Monday, January 11, 2016

Coop versus Solo: The same game but different.

I am currently multi-tasking between two seperate games of Divinity Original Sin, one solo and one co-op with my daughter. It is exactly the same game played on exactly the same computer and yet it feels like two completely different experiences. (Side note: Divinity allows split screen local co-op on one PC (couch co-op) as long as you have two game controllers. It would be nice if one player could use keyboard and mouse but it is still pretty sweet).

My solo game is slow and thoughful. I regularly spend half an hour in the inventory screen sorting gear and comparing stats. During combat I ponder skills and tactics carefully before making a move and sometimes I go back and re fight battles I have already won just to see how a different strategy might work.

In the co-op game momentum is everything. You can't spend long browsing your inventory if your partner is barelling along to the next encounter. Each new area is looted at twice the speed and snap decisons are made about the best home for equipment: "Want some poison arrows?", "Is +24 armour any good to you?"

At least the turn based nature of combat gives us a chance to discuss tactics and act in a co-ordinated fashion. After all we are sitting right beside one another so communication is not a problem. Nevertheless decisions are made and acted upon far more quickly than when I play solo and fewer alternatives are discussed or tried. We never go back and replay an encounter just to see "What would happen if ... ?"

My personal campaign has advanced far beyond the co-op game so my familiarity with the game does speed things up a bit: "Talk to this guy. He has a quest". Nevertheless  we have chosen different skill sets and we are using a different control scheme (controllers instead of mouse and keyboard) so there is still a lot of new stuff to figure out as we play.

I would hesistate to say which playstyle is better. The social dimension of the co-op game is special but I defintely get more engrossed when I play on my own. One game, one computer. Two completely different gaming experiences.

Friday, January 01, 2016

Lichdom Battlemage

Somewhat surprisingly the game I spent most time playing over Christmas was Lichdom: Battlemage. The game is an intense first person zapper with lovely graphics and an incredibly comprehensive magical system. I enjoyed it enough to complete the full campaign but there are a few things worth knowing if you ar ethinking of playing it yourself.

First off the good bits: It's a first person game with fireballs instead of bullets. What is not to like? Better yet you are a kick ass battle mage who never runs out of mana meaning you can rain down destruction to your hearts content. You fight your way through a series of frenetic battles across an array of stunning maps. The graphics in the game are really lovely both in design and implementation. Once you figure out how magic works you have a huge range of options for winning battles and eventually you will develop y our own blend of destruction and control for dealing with all of the enemies the game throws at you.

Before you dive into the game however you do need to know some things things: First off the  magic system is very badly explained in the game and there is a limited amount of information available on-line so it takes quite a while to figure out how things work. This is particularly problematic because the game has a very complex crafting system and you need to keep upgrading your spells to deal with the ever tougher waves of enemies the game throws at you. This is very hard to do until you figure out how everything works. .To be honest I found crafting to be quite tedious and I would prefer a much simpler system even if it reduced the variety of spells available. I mustn't be alone in this feeling because the devs released an optional  "smart crafting" system in a later patch which recommends upgrades. I used this a lot to overcome the tedium of crafting but it isn't a panacea because its recommendations are not always the best. A given spell might have five or six properties and I regularly noticed the smart system recommending upgrades which would enhance less important properties while diminishing the property I was most interested in. In short this game badly needs a comprehensive wiki because even if you use the smart crafting system you still need to understand how things work.

Another thing to be aware of is that the game is quite long and becomes repetitive. It took me 54 hours to complete the game according to Steam and I would have preferred if it took me half that long. The main campaign is long enough but the need to scavenge for loot in order to fuel crafting drags things out even further. A teleport system even allows you to revisit previously completed parts of the game for farming purposes but thankfully I never really had to resort to that.

There is a new game plus mode that unlocks when you overcome the final boss but it seems to be very much more of the same so I am happy to put the game to bed at this stage.

As I mentioned above web resources are quite limited for the game even though they are sadly needed.  I did find some useful nugges spread between the following sites:

A very imcomplete wiki:
The Steam forums:
Xaviants official Lichdom forums:

My preferred spell combinations:
I experimented with all of the spells as I worked my way through the game and I think there are many viable combinations but towards the latter half of the game I settled on the following combination that worked well for me:

Destruction attuned fire for maximum damage. I used fire lob as my main damage spell because the splash damage is very useful.

