should mention this post is at the top mostly because Subset linked here from their announcement, so don't expect rocket science.

2. The Swapper Postmortem: What Went Right - The second part of this is still coming at some point. There are some announcements to make before then.

3. Little Inferno & Plato's Allegory of the Cave - I was hot off a Greek philosophy module and raring to go.

All Time

Technically the Ir/rational Redux walkthrough is the most popular post on this blog, but that's mostly newgrounds traffic.

1. What I did on Which Projects - I have literally no idea why this is the most popular post I have written. While I think a large part of my audience is probably people interested in the trade, I wrote other posts far more cynically targeted at you guys. Maybe if you clicked that link before you can tell me in the comments why? My best guess is it got picked up somewhere high traffic largely at random.

2. 10 Tips for Becoming a Games Writer - Like this one, right? I wrote this fully hoping it would pull in some hits (and do some good, naturally), and in fact most months it still nets more clicks than any other single post - but still not enough to pip the top spot.

3. A Voyage to Ice-Pick Lodge - I think the odd times that RPS picks me up probably contribute about a quarter of my all time clicks, and this was one example. It is, also, one of my favourite stories.

4. Top Indie Stealth Games - This is a bit out of date now, but it's still a sound list of 7 great stealth games you can play right now, despite what some of the text may tell you.

Top Interviews

1. Brian Mitsoda - He of 'Vampire Colon The Masquerade Hyphen Bloodlines' and Dead State, which is almost upon us despite being only just announced via the medium of time travel available to you by clicking the link.

2. Zachtronics - They of SpaceChem and Ironclad Tactics.

3. Chris Avellone - Enough said.

Honourable mention: Brendon Chung on Quadrilateral Cowboy. One of my absolute favourite developers, a fantastic game that's almost out, and this deserves your clicks right now.

Saturday, 18 January 2014

Indies: One Reason Why Something So Small Can Be So Impressive

Over the last 18 months I've worked almost exclusively with four-man indie developers, following on from a couple of projects put on hold at larger studios. These last two games have also happened to be two of the most successful projects I've had the good fortune to be involved with. Right now I'm working on new projects with middle-size teams, but nothing on the scale of those earlier disappointments.

Indies have tough competition these days, and they respond to it in roughly two different ways. 'First wave' indie studios like Klei, ThatGameCompany and Croteam, established around a decade ago, often chose to expand their staff and produce more work. It served them well, and remains a popular route. Increasingly, though, micro-teams and one-man bands are choosing to stay that way. In addition to Facepalm and Subset, the likes of Jonathan Blow and 2DBoy have also shunned growth in their development teams. Why?

It is probably terribly obvious to point out that a significant advantage small teams have over the big guys is radically lower costs. Who isn't all too familiar already with the path many a critically successful developer has taken from bedroom coding, to fancy offices and a staff of 40, to a crucial project being canned and there not being enough cash in the jar to keep up the payments? But I think there is another angle on the idea that is perhaps more expressive.

Suppose you're a one-man band. You've turned to indie development because mainstream games don't do it for you. You've accepted the product you're putting out is not an Assassin's Creed. You know that if income were a primary concern you wouldn't be doing this; indeed you've sacrificed some level of guaranteed income precisely to pursue this course. You'd like to get the game done ASAP, but because this is a labour of love, and because overrunning 6 months will jeopardise nothing more than your living standard, you're prepared to work on it until it's right. When you hit a creative decision in your game, the only thing you really need to weigh is what is best for the quality of the game you want to make.

Now compare with the pressures that even a team of ten put on development. A six month delay now costs you or your financier £150,000 in salaries alone, or around 25,000 full-price sales of The Swapper. Failure to meet the bills costs you and your staff your livelihoods, and kills your game. A staff also costs you the luxury of doing everything in the right order. You can't afford to have salaried staff sitting there twiddling their thumbs. If you have to build the levels before you write the story, it's too late to do anything else. Finally, when you come to that creative decision, you've got all the above on your mind. This is something I have to remind myself of when I go into meetings with larger teams sometimes. I get to waltz in, push my creative agenda, and (usually) have a guarantee of a reasonable payment at the end, as well as a new job. I have suggested that small indie devs share this advantage to some degree. But if you're at the head of a medium-size studio, each creative decision can make or break your entire business. It's easy, from this perspective, to see why those studios sometimes err on the side of safety.

