Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Empire Total War. Another brilliant (not!) tutorial from CA.

I bought Empire Total War in Steam's sale. I love Total War games but one ritual every time I get a new one is to try out the tutorial. To date they have all been uniformly awful. Would Empire manage to buck the trend?

The good news is that Empire appears to have addressed the most serious issue from previous Total War tutorials. Previous games had badly corralled tutorial campaigns that allowed noobies to break the tutorial by wandering off script. Given that the scripts were often non-intuitive getting to the end of the tutorial without breaking it was actually harder than just jumping in and playing the game. Empire avoids this nicely by straight jacketing the player and only allowing a very limited range of actions during the "Road to Independence" tutorial campaign.

Unfortunately no-one seems to have told the in game adviser. After winning my first battle and capturing an Indian settlement the advisor helpfully suggested that I construct some buildings. Good advice except that those buildings are disabled at this point in the tutorial. A short while later I was told about the new feature that allows generals to recruit in the field. Sadly I wasn't informed that that feature doesn't work at that stage of the tutorial either. Not long after the ever helpful adviser strongly recommended that I upgrade my fishing port and build a navy. Sorry but that feature isn't available in the tutorial. The most disconcerting moment though had to be when the adviser warned in in anxious voice that my population were starving and that I urgently needed to upgrade my farms. You have perhaps correctly guessed that farms cannot be upgraded at this point.

Full marks Creative Assembly for an unbroken record of tutorial awfulness.  This is my fifth Total War game so at least I had some idea where the missing commands are likely to be. Nevertheless I still wasted a fair bit of time looking around to see if they had moved before finally accepting that they just don't work in the tutorial. I imagine a genuinely new player being completely confused by this though and probably being convinced that they are doing something wrong because they aren't able to find the commands that the helpful adviser is talking about.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Lotro: Cheating With the Cash Shop

Perhaps the most controversial items in the F2P Lotro Cash are the stat tomes which give permanent increases to of a characters base stats. For example  approximately €5 buys you a tome of Vitality which permanently increases your vitality by 10. You can purchase up to 5 ranks of each stat tome for a total of +50 to each stat (in Europe the limit is currently +30 soon to be lifted).  To put these numbers in perspective: 50 points of might would increase my Champions melee damage by about 3% and a piece of end game armour  typically gives a total increase of between 100 and 150 points spread across several stats. 50 points in any stat is not a game breaker but it does make a difference.

In theory the stat tomes drop in the game but the drop rate is extremely low and nobody seriously believes that farming them is realistic.  If you want the benefit of those extra stats you have to pony up the cash.

Since so much of an mmorpg players time is spent trying to earn infinitesimal upgrades to a character's basic abilities it does feel a bit like cheating to be able to buy this type of upgrade in the store. I personally would prefer if they weren't there.  The one mitigating factor is that Lotro has a fairly low cap on each stat (currently 650).  A character equipped in end game gear will probably hit that cap on their most important stats once they are buffed up for raids and instances.

My Champion  has his key stats of might and vitality over 600 un-buffed and any time I join a raid these are buffed up to the cap. Given this I had planned to ignore stat tomes completely but then Turbine / Codemasters sucker punched me with a 50% off deal on stat tomes. Sure I don't need those extra points but wouldn't it be nicer to  have them than not? What about your auxilliary stats like Fate and Will - currently languishing about 150. Sure these aren't very important for Champions but wouldn't it be nice to have a bit more power or a bit more in combat morale regeneration? Don't forget of course they will probably never be cheaper again.

I caved in a blew the bulk of the free points Codemasters gave me on a 20 point boost for each of my basic stats. At least I didn't spend any real cash yet but having seen how easily I can be suckered into buying something just because it is on sale I am now worried about what they will put on sale to tempt me next week.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Give me back My Documents

The hard drive of a modern computer holds tens of thousands of files stored in a labyrinthine tangle of folders and sub folders. It used to be comforting therefore to know that there was always one folder called "My Documents" that belonged to you and in which you could store your personal stuff in a special place where it would always be easy to find.

Sadly this is no longer the case if you are a gamer. For the last few years games have taken to using and abusing "My Documents" as if it were there own personal playground. My own computer was a clean install only a few months back and already "My Documents" looks more like the catalogue of a game shop than a collection of personal files:




It started out with good intentions. A decade ago games stored all of the players personal information (save games, config files, screenshots) in sub-folders of the program directory. This was not ideal because the information was very hard to find should you ever want to carry your game progress from one computer to another and it was also not ideal for computers which were shared between multiple users. Looking around for a new place to store this data which would be both easy to find and personal to each user, game developers settled on the "My Documents" folder. The idea quickly caught on and today most games use this directory to store user information. It wouldn't be so bad if they all adhered to good practise and only put their stuff in the "My Games" sub folder but sadly a lot of companies just create their own new directory in "My Documents" and use that. After a year of so of active gaming your "My Documents" folder becomes a cluttered mess.

