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Remember that metro train in Fallout 3 that was actually, according to the game's code, an "arm" inexplicably worn on the head of an ordinary character model? My favorite stories about games give us a glimpse at the kinds of workarounds and crazy tricks game developers pull to make their games fun (or to make them work at all). Designer Jennifer Scheurle gave a talk on that subject at GDC, drawing from a viral Twitter thread she started last fall. She pulled out some of the best examples from that thread to explain in her talk, and these are the PC games that stood out to me.
The first bullet a splicer fires at you in BioShock will almost certainly miss. This lets the designers spring surprise attacks, but still give the player time to react to incoming fire. It's the kind of thing you likely never notice while playing the game, but is blindingly obvious once you see a video example. A splicer will waltz up and miss their first shot from short range.
Scheurle got her information from Ken Levine, who said the first shot will always miss, but Bioshock's AI designer weighed in to say it's actually a bit more complicated than that. Enemies have an accuracy curve that increases the longer they're in a battle, so they start extremely inaccurate and become quite accurate over the length of an encounter.
The more surprising tidbit, though, was that a single shot will never kill you in Bioshock, but instead bring you down to 1 percent health. If a splicer targets you with a tommy gun and unloads—a bunch of bullets hit you in sequence—you're probably going to die, because you'll be taking a hit at 1 percent damage. But that first shot won't do it. This gives the player the rush and tension of just barely surviving, without feeling like a cheap hit took them out.
It's the kind of game design balance that isn't realistic or necessarily "fair." We think all bullets should do the same amount of damage, right? But that small touch is something most players will probably never notice, and if it works as designed, means Bioshock's combat will be more fun.
This was the only secret that totally shocked me, and it was one that generated plenty of discussion in the Twitter thread last year. In the original Gears of War, the developers realized that something like 90% of players would never touch multiplayer again if they didn't get a single kill in their first couple matches. So how do you ease new players into a very high skill, challenging multiplayer mode? The Gears team decided to give them an invisible buff.
Players who haven't gotten a multiplayer kill before get a damage bonus on their shots, akin to the higher damage you get from Gears' active reload mechanic. Except the new players didn't actually have to pull off an active reload to get that damage buff. Once newbies had a couple kills, the game would dial back their bonuses.
This one made some people mad because it's a competiive game and not fair. But some designers argued the advantage for new players was there to offset the many advantages skilled players had already—knowledge of the map, the ability to pull off active reload, and so on.
This was my favorite detail of the talk, because it touches on two things: designers taking shortcuts that players will never notice, and bending the truth to make the game more fun. In Spec Ops: The Line, enemies will shout at you to let you know they're about to throw a grenade. They'll step out of cover and trigger a wind up animation. But they never actually throw a grenade at you.
Instead, the grenade simply spawns in midair, on an arc headed towards you. Scheurle explained how it all worked, thanks to input from a designer at developer Yaeger. "Nobody has found out since the game came out, and I'm spilling the beans today," she said.
This implenentation of grenades fulfilled the game design goal of having grenades as a threat, but was much less work than programming a full ballistic system for the AI. As Scheurle said, "it didn't really matter."
Yaeger hid the system by having grenades spawn at the feet of an enemy if you shoot them before the "throw" takes place. That helps complete the illusion.
The trick that makes Spec Ops more fun is also pretty simple. When you throw a grenade at enemies, there's a reaction radius that will tell the AI to run away. That's called the panic radius. Smart AI! Except, the AI is actually programmed to stay within the blast radius, so they'll still take damage. That's not so smart. But isn't it way more fun to blow up the AI with a grenade than it is to miss?
There are plenty of other tidbits hidden inside Scheurle's Twitter thread. If you missed it, give it a read. And then try calling yourself from inside Surgeon Simulator:
What do you reckon is the greatest threat to the future of humanity? Climate change? Nuclear war? A global epidemic? They re all causes for concern, but it s my belief that one of the greatest risks is actually posed by superintelligent AI.
You might need some convincing of that, which is why researchers at the University of Cambridge s Centre for the Study of Existential Risk have made a mod for Civilisation V that introduces potentially apocalyptic AI. Ignore the pressing need for AI safety research, and it s game over.
I tried it out last week, seeking to answer two questions. Does it accurately portray the risks involved with the development of a god-like being? And is it any fun?
