Friday, May 29, 2009

Jade Empire: Combat Niggles

Jade Empire is a terrific game but there are a few things about the combat system that I wish were different:

1. Combat is a clickfest: Early in the game the fast paced combat is enjoyable but it gets old fairly quickly. Once you get over the initial learning curve you soon realise than targeting an enemy and clicking the same few skills over and over as fast as you can will get you through almost every battle in this game.

2. Missed Opportunity: Combat styles. The game has a large range of combat styles including weapons magic and unarmed combat. Choosing and upgrading your styles is a big part of character development. Sadly the promise of variety turns out to be an illusion and you end up falling back on a few tried and trusted combinations. Combat in the game is not sophisticated enough to benefit from the wide variety of skills.

3. Monster Immunity: Too many of the monsters in the game are 100% immune to certain styles of combat. Spirits are immune to weapons, Demons are immune to magic, Golems are immune to martial arts etc. Apart from the fact that this is very annoying it precludes you from specialising in any one combat area and forces you to take a blandly balanced approach to character development. I think it would be far better if creatures had only partial immunities.

4. Missed Opportunity: Henchmen. You collect an array of henchmen but they are all similar and all extremely underpowered. If you are struggling with a fight then changing to a differerent henchperson is not going to magically improve things.

5. Difficulty balancing: Instead of a gradual progression in difficulty as you work through the game most fights remain extremely easy (once you have mastered the basics) but one or two are ridiculously hard. The last few fights of the arena for example are way harder than anything that proceeds them. This is a recipe for someone quitting a game in frustration because they hit an obstacle they cannot pass.

6. Non regenerating health and energies: I mentioned this before and it continues to be an annoyance. If you haven't stumbled across the regeernation shrines on a map yet then you have no way to replenish your health and energy between fights which is very annoying. Once you do find the shrines you need to trek back to them after every fight to replenish which is also annoying.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Monomania

If you are a father then I am sure you will understand the bitter sweet dilemma: "How do make sure you are a good dad when deep down you haven't really grown up yourself?"

Recently Bill Harris decided to teach his son the value of hard work and application by signing them both up for unicycle lessons. The tale of how this resulted in a father clutching a chain link fence in bleeding hands as he struggled with manic desperation to master a device he had come to loathe is an absolute classic.

You can read about it on his Dubious Quality Blog: Start here, then here, here, here and here.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Jade Empire: A Confession

Confession: I started over after two hours of Jade Empire and re-rolled because my original female character wasn't shapely enough. Sad, I know but years of exposure to Hollywood has conditioned me to demand that my heroines be beautiful as well as deadly.

Happily I can report that the game itself is an unexpected delight (particularly when viewed from behind the foxy curves of a scarlet clad ninja!). It's an action rpg with a strong oriental storyline that combines martial arts themes with steam punk. The graphics and sound effects are beautiful and top quality characterisation and voice acting really enhance the game.

My scarlet assassin started life as "fast" character relying on speed rather than brawn or magic. You are not constrained to your starting styles though and a few early deaths convinced me to beef her up. In fact I am nor sure that specialisation is a good thing in this game because certain enemies are immune to certain styles and the terribly underpowered henchmen cannot be relied on to make up for your own deficiencies in any area. Having a balanced character has the added advantage of allowing you to play around with the many combat styles available.

My only real niggle comes from the fact that chi and focus (your twin power reserves) don't automatically regenerate after each battle. This leads to frustrating power shortages at the beginning of each zone until you find the recharging shrines followed by tedious treks back to the shrines afterwards.

A strong storline told well and set in a beatifully drawn world. Good immersion and enjoyable gameplay. What more could you want in a game?

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Freedom from MMOs

I do not have any active mmo subscriptions. Apart from a couple of hours spent messing about in Free Realms it has been over a month since I have played an mmo and it feels good.

I am enjoying not having one game which demands all of my attention all of the time. I am enjoying the distance that allows me to cast a disinterested eye on all those petty niggles which become so frustrating when you are immersed in a particular game. I am even enjoying the lack of social responsibility that comes from being in a guild and trying to make a positive contribution.

Even though I quit because of boredom it has still taken me about a month to reach this new happy state. Mmos are great time fillers and provide an instant answer to the nightly question of "what will I do now"?For some years I have relied on gaming as a major pastime and have come to depend on the nightly shot of endorphins that a good gaming session can provide. Quitting an mmo leaves a gap and it has taken me several weeks to re-adjust and find pleasure again in single player gaming.

The adrenaline filled action of Serious Sam was the first game I really enjoyed in over a month and was something of a breakthrough. Now I have just picked up Jade Empire and my first impressions of this story driven tale which combines rpg and action elements are very good.

Please don't take this piece as a rant against mmos. I have obtained much pleasure from social gaming and I am sure I will return to an mmo in the future but sometimes it is good to take a break. At this moment, for me single player gaming feels good.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Seriously Finished

Woot me, I successfully completed Serious Sam on normal level without cheating. I gratefully accept whatever minuscule amount of kudos is still available to someone who completes an eight year old game. According to X-Fire it took me 22 hours of playing time. The in-game clock shows about half that. The difference is due to the number of times I died and had to retrace my steps using quick save.

