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An essay on Achievements

Posted by joeabbott on January 21, 2014

I’ve tried a number of times to write a post on Achievements and they all fall apart. Most are too long, many lose track of what I’m trying to say, and all suffer from being terminally boring. So why start another? Well, the game I just finished, X-Men: Destiny (hereafter “Destiny”), was a canonical example of several aspects of achievements and on the strength of that example, I’m trying again. Fair warning: this will inevitably end up being long, feel rambling, and likely a bit boring: Caveat Legens! 

Before we jump in, I’ll preface by saying I’m just looking at the achievements as they appear in Destiny and that this won’t attempt to be a comprehensive review of either that game or all aspects of achievements: this is mainly a look at achievements and how I approached one game. Time to get started.

X-Men: Destiny

I’ve framed this section a couple times and could go into the Marvel world of the X-Men, talk at length about the story, and give details about gameplay and design, but that would lead us down an altogether different rabbit hole. Yet, all of those topics give good information on other parts of this post, so I’ll touch on pieces and parts.

The Destiny story has a super-villain attempting to take over the world; he (it?) knows, however, the super mutants (in the form of the X-Men and Brotherhood camps) would stop him. His gambit is to start infighting between the two super mutant groups so as to create a breach into which he can enter. On top of this, there are several normal human factions at play who are also part of the scheming and battling.

In the game, you take the role of a human who has mutant powers (I think that makes you a mutant … you can select from three different characters with different backstories) and your path of growth of your powers takes you through the story. Ultimately you will choose if you wish to side with the X-Men or Brotherhood and confront the super-villain in a final showdown.

While the story is standard trope for this genre, the game itself suffers a bit on its own but mostly when compared to other games. On the plus side, it tells a fine story, I hit only one bug that I remember (my hero was caught between two crates and couldn’t move), and as button-mashers go the action held up. And that’s the plus side.

Critical observations found Destiny to be pretty boring in terms of tactical control (I mainly used the “hit” and “dodge” buttons for every battle in the game), the world is fairly linear, and the graphics are ho-hum (not terrible, though).

The game does attempt a richness by allowing you to combine several mutant “genes” you find on your journey that enhance your offensive and defensive skills, give an extra utility power, and allow you to wear a particular suit modeled after one of the existing mutants. All of this is done to deepen and vary your experience, providing benefit to additional plays-through. However, with the exception of one combination (I’ll go into that exception in Completing Destiny, below), none really open the door to great differentiation. I picked a combination and just played through with that and I wasn’t encouraged to try different combinations to solve any puzzles or defeat particular bosses. Offense-wise, each combination seemed to require the same number of hits to take down a particular enemy; defense-wise, none seemed to lend themselves to me staying alive longer under a given barrage.

So for fans of the Marvel X-Man universe, there was some good stuff here; for players who like an easy button-mashing game, there was more stuff here. If you like depth, an engaging story, or rich gameplay, you should probably pass.

For gamers looking for achievement hunting, this isn’t a bad game to play.

Now that we have that background, let’s look at the types of achievements you’ll find in the game.

imageAchievement Types

A general description and guidance on achievement types probably exists, but I haven’t seen it. For this section, I just made up some categories as they seemed to fit the Destiny game and will use those to discuss specific achievements. I broke the achievements down into:

  • Beat x types
  • Challenges
  • Collectibles
  • Difficulty
  • Game Progression
  • Story choice
  • Try this

Let’s look at how Destiny broke out its 50 achievements, shall we?

Beat x types

These achievements, of which there were five, involved me defeating a set number of baddies.

  • Reinforced – defeat 20 Prime Enforcers
  • Mechageddon – defeat 20 Purifier Stalker Mechs
  • U Mad, Bro? – defeat 30 U-Men
  • Purify the Purifiers – defeat 2000 Purifiers
  • The Goon Squad – defeat 500 MRD Troops

I played through the complete game twice and only managed to get the last one, The Goon Squad, as part of the natural progression; the remaining achievements required me to “hunt” or replay levels for the specific bad guys mentioned.

For an on-rails game like Destiny that each-time, every-time had me fighting the same number of bad guys, this approach felt like poor game design. Given a storyline that asks you to choose either fighting alongside the X-Men or Brotherhood, I can see where they might require two plays-through to get the totals … but more than that? Just seems like a flaw in the design. Especially when other aspects are completed so much earlier.