Last month, the University of Cambridge s Centre for the Study of Existential Risk released a mod for Civ V that introduced superintelligent AI to the game – not in the form of AI opponents, but as a technology that can end the game for every player if it’s left unchecked. It’s a novel overhaul to the science system, as well as an attempt to teach people about AI safety.
While I had some problems with the mod, I also thought it was a fascinating idea. Keen to learn more, I spoke to project director Shahar Avin about how the mod came about, the issues that it presents both poorly and well, and how people can get involved with AI safety themselves.
The pantheon of great videogame weapons is dominated by shotguns, rocket launchers, and the odd sword or hammer. And it makes sense, these tools are responsible for the large majority of blood you’ll spill in most games. It’s a shame though, because there’s something wonderful and elegant about a perfect grenade toss—that graceful arc through the air before unleashing untold, instant destruction. If the rat-a-tat of a gun is the string section of an orchestra, grenades are that ear-splitting crash cymbal. Pound for pound, grenades can be every bit as satisfying—and there’s no shortage of wacky grenades that rival the most absurd guns.
In honor of these little death dealers, we’re rounding up the best grenades in PC gaming—from the satisfying shockwave of FEAR’s frag grenades to the divine chorus that spells doom for your team in Worms. If you like watching things explode (or implode!), we’ve got some good ‘nades for you.
Few grenades are capable of triggering horrific childhood memories quite like Worms’ Holy Hand Grenade. I vividly remember the dread of seeing one plop down next to several of my worms, a chorus of angels singing a triumphant “Hallelujah!” before blasting them all straight to hell. It’s the enormity of God’s holy wrath contained in the tiniest of weapons. Compared to Worm’s other assortment of absurd weaponry, the Holy Hand Grenade is elegant and simple: You throw it and count to three—four shall thou not count, neither count thou two, accepting that thou then proceed to three—and revel in the obscenely large explosion capable of destroying a huge portion of the map. And if the initial blast doesn’t finish off your enemy, you can always rest easy knowing it’ll send them soaring through the air to a watery grave. Monty Python might have invented it, but Worms’ hilarious variation is what really made this one of PC gaming’s most iconic grenades. — Steven Messner
I generally don’t like a damage-over-time ‘nades, but until these were nerfed they were straight up broken in Destiny 2. Pulse Grenades are arc-powered pineapples that are exclusive to the Warlock Stormcaller and the Titan Striker subclasses, the latter of which could carry two at once with the top skill tree. Toss a Pulse Grenade down and the initial impact sends enemies pinwheeling through the air. Anything not killed instantly is then flash fried by repeated bursts of electrical energy that look like a fire in a sparkler factory. The funny thing is that Pulse grenades were absolutely garbage in Destiny 1, but for the sequel they were buffed to be good enough to melt bosses, whilst almost every other grenade got reduced to water balloon effectiveness. But that’s Bungie’s sandbox balance team for you. The daft bastards. — Tim Clark
*Slow motion voice* Get dowwn!
I don't know what porn is, but watching a N6A3 fragmentation grenade explode in slow motion is grenade porn. The explosion bends the air into a visible concussive bubble, a shockwave that sends office supplies flying and men's asses to the ground. There's a half-second of quiet as everything floats away from the grenade's center, and then pop, fire and shrapnel fill the screen and dissolve the men and their asses into errant blood spatter textures and goofy little giblets. It takes some time for the smoke to clear. Exhale with it as you try to convince yourself FEAR came out over ten years ago. — James Davenport
Killing Floor 2 is so focused on shooting and blowing stuff up that even its medics get to shoot you (with love) and blow you up (with vitality). I love that KF2's medic class doesn't have to slow down or weild a Team Fortress 2 or Overwatch-like proton pack to do the job: just alt fire to stick a teammate with a healing dart, or throw a medic grenade to pop a cloud of blue smoke for everyone to suck into their lungs. It’s not the most impressive visual effect, but nailing a toss and capturing your struggling teammates in the cool, healthy embrace of your medicinal gas, which also damages Zeds, can prevent a team wipe—and I love saving my teammates by violently chucking metal at them.— Tyler Wilde
Would you rather your digital avatar be torn limb from limb by bits of shrapnel or would you rather lose control of it altogether, forced into some stupid boogie nights wiggle as your executioner watches and laughs? Sure, Fortnite Battle Royale's Boogie Bomb is cute, but the reality is a horror show, a tool built for humiliation. Death by one such mirror-plated 'nade is like being taken to the influencer gallows, where you're forced to tromp around and bash cymbals together for a meme-hemorrhaging audience before the floor gives out. I'll take the shrapnel, please. — James Davenport