As might have been expected the last few levels were completely chaotic particularly the second last stage: an arena in which you have to face off hundreds of tough mobs all charging you down. Eventually I had to rocket jump onto a nearby wall to allow me to shoot the mobs from a safer perch. Although this is an exploit the game designers seem to be OK with rocket jumping. They have even included a number of handy launch pads for getting you back into the action but it does feel less satisfactory that facing the foes toe to toe and shooting it out.

After finishing the game I had a quick look at multiplayer and was surprised to see that there are a number of servers still active. I signed up for a co-op game. Although I had no communication with the other players I could imagine having fun in co-op. The number and difficulty level of mobs seems to be increased compared to single player. Unfortunately there was one player who knew every trick and at each new screen he found a way to get to an inaccessible high point either through rocket jumping or some secret route. Once there he could pick off the mobs with impunity while the rest of us ran around as cannon fodder.

Expert players probably know tricks like this for every part of the game but I do think it removes most of the fun. For me Serious Sam will always be about constantly running and constantly shooting as you try to survive against impossible odds.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Hardcore single player gaming. Seriously.

I am playing Serious Sam, the original encounter again. Time and again you scrape through an encounter gasping for health only to stumble across an inviting looking health pack sitting in the middle of an apparently unguarded area. Without fail, picking up that health pack will spawn a new horde of vicious mobs and the cycle repeats itself. I am talking about hundred of mobs here. My fingers are literally sore from mashing the WASD keys frantically. I am not talking about mindless button mashing here. I am talking about precision aiming while moving under extreme duress button mashing.

This could quickly become tedious and a number of Sam's subsequent imitators did fall into the tedium trap but Sam's combination of cleverly designed levels with lovely graphics (dated of course but still lovely) great monsters, powerful weapons and an overarching sense of humour all just work to keep you playing and entertained. In my opinion this style of game has never been done better, before or since.

The game is old school hard, seriously. You die a lot and the game would be absolutely unplayable if not for the quick save function. Quick save has gone very much out of fashion in favour of checkpoints and automatically regenerating health bars. It can be argued that quicksave breaks up the flow and encourages a tedious "progress by infinitesimal steps" style of game. Serious Sam shows however that a game designed with quick save in mind can still produce a totally compelling gameplay experience. Its encounters are so overwhelming, the odds so ludicrously unfair that even with repeated quicksaves there is a tremenduous sense of satisfaction to be got each and every time you survive an encounter

Monday, May 11, 2009

Hurray, we can start spending money on our PC's again

No, sorry I don't mean the recession is over. I just mean that it is official: PC Gaming is back in fashion.

To think it is only six months since I was querying the wisdom of spending money on pc upgrades in this post

New Headphones

My wife bought me a lovely new set of Sennheiser HD-555 headphones as a birthday present. I don't really listen to music but I do have an engineer's understanding of muddiness and distortion and it is lovely to have a set of headphones which reproduces the sounds in game as they are supposed to be. I briefly considered asking her to get me a set of surround sound headphones but reading comments from serious audiophiles convinced me that the trade-off in quality is not worth it. The clincher for me was the realisation that we only have two ears which means that with proper down-mixing it should be possible to perfectly emulate surround sound with just stereo headphones. Creative's CMSS technology aims to do just that and I can happily verify that it is still very good and does give a feeling of depth in the aural landscape of a game while allowing you to pinpoint sound sources in the horizontal plane (but not up and down sadly).

The headphones do lack a microphone. This isn't an issue at present as I am in an unsociable single player gaming phase but I will need to get some kind of stand alone microphone (a lapel micro-phone perhaps) eventually.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Why do you hate Darkfall?

Thank you Syncaine for showing us the response of the Darkfall community to the Eurogamer review.

I can understand how a niche game like Darkfall generates such strong feeling among its fans. It's very isolation instils a kind of "us versus them" solidarity.

I am a big carebear myself and I will almost certainly never play Darkfall but I am happy to let those who like that sort of thing get on with it.

What I cannot understand is why Darkfall and those who play the game seem to have generated such strong levels of antipathy among people who have never played it and who admit to not liking that sort of game anyway.

So I am asking why?

You know who you are. You never intended to play Darkfall in the first place yet you have been busily writing blog and forum posts bad-mouthing the game and its players. Depending on your style these swipes have ranged from cleverly snide to downright vitriolic. Why?

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Question Mark over Eurogamer's Darkfall Review

I am not a fan of Darkfall. I have never played the game and I doubt I ever will. Yet I am deeply worried about Eurogamer's Darkfall review.

The review is here and Aventurine (makers of Darkfall) have responded here.

If you haven't time to read all that my synopsis in a nutshell is that Eurogamer (highly respected games website) gave Darkfall (niche pvp focussed mmorpg) a very low score in a review. Aventurine wrote a robust response on their forums pointing out that the review accounts they had issued to Eurogamer have spent no more than A FEW MINUTES in the game. Eurogamer claim that their reviewer spent at least 9 hours in the game.

