Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Me Me Me Me

So there's a meme doing the rounds which requires you to post the sixth screen-shot you have stored from any game of your choice. Thanks to Zoso I have been tagged so I opened my fairly slim Fraps directory to find there are very few games I have even grabbed six screenshots of. I have a bunch of lotro grabs and thats about it. Ah well for what its worth here is my sixt Lotro screenshot:
Why is Throg gazing fondly at that Snowbeasts posterior? Hard to tell but I can now reveal to the world the coded meaning of Throgs Kin name: Pog Mo Thoin. I didn't make it up but when I saw a bunch of guys runnign around under that moniker I knew they must be Irish and having a bit of fun with Lotro's name checker. I was in that kin for a few months and nobody ever complained.

Now who can I tag back? THis is always an embarasssing moment. How can I tag six people when I barely have six readers of thsi blog and most of those havce been tagged already. Well here goes and apologies if you have already been done by someone else DM Osbon, Thalian and Anton, Melf and Crimson, Khan

Left 4 Dead: Co-operation beats Experience

Needing a pick me up after Far Cry 2's downer I logged into Left 4 Dead for a bit of co-operative zombie killing and quickly got signed up with a random group for the "No Mercy" campaign. It was a spectacularly unsuccessful attempt but raised a few interesting issues none the less.

First off let me raise my hand and admit that I was in no small part responsible for our failures. I couldn't shoot straight. I kept running right into the exploding stomach of boomers. Every time the tank appeared I managed to grab his attention and end up splatted. The only thing I didn't do was disturb the witch but my colleagues generally managed to do themselves without my help.

The first interesting observation is that our failure was not due to lack of experience. The people I grouped with had played before. This was clear from the way that my colleagues knew the routes, knew where ambushes were likely to occur, knew where to lay trails of fire, knew what corners to hide in and so on. Our failure was simply due to lack of co-ordination. Players regularly went off on solo runs and there was no attempt to mount any form of co-ordinated defence. Health packs were used selfishly and there was virtually no communication via chat or voice (the one exception being the time someone threw a Molotov directly in front of where I was running and then asked in chat "WTF How did you die so quickly?"). Our last stands were particularly comical with people clinging to "their favourite spot" regardless of where the rest of the team were positioned. Needless to say the infected had a field day picking us off one by one and generally spoiling our day.

I don't want to make judgements about the people I was playing with. It was late. Perhaps they were tired and having a bad day. I know I was. However I am awed by the way the game punishes lack of co-ordination above all else. I have breezed through the same campaign with less experienced players simply because everybody stuck together and communicated. It is amazing how much difference even the barest attempt at communication makes. A quickly barked "Hunter!" into voice chat or a hurriedly typed "Every body go to the roof" can make the difference between total success and total failure. I am sure that is exactly how the designers intended it to be and it is a master-work of game design.

A less promising indication though is the way that experienced players have developed strategies for getting through various levels. The AI director does a good job of randomising the encounters but by this stage a lot of folks still have a good idea of what to expect and when. They head straight for certain "safe spots" or they lay down trails of fire before any monsters appear. I guess this is inevitable given the fact that there are only four campaigns but for me this type of "formulaic" play kills the atmosphere and destroys the illusion of being stuck in a real zombie holocaust. I guess I am just going to have to overcome my aversion to playing as an infected and get into versus mode. I am sure real human players won't be such easy prey for formulaic traps. Hopefully though Valve will release some new campaigns in future updates.

Far Cry 2 Revisited (but not for very long)

I had a bit of free time last night so I decided to give Far Cry 2 a second chance.

Two hours later having struggled through an enormously tedious mission I noticed that the game had actually made me depressed. Whether it was the demoralising setting, the tedious repetitive game-play or the fact that the mission involved me destroying a factory that produced a much needed medicine I don't know. Probably all three.

Whatever he reason I don't play games to get depressed.

Far Cry 2 ..... Goodbye.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Mobile Internet

I am writing this on my new Nokia E51 phone. Its the first mobile I have had with built in wifi. Phones have had internet browsers for years but the silly price of data packages has been prohibitive. Wifi allows me to enjoy free internet browsing in any of the growing number of internet hotspots. The E51 is no Iphone but it is a suprisingly capable little phone. The Symbian operating system means you can get a lot of useful apps for it. I have already installed a good scientific calculator and a mobi ebook reader. The screen is quite small but is very clear and has excellent resolution. I got mine with my phone contract but I have seen sim free ones for only €150 which is a great price for such a powerful phone.

Enjoying Left 4 Dead

You have got to admire Valve's ability to take a concept, simplify it to its essentials and then polish it to an exceptional degree. When it boils down to it there isn't all that much in Left 4 Dead but what is there is solid gold and crafted to perfection.

