Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Two Worlds - Initial impressions

Reviewers have compared Two Worlds unfavourably to Oblivion but to be honest it feels more like a game from the Morrowind / Gothic generation. Nevertheless I am having a lot of fun in this free ranging RPG.

The new player experience is a bit off putting. The brief tutorial covers wasd movement, opening doors, how to hit stuff with a sword and nothing else. I was shocked when the tutorial ended abruptly and I was left to figure stuff out for myself. Having played this type of game I guessed there would be inventory screens, quest screens, spell book , character stats so I pressed button randomly till I found the sort of things I expected. It took me a bit longer to figure out the magic system: you can have three active spells which are assigned to number keys and/or the right mouse button. Spells even have their own power up slots where you can add artifacts which increase the usefulness of the spell. Neat. I was pleased to see that the starter character (no choices here) comes with a couple of useful spells including a fireball and a heal.

Of course you can always read the manual. It explains most of what you need to know but some stuff you still need to figure out for yourself. I don't know if this is deliberate or not but finding cool undocumented features is fun. For example I recently discovered that armour and weapons can be levelled up - a really neat feature.

Horses are another interesting feature of this game. They can be used for transport , for storage and even for combat. Two World's horses are a good bit more useful than Oblivion's leaden nags but the mounted combat doesn't come near Mount and Blade's thrilling implementation.

Two World stands out in how much they make life easy for the player (aside from the turorial). In addition to horses for transport there is a wide network of teleporters for fast travel. Horses can carry generous amounts of stuff - I actually have a second horse that I just use for storage. Quests put markers on your minimap showing you where to go. The game also has a fiendishly enthusiastic autosave system that ensures you never lose more than a few minutes play. Not that you ever really have to reload a save because there is no death penalty and the countryside is littered with resrurrection/health regeneration shrines. I believe it is even possible to respec your character if you mess up on skill point allocation but I haven't had to use that feature yet.

Given such player friendliness you may be surprised to discover that combat in the game is hard bordering on impossible for new players. No sooner are you out of the tutorial than you run into roaming bands of villans will literally whoop your ass if you try to put up a fair fight. Happily there are ways to avoid putting up a fair fight including:

  • The running around method (whack an opponent then run around while waiting for mana to recharge for a self heal),
  • The health shrine method (lure a bunch of opponents to a health ressurection shrine and kill them while your health is being constantly recharged.
  • The mana shrine method (as above only use the constant stream of mana to heal yourself).
It is worth pointing out that running away is also very effective in the game particularly if you are on a horse and your opponent is on foot.

Despite all this trickery I actually find these encounters enjoyable and the sound effects when you do eventually land a whack of your sabre on a hapless opponent is most satisfying.

For a more complete review of the game I suggest you check out Brett Todd on Gamespot.

I got this game as an unexpected present from my lovely wife. I must hang my head in shame and admit I was expecting the worst when I dutifully installed it. Apologies Mrs. mbp you did good.

Conn Iggulden: Lords of the Bow

I have three problems with this book the second in Conn Iggulden's "Conqueror" saga a fictionalised account of the life of Ghengis Khan.

1. For some reason the publishers chose to put no indication that this is actually the second book in a series. Had I known I would probably have read the prequel "Wolf of the Plains" first. It is a minor gripe but this seems to be a worrying trend. Alastair Reynolds novels don't give any indication of the sequence either.

2. It is a given in historical fiction that authors will make up stuff to pad out the known historical facts in order to weave an interesting story. Iggulden goes one step further though. He actually changes known facts, particularly relating to characters and the timing of events, all to make a better story. Iggulden does add historical notes which explain what he has done and why but I am still uncomfortable with this. I didn't like it when I read Iggulden's "Emperor" books about Julius Ceasar either but at least I had read enough other books about roman times to sort out fact from fiction. This is the only book I have ever read about Ghengis Khan and there is a real danger of Iggulden's falsehoods embedding themselves in the back of my mind as "the facts".

3. Perhaps my biggest problem is the fact that the main characters, the Mongol conquerors are utterly dislikable. Sure they are brave men and mighy warriors but they come across as unrustworthy, ignorant, bloodthirsty and cruel. I keep hoping they will lose one of their many battles even though I know they never did.


