Thursday, May 30, 2013

Playstation 2 Emulation: PCSX2

A recent Twitter conversation with Jonn Shute from How to Murder Time got me wondering about the current state of PS2 emulation. A quick google search revealed that the leading contender is a programme called PCSX2  which is a highly developed emulator that already works with over 1800 PS2 games. Impressively there are Windows Mac and Linux versions available.

Disclaimer: The combination of hacking and gaming makes emulation a facinating subject but there are legal issues. You might feel that it is morally justifiable to emulate older systems and games that are no longer commercially available (abandon-ware) but I am not sure that a court of law would agree with you. In any case the PS2 only went out of production in January this year so even the abandon-ware argument is a bit unconvincing. The two main points of legal contention with regard to PCSX2 are the games themselves and Sony's PS2 bios. You can still buy PS2 games in second hand shops and on Ebay but the only legal way to get a copy of the PS2 bios is to get your own PS2. Even then I am not sure the law allows you to copy the bios from your console and install it in another device.  In any case, just to be clear, the following post is in no way an admission that I did anything illegal. It is merely a summary of observations that I have gathered from browsing publicly available websites and youtube videos. It is not my intention to give the impression that I undertook any of the activities described below myself.

You can pick up a second hand PS2 for as little as €20 these days so you might wonder about the need for an emulator. The PCSX2 website points out that there are advantages to emulation:  The ability to run games at higher graphics resolutions with features such as anti aliasing, greatly expanded storage facilities for games and save games, the ability to take screenshots, the abilty to save game states other than at checkpoints (you might consider this cheating but it is a biggie). It is important also not to overlook the fun that comes from hacking around with a complex piece of software that will reward those who invest time in it with control over just about every aspect of their games.

The disadvantage though is that emulation is not plug and play. The PCSX2 has been in development since 2001 and is very polished but even so it come with a choice of plugins for graphics, sound, controllers etc. and most of these plugins have further options to tweak on a game by game basis. Happily the default pugins and settings work well for many games. Advances in PC technology allow a fast modern processor to brute force its way through many of the difficulties that were encountered in earlier days. Nevertheless you do have to be prepared to get stuck in and play with individual settings on a game by game basis to get the optimal experience. There is a wiki which can be searched for individual game settings. There is no guarantee these settings will work on your hardware but they are a good starting point.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Dark Messiah of Might and Magic - replay

After finishing Dishonored I got a notion to revisit an old classic: Dark Messiah of Might and Magic from way back in 2006.

"Classic" is perhaps an exaggeration because the game got mixed reviews when it came out. Some reviewers praised it's innovative physics based combat others criticised its unimaginative story and repetitive game play.

Replaying the game seven years later I can certainly see flaws. The voice acting is really dreadful at several important times and the writing in general is poor. The two main female characters in particular are awful. They are supposed to be sexy I think but are really just embarrassing. 

Despite this I did enjoy replaying the game to the end and the combat is innovative and fun. It reminded me a lot of Dark Souls (high praise) where blocking and timing are everything. Sadly there is an overall lack of balance in the game which overshadows a lot of the combat. It is generally easier to kill an opponent by kicking them into an environmental hazard than by actually winning a contest of blades. Playing on the middle difficulty setting (called "Hard") I was hugely disappointed in how little damage my weapons put out at the beginning of the game. It took a dozen or more blows from me to fell the humblest opponent while they could kill me in one or two. No wonder then that kicking enemies off cliffs or into the bizarrely common spiky grates were the most common ways of killing them. It wasn't until the end of the game that I got my hands on decent weapons and skills and could finally win fights without the aid of the environment. In hindsight I should probably have chosen the lowest difficult setting (called "normal") but sadly I was well into the game when I realised this and there is no option to change difficulty mid game.

The game has a choice of skills that will suit melee and ranged, magic and stealth users. Happily you get more than enough skill points to explore several paths. I invested heavily in melee and archery with points left over for some handy magic skills like Healing and Sanctuary.  To be honest I doubt you will get through the game without some melee ability because mana recharges very slowly so even mages are going to have to duke it out (with their boots) often enough.

Dishonored

I finished Dishonored last week and was very impressed. Highly recommended if you haven't played it yet.

High points:
Strong Storyline, Engaging gameplay, enormous freedom of action. Great set of skills and upgrades. Many ways to play and all of them enjoyable. Stealth in particular is very satisfying.

Not so High points:
Despite the freedom of how you go about them the missions themselves are linear.Rewards for sticking to one style of play may deter you from experiencing other side of the game. The ending(s) are a bit of a let down.

To elaborate on the issue about people sticking to one play style: Dishonored follows the model of other Bioware games where the ending you get depends on the way you play. If you want a "good" ending you need to play non violently which more or less obliges you to play stealth. While stealth is well supported and enjoyable in the game it does mean that you miss out on a lot of the games weapons and power ups.


Wednesday, May 22, 2013

A scary thought about the new Xbox and PC Gaming

The new Xbox One is going to run a version of Windows. Good news for PC gaming? Surely that means that new AAA games will be easily ported to PC from the Console version.

