Rock, Paper, Shotgun - (Kieron Gillen)

Heavy Spoilers, obv. (more…)

PC Gamer
BioShock Infinite Elizabeth

Spoiler Alert! Don’t read this post or its comments unless you’ve finished BioShock Infinite. Experience it for yourself so you can come back and analyze it with us when you’re done. Don't even scroll down a little. There are screenshots.

Those of you still reading can appreciate why we say that—the ending needs to be experienced fresh, but not talking about it is excruciating, even when your friends are cupping their ears. We’ve been going back and forth about Infinite for a few days, and that conversation comes in two flavors: the technical exercise of untangling all the interdimensional spaghetti, and our critical response to it.

The best way to express that conversation is with the conversation itself, so Evan and Tyler have written out their key points in the dialog below. Evan, you have the floor:

Evan: Let’s talk this out, Tyler. I think it’s fair to call Infinite’s ending one of the most intricate ever. With multiple realities being a theme, mechanic, and plot device, there’s a bunch of inherent complexity to the story. Part of the fun is unraveling the ball of quantum yarn Irrational throws at you, but more simply: did you like the ending, and how it was executed?

Tyler: I did! Well, mostly. I've been untangling it for a couple days, and that it can be untangled is pleasing. It gives me the same kind of pleasure I get from solving logic problems or riddles. Thematically, though, it's less appealing.

Evan: Yeah, I feel similarly. I feel like Infinite’s appeal lies in its complexity more than the characters and the game’s theme, which were the strengths of the original BioShock. But before we dig into more analysis, why don’t we try and unpackage what happened?

Tyler: The Internet has already done some great detective work on this, with pretty graphs! Here’s the gist: After surviving Wounded Knee, Booker DeWitt can either be baptized or not baptized. If he’s baptized, he goes on to become Comstock and create Columbia. If he refuses, he becomes a degenerate drunk. They’re two sides of the same coin.

Now here’s the conflict: The Comstock version of Booker can’t have kids, but he can travel between dimensions, so he invades the dimension where unbaptized Booker exists and buys his daughter Anna, who he renames to Elizabeth. Booker goes back to reclaim her, but is caught in a loop in which he always fails. The loop is broken at the end, we presume, when Anna becomes a Time Lord and Booker returns to the baptism and dies in place of the version of him who would become Comstock.

Or not, we can’t be sure.

Evan: Bingo. It’s not a coincidence that Booker and Elizabeth break into the song “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” near the middle of the game. That song represents one of the central questions Infinite is posing—is it possible to make a change, to be absolved, to reverse a bad decision... like selling your daughter to “wipe away the debt,” as Booker does. It’s a pretty relatable theme—it’s human to make mistakes, and it’s human to fantasize about unmaking them.

Tyler: It’s a redemption story without a redemption, which makes it more tragic. The hero is the villain, even after Comstock is erased, because Booker is the same drunk who would’ve sold his own daughter (unless he somehow remembers his Columbia adventure, but I’d expect a plot-device nosebleed to take the place of that.)

This theme of dichotomies and sameness runs through the whole game. I took the pivotal baptism to mean that we can’t escape our past or wash it away. Whether or not he refuses, Booker is still a jackass. Even if we confront what we've done, it may still consume us.

Booker’s death in that scene meant to me that we can’t change the past, but we can try to change the future...and it really helps if we have a few interdimensional lighthouses. I don’t mean to sound glib. I didn't take it as a positive message, which is welcome. But how did you feel about how we got there?

Evan: A tiny thing that bugged me was the way the twist got telegraphed before you come face to face with Comstock. During the big airship battle at the end he says something along the lines of “Well, you always had a penchant for self-destruction,” which was too much of a wink and a nudge for me. I knew right then that Comstock was Booker.

Tyler: I finished the game at about 4 a.m., so a lot of that foreshadowing bounced off my eyelids. Looking back, it was pretty heavy handed, but I liked that line. It was fun to go “Ooooohhhh” when things started clicking. Figuring out that the Luteces are the same person, and that the coin flip at the beginning represents the number of loops, was neat.