So, I didn't really like the book and yet I have to admit that it is a gripping tale and that Iggulden is a master storyteller. The saga of how Ghengis united the unruly Mongol tribes and gathered them into an army mighty enough to humble the mighty Chin Empire is certainly a powerful tale. Trying to put it into a modern context: I think it would be equivalent to a despotic warlord in some failed African state who just happens to be a military genius. Uniting the warring tribes he leads them to conquer all of Africa before going on to sack Europe, destroying all of our cities and civilisation. That couldn't happen, could it? I hope not. Just the thought of it makes me uncomfortable and wishing all kinds of bad things on Ghengis Khan and his Mongol horde (see point 3 above).

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Now Playing

This blog serves as a sort of personal gaming history but it has been a few weeks since I wrote about any of the games I am actually playing. To redress the situation I will do a quick round up of my gaming over the last month or so.

Eve didn't survive long after my return from holidays. I found myself increasingly reluctant to log into my mission running main and only lingered on for a week or so playing low skill point alts. When my subscription ran out it was an easy decision not to renew.

I notice that Warhammer online is getting very good vibes from the press and my fellow bloggers but I am not ready to plunge into another mmo yet. Real life and work (see what I did there?) are making a lot of demands on me at the moment and I can't make the commitment required to do the mmo thing. In fact the commitment that mmos demand is one of the main tenets of my "mmos are history" argument.

After EVE I went to the opposite extreme and indulged in some Flash gaming for a few weeks. I was genuinely surprised at the quality, depth and innovation of the best of modern flash games.

During this flash game phase I also started playing Guild Wars again with a half hearted intention of finishing the Nightfall campaign with my Paragon character. Guild wars is a game that I only play occasionally now but I will get to the end of that campaign eventually.

I always like to have at least one shooter on the go to satisfy my testosteronal urges. Call of Duty 4 multiplayer has been that game for most of this year but I never manage to get above mid table on the servers that I play. It seems that I have hit my wall in that game. I bought Rainbow Six Vegas (on budget release) and have just finished the single player campaign. It is a very good squad based tactical shooter. Of course you have to suspend your personal morality to play any shooter these days but if you can handle that this is definitely one of the better ones.

I am playing Spore with my wife, she plays and I sit beside her giving guidance and direction. I have long ago given up any hope of turning my life partner into a fellow game addict (probably for the best lest we both starve) but actually sharing a game is a very enjoyable new experience. EA's heavy handed approach to digital rights management is an annoyance. The game doesn't allow us to set up separate user names and the limited number of activations makes me uncomfortable about installing it on more than one computer.I don't agree with those who have tried to bury Spore in protest over drm but I do think EA goofed big time on this one. Spore should be the ideal game to play with your family, yet they have made it very hard to actually play with your family!

As further evidence of my wife's mellowing towards my gaming habit she actually bought me a new game on the spur of the moment: a collectors edition of the rpg "Two Worlds". The game got fairly lacklustre reviews but shhhh... dont' say anything, its the thought that counts. It does come in a big box with free maps and other shiny stuff inside. I have just installed it, will give my thoughts on the game later.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Can Video Games Stand the Test of Time?

In 2004, ten years after its initial release PCGamer voted Doom the most influential PC game of all time. Coincidentally around about the same time a dose of nostalgia prompted me to re-install the game to see could I find the magic that enthralled me for so many hours back in the mid 90's.

I could see vestiges of former glory. The gameplay is fast and furious but seen with modern eyes the game is over long and repetitive, the controls are awkward and it looks very ugly. So ugly in fact that playing the game for any period gave me motion sickness. I remembered then that motion sickness was a regular feature of my gaming experience back in the days. So much for nostalgia.

Masterpieces of art, literature, theatre and even cinema seem to achieve a longevity that is denied video games. Why do classic games not endure? Is it because of the pace of change of technology? Is it because the medium of gaming is in its infancy and has not yet reached a stable plateau? Is it because of the transient nature of the gaming experience? Is it a symptom of the ever shortening attention span of modern society? I don't know. Perhaps all of the above.