Well yes but it could also mean that you will only be able to buy those games from Microsoft's own App store. If that happens then say bye bye to the fierce competition between digital retailers that has led to so many PC gaming bargains in recent years.

I have no doubt that Microsoft have long looked with envy on Apple's App store model where the only place to buy software is from themselves and they get the retail mark-up on everything that goes on the device. Microsoft could do that on their new console but I don't think they will for a few years yet because a lot of consoles still aren't  connected to the internet and bricks and mortar retailers still sell a heck of a lot of console games.

In the PC world bricks and mortar retail is already dead. The vast majority of PC game buyers are buying games from digital retailers like Steam, Amazon, Gamers gate etc. PC gamers are used to buying games online so why not force them to buy them from Microsoft directly? Microsoft wouldn't even have to force the issue. All they have to do is provide development tools that make it very easy to port an Xbox game to Windows as long as it uses the Microsoft store. I think that could result in a lot of "Microsoft Store" exclusives especially for new AAA games.

EDIT: According to this Kokatu article the Xbox One will need an internet connection at least once per day.  That is another nail in the coffin for Gamestop and other bricks and mortar games retailers but I don't think Microsoft will abandon them just yet even though I strongly suspect there is an end game plan that will do just that as soon as they can woo a sufficient number of their customers onto digital purchases. 

EDIT: The evidence keeps mounting up: Xbox  marketplace is becoming a one stop shop for all games.  I think you can sell any remaining shares you hold in Gamestop now.

The Walking Dead: Point and Click meets interactive Novel

Over the last week or so I have taken finishing my gaming evenings with a short spell of Tell Tale Games  point and click adventure "The Walking Dead". (My current main game is Dishonored but more about that in a later post).

I am a fan of the recent trend for very strong story lines in games like Spec Ops: the Line, Max Payne 3 and Bioshock Infinite. The Walking Dead is a logical next step for me because it is acknowledged to be an episodic story first and a video game second.

I have only played episode one so far and it has for the most part lived up to my expectations of being a very good example of comic book story made interactive. The biggest surprise for me is that some of the gameplay is more challenging than I expected. Its been a while since I played a point and clicker and I had forgotten about non intuitive puzzles that require clicking every item in your inventory with every object on the screen in the hopes of getting a result.  Walking Dead has a very limited inventory thankfully but there were a couple of head scratching occasions where I had to randomly click every location until something responded.

There are also a few timed events which are good in theory but not so great in practise. The controls are not the most responsive which isn't a problem for normal point and click stuff but is a big problem when you are forced to make a life or death decision in mere seconds. I have had to make a few frustrating reloads because of this.

Not every decision is life or death of course. There are plenty of mundane choices such as whether to respond positively or negatively to one of your colleagues. The game flags these events with messages saying that your actions have been noted but I haven't determined yet how big an effect these decisions have on the overall storyline. My gut feeling so far is that the story runs pretty tightly on rails and that your choices mainly affect the incidentals.

Overall though I am highly enjoying The Walking Dead and playing it for half an hour or so every evening at the end of my gaming is proving to be a great wind down before bed.

Spec Ops: the Line


Spec Ops the line: pretty decent third person shooter with a very dark and disturbing storyline. All in all I found the experience to be well worth it.It may not reach the literary height of Heart of Darkness or the Cinematic brilliance of Apocalypse Now but it is nevertheless a fitting homage to those two forebears. To my mind this game handles brutality far better than Modern Warfare series. In Modern Warfare it always feels like brutality is just put in for shock value. In this game it is a serious attempt at storytelling.

Note: I played this game back in January 2013 and wrote this snippet then but somehow never posted it. Posting now for completeness. 

Monday, May 13, 2013

Whatever happened to "Essential PC Games" lists?

For about a decade I maintained a monthly subscription to a PC gaming magazine called PC Zone. Perhaps my favourite bit of the magazine was their list of essential PC games. This buyers guide changed format a few times over the years but the basic principle remained the same. It was a ranked list of essential PC games classified by genre. The genres included Shooters, RPGs, God Games, Space games (for a while) and a few others I can't remember. There were about ten games in each category.

For several years this list was a cornerstone of my PC gaming. I strove to acquire and play every game on the list in the categories I was interested in.  I even tried to get the top titles in those categories I wasn't so enthusiastic about.

I miss that list because gaming seemed much simpler then. I could play perhaps ten games and consider myself an expert on shooters or RPGs or whatever. Once a game got on the list it usually held its place for some time so this was an achievable goal. Some games (most famously Deus Ex) maintained  their place for years.

I don't know of any equivalent list today and I don't know if it would even be possible. There are many many more games around than there used to be and also there are fewer games that stand head and shoulders above the crowd. This is natural in a maturing industry where innovation has become incremental rather than radical. It is also natural that the difference in quality between best and worst has become smaller. This is actually a good thing. Games have gotten better and even mediocre titles from today are better in many respects than classics of the past although we older gamers tend to forget this when we don our rose tinted history goggles.