Evan: So, yeah, I think we agree that the technical exercise of mapping out the plot is enjoyable. It reminds me of piecing together the underlying logic of Inception or Lost with my friends. But did we like the ending? Awful boss battle aside, I liked the original BioShock’s conclusion more. Hints are scattered throughout Infinite, but I didn’t like how much exposition and explanation was crammed into the final few minutes.

Tyler: Yes, absolutely. There’s this slow build during the first three-quarters of the game, where you know something is off, and then someone hits the fast-forward button and woosh, we’re traveling through time and space explaining everything to wrap it all up

Evan: Yeah, I wasn’t thrilled with that execution. It leaves you with questions that are fun to unwrap, but in the moment I felt slightly disappointed. Comstock is so central to the premise of the game, but he was weirdly underdeveloped, and that undermined the meaning of everything for me.

Comstock didn’t pester you in the way that Andrew Ryan did. He wasn’t as enigmatic or menacing. I didn’t feel let inside his head. I didn’t feel like I was being constantly watched. I’m not saying that they need to be perfect mirrors of one another in order to be good characters, but killing him felt like an eventuality, and Ryan’s death in BioShock was a dramatic surprise. Infinite also gives you less time after that climax to walk around the world with that blood on your hands.

Related to that, and at the risk of sounding completely cold, I’m not sure how much I cared about Elizabeth at the end. I think the insane asylum level made me care less about her; I had a hard time accepting that her personality just shifted into being so misantropic. I didn’t like how that level fed into her being a damsel in distress rather than the capable, human, gifted person.

Tyler: I disagree about the asylum. Elizabeth became helpless right as I was putting together that this had happened before—the message, to me, was that Booker is the helpless one.

But then, yeah, Comstock becomes a pawn—a willing victim who somehow underestimates Anna and the Luteces—and Anna becomes practically omnipotent, which I didn't like at all. She figures it all out so she can explain it to the player, but I’d have preferred to keep discovering the truth with her. It would have been great to see both Anna and Booker react to the revelation that Booker is her father. That would have been a character-driven scene, instead of a quantum physics-driven scene, which the entire ending is.

Evan: It makes me wonder what Infinite would’ve been like if it had fewer characters, or a mute protagonist. Anyway, what about that moment where you enter Rapture? It’s fan servicey, but I LOOOOVED it. Maybe I just miss being in that world.

Tyler: From the perspective of a fan, I love that the Rapture cameo lets me build theories—like, say, that Andrew Ryan is Booker DeWitt. Comstock is much older than Booker, so we already know that time is irrelevant and BioShock taking place later than Infinite doesn’t negate this theory.

But as we’ve established, that kind of speculative fun is only really fun after the fact, when I’m going back and forth with a friend like we are now.

Evan: We’re friends? Aww.

Yeah, being thrown into Rapture filled me with this intense curiosity about how far they were going to take that scene, that visit. And I think I would’ve liked the ending more if that moment were more than an empty room.

Tyler: I can’t deny that it made me a little giddy, but it reminded me I was playing a game, because all these different worlds and possibilities could have been interpreted to mean “all these different games and players.”

That’s interesting—turning the camera around and pointing it at the medium—but it was winking so hard it squished my relationship with Booker and Anna (if her becoming a god hadn't already) and made it about my relationship with the game, the series, and Ken Levine. Not that I don’t want to hug Ken Levine for making something so clearly meaningful to me.

But, there are technical issues, too. Some of the sound mixing was off—I couldn't hear half of what Ghost Mom was saying—and I can’t be the only one who started playing a Voxophone only to have an important line of dialog interrupt it, and then the sound of munching corpse food interrupt that. I know I should have taken it slower, but standing still and listening is hard when there’s so much to interact with.

Evan: Mmm, corpse food. But yeah, I think we’re coming to a similar conclusion: Infinite’s ending was cerebrally satisfying, and BioShock’s was emotionally manipulative in the best way possible and more interesting on the merits of its characters.