Since moving to Windows 7 I have stopped using "My Documents" altogether because of this clutter. I find it easier to create alternative folders for my personal files and use the handy libraries feature of Window 7 to keep track of where they all are. I do miss it though.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Dogfighter, I think I love this game.

My shooter of choice at present is indie fly em up Dogfighter. It is available for cheap on Steam and it is a total blast. Imagine the shooty madness of Quake combined with an arcade biplane fighter game.

The funny thing is I suck at shooters and I suck at flying games but I love this.  I am using mouse and keyboard to control the plane and I find I can fairly fling it around the sky. I am sure I could probably pull tighter turns with a joystick but the increased precision of the mouse compensates. It took me a couple of hours to get the hang of the controls before it clicked.

Favourite Aircraft:  Swift Strike Fighter. It is all about speed.
Favourite Weapon: Hard to say I love them all but probably the shotgun just for the improbability of using one in an aircraft. Absolutely lethal when used correctly.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Lotro: Quick Impressions after one week of Free to Play Transition

I love the new zone of Endewaith. Even though it is pretty much optional from a levelling point of view it is the prettiest region of the game since the Shire. There are even some hobbits hidden in there if you look hard.

The scale-able dungeons are also a big hit with plenty of groups being organised for once neglected zones of the Great Barrow, Helogorod, Annuminas and the Eregion 3 man instances.

My thoughts on the cash shop are generally positive so far. Some folks have compained the "Go to Store and Buy Stuff" buttons that crop up all over th game now but hey, shopping is fun so I don't really mind. I got a generous allocation of free points as a lifer and I am some way from spending it all yet. I did buy a permanent discount on horse travel, some scrolls to speed up deed grinding and  horse riding skill for a low level alt.

I have previously expressed concerns that having cash shop items which allow you to bypass grind creates a moral hazard for the developer to increase grind in order to force people into the cash shop.  I feel a bit ambivalent about these items in Lotro at the moment because the game was not immune to grind before the advent of the cash shop (deeds, crafting  and legendary weapons being the most obvious examples).  I can see the virtue of being able to pay to speed up some of the grind that is already in the game. On the other hand I hope this handy source of revenue doesn't overly influence the design of new content.

 Even more controversial than paying to speed up grind is that fact that you can buy stat increases in the cash shop. Tomes of +10 stat cost about 495 points each (about €5) and you can increase each of five basic stats by 50 points each this way (for a total cost of about €125). The tomes do drop in game but the drop rate is extremely rare and you need to find the lower level tomes in low level instances before you can use the higher level ones. For most players the only realistic way of getting these tomes is buying them. Do you need them? For most players the answer at the moment is no. Stats have a hard cap of 650 at the moment and a moderately well geared player will already be hitting the cap on their most important stats especially when buffed up for raids and instances. If you adopt a min-max mindset though these tomes could be seen as essential and that is likely to prove expensive. A longer term concern is that new content will be designed assuming that players have these stat increases. That would be very untypical of Turbine though who have always taken pains to ensure that content is accessible to players who don't have maximum gear and stats. Indeed the whole radiance gear initiative, flawed though it might have been, was an effort to avoid gear and stat inflation.

One final point about the cash shop. I think Turbine made a big error in automatically filtering the cash shop to only show items that are relevant to the currently logged in character. This is annoying for players who have multiple characters. It is also annoying if you want to plan ahead because you cannot see items which you are not yet qualified to purchase. I think is it is a basic error of salesmanship too because people love window shopping and even if folks aren't qualified for an item yet putting it on display increases anticipation.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Runes of Magic Impersonates Scammer

I thought one of the cardinal rules of internet security is that legitimate companies never ever send out emails to their customers asking them for their passwords. Knowing this rule makes it easy to resist the daily flood of scam emails purportedly from financial institutions, gaming companies and other online services informing me that my account has been compromised and that I really really really need to "click this link" and enter my password to get it all sorted out.

So when I got not one but two separate emails purporting to come from Runes of Magic asking me to "click this link" and enter my password and warning of dire consequences if I didn't, my first reaction was "Scam, bin it".


It reads like a scam. It even has one of those uniquely identifiable html links that scammers are so fond of for tagging their victims. It looks a bit more professionally done than the usual scam email but html is cheap and all of those logos are easily grabbed from the respective websites. The only reason I gave this a second thought was because the link address "frogster-online.com" sounds vaguely legitimate.