One ray of hope: Xbox Live Arcade's re-release of Duke Nukem 3D for the 360 was recently reviewed by Eurogamer and awarded eight out of ten. This isn' t a modernised remake. This is a straight port of the original game and that is a very impressive score from a reputable review site. The reviewer does admit to being a fan of the original game so it is hard to rule out rose tinted glasses. I browsed the comments looking for other opinions and but I couldn't seperate genuine reviews from nostalgia. One thing did amuse my though, several of the commentors mentioned getting motion sickness from the game.

PS. I loved Duke 3D but it lingers in my memory as perhaps the grubbiest game I have ever played and I am not just talking about the well publicised erotic dancers. Toilets and sewers seemed to play a huge part of the game. It also had some extremely unsavoury enemies including a kind of slime thing that lived in sewers which literally smothered you in putrid slurry and another flying creature that fired rockets out of its anus! Playing the game for any length of time made me feel like I needed to take a shower.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Shattered Delusions: Mount and Blade

The Riesling drinking wine buff scorns the masses who have not moved beyond Chardonnay. We gamers also have our precious snobberies. We have our secret games that are too complex or too ugly for mass appeal but which we "in the know" hold to be superior to the mass market commercial stuff. I guess Dwarf Fortress is such a game although I haven't played it. For several years now Mount and Blade has been my secret game.

I bought the game when it was in its seemingly never ending Beta. It was a perpetually half finished game that was missing big chunks of stuff that games are supposed to have. Yet it shone brightly because of its sublime horseback mounted combat. I fell in love with that combat. I fell in love with the thrill of riding down opponents from the back of a thundering war horse. The regularly updated beta earned a place on my hard drive and I would go back every few months for another adrenaline filled bout of medieval sword bashing.

I hadn't checked the developers website in a while. I didn't realise that the game was due for official release last week and I was surprised to find a review of the game in this month's PCZone. Surprised and indeed a little disappointed to note that reviewer Jamie Sefton had only seen fit to award the game 62 out of a 100.

You can read a shortened online version of Jamie's review here. To be honest it is a poorly written review and it is easy to poke holes in it. Jamie's comparison of the game structure with Total War is laughable. His reference in the printed version to a time when the game was freeware is factually inaccurate. The game was never free, there was a free restricted demo but even in beta you had to pay for the full game. His dismissal of the sublime combat model shows a complete misunderstanding of what the game is all about. It would be easy to dismiss this review and yet ... deep down I understand why the game only scored 62%.

To confirm my own opinions I downloaded the release version and started a new character. The game is a lot prettier than when I played last with beautifully constructed villages and castles aplenty. Nevertheless it does still feel unfinished. The gameworld feels lifeless. There is little direction to tell you what to do. The combat is hard, very hard. I struggled to complete the tutorial despite having been somewhat adept previously. Viewed a a commercially released game I can understand why this only rates a score in the 60's.

You can read a much better review of the game here from Gamespot's Todd Brett. Todd's review is more detailed and presents a fairly accurate accurate picture of the game but his score is still only 6 out of 10.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Mini Book Review: Stealing Light by Gary Gibson

Start of clever space opera series by a new to the scene Scottish SF writer. The central theme of the novel revolves around a simple premise that has profound implications. Good Stuff.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Google to buy Valve?

The internet was abuzz yesterday with a rumoured takeover of PC gaming institution Valve by Google. It makes sense. Nobody believes Google wants to get into PC gaming but Valve's Steam content distribution system is probably the best (from a customer perspective) system out there.

It's funny when Steam first came as an unwanted accroutement to Half Life 2 I and many of my fellow gamers hated it. Yet through Valve's careful stewardship the platform grew into something that I (and many of my fellow gamers) now love.

I think there is a very simple reason for this. Valve appear to have had a very clear philosophy in developing Steam that puts their customers needs and desires first and puts attempts to squeeze as much money as possible from those customers last. Paradoxically this approach has earned them a whole bunch of money from a lot of happy customers.

Well, its no paradox really. It's just common business sense that if you treat your customers well they will treat you well. That's a lesson you will learn from any business school. Sadly it's a lesson that many companies ignore. I hang my head in despair when I see the damage done to a genuinely innovative game like Spore by the shoddy implementation of customer restricting digital rights management. I despair even further when I read about Activisions plans to "monetise online gameplay" (translation: squeeze as much money as possible out of their customers for stuff they used to get for free).