Tyler: Totally. Both have merits, and that’s a great point with which to conclude my critique of the execution. My biggest issue is that BioShock’s emotional narrative can be decoded by playing it naturally—however that may be for each individual—whereas Infinite is a mess if you don’t play it in a specific way. Listening to every Voxophone is essential if you want a fulfilling ending, and that’s not communicated well. There are people reading this because the credits rolled and they looked at their screens and said, “Uh, what?” I think that’s something storytellers want to avoid.

Evan: Yeah, there’s a ton of vital stuff that’s dropped in the Voxophones. There’s literally one called “The Source of Her Powers” from Lutece (“It would seem the universe does not like its peas mixed with its porridge”). Again, back to BioShock: I think it was clever for Irrational to give Rapture multiple mechanisms for the game to talk to the player: your radio, Rapture’s PA system, and audio diaries.

Tyler: Even so, whether it takes one long playthrough, two playthroughs, or reading a thread on NeoGAF, Infinite is a fantastic logic puzzle to figure out. And when you do get the complete story, the themes are there, if a bit overshadowed by all the wibbly wobbly timey wimey.

We expect BioShock to make us think and to reconfigure tropes, and Infinite does that despite the mechanical approach to narrative that tends to happen when you deal with interdimensional time travel. That’s very praise-worthy, and more than we’ve come to expect from games.

Evan: Yeah, shortcomings included, it’d be foolish not to celebrate an ambitious story like this. We need more of them. We need more big publishers to take creative risks and trust their designers to have big, insane dreams that are worthy of deconstructing and writing 2,000-word responses to.
PC Gamer
BioShock Infinite

BioShock Infinite lead Ken Levine addressed the ongoing debate about violence in games in an NPR interview (via GameSpot) yesterday. During the talk, Levine defended games by stating that using violence as a narrative device is as old as storytelling itself.

"Violence, for better or for worse, goes back to the dawn of narrative and is a part of the storyteller's toolkit," Levine said. Games, like all new things, are subject to extra scrutiny, he suggested, using his own childhood memories of nerding about in Dungeons & Dragons as an example.

"I wasn't a very popular kid," he explained. "I was a nerdy, little kid. And I didn't have friends because I wasn't very good at socializing. And I found Dungeons & Dragons—if you remember, back in the '70s there was this big human cry about Dungeons & Dragons; kids were going off and killing themselves and disappearing into caves. And that happened with comic books and that happened with rock and roll music.

"My point is, for me personally, games were a way around being 'that kid,'" he continued. "I'm not speaking as a scientist here. We can argue the science, but I'm not the best guy to do that."
PC Gamer
Poker Night 2

Telltale has dusted off its green, felt battlefield of chips and difficult-to-remember card combinations for Poker Night 2, and it's calling up another quirky cast hailing from games and TV/film to humorously overreact whenever you're dealt a superior hand. You'll practice your poker face against Borderlands' Clatrap, Brock Samson from The Venture Bros. show, the beady-eyed Sam from Sam & Max, and the always-groovy Ash Williams from Army of Darkness.

Telltale explains the stakes: "Poker Night 2 will offer the chance to win Bounty Unlocks: rewards for use within other games when special goals are achieved. With cunning and skill, players will unlock prizes, including exclusive skins and heads for use within Borderlands 2 and character accessories for Team Fortress 2."

I'd also advise against any shady movements, because Portal's very own GLaDOS is Poker Night 2's dealer, and she has a tendency to fire up a flamethrower or two for dishonesty. And for possessing flesh. In any case, you'll be able to grab the game near the end of this month.
Product Release - Valve
Borderlands 2: Ultimate Vault Hunters Upgrade Pack, all new content for Borderlands 2 is Now Available on Steam!

Take Borderlands 2 to the next level. The Ultimate Vault Hunter’s Upgrade lets you get the most out of the Borderlands 2 experience. This pack includes level increases up to level 61. Play through the game again with access to new weapons, gear and more. The Ultimate Pack is part of the Borderlands 2 Season Pass, now offering even more value for the price!