Of course, there is some level of generalisation here. It is not my intention to suggest small teams suffer no financial burdens, nor that larger teams are incapable of pursuing creative ideals. Rather, I want to celebrate that we're here at a time when developers can choose the path that suites them, and make it work either way.

Me, I like a bit of both.

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Project Announcement: Organ Trail Director's Cut

While demoing The Swapper on the Indie Megabooth floor at PAX last year I met the delightful people behind indie dev, The Men Who Wear Many Hats. I'd played through their Oregon Trail remix, Organ Trail, on my iPhone earlier that year, and have felt old every time since that someone younger than me doesn't know what Oregon Trail is.

A few months ago the guys got in touch to ask if I'd produce some new events for the Director's Cut, to coincide with its release on new platforms. It's already out on just about everything from Android to Ouya to Steam, and I have no idea what the new platforms actually are, but I suppose the only possible options are further mobile/tablet platforms, or a console-based digital distribution store. The breakdown of the job was 30 events at 300 - 400 words per event, which is a good couple of weeks' work, but also constitutes a significant increase in the variety of events offered by the main game. At any rate, I said yes, and the results should be available at some indeterminate point in 2014.

The work is obviously quite similar in nature to what I'm doing on FTL, but it was interesting to be able to directly compare the different tones of the games, and how the subtleties of gameplay in each dictated unique structures for the events themselves. For instance, the core gameplay in FTL is quite detailed - you directly interact with your systems and crew - while in Organ Trail your buddies have no visual presence in gameplay, and the resources are limited to car parts, food, cash and bullets. In one way this limits the story, because there is less variety in what you can deliver gameplay-wise as the outcome to an event. You can't introduce a character in the story and then see them in gameplay during the next combat. However, because both combat and text events are relatively rare in Organ Trail, the narrative is freed of FTL's constant pressure to keep the word count to an absolute minimum, and to push towards combat-based outcomes. Every event in Organ Trail is as involved and varied as the 'big budget' events in FTL.

The tones differ as well. Justin set the style in FTL, and it's what I'd call a matter of fact attitude. Events are generally described in an objective way, without florid details or in depth character analyses. Organ Trail has a darker tone, and more room for detail. What's a zombie apocalypse without a little gore and despair?

So, you can grab Organ Trail right now for £2-£4, depending on your location and platform, or you can wait for the new platforms to be announced, along with the release of the new content I've been working on.

Here's a trailer.

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Appearence: Annual London Games Writing Talk

Here's the blurb:
Interactive writing is not screenwriting. From character creation to plotting, format to structure, from root to interactive branch the process of creating a story and delivering the script has evolved from the skills needed to deliver linear on-screen experiences. 
In the annual London South Bank University, Writers’ Guild of Great Britain and IGDA talk, a group of experienced games writers Ed ‘Brink’ Stern’, Tom ‘FTL’ Jubert, James ‘Deus Ex’ Swallow and Andrew ‘Fable:Legends’ Walsh will examine a variety of techniques used in videogames writing and explore how they have used them in their own projects. 
Date and Time: Wednesday, December 4 at 7 pm 
Location: Keyworth Centre, London South Bank University 
As always, we’ll head to the pub for a few Christmas drinks after the talk!
That picture up there I believe is from the very first of these talks that we did - back when all my hair was on my head rather than my face.  Rest assured I am considerably better-kempt now.

I'm not 100% on what I'm talking about yet - suggestions / requests welcomed - but it might be something about FTL and slavery, or the different requirements of different text delivery mechanics. We'll see. Oddly enough, stretch back 5 years and I was full of things I thought needed to be said, and not enough opportunities to say them. The older I get the more doubtful I am that I have much new to add to the mix, and the more people seem to expect me to say clever things to rooms full of people.

Full blurb here. Facebook sign up here. Tickets free!

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Announcement: FTL: Advanced Edition

So FTL Advanced Edition is now a thing. It's nice that it is now a thing, because it means I can explain why FTL didn't really stop as a job for me after we released the thing. Advanced Edition contains all new events written by me and our guest writer, plus new music from Ben, plus all new tech and science wotzits and spaceships from Justin and Matt.

