Great moments in Balance-Breaking history

11 07 2009

Possibly the biggest problem that faces many game designers, especially those that design an FPS or an RTS, is making sure the game is balanced properly. In strategy cases that means no one unit will automatically trump all others no matter what, and in FPS cases the same applies for a weapon. Despite the best intents of even some of the greatest developers, balance-breaking weapons and units sometimes slip through the cracks, and I thought I’d take the time to point out some of the ones I’ve personally encountered.

In Soviet Union, Mammoth Crush You! ...wait

1. Command & Conquer: Red Alert – Soviet Mammoth Tank. The Mammoth Tank is a staple vehicle of the C&C series, having some variant or unit inspired by it in every installment. However in the first Red Alert game, the inclusion of the Mammoth Tank gave the Soviets unparalleled power in battle. Granted in single player you wouldn’t run into them in vast numbers, but in multiplayer that becomes a far different story. My best friend’s favorite tactic was basically to build up an army of Mammoths using two or more war factories (which essentially meant he could churn out the tanks at half the build time or less), he would soon have an unstoppable force of 20 to 40 tanks that would easily run over the lines of anybody playing as the allies. The allies, you see, didn’t have much in the way of good defenses against the Mammoth Tank. Turrets were too weak, rocket infantry was too easily killed, and the Apache Longbow was too easily taken out by the Mammoth’s AA missiles. In addition, the fact that Allied tank power stopped at the Medium Tank meant that they would stand no chance against one Mammoth let alone an army of them. Even trying to field them in numbers wouldn’t do any good against the sheer firepower of so many Mammoth Tanks. In fact the only Allied unit with enough firepower to stand up to a Mammoth tank was the Cruiser, and that’s hardly useful when it can’t really protect your base from being smashed to pieces despite the impressive range of its cannons. Come to think of it, the Allies really got shafted in the first Red Alert game, having no decent air force, no powerful fortifications against armor, and no truly powerful units. Tanya and the Spy were pretty much useless in Multiplayer especially against an opponent that utilized the dreaded Mammoth Rush. Fortunately when Red Alert 2 came about the balance lines were drawn more properly, letting the Allies have a powerful technological edge against the Soviets’ sheer numbers and power.

Activate Tron-Vision!

2. Perfect Dark – Laptop Gun and Farsight XR-20 (pictured). While I love Perfect Dark, two of its weapons seriously broke the game’s balance. The first is the Laptop Gun. A unique weapon to be sure, and perhaps the coolest in terms of design. Essentially a fully working laptop, the gun folds out into a powerful submachine gun that also can be deployed as a sentry gun. The sentry gun is where we begin to have problems. First the sentry is quick-tracking, giving anybody in its sights little time to react. secondly it fires blazingly fast, cutting down its targets in a couple seconds of sustained fire. It’s also not very beneficial to the user, since it drains one of the communal ammo pools for weapons that share the Laptop Gun’s ammo caliber, and the turret has a nasty habit of following a “pray and spray” doctrine instead of just locking on before firing. But the benefits far outweigh those costs, and probably explains why it doesn’t appear much in single player. The Farsight XR-20 is far more problematic, simply because not only is it a powerful sniper rifle (almost guaranteed to get a one or two-hit kill) that shoots through walls, but it also has a tracking feature that automatically aims the crosshairs for you (and indeed this is possibly the only way to properly use it). AI is incapable of dodging it and players can only run from it or find the user and kill them, otherwise they might as well be standing still.

Imagine if you will the Romulan Plasma Torpedo only more numerous

3. Homeworld: Cataclysm – Energy Cannons. Energy Cannons are a Somtaaw research option that replaces all their mass drivers with balls of seeking plasma that will automatically lock onto enemy ships in range. They are pretty much unavoidable. In single-player the Imperial Taiidan have this technology, necessitating you to capture their ships to gain it, a not-so-easy task because even the capital ships have them and because of the nature of the energy cannon this now means Fighters are a lot less effective. This is the problem that becomes more inherent in multiplayer. See Homeworld ran on a basic Rock-Paper-Scissors concept with maybe one or two exceptions. Fighters could beat Capital Ships, Capital Ships could beat Corvettes, and Corvettes could beat Fighters. However in Cataclysm the lines became heavily blurred and the energy cannon only made things worse. In later parts of multiplayer games fighters become almost ineffective because the energy cannon will be able to cut down whole squadrons before they can be truly useful in a fight. Allowing all capital ships to better fend off fighter attacks undermines the entire point of Homeworld’s approach to combat, in my opinion.

Conclusion: While none of these problems were bad enough to make me outright hate any of the games, they still should serve as a reminder that it’s sometimes hard to make a balanced game, and one must be as careful as possible when trying to do so.

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