As expected single player mode is no more than an extended tutorial, worth playing through once to get used to the maps.

Everyone raves about versus mode where teams alternate between survivors and infected but I haven't gotten the hang of playing infected yet so for the moment I am playing mainly co-op, registered as mbp if anyone wants to look out for me on Steam.

MBPs tip - when things go completely haywire and you are over-run with an impossible number of infected thn get your back against a wall and melee melee melee.

Maybe I'm not the only Cheap Bastard

Even though I have wanted to play Left 4 Dead for quite some time I still waited until I got it half price in last weeks sale.

I do that a lot with games. Price is important to me. Its not that I am badly off. It's just that I am not comfortable spending €40 or €50 on a game. In fact the higher price of console games (€10 to €20 higher last time I checked) is one of the main reasons I haven't embraced console gaming.

Thanks to Bill Harris author of the ever entertaining Dubious Quality I now realise that its not just me. Sales of Left 4 Dead went up 3000% last weekend during the sale. It seems I am not alone in wanting better value games.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Why is game purchasing such a gamble?

EDIT:
Prompted by DM Osbon's comment I went and re-read The Artful Gamers article and I fear I completely misunderstood it the first time. When TAG said in italics “Game journalism can be just as exciting and enlightening as playing games themselves!” I thought he was poking light hearted fun at criticism that thinks it is art.

If he seriously believes that then I have to fundamentally disagree. In fact I think this “criticism as an art form” movement is a big part of the reason why we are currently so badly served by game reviews.

Criticism can never be more important than the thing itself. Criticism is a tool to aid the buying process, nothing more nothing less. Once the purchasing decision has been made the critic becomes irrelevant. The game and the playing of it are everything.

Anyway - my comments about the difficulty of choosing a decent game still hold so here is the ORIGINAL POST:

Thanks to Rock Paper Shotgun for pointing me to a great article at "The Artful Gamer" about the failings of new game journalism. I have to admit that much of TAG's piece goes above my head but it did get me thinking about the difficulty of deciding whether or not a game is worth buying.

Think about all the useful information you get in a bookshop, right at the point of sale, to help you make an informed buying decision. It is not just the publisher's cherry picked review quotes (although these can help). It is also the classification of titles by genre and author. It is the helpful review information provided in booklets and posters around the shop. It is the lists of best selling books, prizewinning books and books recommended by book clubs. It is the informed and helpful staff who take the trouble to highlight particular books and make their own recommendations.

Contrast that situation with the complete lack of helpful information available in your local game shop. At best you will get a list of "best selling games" which is next to useless in the absence of any more information. The internet is awash with games reviews but in this era of games "journalism as art" it has become extremely difficult to distinguish opinionated self promotion from legitimate critique. The aggregation sites can be helpful but these must be interpreted carefully and the headline scores taken with a pinch of salt. Aggregate score favour populist games and aren't much help at finding niche or specialist titles.

I am particularly aware of this lack at the moment because one of my daughters got a Wii for Christmas and I have struggled to find any games that she enjoys playing on it. She is a thoughtful and contemplative child. She appreciates story and immersion. She dislikes games involving manual dexterity. The best selling Wii titles are clearly designed for someone other than her but I cannot believe that there aren't some decent games out there that she would appreciate. Unfortunately I haven't been able to thread my way through the maze of reviews to find them.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Left 4 Dead - Half price on STEAM this Weekend.

The title says it all. I have been wanting to try this Zombie shooter for ages but the €40 price tag put me off. This weekend it is half price - yippee. I expect to be shooting zombies (or eating people, I believe you can swap sides) by this evening.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

PROGRESS (in titan) QUEST

I am stuck in single player rpg groove at the moment. Having completed Space Siege and spent a weekend in the King's Bounty demo I finally got around to installing a copy of Titan Quest that has sat on my shelf for over two years.

I guess I was expecting something like Dungeon Siege with better graphics, a kind of RPG lite with simple levelling and an emphasis on linear dungeon crawling with fast and furious combat. After spending about two hours in game and having reached the heady heights of level 5 I can confirm that the game is a simple linear dungeon crawl with lovely graphics and combat that is even faster and furiouser than I remember from Dungeon Siege. Sadly Titan quest does not seem to have impemented party based combat in single player mode (you cannot recruit henchmen). To my mind this makes the single player gameplay a lot less interesting than in Dungeon siege. Sure Dungeons Siege's henchmen weren't very bright but allocating roles and trying to direct a party in combat was more interesting than the click to kill model of Titan Quest.