Challenges

These were grab-bag achievements that could (mostly) happen at any time. I counted five achievements in this bucket as well:

  • Beginner’s Luck – Complete your first Great combo
  • Better than the Best – Defeat more enemies than Wolverine in the Prime Enforcer factory
  • Broken Glass, Everywhere… – Break 30 Combat Text Pop Ups.
  • Fight Terror with Terror – Defeat 10 enemies with one Ultra power.
  • This can’t be happening! – Complete your first Insane combo.

Two were for completing combo moves using my mutant powers and another was for beating enemies using my ultra power; one asked me to take out more enemies than a fellow mutant during a particular fight; and the last was for destroying the fourth wall, where my character broke the on-screen text that appears during fight scenes (in image to the right, you can smash the “1 Enemy Left!” text).

The neat thing about these achievements is that they could pop at random for anyone playing the game and provide fun getting an achievement out of the blue. You didn’t have to grind away at them (like “Beat x types”) and didn’t need to chase all over the game looking for something (like the next achievement type); they were just random events waiting for the player to stumble upon: I liked these.

Collectibles

This is a common achievement type and Destiny has seven different achievements associated with the player either finding a number of different items throughout the game or tracking down various things.

  • Profiler – Collect your first dossier.
  • Archivist – Collect 15 dossiers.
  • Garbage Collection – Destroy your first piece of propaganda.
  • Cleaned up the City – Destroy 25 pieces of propaganda.
  • Side-tracked – Complete your first challenge mission.
  • Taking Every Opportunity – Complete 10 unique challenge missions.
  • Completionist – Complete all 15 unique challenge missions.

Typically seven collecting achievements would seem excessive, but I ended up liking how Destiny broke these out.

The first four bullets above cover finding items hidden throughout the city … the dossiers were for finding “information”, the propaganda were for finding posters. The well-designed aspect to these was that the player got achievements for finding\destroying the first ones, and then achievements for finding\destroying a number of others. Sort of a “fish on” approach to encouraging a behavior.

Another nice aspect was that the player didn’t have to find every single instance of the dossier or propaganda … you just had to find a goodly number of them. Sometimes collectibles are hidden in terribly hard locations to find; causing someone who wants the achievement to look for an online guide. I like the Destiny approach.

Now for the Challenge Mission collectibles. Challenge Missions were either given in response to conversations with various NPCs (non-player characters), or by finding doorways that, while otherwise unmarked, resulted in the player entering an arena area and triggering a fight. For the challenge missions, you did have to find them all … again, they did a nice job here by giving you a reward (achievement) for completing the first one … but with only 15 throughout the game, finding them wasn’t arduous. Also, the Load menu item explained how many you needed to find in each story “chapter” and how many remained to be found … making the search for all of them a little easier. Again, props to the Destiny game designers.

Difficulty

imageThis is the category I give for each of the three achievements associated with completing the game on the three difficulty levels: Beta Level Mutant was for finishing on easiest, Alpha Level Mutant was for finishing on the harder level, and Omega Level Mutant was for finishing on the hardest level.

While I like that there are different difficulties, I do think it’s a bit disappointing that all of these carry the same weighting in terms of Gamerscore rewarded. I found that the easy level was quite simple to finish on, whereas the hardest level had me trying for over 2-hours without success before turning to the Internet for tips.

One thing Destiny did well, though, was to allow “stacking” of difficulty: that is, if someone never played the game but finished on “Omega” (the hardest) level, they would also get credit for completing the game on “Alpha” and “Beta” levels (the easier settings) as well.

Game Progression

I very much like game progression achievements (achievements rewarded as the player progresses through the game), but Destiny has 21 achievements tied to this category. It’s enough that I won’t even list them all!

While the Gamerscore rewarded is modest (330GS out of a possible 1000GS), the number of achievements is a lot. On the positive side, what this means is that a player will fairly regularly see an achievement pop and hear the happy *poi-tock* sound. But reserving this number of achievements for progression does limit using them for other things (games have a 50 achievement limit, allotting a total of 1000GS).

So, I’m on the fence here: for a so-so game, this is a fine use of achievements, but had the game been larger and/or more rich, I might have enjoyed seeing them do other things with them.