Any way, rant aside, the fact remains that Valve's Steam system allows customers to play their games where they want, when they want, on-line or off-line on any computer they want. They offer value added services like messaging and an on-line gamer profile. You can avail of these sevices for free without even buying a game from Valve as they allow you to install games you bought elsewhere through Steam. They do all this while still providing a secure stable platform that seems to do a very good job of dissuading piracy.

I can understand why Google would like to acquire a successful content delivery system. I can also understand why Valve could be such a good fit for Google. Google has a history of delivering innovative products that do what their customers want at a very good price (usually free). I have never knowingly paid Google a cent yet I have no doubt that Google have made money out of my use of their services. If Google do buy Valve it is believeable that they won't spoil the ethos of Steam in a bid to squeeze every last drop of revenue out of it. You could imagine that the ingenuity and financial clout of Google could allow Steam to develop in an entirely customer friendly way.

So am I happy? Well....not entirely. Google already owns far too much of my online existence. Even accepting that the company for the most part still adheres to its philosophy of "Do no Evil" I still feel uncomfortable at the thought of how much power they actually wield through their control of perhaps the worlds primary information resource. I am not sure I want this company to get even bigger and more powerful. Then again, if Valve genuinely is looking for a buyer would I prefer Electronic Arts to Google? Tough one.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The end of GPUs

Ars has a great interview with Tim Sweeney of Epic games in which he discusses the implications of his prediction (which he has been making for some time) that general purpose cpu's will soon become so powerful that we will no longer need dedicated graphics cards to render our 3D games. I am not really up to date on the current scene in either processors or graphics cards but I find this suggestion both very credible and also very appealing.

Despite all the 3D enhanced gaming pleasure that hardware accelerated graphics have given me over the last few decade or so I have to admit that a world without dedicated graphics cards would be a far better world for PC gaming. I remember a time when the only thing you needed to check on the box was whether your PC had enough megahertz to run a game. You could buy any half decent machine confident in the knowledge it would run every game out there. Contrast that to the situation today where the average PC bought on the high street has little or no hope of playing modern games and a significant level of expertise is required to set up a half way decent gaming rig. No wonder the mass market has abandoned the PC a the platform of choice for high end gaming.

The death of the gpu just might spark a new rennaissance in PC gaming.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

What does your crystal ball tell you about the future of drm?

I hate the limited number of activations thing that has crept into recent single player games like SPORE and Bioshock.

I don't pirate games and I understand the need for copy protection but it looks like we are are moving into a regime where you pay to rent games rather than buy and I hate that.

I want to own something when I pay for game. Something I can use again and again. Something I can share with my friends. Something I can sell on after I have finished with it. I want games to be like books or films in this regard.

On the other hand just because an old fogey like me isn't happy with something doesn't mean it isn't going to happen. I get the feeling that younger folk than me don't care about ownership so much. They live in a world where content can be replaced at any time from the web so why bother keeping your own copy.

Mind you these youngsters don't believe in paying for content anyway so I amn't sure if that is the basis of a sound business model.

So what does your crystal ball tell you? Will the world of the future be one where no body keeps private copies of "content" but instead everyone pays to download it whenever they need it? If so what will be the price per use? Could it all be free?

Monday, September 08, 2008

Six things you should know about Monster's Den

Monster's Den is a fun little Flash RPG that has consumed most of my gaming timer over the last few days. If you haven't tried it I recommend it but there are a few things about the game that are not quite obvious at first so in order to ease you path into the game her is my helpful list:

1. There's a sequel only its not a sequel more of an expanded version. Monster's Den:Book of Dread actually includes the Monsters Den campaign plus two more campaigns. It also has an updated interface so you may want to skip the original Monster's Den altogether. I didn't -I am still only half way through the first game so anything I have to say is only guaranteed to work in Monster's Den itself.

2. If you don't want it, throw it away. There is very little reason to keep stuff once you have a better item. You can lose one item per character if you get killed but that won't happen after you have read these helpful hints, will it? NB NB This does not apply in Book of Dread apparently they have a shop where you sell unwanted loot. Personally I love the simplicity of just throwing stuff out.