The games developers were very honest about what they set out to achieve. The manual sums it up as (I am quoting from memory here but the gist is right):

"Kill monsters, gain experience to level up, pick up loot to get better equipment and then go on to kill harder monsters to get more experience and more loot .... This is the circle of fun"

That is a pretty good description of the game. The trouble is you don't have to use much imagination to see that after a fairly short time this begins to feel like the circle of boredom rather than the circle of fun. After only two hours this game is beginning to feel like Progress Quest with graphics.

"But..." I hear you say "Isn't that the standard formula for every rpg game".Well yes it is but seeing it implemented in such a pure form makes it starkly clear that something extra is needed to keep this player's interest. That got me thinking about what exactly that "something extra" was in rpg games that I liked. Games like Morrowind, Kotor and Oblivion had a rich lore which helped. Most of the games I liked had a good combat system that required a bit of strategy rather than just click click click (King's Bounty the legend was an excellent recent example of this). A combination of levelling and loot systems that give me a real choice of how to progress and play my character is also important to me. I generally prefer open ended gameplay to being stuck on rails but I don't like a game to be so open ended that you lose all sense of making progress.

In Titan Quest's favour I must admit that the world is beatiful to look at and there is plenty of hack and slash combat. Titan Quest does a lot to make life easy for a player. For example you get a free portal that can bring you any town you have visited and then straight back to the action. You really need this because of the vast quantity of loot that drops in this game. I would say I fill my character's bag at least once every five minutes nessecitating frequent portal trips back to a vendor. I have actually stopped picking up most loot - the developer's obviously anticipated this because they have included a button (the Alt-key by default) which highlights only good undamaged loot.

Perhaps the game get more complex later. There is a skill tree which I haven't properly explored yet. I got to specialise in "Defense" at level 2 and I believe that I will get to specialise again at level 8. If the combat remains as mindlessly repetitive however I can't see myself sticking with this to the end. On the other hand it does strike me as the sort of game I could keep on the back boiler to play for a half hour or so every so often.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Kings Bounty The Legend Demo

Lots of folk rave about Kings Bounty: The Legend so I had a go at the demo over the weekend. Very enjoyable and quite addictive RPG-lite with turn based strategy combat. I will probably get the full version as soon as I can lay my hands on a physical disk copy. My local game shop has never heard of the game despite it being out for over 5 months now but I amn't quite ready to fork out €40 for a download copy of the game from the creators 1C.

I have played as both Warrior and Mage. I probably prefer the warrior path because the units are so much fun although the Mages magic is very powerful. Anyway here are some of my favourite units from the demo:

Favourite level 1 unit: The Hunter-Thorn. This handy ranged unit does a lot of damage in large groups and is cheap. It is also fast enough to stay out of trouble and it has no melee penalty which means it is far from helpless if a melee creature actually catches up with it. Its special skill (sprouting new allies from the corpse of a dead ally) is not as useful as it sounds because if all goes well your allies shouldn't be dying.

Favourite level 2 unit: The Hyaena. A pack of these critters does a ridiculous amount of damage and their rapid recharging special ability allows you to get critical hits almost at will. They are also pretty fast allowing you to get them where they are needed when you need them. They aren't particularly sturdy so expect to lose a few in combat but they are still probably my favourite unit in the game.

Favourite level 3 unit: The bear - big and tough. This guy is tough but he also does a lot of damage with frequent critical hits and an enrage special that does extra damage. Although bears are slow the have the "run " talent which allows them to make one double move to get into action quickly. Ancient bears are even tougher again but they have a higher leadership requirement so you can use less of them. Its a toss up as to which are more useful.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Don't play the game, Play the players.

The epic conflict between Band of Brothers and Goonfleet, the two largest alliances in EVE came to a sudden end yesterday with complete victory for the Goons. This is staggering news in itself but even more staggering is the manner of the victory. After several years of conflict resulting in the largest battles ever seen in an MMO this complete and total victory was not wrought by an overwhelming battle-fleet but by one single player. One single Goon mole managed to infiltrate their way to the very highest levels of Band of Brothers. In addition to pilfering huge swathes of valuable assets he went one step further and disbanded the entire alliance. In that one moment of unspeakable treachery everything that was BoB vanished. All of their sovereign territories were released to be grabbed and the wolves are closing in to split up the spoils as we speak.

It was always hard to take sides in this particular conflict. The Goons are an unpleasant group of sociopaths who take pleasure out of others pain. Bob on the other hand were the playground bullies of EVE. Nevertheless the manner of this victory is stunning and it is all perfectly legal within the game. I don't know if Band of Brothers will ever be able to recover - for starters I believe they have even lost their alliance name.

Sun Tzu and Machiavelli are nothing compared to what goes on in New Eden. EVE online has once again proven that if you want to win don't play the game, play the players.