Story choice

imageThis is a category that I’ve put just two achievements in, however, they each drove a play-thru … either side with the X-Men (Got My Eye on You … Join Cyclops ) or with the Brotherhood (Magneto Is Right … Join Magneto and the Brotherhood).

I have a like/dislike relationship with these sort of choices. On the one side, I like the variety and the fact that the game designers are encouraging you to play the game in different ways; on the other side, I find it a nuisance as an achievement hunter to have to play the entire game a second time to get one achievement.

Here’s where Destiny puts me on the fence: on one hand the game isn’t rich and varied, I don’t get much from playing this sort of game a second time; on the other, Destiny did reserve a couple of Challenge Missions that would only unlock if I was playing the Brotherhood path (as they had several that would only unlock if I was playing the X-Men path). So, I think they tried to make a second play-through interesting. I’d give them credit for their attempt but mark them down on actual execution.

Also, depending on whether you chose X-Men or Brotherhood will give you a slightly different ending cut scene, but that’s a very minor difference.

Try this

The last category is where I usually like to find achievements: in places where they ask people to really experience the game. If done well, you can almost hear the game designer saying, “try this”. In Destiny we had six achievements in this bucket:

  • Splicer – Equip your first X-Gene.
  • At Least It’s Aerodynamic… – Equip your first suit.
  • Four of a Kind – Equip a complete X-Gene set and suit.
  • How Strong Could It Be? – Trigger X-Mode.
  • I’ve Got the Power – Fully level up a power.
  • Fully Evolved – Fully level up all powers.

Unfortunately for Destiny, the gameplay is so thin, that nearly all seven of these achievements are things you’d do without the encouragement of an achievement. What is usually a rich category gets a “meh” for this game. You get most of these early and then aren’t encouraged to further tinker with your genes\suit through the rest of the game.

I do like that Destiny rewards achievements throughout the breadth of using the various skills by giving achievements for equipping first genes and suits, as well as complete gene and suit usage. The achievements for leveling up powers were standard fare and I only wish I had more use for the XP I had earned. In the game you get XP for finishing off the enemy, and can then use that XP to level up your powers; I had all powers up completed shortly after starting the second play-through. After that, I just kept getting XP and had no use for it. Odd.

imageOdd achievement out

For those keeping track, they’d notice I only listed 49 of 50 achievements (although those 49 have a value of 1000GS); where’s the last one? Well, it’s an achievement that defies categorization and as one Internet commentator wrote, is the worst achievement evar! This is the Can I Get A Valkyrie? achievement worth 0GS and is rewarded upon dying 100 times. Yup, you die a lot and they give you an achievement worth nothing.

I’m not begrudging the value of said achievement, but I find requiring a person interested in “completing” the game (more on “completing”below) to die a bunch a bit disappointing. After finishing the game several times I still had to artificially find ways to die dozens of times. That’s dozens and dozens of times! It’s just a bad achievement.

Completionist view

“Completing” a game is an interesting notion. For some this means playing it through to the end; others may amend that definition to mean playing through both endings (for a game like Destiny: that is, both the X-Men and Brotherhood endings). An achievement hunter will say a game is completed when they’ve earned all achievements … regardless of other accomplishment in the game. Or, they might not even need to finish a game to complete it … as long as they’ve earned all achievements

While I like to complete games, I realize I’m an enthusiast at best. I miss out on most of the co-op achievements and many times I can’t be bothered to play a game on its hardest setting. So, I’m a bit of a gaming hack, but that’s OK. I did complete Destiny, however, so let’s look at how that went!

Completing Destiny

I started Destiny on a Friday night; I’d just completed my first full week of work after a long break and was ready to unplug and game. Also, I wanted to return the game as I’d had it overlong from our team library. So I set in.

While I intended on getting a goodly number of the achievements from the game, I only vaguely hoped to complete it, thinking more that one or two achievements would be out of reach, either by skill or my interest.

My first night with the game was great fun in that I earned a dozen achievements but only saw my Gamerscore rise 165GS. It seemed a paltry return for hearing *poi-tock* twelve times but I took the gains where I could get them. The next night I played another game with a brother-in-law so I didn’t get any Destiny time, but on Sunday I was back for a long session, wherein I earned 22 achievements, bolstered my Gamerscore by a cumulative 605GS, and finished the “X-Men” campaign (finished the game choosing the “good guy” ending).