The best grenades don’t always have to have to do something wacky, sometimes it’s all in the presentation—and in that regard the Thermal Imploder is unparalleled (except by FEAR’s N6A3 ‘nade, maybe). EA’s Battlefront stuck relatively close to Star War’s canon when it came to weaponry, but the Thermal Imploder is an exception I’m willing to make. The blast effect is gorgeous, but it’s really the bwah-bwuuuuh! of its detonation that makes this grenade stand out. If FEAR's frag grenade is grenade porn for the eyes, then the Thermal Imploder is grenade porno music for the ears. — Steven Messner
The fanciest flash grenade in video games, Ying's 'candela' spits out not one but six independent flash charges in quick succession, making it hard to shield yourself from. It also has strangely nuanced throwing behavior. If you cook it, up to three LEDs will illuminate on the candela before throwing. The more lights that are lit, the further the tactical light ball will roll along a floor. And separately, you can simply affix the thing to any 'soft' wall in Siege to flash through the wall. It's fun to hurl into a bombsite or hostage room, knowing at the very least you've sent anyone inside scattering. — Evan Lahti
I played most of Borderlands 2 solo as Maya, so singularity grenades, which suck enemies into a little black hole before exploding, were my best friend. I sampled a few other grenade mods in the early hours, but once I found my first singularity, I never looked back. I'd actually hold onto low-level singularity mods instead of using higher-level bouncing betty mods and the like. They're that good, especially for Maya, whose super skill preys on clusters of enemies. They're also fabulous with rocket launchers, and I have fond memories of gawking at their Geforce PhysX particle effects. Remember when that was still novel? Where do the years go... — Austin Wood
On the surface, frags in XCOM are not that impressive. You can cause more damage by shooting someone, their range isn't great, they destroy equipment so you can't salvage stuff off anyone you do manage to kill with them, and lining up that bubble showing where they will land can be annoying. It's not flashy, it's not special, it doesn't draw attention to itself. It's the Jimmy Stewart of handheld explosives. But the humble XCOM frag grenade is in everybody's inventory from mission one, they destroy cover, and you don't have a percentage chance to miss with them. They always lands where you want and cause enough damage to kill a baseline sectoid. The number of turns where I've messed up every easy shot and found myself in a situation where someone's fucked unless I can cause precisely three points of damage to that one guy over there are beyond counting. In those situations, the XCOM frag grenade is the best.— Jody Macgregor
If the twenty first century has taught us anything, and so far it probably hasn’t, it’s that blowing people up is bad. But for real transgressive thrills you can’t beat setting (pretend) people on fire. I think my love of immolating NPCs began with TimeSplitters on PS1, because Free Radical Design went the extra mile to code in really scared HOLYFUCKIMONFIRE screams. But it was with The Division that my pyromania took root. I main the Firecrest gear set which is built around setting dudes on fire. Mostly with the rinky dink flamethrower turret, but also with the extra Incendiary Grenades the gear grants. Pop one of these spicy little peppers and it spills liquid napalm over a satisfyingly wide surface area. Enemies caught within the nade’s roast radius start flapping around like, well… like their arses on fire. With the Wildfire talent enabled the burn spreads to their colleagues in that satisfyingly organic way that Ubisoft games seem to have nailed. I dunno, man. Burning is just the best. — Tim Clark
I get knocked down, but I get up again, you’re never gonna keep me down. That’s what I’ll be singing when I play Civilization VI‘s upcoming Rise and Fall expansion. There are loads of new features but the unifying theme is, as the title suggests, success, failure and recovery. That means dark ages that come with hardships but also bring about the possibility of a renaissance into a heroic age. All of that, and much more, is explained in the brand new video below.
Back in 2017, Gearbox's Randy Pitchford got on stage during an Unreal Engine 4 presentation to show what, hypothetically, a new game that happened to look a lot like Borderlands would look like running on that shiny new engine. A game like, say, Borderlands 3, which hasn't been announced but almost surely exists. It's been five years now since Gearbox made Borderlands 2, and three years since the Pre-Sequel mostly followed the same playbook, with more Handsome Jack and more playable Claptrap. That's long enough for us to reflect on what we want from Borderlands 3, and we're ready for another round of sarcastic looting and shooting.