We've been working on it for ages, so the announcement has slightly taken me by surprise. I suppose the big news is... CHRIS AVELLONE FTL FTW! Following on from this interview I interpreted Chris' veiled offers with cunning and precision, forwarded them to Subset and sure enough we wound up with Chris playing the part of one of those PS4 interns who do amazing work but don't get paid. I dreamed of working for Chris for years, and I'm not entirely sure when we skipped that step and I started finding him jobs, but there you go. It's been a pleasure.

I haven't really received my marketing brief yet, but I suppose there are some reveals the boys are holding back still. I can tell you for sure they've not revealed all of the new systems yet, and that's where the meat of the new gameplay is. Certainly there's a load of new events and places to explore, new ways of hurling death at your enemies; but the expansion to me feels like it revolves around the systems - that's why it's the advanced edition. The new systems provide alternative playstyles, ones which liberate you from a reliance on traditional weaponry. It's reinvigorated the game.

So I don't know what I can tell you about the work Chris and I have done. There is a new sector in the game. For now it's known as the abandoned sector, but I can tell you that you'll meet a new species out there. They're pretty cool - both story-wise, and mechanically. The new content is focused both in the all-new sector, and throughout the original sectors, so whatever route you take you should encounter something new.

Of course, we're still working on this material, and no doubt we'll be stuffing new things in right up to the wire, as we were with the original release. I'm squeezing in what I can between two new, unannounced projects, one of which involves another collaboration with a writer whose work I respect every bit as much as Chris'. Watch this space for more details.

Thursday, 26 September 2013

The Chris Avellone Interview

I don't know what I could possible write here about Chris Avellone that isn't already implicit throughout the writings on this blog. Chris' work on Planescape, Van Buren and KOTOR II was instrumental in inspiring me to do what I do, and I am not the only one. Without further ado, here's what came out of a night in the pub with Chris a couple of months ago.

Planescape was one of the games that made me get into games. Is there a substantive difference in the complexity and flexibility of Planescape's narrative as compared with modern RPGs, or do we just have rose tinted glasses applied to some cleverly hidden linearity?

I’d say it’s the rose-tinted latter (although adding rose tints to design like this is a good skill to have, imo). Torment may have felt free, but there were some clear narrative chokepoints along the way that were necessary for the critical path. I’d argue that the context of these chokepoints could change - and not just narratively, but systematically as the flexibility in the alignment system allowed for additional opportunities. Still, there were some linear segments. We’ve tried to use this methodology in future games, however – you can get a lot more bang for your buck in terms of reactivity by tying as much reactivity as possible to the “gates” the player is going through in the game or major NPCs you’re definitely going to meet (Fhjull, Ravel, Annah, Morte, etc.).

To play devil’s (baatezu’s) advocate to the linearity point, however, we did consciously design larger game hubs that allowed the player to choose and approach quests how they wanted, which we felt was important for a role-playing game. Also, one of our design mandates was to make sure we had a lot of variation in the dialogue interactions based on the abilities and alignment shifts of the Nameless One. We wanted every conversation to have many options for any style of player – smart, strong, fast, wise, companion interjection (like with Fell, where it was critical), good, evil, lawful, chaotic, etc.

Also, the companion characters added a lot of optional content. A lot. That was a conscious design choice and went against the studio’s wishes at the time, but I felt it was important that the player be allowed to form an attachment and explore these companions in a way that allowed the player to bond and understand them on a deeper level if they wished. And in many instances (especially Dak’kon), this proved to tie into the endgame quite well and give the endgame a much different context depending on the companion interaction.

What makes a torment game what it is? Is it just what arguably every fantasy RPG should be doing: not relying on tired Tolkien tropes?

That’s a good question – I suppose it’s a mix of things: doing reversals (puritan succubus, lying angels, truthful demons, incredibly powerful rats, sympathetic undead, enslaved githzerai), defying conventions (who cares if you die - no need to reload if you don’t want to and it advances the plot and solves puzzles, you get to guide your alignment over the course of the game, bending D&D rules to serve the narrative, no elves, dwarves, minimal swords), and a personal, selfish story that doesn’t pretend to shift the focus from the player. Your personal journey’s what’s important. Sure, what happened to you as the Nameless One may mean a lot for the planes, but ultimately, it’s all referring back to you.