Mastery attuned Kinesis: This roots enemies to the ground and also applies lots of the mastery debuff which amplifies damage. This is essential for taking down tough mobs. I used a combination of lob and AOE pool to apply the debuff.

Destruction attuned Necromancy: Necromancy raises an army of undead from the corpses of your slain foes. Destruction attunement makes your army focus on damage which creates more corpses and an even bigger army in a chain reaction. I didn't get necromancy until late in the game but once I started using it it made things much easier. It even makes boss fights easy because all of the bosses spawn minions who become fuel for your undead horde.

My spell combination is a little bit unusual because I didn't have any use any control attuned spells to to disable enemies. The rooting property of kinesis gave me some crowd control and since my undead minions were doing most of the killing I could focus on running around and staying alive.

I stuck with a strategic shield in the end because it gave me the best combination of toughness and avoidance. It does restrict the use of Nova spells I rarely used or needed these.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Upgrading with an SSD - the fiddly bits.

I bought a 500Gb SSD as a Christmas present for my gaming rig. As usually happens with PC upgrades things didn't quite go as smoothly as planned. Most of the difficulties arose from peculiarities of my own rig but for posterity I am recording the main issues here:

0. Peculiarities of my rig: Prior to fitting the 500Gb SSD I had two 1Tb  HDDs,  one 120Gb HDD (archives from older computer) and one 64Gb SSD being used as a cache drive. The plan was to install Windows and common programmes on the new SSD freeing up one of the 1Tb drives for additional storage.

1.Preparations: Shrinking my 1Tb C: drive so that it would fit onto the new 500Gb SSD took quite a while. Mindgems folder size was handy for identifying the main space hogs. I used symbolic links to shift programmes I wanted to keep installed to another drive.

2. Even after deleting a bunch of stuff I still couldn't shrink the C: partition below to 500Gb because of Windows immoveable files. This guide pointed me to the main culprits: Hibernation, System Restore, virtual memory and debugging information. Finally got them all disabled and managed to shrink C: partition down to 150Gb. Minitool is my free partition manager of choice.

3. Fitting the SSD: Thankfully my ageing motherboard (P7P55D-E)  is generously provided with 9 SATA ports which would be enough for my five hard drives and one DVD drive. Two of the ports are even rated for the faster 6Gb/s SATA 3 so I plugged the two SSDs into these.

4. I disabled the cache drive just in case it caused conflicts while cloning.

5. Samsung provided a disk cloning utility with their SSD so I used this to transfer the nicely shrunk 150Gb C: partition onto the new SSD. I guess Minitool could have done the same job.

6. Surprise surprise even after cloning the PC wouldn't boot from the SSD. Checking the BIOS I was frustrated to find the new SSD wasn't even an option in the boot order settings. Remember I said that I plugged the SSD into one of two special SATA 3 ports? Well it turns out these are not integral to the chipset but instead provided via a third party Marvell chip. I had to dig a bit deeper into the BIOS to make sure this Marvell chip was set up correctly and then to get it added to the boot list.

6. Eventually Windows boots from the SSD. Hurray. Everything seems to run as expected.

7. Sony provide an SSD monitor tool called Wizard. I ran this and it gave some suggestions about optimising the system for SSD. Not terribly useful. They have a feature called "Rapid Mode" which I couldn't get to work because it refuses to recognise my operating system (Windows 10???). I am not to bothered because it looks like a RAM cache and I don't need another cache on my system.

8. Gradually try to get things back where I started: re-enabling virtual memory, system restore and debugging. Didn't bother re-enabling hibernation because I don't use it on a desktop. Re-enable the cache now using it only for the HDDs.

9. Hold on a minute: Metro apps aren't all working. Some just hang. It turns out that Windows search index is confused and sometimes points to the old copy of an app on the now replaced HDD. sometimes this will run but more often it won't. I deleted and rebuilt the search index (indexing options in the control panel) making sure it was focussed on the new C: drive. Useful hint - if your metro search interface isn't working you can still access all the useful tools via Win+X menu.