Rock, Paper, Shotgun - (Alec Meer)

I say ‘vs’, but the reality of this meeting between the 20th and 21st century masters of X-COM is that they repeatedly seem on the verge of embracing each other, rather than trading blows in a bitter row about time units and action cameras. Rev3Games arranged for original X-COM co-creator Julian Gollop to meet Jake Solomon, the lead dev on Firaxis’ XCOM remake, the result being this rather delightful recording of their seventeen-minute exchange. (more…)

PC Gamer
Borderlands 2

Gearbox has posted a list of what to expect in an upcoming free update for Borderlands 2 that prepares Pandora for its incoming Ultimate Vault Hunter DLC and a level cap increase to 61. Somewhat confusingly, a new Ultimate Vault Hunter mode will arrive in the patch everyone gets, but the similarly titled $5 DLC is where the extra levels, skill points, and weapons all reside.

Here's Gearbox's breakdown:

Changes in 4/2 Software Update (Free)

Adds new items to the Black Market:

One additional ammo upgrade for each ammo type at 50 Eridium each.
Two more backpack storage space upgrades at 50 and 100 Eridium respectively.
Two more bank storage space upgrades at 50 and 100 Eridium respectively.

Increases the maximum amount of Eridium players can hold from 99 to 500.
Adds a new playthrough balanced for top-tier play: Ultimate Vault Hunter Mode.
Various bug fixes.

Ultimate Vault Hunter Upgrade Pack (Free with Season Pass or $5 separately)

Raises level cap to 61, allowing characters to gain 11 additional levels.
Characters gain a skill point with every level from 51 to 61, for a total of 11 more skill points.
Powerful new "Ancient" E-Tech relics and rare Pearlscent-grade weapons can be picked up in Ultimate Vault Hunter Mode.

Gearbox also delved into the specifics of Ultimate Vault Hunter mode in a separate post:

Ultimate Vault Hunter Mode is unlocked for a character once they have completed the main story missions in True Vault Hunter Mode and reached level 50.
Unlike other playthroughs, Ultimate Vault Hunter Mode can be replayed multiple times with players able to reset their overall mission progress at any time from the Main Menu.
No more tutorial missions—characters in Ultimate Vault Hunter Mode begin in Southern Shelf with the "Cleaning Up the Berg" mission.
While playing in Ultimate Vault Hunter Mode, enemies and bosses will scale according to the player's current level or, if playing with others, the highest-level player in that party.
Gameplay changes in UVHM:

Enemy health generally increased 4x.
Enemies now have a moderate amount of health regeneration.
Increased duration of slag damage multiplier effect.
Upped the damage that slagged enemies take from 2x to 3x.
Weapon swap speed increased to better facilitate slag use.
Enemies now more likely to drop ammo.
Loot Midgets are now "Legendary Loot Midgets" that can drop Legendary and other top-tier gear.

Both the free patch and the DLC releases on April 2. The next DLC hits one month later, when that scary Krieg guy will jump down from his hiding spot and rip everyone's arms off.
PC Gamer
XCOM Enemy Uknown Muton

ALIEN MOVEMENT. Firaxis teased more XCOM at PAX East recently. This triggered a series of quick sensations. First: the flashbacks. I saw all the soldiers I'd lost last October when I ploughed through XCOM: Enemy Unknown. So many dead. Then there was happiness as I remembered how Enemy Unknown successfully modernised a classic turn based strategy while keeping its soul intact. Then - excitement, and questions. So many questions. Will it be an expansion, or a sequel? What could they improve? What would we want from more XCOM?
More hero customisation
I remember when John Keats was a rookie with little more than a basic assault rifle to his name. By the end of the invasion he was a bright yellow bus with a plasma rifle. He lost friends along the way. William Blake died on the asphalt outside a shop in some nameless American town. Sergeant Balls Balls died in the mud at the entrance to a crashed alien spaceship. Keats endured. Just when I thought he couldn't get any more powerful, he went psychic.