EVE:

EVE online to introduce Skill Training Queue

One of the last great holy cows of mmorpg space is set to bite the dust as EVE online announces the introduction of a skill training queue. In EVE skills are learned in real time even if you aren't logged on. This allows players to progress their characters without the level-up grind more usually associated with mmo's. However absence of a skill queue meant that you needed to log on every time a skill finished training in order to start learning the next one. This was particularly annoying for beginning players who have a limited choice of skills to train most of which are short (few minute to a few hours). I wrote about this before here and here and the topic seems to have polarised opinion between the casual players who want a skill queue and more committed players who are adamantly against. The opponents of a skill queue point out that once a player gets established they have a range of long and short skills to choose from and with a bit of careful planning they can avoid 3:00am switch overs.

Well it looks like the casuals have won the day, which seems to be a trend in mmo's at the moment. CCP are limiting the queue to a maximum depth of 24 hours in order to prevent offline character farming. This means the queue will be most beneficial to casual characters who are training s bunch of short skills but will be of limited use to more experienced players who are training skills that take more than 24 hours anyway.

Thanks to the anonymous poster (probably Solbright) who tipped me off about this.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Space Siege:

I picked up Space Siege on Friday for a bit of weekend gaming. Released in August 2008 Space Siege was a highly anticipated space based RPG from the creators of Dungeon Siege. The fact that I found a six month old game for €7.99 in the bargain bin of my local game shop should tell you that it didn't exactly live up to that anticipation. Reviews were generally awful with players being even more negative than the professional critics.

I can see why it disappointed people. People who expected Dungeon Siege in Space were disappointed. People who expected a simple but engrossing rpg with a wide range of character development options and a superbly intuitive control interface were dissapointed. The game is simple alright but character development is so linear it is hardly fair to call it an rpg and the interface is awkward rather than intuitive.

I guess if I had paid €50 for the game on Steam I would have been pissed off too but I didn't. I got it for €7.99 and that makes a world of difference. I didn't care if I got bored after a couple of hours play. As it happens the game kept me entertained for a whole week end. There is fun to be had in there. Apart from a few boss fights the game is very easy and you can just wade into mobs with guns blazing but far more fun is to be had if you try to avoid deaths altogether. Plan fights and make use of the many upgrades and options. In particular choose how you use your robot sidekick. I kitted mine out as a tank (upgrading the robot before I upgraded myself) and sent him in to mop up aggro while DPSed the mobs one by one. Slower than just wading in but altogether more satisfying.

So .. if you can pick up a copy for €7.99 I reccommend it. I don't reccommend spending €50 for it on Steam though.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

The Saga of the Office Chair

It was long past time to replace my office chair. Over the years screws had loosened and supports had relaxed into positions far from those intended by the manufacturer. When a arm-rest fell off I realised it was definitely time to get a replacement.

How to go about this? I work for a beaureacracy. We have forms, we have procedures, we have departments for all things. Who then is the mandarin of replacing broken chairs?

"Health and Safety offficer" one of my workmates volunteered."Get a HSO to certify that your chair is unfit or unsafe an you will get a shiny new one the very next day"

"That makes sense, I'll give them a call" I replied.

An older colleague lifted an eyebrow. "Don't even think about it" he growled.

This veteran has lived in the organisation for long enough to know things.

"John, on the second floor", he elaborated, "got a HSO in to look at his chair."

"John got his new chair but that HSO didn't stop there."

"Went over every inch of John's office with a magnifying glass: every old folder, every scrap of paper, every rubbish bin, every kink in the carpet, every loose fitting."

"All of it, everything classified as a safety hazard"

"John got a new chair alright but he has been so busy cleaning and tidying he never gets a chance to sit on it. Once you get on the HSO list you are there for life. Poor John doesn't do much work any more - doesn't want to have papers around when the HSO comes on a spot inspection".

It turns out that health and safety officers are a bit like social workers. Everybody thinks they are a good idea but no-one wants them poking around their particular corner of the world.

I thought about my lived in office with its files and its folders and personal momentoes. Perhaps the HSO was not such a good idea after all.

I still needed a new chair and if I was not prepared to get one through official channels then one avenue remained - the grey market.

Every organisation I have ever worked in has had a grey market. A thriving movement of goods and services which functions entirely outside of the official organisation chart. The currency of the grey market is promises made and favours owed.

Although I have never really been an operator in the grey market I have learned to identify the key players in this subterranean game and to befriend them. The doorman, the car park attendant, the storeman, the keyholder of the stationary cupboard: These people wield power far above their apparent station in the company hierarchy and you ignore them at your peril.

So I talked to a few people and I dropped a few hints. I got a chair. In fact I was given a choice of three. The one I chose is not brand new and the screws needed a precautionary tighten. It is however very comfortable and it feels incredibly safe compared to deathtrap I have precariously balanced on for the last few years.