10. Finally everything seems to be working correctly. I have even been brave enough to delete the old C:partition from the HDD in order to use it for programme storage.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

How do you choose a gift for an old codger (like me).

At 51 years of age I have become very settled in my ways. Nowhere is this more evident than at gifting times of year when my wife asks me for gift suggestions. I am very comfortable in my life and its patterns and I don't really need or indeed want anything new. Yes I have my hobbies and interests but over the years these have become sufficiently specialised that I cannot ask an outsider to get me something for one of my hobbies unless I hold their hand through each step of purchasing exactly the right model from exactly the right vendor. In most cases, if I really wanted something I will almost certainly have already purchased it for myself.

In my defence I am a very grateful recipient of any gift at all. True gifting is a shared experience that bring happiness to both giver and receiver. Nevertheless I know my wife and family really want to get Daddy "something he wants". I feel ashamed at the pile of unread books and unused gadgets that have accumulated over the years despite my genuine and heartfelt gratitude when they were unwrapped on Christmas morning.

I am not therefore ashamed to admit that I have put slippers on my Christmas list this year. I am very fond of a comfortable pair of slippers. Indeed I would go so far as to say I cannot properly relax until I have kicked off my outdoor shoes and put on comfy slippers. It is somewhat fortuitous that my current pair are in dire need of replacement and I can assure you that if I am lucky enough to find a pair under the Christmas tree they will be very gratefully received and extensively used.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

A mixed bag of games I have played over the last few months

The latter half of 2015 has been some what of a mixed gaming bag for me. I started the Autumn with two very enjoyable games (WItcher 3 and Far Cry 4) but no game I played since has engaged me to the same extent. Anyway for the sake of posterity let us list the games:

Witcher 3: Worthy Game of the Year that ranks among the best RPGs ever made.

Far Cry 4: Far Cry 3 redefined open World shooters and will be remembered as the more important game but I think Far Cry 4 polishes things up a bit and is a worthy successor. The difficulty level is more even and there is a greater variety of stuff to do than in 3. I thoroughly enjoyed the couple of weeks I spent playing my way through Kyrat.

Pillars of Eternity: This text heavy old school RPG in the Baldur's Gate mode has received high praise  across the board but I found my interest in the game waning after about a week. Story is a big part of this game but I found myself overwhelmed by the sheer volume of story snippets that you stumble across. I much prefer the witcher style of storytelling where a small number of "big story" arcs dominate. I did enjoy the challenging party based combat at first but I found it got repetitive after a while. This is partly my own fault because I spent too long in an optional dungeon called "The Endless Paths" which is really just a continuous sequence of combat encounters with very little impact on main quest progression. I have taken a break from the game but I will probably return to it later to finish.

Titanfall: I was really impressed by this multiplayer shooter with big stompy robots. It never really  got commercial traction but there are still hundreds of players and I never had any problem getting a game. It is regualrly on sale and is terrific value now that all expansions are included in the base game. Sadly I suck at multiplayer shooters and this game is no exception for me. It is always a race against time as to whether I can stick around long enough to learn the basics before my embarassment at coming last on every scoreboard forces me to leave in shame.

Lichdom Battlemage: I didn't get very far into this. It is a first person shooter with magic bolts instead of guns. I expected to like this more than I did. Unfortunately I couldn't understand basic elements of the combat system and I always felt that I was missing something. The  game appears to have a very complex spell crafting and use system but I couldn't make head nor tail of it and I was stuck with basic fireballs and freeze rays. Plus you cannot jump which is a source of frustration for me in a first person game.

The Darkness 2:  I can't really say much about this because I installed it in a moment of boredom and only spent a couple of hours playing through the opening chapter.

Sacrifice: This old classic from Shiny way back in 2000 is one of my all time favourite games, guaranteed to cheer me up if ever I find myself in a gaming funk. The abilty to mix and max missions from five seperate campaigns gives the game excellent replayablity. This time I played a pure Pyro campaign (High damage low survivability) followed by a mixed Statos/Persephone/James playthrough (balance of damage and survivability). Great stuff.

Edit: For some inexplicable reason I got the name of Lichdom wrong. Now fixed.