But all his comrades were dead, replaced by a procession of fresh-faced strangers. They feared their bright yellow leader more than the alien menace. Silenced by loss, Keats had become a scarred, paranormal monster. In my head, that is. That XCOM soldier stared back with the same blank face from mission to mission. In my head Keats' armour became scuffed and worn. His faceplate became flecked with dull green alien bloodstains. Mind's-eye Keats lashed a circlet of crooked Thin Man fingers to his belt - trophies of foes killed in the name of fallen Sergeant B. Balls.

I'd like to see a bit of that realised in-game. Perhaps veterancy could be represented visually to differentiate weathered vets from trembling newbies. More squad customisation options would give players a chance to personalise their favourite soldiers and impose their own sense of order on the squad. In the PC Gamer office we all ended up colour coding our soldiers differently, some by role, others by seniority, others by each soldiers' perceived personality. You spend a lot of time looking at your soldiers in XCOM, greater control over their appearance would build stronger bonds player/squaddy and make every dramatic perma-death even more nyoooooo-worthy.

Interesting air combat
Shooting down alien ships was more of an extension of the research and development metagame than a contest in its own right. Success and failure depended entirely on the quality of your vessel, and whether or not you chose to boost a ship during combat - a resource spend action that never felt worthwhile. If air combat is going to have its own interface system and require the attendance of the player during conflict then there should be some interesting decision-making going on.

It could become a game about organising good planetary coverage, placing launch sites and refeulling depots around the world map. If you wanted something more involved, this excellent little flash game, SteamBirds, shows how accessible turn based air combat could be presented. If you wanted to go even further, the pilots themselves could become characters and hang around your base getting into fights with the infantry, Starship Troopers style.
More mission types
More of everything would be nice, of course. More aliens, more weapons, more armour types, more weird alien tech to assimilate. That's a given, but I'd especially like to see more varied missions. Terror missions, crash/landing sites, Bomb defusal and escort targets provided a good range of objectives initially, but lost their novelty value before the campaign was through. More high-stakes events like terror missions could offer commanders a way to rescue a despondent country on the verge of quitting the XCOM project. Rescuing the Queen from an alien attack on Buckingham Palace would do wonders for XCOM's reputation in the UK, for example. Battlegrounds could also do more to differentiate between the continents they're set in.

Emergent soldier personalities
XCOM is a good story generator, but it could be better. Every XCOM player I've spoken to has stories about the heroes and dunces that lived and died in service of their XCOM project. Additions that allow for more complex narrative arcs will only strengthen the player's natural tendency to weave combat happenings into epic war stories. Emergent events could do more to turn your faceless squaddies into individuals. Soldiers could risk picking up lasting war wounds, for example, or gain terror/vengeance penalties/bonuses toward the alien hybrid that scarred them. Randomised personality traits could denote how they react when panicked. String enough little milestones like this together and you get a varied and interesting backstory for your surviving characters.

Soldiers could also interact with each other a bit more. If a rookie panics near a vet, the experienced soldier could calm them with a barked order. "Get your head back in the game, soldier!" Fighters could bond on the battlefield. If a soldier rescues a fellow rookie on the verge of death, they could enjoy improved morale when fighting together. There are much more elegant ideas out there, I'm sure. What would you like to see?
International Accents
XCOM's campaign is a heartening story about nations coming together for once to kick the vital goo out of greater foe. It's not a new story, sure, but it's effective, especially when the tide starts to turn in humanity's favour. It's like the bit in Independence day when the aliens' weakness has been discovered and everyone in the world phones everyone else, only without all the horrendous cultural stereotyping.

I loved having a squad made up of the best of the best from armies around the world, but it's a shame they all spoke in the same generic US voices. It sounds like a minor gripe, and an it's an expensive fix given all the extra voice talent you'd need to make it happen, but accents inflections from other countries would do much to sell the fantasy of assembling a group of transglobal superheroes.