For me, when developing Torment I had a long list of things I didn’t care for in modern RPGs, so I re-examined all of them to figure out how to approach them differently. I feel this process (I admit I’m assuming here) worked well for Ronald Moore when he moved off Star Trek: Voyager and examined where sci-fi should go in the Battlestar: Galactica reboot. Reading his vision statement for where BSG should go was really liberating.

Planescape blew me away primarily because it had that strong character thread throughout. It wasn't about saving the world, it was about discovering things about yourself, and the nature of mankind. That's still a powerful idea mostly ignored by today's AAAs. How did you develop those ideas, and what if anything is the philosophical takeaway from Planescape for you?

It’s a selfish one, and it comes from many long years of Gamemastering: players are selfish. They want to shine. They want to stand out, be special, and be recognized for it. One of the things I detested about a number of RPGs at the time was that these RPGs seemed driven to make you care about some crappy nation or nebulous figure to be saved, to force some kind of relationship and worse, try to force you to care about that relationship, when what a game designer should consider is simply focusing on the player’s own desire to play the game themselves. Make it solely about them. It’s fine if EVERYTHING in the game revolves around them. In fact, make that their story, their narrative journey, and you’ll likely have a much better game for it by stripping away all the bullshit.

What weren't you happy with in Planescape, and how is that influencing work on Tides of Numenera? And how do you say 'Numenera'?

It’s NEW-MEN-ERA. I could telepathically feel Monte Cook wincing every time I mispronounced it (which was a bonus), and I actually mispronounced it in one of the best takes of the Torment endorsement video. ;)

I thought the combat in Planescape was poor, there weren’t enough Planes to explore (we wanted more), and it could have used more fun dungeon and adventure locations as well. That said, Planescape taught me that you don’t always need to one-up the companion roster, one-up the inventory list, spell list, or any of the systems you’re being compared to as long as you set up the narrative and the world context to explain why and you’ll likely have a much better game for it.

Was I worried about the number of companions in Torment vs. Baldur’s Gate? Yep. Was I worried about the lack of inventory items and weapons you could equip? Yep. Was I worried about the character creation and lack of class options for the main character? Yep. But in the end, if you’re staying focused on making sure you’re providing a reason for all these elements (the companions only like certain weapons or can only logically use certain weapons – like teeth, it’s a more personal journey, you don’t become a priest because there’s a chance you were once a god yourself), no one really cares. And as long as you’re doing one thing really well (I’d argue in Torment’s case, that was the story and some of the game mechanic convention-breakers), that helps you stand out and carve out a game identity all its own.

In Numenera, Kevin Saunders (Project Lead) and Colin McComb (Lead Designer) are conscious of the original Torment’s shortcomings and its strengths, and combat and adventure are not downplayed in any of the design documents and discussions. I’ve also added my cautionary tales as well about player motivation and companion design, but Kevin and Colin already seem to grasp those points well, so it’s like preaching to the choir, really. Which is a good sign.

You've made a name with RPGs and dialogue trees. Do you ever want to try alternative narrative mechanics, or is this a path you're set on? If the latter, are further experiments like Alpha Protocol's dialogue system where you'd like to be, or are you content to further push the boundaries with the systems you have?

I think cinematic dialogue and menu-driven systems has put us in a dialogue cul-de-sac of diminishing returns on gameplay, and there’s more that can be done with dialogue systems, depending on the genre (Brian Mitsoda’s tension-driving, branching-but-linear-with-no-takebacks in Alpha Protocol I think very much complimented the espionage mechanics of the title).

Also, with our Aliens: Crucible dialogue system, we made a conscious effort to make sure the player could never take “refuge” in a talking head conversation – they should never feel safe, they should never feel like they couldn’t be attacked at any time in the environment... because, hey, that’s what Aliens is all about.

Usually the franchise ambiance or engine specs have been our guiding principles for dialogue system design, but there’s more room to grow. I’m really interested in helping develop the dialogue mechanics for Tides of Numenera, as the Numenera ruleset allows for some interesting speech–related applications that would work well in a new dialogue system.

You're working on the South Park RPG. How have you been involved, how is it working with Matt and Trey, and how were you affected by the publisher switch?