At that point I looked at the achievements remaining: only 16 but worth nearly 400GS. Surveying them, I saw quite a few that required you to “beat enemy type X, Y times”. And, from the online discussion out on True Achievements, it appeared that getting these required a LOT of grinding. However, I noted that it only took two days to run through the entire game and if I played through a second time, I would be that much closer to beating all those enemies and I could get the “bad guy” ending.

imageSo at that time I decided to head through the game and play a second time, this time focusing on the Brotherhood missions and ending.

The achievements, understandably, came a bit slower: four on Monday, one on Tuesday, and another four on Wednesday … at which point I’d finished Destiny playing through the Brotherhood campaign. The nine achievements were across the spectrum of possible types: four were game progression or story choice, three were “try this” types as I played around with the game options, one was beating a lot of one type of enemy, and the final achievement was for completing all the missions.

What was left was beating a lot of other types of enemies and finishing the game on hard. At this point I was playing on “Easy” (“New Mutant” mode) but there’s a shortcut I found that says, “after completing the game, start again, change the game to hard, restart the final battle and … if you win … you’ll earn the achievement for completing the entire game on hard.

So I followed those steps and entered the final battle …

… and for the next two hours I tried to beat that game but couldn’t. Time and again I’d slowly be whittled down, time and again I’d try another tack but each time I’d die. Not even getting close.

It was a little frustrating but I surrendered to the thought that I just wouldn’t complete this game; that I’d get most but not all achievements. At that point my biggest concern was whether to go for the Can I Get A Valkyrie? achievement.

That Thursday after working out, I put in a short night and mopped up three of the final four “beat x number of y enemy” achievements and left the last achievement I thought I’d get to Friday.

About that time I read more deeply on the online forums for how so many other people beat the game on Omega level (hardest) difficulty. And there it was, the glitch: if you’re in the final battle and you happen to be wearing all Quicksilver (one of the Brotherhood mutants) genes and outfit, you happen to have triggered his X-Mode, and you die … well, when the game restarts it leaves you in Quicksilver X-Mode, meaning that everyone else moves very slowly and you remain at normal speed.

So, on Friday night, a week after I started the game, I replayed a few levels until I beat 20 Prime Enforcers and got my last “beat x of y enemy” achievement, I donned my Quicksilver gear, and I headed into the final battle on Omega level. And, I died and no achievement popped.

Time to dig out that backup I made just after completing the game the last time. Finding it, I played through using the above steps and, on that play-thru, I handily beat that game and saw the final two difficulty achievements *poi-tock* into life.

Here’s my path to 100%-ing X-Men: Destiny:

imageAll that was left was the stupid “die a bunch of times” achievement, and I managed that by plugging in my controller and walking away during the final battle. I’d die, the game would restart the session, I’d die again, rinse, repeat. I came back about an hour and a half later and saw that I had all 50 achievements. Nice!

And that’s the typical path I take to completing a game: I’ll knock out a bunch of achievements, look to see what’s left, and slowly chip away at the game. In that way I’ve “completed” 40 games.

I have a friend who will make spreadsheets of his games and plan his attack. He’ll compare the game’s Gamerscore to it’s True Achievement score (the closer they are to one another, the easier the game), he’ll review the FAQs and walk-thru guides, he’ll scan the forums and, once he understands how to complete the game, he jumps in. Whereas I have 65kGS, he has 275kGS. Yeah, he does a bit of gaming!

Achievements and Completing games

I have to admit that achievement hunting has ruined some games for me. I loved the Lego Lord of the Rings game but, as soon as I got all achievements, it really held no interest for me. A dozen others share that same situation. Some games do call to me: I have played Borderlands 2 well after getting all achievements, restarted Fallout 3 a couple years after last playing it, and am getting an itch to run through Commander Shepard’s Mass Effect trilogy again. But those are far and away the outliers. I mostly get all the achievements I can and move on.

There’s a part of me that is consciously trying to break myself of playing games for achievements rather than for the story value of the game, but my heart isn’t really in it. I like getting achievements. And I can’t say I find a problem with that … it’s all good fun.

Now, I think I’ve said enough here; where’s my controller?

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