I decided to investigate. Not by clicking the link but by using a web browser to go straight to Runes of Magic's home page http://www.runesofmagic.com/en/index.html . I was quite surprised to discover a news article about the password reset confirming that the email was genuine.

I understand that RoM have to use email to contact their customers. Email is the only way for them to contact inactive players. Nevertheless I believe the email they sent out was just wrong. Savvy internet users are likely to dismiss it as a scam while  gullible internet users are more likely to fall for the next scam because the RoM email turned out to be genuine. In fact they have just created the perfect opportunity for a scammer to copy the email in every detail but modify the link to point to an infected web page.


RoM should have sent out an email telling customers of the changes and asking them to visit the official RoM website for more details. If they must include a link include a plain un-adorned link to runesofmagic.com.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Elebrandir's Horseshoe. Turbine is Messing with our Heads.

After all the patching I finally got to play the new European version of free to play Lotro for about an hour last night. Too early to say too much about it except that first impressions are all positive. I started the Volume 3 epic quest chain in the hope that it would soon bring me to the new region  but I was soon distracted from my mission when Volume 3 book 2 offered me this lovely item as one of the reward choices.

Since the release of this chapter in the US almost two months ago there has been feverish speculation on the forums as to what it actually does. Now we Europeans have gotten in on the guessing game.  Guesses include that the horse shoe might improve critical hit chance in combat, might improve a players chance in fellowship loot rolls,  might improve drop rate of rare items, might improve the outcome of legendary weapon deconstruction plus a whole host of other suggestions both intriguing and ridiculous. Turbine has remained tight lipped except for a dev named MadeofLion's  provocative assertions that the horse shoe has been "thoroughly tested" and that "it does have a verifiable in-game effect".

Numerous players claim to have done exhaustive experiments to support their ideas while yet more are convinced that the horseshoe has no effect other than to give you a buff icon indicating that you have it equipped (which is a verifiable in game effect).

Most player seem happy enough to join in the guessing game fun but a few are quite annoyed. It is  easy enough to fall into a min-max mind set in an mmorpg and not knowing whether or not they are passing up on a 0.1% extra chance to critical hit is excruciating for some. I should point out that equipping the horse shoe is not without cost. In the first place you need to choose it instead of some moderately valuable weapon scrolls as a reward for the Volume 3 Chapter 2 quest. In the second place the horse shoe fills your pocket slot depriving you of the more obvious buffs that a normal pocket item can bring.

Turbine are playing a slightly dangerous game here messing with their customers heads  and for that reason I am pretty convinced that the horse shoe does nothing (other than the aforementioned buff icon). Most of the other suggestions would be just too imbalanced to contemplate.

I still intend equipping the horse shoe the next time I de-construct some legendary weapons though.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Arkham Asylum Blues

I have been playing Batman Arkham Asylum for the last week and overall I am hugely impressed. Its a very good PC port of a very good game. The ambience and the voice acting are on a par with the best that Hollywood has to offer. Mark Hamill's Joker in particular is Oscar worthy in my opinion.

Unfortunately I have hit a problem. I am at the final boss fight and I am struggling to pull together the motivation to try and overcome it. I know exactly why too.  Arkham Asylum is at heart a third person action game. Part of that tradition is a complicated combat system involving  fancy moves and combo's.

I have managed to get through the entire game up the final boss fight without intentionally using a single combo.  Partly this is because the mouse and keyboard control scheme although generally very well done is not as combo friendly as a gampad. Partly it is because  I have never really gotten into combo fighting games. Mainly however it is because I never really needed to learn to use the combos.  I have used stealth and tactics and special weapons  and on the few occasions where I really really really had to duke it out with my fists I just mashed buttons till it was over and that usually got me through after a re-load or two.

That strategy served me well right up to the final boss fight but here I am stumped. There is no option for stealth here, nor special tactics nor special weapons. This final battle requires you to pull off fisti-cuff combos or die. I could try my random button mashing approach but my initial attempts have convinced me that the odds are not good and the number of die and reloads involved before random chance pulls off a victory for me is likely to be unacceptably high. I could take a bit of time to learn how the combo system works and practise them until I am sufficiently skilled to pull off a victory but that sounds like hard work just to see a final cut scene.

I am feeling pretty bad about this game right now. I really enjoy finishing games and getting so far just to give up is is almost unthinkable. I am not sure I am prepared to do what it takes to overcome that final hurdle though.

Lotro servers going bananas: this can only mean one thing ....

Clients crashing, servers offline ....

Yup it's patch day for European Lotro. I guess the forums would be going banana's too except they are also unobtainable.

By the way if anyone is getting a hash sum error updating the client there is a fix: you need to replace the 3 files (.js) in codemasters/browser/greprefs with the ones from the beta or the preview client. Apparently a post on the forums explains this but of course the forums are unobtainable.