Mod support and a map maker utility
Firaxis backed up Civilization V with a map making tool and Steam Workshop support. A similar show for XCOM would be most welcome. I enjoyed the range of maps XCOM provided, but any scarcity problems would swiftly be solved by a busy modding community. Think of all the new new aliens, weapons, missions, texture packs, visual tweaks and voice packs we'd get. Modding is a great way to give a game extra legs and XCOM could be a great canvas for player creativity.
Multiple endings
Every XCOM campaign filters into the same slipstream for the grand finale. Multiple endgames would encourage more replays and could present consequences that reflect how well you've done. The story could so easily end horribly. When countries leave the XCOM project, you lose resources and they effectively vanish from the map. It would be easy to imagine them descending into in-fighting or forming their own competing defence force.

And on top of all that, there are the ideas that the XCOM series has explored before, like the aquatic warfare of Terror from the Deep. What would you like to see from a new Firaxis XCOM? Underwater battles? A return to multiple bases? A black market that lets you sell weapons of destruction en-masse on the black market for huge profits? Aliens the size of skyscrapers? Let us know.
Shacknews - Steve Watts

Civilization 5 is preparing to reinvent itself, again. The Brave New World expansion, which launches July 9, is going to make serious shifts to the late-game content, revising both the cultural and diplomatic victories. We talked with lead designer Ed Beech and senior producer Dennis Shirk about the expansion's focus and goals.

In a way, Brave New World is the other half of Civ 5's last expansion, Gods and Kings. The two are are complementary in the pieces of the game they address--so much so that Brave New World will include many of Gods and Kings' underlying systems for players who didn't buy the first expansion. The second is really meant to work with the first, combining to create a marked shift in the experience.

The two said that this is targeted towards late-game, both to make up for the developer not having the chance to address those systems in the first expansion, and to add more depth to a part of the game that speeds toward the finish.

"If a player is going to run out of things to do, it will be in the second half of the game," Shirk said. "Once the world is all discovered and you're going through that threshold into the Industrial Age, you start running out of things to do as everyone is running up to finishing the game. [In Brave New World], there's a lot focused on that second half of the game to make that race really compelling."

Most of that comes in the revised victory types. Cultural victories now rely on raising great artists, musicians, and writers to create famous works that will spread throughout the world. Beech described how you could build a large museum like the Louvre, giving you plenty of space to fill with great paintings and cultural artifacts dug up from past battles. Tourists can come see your culture, and countries could steal great works to take some of your culture for their own. All of this is built around giving the player more agency in the cultural victory.

"We found that when you're playing for the military victory, it's a very active, aggressive playstyle. You really interacted with all the nations," Beech noted. "But when you played for a cultural victory before it was very passive. You built a few amazing cities, but you just weren't interacting with the other empires in the world. We felt that was a real missed opportunity. We've emphasized in Brave New World that you're going to build a culture that's really the envy of the rest of the world. You not only have to build it, you have to spread it to the rest of the world."

This is all against the backdrop of the new diplomatic victory system as well. Starting around the time the Renaissance starts to give way to the Industrial era, the nations make a World Congress. This doesn't result in an immediate victory, but it does introduce the concept of proposals--specialized rule changes. You'll have a vote to cast in these matters, such as voting against anti-whaling resolutions if that's your primary source of income.

Shirk said these resolutions can be "cooperative or vindictive" depending on your play style, and they can be used to shape the kind of victory you want to attain. In this way, the diplomacy system doesn't just impact its own victory, but it can manage to touch every kind of victory.

Now that the game has dealt with both its early and late-game content, though, I wondered what was left to tackle. When is Civilization 5 complete? "I don't think we're out of ideas," Beech said, tight-lipped.

Shirk, pointing out the expansiveness inherent in a game that is about the entire human experience, remarked: "Obviously with a game like Civ you could go on making content for any number of years."

PC Gamer

In preparation for our not-too-distant subjugation by skull-faced machine-men, I thought I'd bone up on the latest advances in electro-brain design and stop by this year's GDC AI summit. Kicking off the summit was a trimuvirate of talks about the AI behind PCG-fave XCOM, stabby sequel Assassin's Creed 3 and the super-shiny “space ninjas with machine guns” shooter Warframe.