Here's where we want to see Gearbox take Borderlands next.
Actually, less Claptrap period, please. Borderlands' little robot mascot was always a bit grating, intentionally so, but over the course of three games became a bit of an Urkel: that obnoxious minor character who somehow gets so popular they show up more and more and before you know it Reginald VelJohnson can't even find a moment's peace in his own house. Claptrap is like that, but for our ears while we're playing Borderlands.
Less is more. Borderlands 3 could do with some fresh characters, so let Claptrap run a shop somewhere we can talk to him once every 10 hours or so.
Okay, this is a big ask, cause just about nobody does guns like Bungie does guns. But Borderlands has always been a shooter where the feeling of pulling the trigger and killing an enemy was fine, but not amazing. The fun comes from the wild variety of weapons and their outlandish effects, like an SMG that fires 43 lightning bullets a second, or a grenade launcher that fires grenades that explode into yet more grenades and blanket an entire area. The effects of the weapons were fun, and so were combining them with abilities that upped your crit damage or sent you into a melee-killing god rage.
But how much better would Borderlands' procedurally generated arsenal of wacky guns be if the feedback and punch of each gun was as satisfying as it is in Bungie's Destiny 2? Or in 2016's Doom? Or Tripwire's Killing Floor 2? Those are lofty goals to aspire to, especially with procedurally generated weapons, but Gearbox has a big opportunity to buff up the fundamentals of its trigger-pulling, bullet-firing animations and physics. Make each weapon archetype feel incredibly good to shoot, and then figure out how the random modifiers would tweak those sensations. Make Borderlands 3 a shooter we'd want to play even without all the lootin'.
The best payoff in loot-dumping RPGs is to find loot that actually matters. In Borderlands 2, it was possible to make some ridiculous builds (remember when literally every shotgun pellet was counted in damage multipliers?) that took down endgame bosses in seconds. We’re not asking for a buggy, easily exploitable stat system—we just want loot stacks that actually get better the more you play. Don’t scale the challenge and suck out the expressive traits of classes and weapons like Destiny 2.
Channel those wack-ass late-late game witch doctor Diablo 2 builds where molten frogs and jars of spiders cloud the screen, pulling loot from corpses like water from a loaded sponge. Hell, how about a gun that shoots loot?
Borderlands’ sturdiest leg was its co-op play. Without a buddy or two to lean on, the massive empty worlds felt far more massive and empty, and the more challenging combat encounters felt too onenote without other players to synergize with. But even with friends, the only time close cooperation was required was during the endgame boss encounters and those synergies played out similarly every single time—you just had to play your damn class. With full-blown raids, the rest of Borderlands’ mechanics could get put to the test in areas designed for a specific amount of players.
Imagine big dungeons that match (or surpass) the sophistication of Destiny 2’s first-person platforming ballets and phantom-realm symbol memorization, but with Borderlands much more diverse classes, skill trees, and weapon types. I can’t wait to hate my friends all over again.
Look, Pandora's great. It shows that the Sanford And Son aesthetic works well in almost any environment—be it deserts crawling with skags or decrepit hamlets ripped out of Dungeons & Dragons. But after three games, piles of DLC, and Tales From the Borderlands, it's time to move on. A new Borderlands would do well to set its unique brand of shoot-and-loot on another planet entirely, or for that matter, on multiple planets. It's a big galaxy out there, and letting us explore it would not only give us a welcome change of scenery, but also let Gearbox experiment with different physics and elemental loot.
Planet hopping could be an especially cool twist, making your ship home base along the lines of a 3D Starbound. However Gearbox chooses to handle a new setting, it should feel free to detach itself from the history it's built up on Pandora. We're ready for entirely new adventures.
Since Borderlands, similar shooter/RPGs like Destiny and Warframe have placed a huge emphasis on character customization, because they know RPG players love to look fashionable. Borderlands 2 had some light customization options, but didn't go nearly far enough. Borderlands is best enjoyed in its cooperative mode, and extensive customization would allow players to distinguish themselves from their party.
We'd like to see more options besides swappable heads and color variations for outfits—instead, let's have entirely different costumes for each character. Just imagine, for instance, how much better Tiny Tina's Assault on Dragon Keep would have been if you were allowed to put on a robe and a wizard hat.