3. You can swap your ranger for a rogue or vice versa. At the start of the game at the character select screen press the little "x" to delete the character and then press the resulting blank space. You may need to do this a few times to get the character you want.
Edit: Thanks to anonymous commenter for pointing out that: " Regarding number 3: you can change your party composition by clicking on the class icons at character creation, you don't need to delete/add and hope to get the one you want." I haven't tried this myself yet but it makes more sense than the hit or miss approach I was using.


4. Enemies with names in parentheses are named bosses. Save these until the end of a level when you have got some decent gear. Also make sure your health and power bars are completely full before tackling a boss fight.

5. Always clear every level before moving on. Not only will the loot come in useful but if you completely clear a level before moving on you get a one time option to come back up and rest replenishing your health and energy bars.

6. Ways to replenish health and energy out of combat:
Perhaps the most puzzling aspect of the game is figuring out how to replenish health and energy between fights. The supply of potions (which can only be used of of combat) is very limited. For quite a while I was a power miser, afraid to use many skills and trying to stretch out battles to give my power bars time to recharge before moving on. While it is still a good idea to finish a battle with as much power and health remaining as possible there are other ways of recharging out of combat.
  • Potions can only be used out of combat. Simply drag a potion onto the appropriate character from the inventory screen. Potions are very limited though you should probably keep them for the tougher fights later in the game.
  • Most levels have one or two magical pools where allow you to replenish your health and energy one time each. I recommend using one of these before every boss fight.
  • If you fully clear a level before moving on you can go back to it once from the next level to replenish health and energy. Just press the backwards green arrow below the map screen to use it.
  • You also regenerate a bit of health and energy every time you explore a new area. It took me a while to figure this out. Because of this I don't recommend exploring new areas when your health and energy bars are full. Go fight something and then explore in order to recharge.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

MMOs - time to retire your healers and tanks

I learned something about mmo endgame last night from a single player flash rpg called Sonny.

At the beginning of Sonny (review here) you choose one of four available classes. As you progress through the game you level your character up with choice of gear and abilities according to your preferred playstyle. Then you hit the end game where the bosses have powerful skills and combos which must be countered in order to survive. Just as in an mmo the choice of tactics becomes much more limited at end game. You must figure out the trick to beating each boss and you have to employ it. Respeccing your character is essential (the game allows 5 respecs per calendar day). The character you have lovingly built up becomes unrecognisable as your favoured skills get thrown out to be replaced with whatever is required to solve the next puzzle. In truth you no longer play your character instead you play whatever role is needed to overcome the encounter. Sound familiar?

Character stats vary widely depending on chosen class so in order to ensure that every class can complete the game the critical end game skills are made independent of class. In fact every character has access to every skill but early in the game your choice of skills is determined by your character stats - strength based characters choose strength skills and so on. Endgame skills on the other hand are designed to be independent of stats and equally accessible to all characters.

I wonder if there is a lesson here for MMORPG designers. An often heard complaint about mmo endgames is that certain needed classes (typically tanks and healers) are in short supply while other classes are oversubscribed and unwanted in endgame groups. What if the really critical roles (perhaps tanking, healing and crowd control) were made equally accessible to all character classes. Got too many hunters and no tank - not a problem one of the hunters will enter tanking mode. I don't mean that a hunter will be able to perform a watered down half assed job of off tanking I meant that all of the tanking skills and abilities are independent of character class and the hunter will be just as good a tank as any one else.

It probably makes sense that a character who chooses to act in one of these roles loses their normal abilities for the duration to dissuade folk from soloing everything as uber tanked, self healing AOEing juggernauts. I can think of several ways to incorporate stuff like this into game lore e.g. a character who equips medical equipment must put down their weapons.

Another advantage of this approach is that there would be no need to have dedicated tanking, healing or crowd control classes which would allow for more creativity in character types. People who really like playing those defunct classes need not get upset. Even though any character type could play one of those roles not everybody will be equally good at it. I am sure there will be plenty of demand for specialists who concentrate on playing one of those roles to the utmost of their abilities especially for harder endgame instances.