My involvement on South Park has been minimal, I worked on it for about 2-3 months helping assist with the cut scene pipeline, and that’s the extent of my efforts.

What games do you think have made interactive narrative a more interesting place to be over the last five years, and why? What blew you away, or expanded your horizons?

Walking Dead. I didn’t know if a largely narrative reactive title would work. It does. Now I know. BioShock: Infinite I thought took some brave narrative challenges (the context of Columbia and their moral compass in an otherwise beautiful world... and the fact it’s a beautiful dystopia is really interesting) in addition to the pre-existing strengths of the narrative design in previous titles (the big ones are visual storytelling, not letting the story get in the way of the player freedom to explore it).

And finally, since I've no doubt a bunch of my readers would like to know, what's the best way for someone to get a writing gig if you're hiring? Are technical level design skills a must, do you care about qualifications, which skills do you expect writers to bring to the table, and which do you think can be learned on the job?

That is (another) good question. So... technical design is helpful, but not required. So is programming, 3D art, animation knowledge, quality assurance training, web design... all of these additional skills beyond simply writing are helpful in game development, but not mandatory. That is not my way of saying you shouldn’t investigate and learn about supplemental careers, as all of these things make you a better narrative designer and a better developer.

The answer on how to approach being a narrative designer is a really long one, so let me try and highlight the big ones:

- Be accommodating. Your job is to support systems, not dictate them.

- Be helpful. Narrative is a powerful tool to explain away what would otherwise be considered a game’s limitations and problems. Make everyone’s life easier by volunteering ways to do this.

- Scriptwriting is a better focus for your time than novel or short story samples. Those are good skills to have, but scriptwriting (especially with regards to VO-centric titles) is more important.

- Graphic novels, imo, aren’t bad either. They teach how to use background visuals and camera and character placement to set up a scene, which is a good skill for a narrative designer to cultivate (and your storyboard artists and cinematic designers will hopefully appreciate this as well).

- Whenever possible, a narrative designer looking to get a leg up in the industry should shamelessly find a way to help Chris Avellone contribute to FTL2 because that would make Chris Avellone happy. If any narrative designer can do this, then the aforementioned Chris Avellone would be happy to help their narrative career however he can. Just saying, Tom, just saying.

- Narrative designers should look for ways to tell the story through visuals first, words second. Graffiti, prop placement, and vista-conscious level design are often more effective than listening to a talking head or a handler give a 3 minute exposition of what’s ahead.

- Story is not the most important thing unless you’re doing a Walking Dead/Telltale game. Don’t be stubborn, demanding, and insist that games are there to tell stories. You’re there to let the player have a cool experience, let them have it. Let them “mess up” your story. Let them do a non-ideal path if they want... and make it equally ideal, even if it isn’t the path you took. Your job is to entertain. Respect your audience and respect the fact you are making a game first, and your story supports that experience.

- Every time you interview for a writing gig, they will ask (or should be asking) about a story you liked or a story you hated or a story you felt indifferent about in a game. Then they will (should) ask you why. It helps if you have specific answers in advance. Keep a living post-mortem on your computer with critiques of the story of each game you play, and be prepared to speak intelligently about these story critiques in an interview at the drop of a hat.

I have one more bit of Chris-related news to share with everyone when the time is right. Stay tuned.

Saturday, 3 August 2013

Worth Writing Home About: Payday 2 Beta

So it's a little known fact about me that I am a complete sucker for online shooters. Not your Quakes or your Counter-Strikes, mind you - they're for children and grown adults who still have the superior reaction times of children. No, I like my shooters the way I like everything in life - just a little bit different. Payday was one of those shooters.

Both games in the series have you and three others tackle criminal jobs from bank heists to drug heists to... jewel heists (you get the picture) and you do this in general by completing objectives (drill the bank vault, signal the boat, find the explosives etc). Hindering you in this regard are many, many policemen. The games could be described as L4D with cops instead of zombies, but to be honest that might be overselling Payday's AI. Here are some of the ways in which Valve's zombies are smarter / more plausible than Payday's people:
  • Zombies run on curved lines, making them more organic-seeming and less predictable.
  • Cops run in straight lines.
  • Zombies take tactical advantage of their strengths and weakness (ie they run at you as soon as they see you).
  • Cops take almost no tactical advantage of their strengths and weaknesses (ie they run at you as soon as they see you).
  • Zombies die when you shoot them in the face.
  • Cops die when you shoot them in the face three or four times.