The talks showed a fascinating variety of uses for AI: XCOM's combat AI was the most immediately familiar, but supremely clever in insinuating the personality of enemy types - a far cry from the use of AI to determine Connor's foot placement in AC3. Warframe, meanwhile, deploys AI as a dungeonmaster, cobbling together levels from pre-built components to fit the needs of its players. It's smart stuff. Perhaps... too smart? Read on to unpick alien plans, parkour and player-centric dungeon design.

Alien nation - making XCOM's enemies distinctive
Firaxis had a problem in updating the classic X-COM (UFO: Enemy Unknown to Brits): how do you balance the game's appeal to modern and nostalgic audiences? Luckily, it seems it was a problem that they managed to solve, in part by way of a complex and hybrid approach to the AI, as described by AI/Gameplay Programmer Alex Chang (pictured right). The challenge was to revive X-COM's classic enemies, whilst keeping their behaviour distinctive and entertaining in the limited action system of the new game.

Chang's team did this by means of a utility-based system – a system that gave a measure of 'usefulness' to every possible action. This means that, at any time in the game, the AI rated each ability for each alien on the basis of its defensive, offensive and 'intangible' benefits. Each race also had its own inherent biases and special abilities which also affected different behaviour; so the Muton's 'Blood Call' ability, which buffs nearby allies, would be heavily weighted to be used, if there were other Mutons nearby and if they weren't already buffed.

Given the limited movement system of XCOM, one of the choices the AI made at a given time was to move or use an ability. Similarly, the units would generate a movement map of the area around them, to see what area gave the maximum utility. In this case, utility was generated by taking into account distance to the location, whether the location flanked an enemy or got the alien closer to flanking an enemy, the cover bonus the location gave, proximity to other aliens (to avoid grenading or rockets), the number of visible enemies (with just one being optimal) and an alien behaviour specific value. If the optimal location was where the alien was already... it stayed where it was and chose to do something else.

Of course, this only really applied to the normal units – the sectoids, thin men, mutons and so on. Fliers had an entire extra range of behaviour choices, and melee enemies were configured to charge pretty much directly at the nearest troops. Fascinatingly, this latter includes mind-controlled troops.

Meanwhile the elite units – the Sectopod and Ethereal – also didn't care about cover, but also didn't care about getting near to the enemy. The Ethereal was programmed to hang back and stay close to its bodyguards; the Sectopod was programmed to get as many enemies into range as possible, given its ability to attack multiple times in a single turn. With these special utility rules, the weighting towards choosing individual abilities, and the differentiated behaviours based on custom weights, the team ended up with about 17 different AI behaviour sets.

Happy feet: starting from scratch with Assassin's Creed's movement
This might not sound like an AI problem to us lay people, but the decisions on where Connor put his feet are hugely more complex than Ezio's lumpen feet – mainly, as far as we could tell, because Ubisoft Montreal is ramping up for the next generation consoles, which will no longer limit the complexity of their simulation. “The challenge was to change everything but change nothing,” said Aleissa Laidacker, Team Lead for AI and Gameplay, Ubisoft Montreal (pictured left). “The fans would have killed us.”

The four movements of the new Assassin's Creed engine were ground navigation, climbing, free-running and tree-running. While they were revamping these, they also revamped the animation system completely, making it totally procedural, as Laidacker demonstrated with sample videos showing Connor's reactions to varying conditions.

The basis for the movement style was the movie Apocalypto, with its wild forest-running. As much of Assassin's Creed 3 takes place in the heavily-wooded frontier, this was an important parallel, but it meant that Connor had to react correctly to the environment, whatever he was doing. This meant running, fighting and assassination animations all had to take place on uneven and even moving surfaces – considering the ships and sails, but also the rocky, bumpy surface of the frontier provinces.