You know the drill: You encounter an enemy in either Borderlands, and then they go nuts, either rushing you with makeshift axes or pelting you with bullets while they saunter from right to left. In time, the only thing that makes non-boss fights different from one another is how many bullets to takes before the baddies fall over. That's not going to cut it for the next game.
Enemies need to be more responsive and less bullet spongy, and more varied in their behavior. We're not asking for tactical geniuses, here, but the occasional flanking maneuver wouldn't hurt. Make playspaces arenas that enemies will intelligently navigate, rather than rushing at us like maniacs over and over again. Just because the enemies are psychos doesn't mean they have to be idiots.
The Borderlands games are definitely built for co-op, and they're a blast that way, but that ends up meaning some sections are almost trivial with a full group, and maddeningly tough solo, depending on your class. Better scaling for number of players could help smooth things over. Going further, we'd love to see more nuanced difficulty in Borderlands for New Game+, which is a crucial part of the Borderlands experience. Most of the time, that New Game+ difficulty just means enemies have much larger health pools. Give them new attacks, bring out surprise new enemy types, shake things up.
Smoothing out the difficulty curve for various player numbers is important, but so is keeping that difficulty interesting for the entire run.
Customizing premade characters would be cool, but we wouldn't mind seeing Borderlands lean into its RPG side even more and let us completely design our own characters from scratch. Let's be honest—we're not playing Borderlands for the story, even though Borderlands 2 did have some fun twists and turns. But the point is, we don't need to play predefined characters. Let us create our own and fully customize their looks and playstyles.
A broader, more open-ended skill tree for a range of character classes would be a huge task to balance, but would make us more attached to our characters and make Borderlands even more replayable than it already is.
What's the most heartbreaking moment in Borderlands? You'd think it's the death of a major character, but it's not. It's tossing aside your legendary Fashionable Volcano with a 44.5 percent chance to ignite because you had to make room in your 27-slot backpack for some new specimen of badassery. Borderlands 2 remedied that problem a bit when it released a patch for new slots (among other things) back in April of 2013, but even then it seemed like a sin to toss aside legendaries that couldn't fit.
While we're at it: Gearbox, give us a place to display some of that cool loot that we may have outgrown but we're still proud of. It works for Skyrim, and there's no reason why it can't work on Pandora.
Strange now, when Borderlands is as big as it is and as synonymous as it is with bug-eyed shrieking, to think back to the transformative and ambitious promises of the first few times we glimpsed it. The idea of an FPS with the mentality of Diablo was ahead of its time, and at the time seemed thrilling rather than, as is the case now, the most lucrative business model. And that cel-shaded look in the era of Gears of War? Woof-woof. (more…)
The game trailer is a sly creature. It wants to entertain you, to excite you, to embolden you with curiousity. But it also wants to sell you a bunch of code wrapped up in some 3D shapes. Some trailers turn out to be more artful than the game they re hawking, others plant sneaky emotions in your head with music. However, some are better than others. Here are the best conflagrations of light and noise in PC gaming.
In Civilization, civilization is a competition. Land and resources are limited, and even those nations that don’t expand through military might are attempting to climb to the top of the league table in other ways. Geography, technology, culture, religion, diplomacy they’re all, to some extent, weapons to be deployed, or at least arenas where an advantage can be gained. Culture and history are the clothes that Civ wears but it’s not really about building an empire or a nation, it’s about sharpening a knife.
The upcoming Rise and Fall expansion for Civ VI introduces several new playable nations, but the introduction of one civ has led to criticism from an unexpected source. Yesterday, Milton Tootoosis, an elected headman-councillor of the Poundmaker Cree Nation, spoke to CBC News about the inclusion of the Saskatchewan First Nation. He acknowledged excitement about the news and noted that historical chief, Poundmaker, is to be portrayed as working to build a bridge between settlers and First Nations . But he also voiced a fundamental concern about the portrayal: It perpetuates this myth that First Nations had similar values that the colonial culture has, and that is one of conquering other peoples and accessing their land. It’s a concern that cuts to the heart of what Civilization has always been and – I hope – to what it could become.
Researchers at the University of Cambridge’s Centre for the Study of Existential Risk (an actual real institution) have released a Civilization V mod exploring the hot new apocalypse everyone’s talking about: unchecked AI casually wiping out humanity in the name of efficiency. If you’ve already clicked through the universe as a single-minded AI in Frank Lantz’s ace Paperclips, you might fancy this mod. Trapping a brilliant mind in a metal box does also have its benefits, you know. (more…)