Who is wrong who is right?

I don't know but having read the review I have to admit it sounds like the reviewer never even got off the starting blocks. Aventurine's version has the sorry ring of truth.

I could be very wrong. It could even be that the game is badly put together with such a terrible user interface that the reviewer couldn't make any progress despite several hours of trying (although Aventurine's logs suggest that only a few minutes were spent trying). However I don't think this is acceptable from a professional reviewer reviewing a game as rich and complex as an MMORPG which is acknowledged to be targeted at a niche audience. If the reviewer genuinely couldn't get into the game then an honest professional response would have been to admit that he wasn't able to review this particular game.

What needs to happen now?

Although I am more convinced by Aventurine's account of what happened I don't agree with their request that Eurogamer pull the review. At this stage that in itself would be a form of dishonesty especially if Eurogamer really believe it to be a valid review. Apparently Eurogamer has offered to re-review the game. I think this would help although I don't want a precedent to be established where game companies can keep asking for new reviewers until they get one they like. Perhaps Eurogamer should link to Aventurine's rebuttal in the introduction to their review. And certainly Ed Zitron, the reviewer himself should be given an opportunity to respond because at the moment this whole affair reflects badly on his reputation.

EDIT: Eurogamer have made a response here and I think it is a good one. They are standing by the review and their reviewer Ed Zitron and they are contesting Aventurine's claim that he spent so little time in the game. They are getting a very experienced reviewer to give a second opinion on the game. I think this response is a good start, acknowledging the accusation was important and it does sound as if they are sticking by the review for genuine reasons. I still think the reviewer Ed Zitron himself should be given a chance to defend his name and perhaps a note put on the original review mentioning the controversy. Thanks to Marshall in the comments for bringing this response to my attention.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Another Plea for MMOs to have an End of Game

Tobold's I'm taking a break from World of Warcraft post today got me thinking again about why can an MMO not have an end of game. Please note that end of game is very different from end-game. End-game is a device to try and keep you subscribed forever. End of game is a mechanism to allow you to leave the game with some feeling of completion. This is a similar line of thinking to that which inspired my thinking about perma-death.

I wrote my thoughts in a comment to Tobolds post but I am going to be lazy and copy them here for my own records:

Why do we even have to justify our decision to stop playing a game for a while. Moving on is an entirely healthy phenomenon in my opinion and yet there seems to be a suggestion of treachery about it. It is no reflection on the quality of a game or its community that you have gotten bored and want to do something else for a while.

Perhaps this is a fatal flaw in the current mmo business model. If Blizzard or Turbine or CCP's business model is based on the assumption that I and my fellow consumers will sign up to their offering for life to the exclusion of all other forms of entertainment then I am sorry but that doesn't work for me and I doubt it works for very many others either. I want variety. No matter how good a game is I want to play more than one game in my life and that means I have to move on.

Here are a couple of suggestions off the top of my head for a more customer friendly mmo business model.

1. An episodic or time limited mmo that has naturally occurring end points at which people "finish the game" and move on.


or

2. Thinking big how about an "internet of mmos". An overarching virtual world network linking all of the various mmos together allowing you to move your characters between virtual worlds at will. Tadd Williams Otherland comes to mind (which incidentally is soon to be an mmo in its own right).


I admit I haven't yet figured out how the above schemes would help companies make higher profits but in the long run products that do what the customer wants generally beat out those that do what the company making them wants.

A Complicated Card game

I grew up in a card playing family. We enjoyed Whist, Gin Rummy, Bridge and many other games but the perennial favourite was the traditionally Irish game of Twenty Five. Twenty five is a trick taking game like bridge or whist but the ranking of the cards is quite bizarre, it goes like this:

Trump Cards (Trump suit is selected by turn of card at the start of each round)
5 of Trumps
Jack of Trumps (more generally called the Knave)
Ace of Hearts
Ace of Trumps (bonus of allowing the holder to "rob" the card turned over to indicated trumps)
King of Trumps
Queen of Trumps
The remaining trumps in natural order (10,9, 8 ...) for red suits or in reverse order (2, 3, 4 ...) for black suits. ("Highest in red, Lowest in black).

Non Trump Suits
King
Queen
Jack
The remaining cards natural order (10,9, 8 ...) for red suits or in reverse order (A, 2, 3, 4 ...) for black suits. ("Highest in red, Lowest in black"). The Ace of diamonds is therefore worthless unless diamonds are trumps and is often referred to as the worst card in the pack.

Joker In some parts of Ireland one joker is added to the pack and it counts as the highest trump card outranking even the five of trumps. Most players however refuse to play with the joker believing that it signifies the devil and will bring bad luck.

Twenty five is a very enjoyable fast paced game that combines skill and luck and makes a great party game. You can get a more complete explanation of the rules here.

Why am I giving such a long explanation of a complicated card game I mastered in my youth? Well ... it's because I feel a strong need for personal affirmation after discovering that I can't make head nor tail of the trading card game built into Free Realms? Are all these trading card games so complicated with similarly arbitrary rules?

I really like the demolition derby though.