I loved the first game despite its laughable AI. I guess I did so primarily because it was a riff on the L4D formula, which itself is still fresh enough to support similar products with different body paint. Payday delivered the same style of frantic co-op drama that Turtle Rock's zombie game did, but I think profited from more varied objectives contextualised by a heist movie setting that's more interesting and liberating than L4D's get-to-the-chopper overtones. It's fun to shoot zombies with your mates; but it's more fun (at least in principle) to stride into a bank and tell everyone to get down while your mates disable the cameras and beat the vault codes out of the manager. Payday 1, then, was an average co-op shooter with horrible AI, but it was attached to a compelling and ambitious setting.

The first thing to say about the sequel is that it does everything except fix the one bit that needed to be. For all of Payday's reactive, multi-stage missions, for all of its weapon customisation, enhanced stealthing and more varied heists... no matter how much you enjoy these things (and I have done) the core of the game will be waiting just around the corner to slap you over the head and remind you that you're not an awesome super-crook; you're just a guy (can you use 'guy' as a unisex term in this way? Discuss.), in a game, pretending to be a super-crook by shooting dozens of zombie cops in the face (many times each).

The second thing to say is that a bunch of other stuff has changed. There is now a more extensive, XP-based weapon and character customisation system. Enough said about that. There is also a broader range of stealth options in the levels themselves, which is appreciated. It's still bloody hard to pull off a stealth run (and when one goes wrong it's doubly depressing that the relative complexity of the stealth systems isn't reflected in the relentless combat that your bumbling has triggered); but it's eminently more possible than it was in the first game, and more interesting to do, too.

The scale of the levels has been altered too. It's worth noting that this is only the beta, and it comes with what I assume is a fraction of the full complement of maps (it's less than ten at the mo), but what is available is on a much smaller scale than the last batch. Gone are the days of being spread out over a vast complex of rooms and corridors; now we have much more intimate spaces. It feels less dynamic, but more plausible. It's hard to believe anything that happens in these games, but I guess four men are more likely to hold up a two storey jewelry shop on the high-street than a banking conglomerate. Sadly one repercussion of pinning the players into small spaces seems to have been the complete paralysis of the mission design team. Tasked with finding reasons to keep the criminal gang in a specified location for a particular length of time, the only thing they've been able to come up with is to drill holes in things, which takes loads of time, apparently, and is subject to frequent mechanical hitches. When you're not waiting for a drill to finish you're waiting for a van (or a boat, or a helicopter) to show up and whisk away the money. I know this happened a lot in the first game, too; but it seems worse here. No level has more than two real objectives: get the money, get out. I realise that's what a heist is, but what happened to interrogating bank managers, blowing through roofs and freeing captive prisoners?

Again, I should note that there's loads of the game I've not seen yet; but what I have seen doesn't fill me with confidence. Presumably the downsizing was in order to make way for the series' new USP: the multi-stage missions where events in later maps are determined by performance in the earlier ones. Sadly there's only one mission available with three stages at the mo, so I can't comment on how well that's working. 

I'm aware that this is sounding a bit overwhelmingly negative. I don't mean it to - I've had fun with Payday 2, and I'm dying to see the new maps. I love the efforts Overkill have gone to to make this a world, not just a series of missions. I like being able to see my money and guns on a table in my safehouse, and getting a little audio briefing before a job. The guns are meatier too. It's just that I wish all these cool things were built around a better, more plausible game. Payday has always been close to delivering a truly special experience; the holistic career criminal experience. All it would take is half the cops with twice the brains. I appreciate that one little sentence entails years of work, but I think Payday is worth it. I like interacting with other people in more interesting ways than shooting them multiple times in the face, and Payday is still one of the best opportunities to do that.

I probably shouldn't score this since it's only a beta, but I think you're smart enough to appreciate that and judge accordingly.

Polish: 1 out of 2
Tilt: 1 out of 2
(Scoring explained here)

Payday 2 is available on Steam for £24.99, or £29.99 for instant beta access.