Once the animation and AI team had made it so that Connor's feet could stand properly on uneven ground, Ubisoft Montreal's procedural animation guru, Simon Clavet was called in. His task was to ensure that the animation system could take advantage of this, by predicting where Connor's feet would end up as he was running and ensuring that his legs moved in the correct way. He did this by raycasting possible paths and making sure Connor's feet were ready to step over the highest point, and his pelvis was properly tilted. (This is scarily similar to the procedure the human body does automatically when we're walking.) Added to this, Front Strafing meant that Connor would step from side-to-side as ran; when players started turning, Connor would strafe first, meaning the animation wasn't disturbed if the player then turned him back.

The free-running model was also changed substantially for AC3. Every movement was given new animations, with short jumps chained together and long jumps separated off by 'settle' animations, so the animators could create new variations without having to think about how to integrate them.

Richard Dumas, the Technical lead (pictured right), explained that climbing was revamped by basing Connor's movement on that of professional speed climbers like Dan Osman, who can climb a 400m cliff in 4 minutes. “If he can, an assassin can too,” said Dumas. Connor doesn't settle after every move, like Ezio, but can flow from move to move, along the more organic surfaces of the frontier. Similarly, he doesn't just move up, down and sideways, but can move 360 degrees on the rockface, climbs vertical cracks in a totally different way, and has a dynamic system of how he positions his body, depending on how close to an edge his hands are or whether his feet are resting or dangling. Frankly, this was a crazy amount of work compared to its nearest climbing competitor... QWOP.

Finally, the newest form of movement was tree navigation. The trees came in three types. The unclimbable tree was smooth and branchless. The normal tree had anchors and horizontal branches, and could be climbed slowly. Finally, the V-shaped trees acted as fast elevators, and allowed players to hop up, from V to V, extremely quickly, so they could get back into position for assassinations.

To make it so that Connor (and the other characters and animals) had proper foot placement took the best part of three years work by AC3's AI department, and even now they're limited by the hardware power of the consoles. The movement behaviour was similarly involved. However, we're betting this totally dynamic system, which was under-used by AC3 because of console memory limitations, will make a more impressive reappearance in future editions of AC.

Warframe: AI-designed levels
Digital Extremes' new shooter Warframe may suffer from the GameFace / WarFace / FaceGame associations, but it's out today on Steam and worth checking out. In it, players battle in thirdperson co-opagainst a variety of AI factions, which level and scale in difficulty with the players. Daniel Brewer, the Lead AI Programmer (who we forgot to photograph, left), took us through the development of its procedural levels, which are AI designed from pre-built components each time a level is started, and auto-balanced to ensure that they're always challenging.

When the level is first generated, the game takes pre-built elements and connects a start block to various objective blocks and intermediate blocks, where the majority of the combat takes place, and eventually generates an end block, producing something that can be entirely linear or sprawling. Once the blocks are stitched together, the game works out a navigation mesh through them all and then a combat mesh. Yet, because the team don't know the orientation of the blocks to the player's route through the level and because they don't want players to have the same experience every time, they had to be very careful in the design of the AI that manages the levels and enemies.

The combat mesh – called the tactical area map – shows the areas of potential conflict. It also allows the AI to draw a distance map between the start point and the objectives, so it knows if the players are heading the right way, whether there are AI agents in the way and, if there are, where there are obstacles they can defend or chokepoints to fall back to. As the players move, the game spawns more enemies, with a higher density in in the direction of the objective and in the direction of player movement, acting as a subtle hint to players. Areas the players have left are deactivated gradually, reducing processing power and allowing agents in those areas to be temporarily removed from the unit cap (they reactivate if players head back their way).

Similarly the game paces these spawns by judging how the players are coping with the enemies they're fighting. The game will keep ramping up agent spawns until there's a lot of dead agent and players have taken damage. Once it recognises that the players have been properly tried, it'll slow the spawns down again, giving the players a chance to mop up and then heal up. An area that's peaked like this is exhausted and players can pass safely through it – until it's reset by the game rules (such as the players reaching an objective.)