Another difficulty with recreating the list is that the gaming public has grown and has become more segmented. Gamers have their own individual tastes, which is a good thing but it means we no longer all speak the same language and we no longer agree on what are the essential games.  A quick Google search for "Essential PC Games" will confirm this. The various lists thrown up differ as much as they agree.

It is not all good news however. As AAA games have grown into mega brands reviewers and their scores seem to have lost much of their power. Nowadays it all seems to be about pre-order and first week sales which owe more to multi million marketing budgets than to the commendation of professional reviewers.

I still miss the list though. Nowadays my game purchasing algorithm is more haphazard, an ad hoc combination of "games in a genre I like" with "games I have heard good things about" with " games that have a reasonable meta critic score" and of course the all important "games that are on sale this week". 

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Max Payne 3 finished

I enjoyed Max Payne 3 although I am not sure it is fair to call it a game. Interactive movie might be a more appropriate title given how little control you actually get over your characters actions and how much time you spend watching the game story unfold in cut scenes. You literally spend most of the game watching your character go through a series of long cut scenes interspersed with brief hectic firefights.

This actually sounds worse than it is because the story is actually very good, the characterisation is very good and the cinematography (if that is the correct term) is also very good. You could watch this as a movie in its own right. I have previously criticised shooters like the latest Medal of honour and Call of Duty games for restricting the players freedom too much. However Max Payne 3 does this far better than those games smiply because it is a better interactive movie. In terms of story telling it is up there with Bioshock infinite. A huge factor is that we finally seem to be breaking through the uncanny valley in terms of lifelike game characters. Max Payne goes for hyperrealism and still managed to produce characters with real empathy.

Surprisingly the worst part of the game is actually the "game bit" i.e. the fire-fights where the player is actually in control. You are forced to endure hundreds of mind numbingly repetitive encounters from beginning to end of the game. Every single time you go through a door the following happens:  

You go through a door. A cut scene triggers which advances the story a bit and then a gang of bad guys appear. The cut scene ends with you moving to some handy piece of cover nearby. Once you regain control you find yourself under a hail of fire from half a dozen or so enemies. You proceed to pick them off one by one using the powerful bullet time ability, all the while accumulating injuries from the onslaught. A couple of the enemies will try to flank around behind your cover. When you clear the first batch a second batch inevitably appears.  Hopefully your health packs (tablets) are sufficient to last you through the fight because when you finally kill the last guy (cue slow mo bullet cam) you have to go go througha newly unlocked gate to trigger a save checkpoint and more than likely to lead into another identical combat encounter.

These encounters are always hectic and fun enough at the beginning but by the hundredth time they become extremely tedious. What a shame.

Quick summary: Combat is poor because it is very repetitive but everything else is great. Recommended.

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Open Transport Tycoon Deluxe (OpenTTD)

I stumbled across OpenTTD a couple of days back and the game is wonderful. This is an open source success story with a large active community of developers and players that have re-imagined and expanded upon Chris Sawyers 1995 classic game.

Coming straight from the flash and polish of Max Payne 3 (of which more in a later post)  it was quite  refreshing to see a game that solidly votes for substance over style. This world building game has huge complexity with many many layers that I haven't begun to understand yet. For example: I am trying to grow a town in the desert. Turns out I need water and food, which makes sense. Water comes from a nearby water plant so I build a road and send some trucks for it. Food comes from a food processing plant but that in turn needs maize and fruit. These are too far apart to reliably transport by road so I need to build a network of railways to ferry all this stuff about. To speed things up I want to run multiple trains on the tracks but that needs signalling to prevent crashes. All of this has to be paid for so I need to look for some lucrative transport route ...and so it continues.

Lest you be put off by my substance over style comment I should point out that the graphics, sound and music are  great and must have been produced by accomplished artists.Custom graphics  (including a recent 32 bit update) are also available thanks to the creative game community.

I have never played a Transport Tycoon game before so I am learning as I go along. I still haven't really figured out what the whole objective is. From what I have seen so far it could be one of a number of things:

1. To make profits from you transport company.  Although this seems like an obvious objective for a business game it also seems to be a boring objective. Even though I have barely scratched the surface I have already noticed that some things are a lot more profitable than others but if you only do the very profitable stuff your game will be very limited.

2. To survive till 2050. I read somewhere that you win the game if you keep playing to 2050. Are there disasters and challenges which make this difficult or it simply a question of patience? I don't know.

3. As a competitive game. There is a multi-player mode. I assume that players build competing transport companies. Perhaps there are bot competitors in single player mode. I haven't seen any yet but this would certainly increase the challenge of the game.

4. As a sandbox building game. Look at pictures of the game showing thriving cities and busy transport networks. I want to build a world like that.

5. All of the above or something else entirely. Possible I may still be missing the entire point of the game.

If you are interested you can get the game here: http://www.openttd.org/en/
I recommend the 32 bit graphics set zBase. You can now download this from the start menu of the game by pressing "Check On-line Content" and searching for zBase.

By the way when looking for info about OpenTTD I discovered yet another free transport simulation game called Simutrans which seems to have its own strong following.

Sunday, May 05, 2013

Darksiders II: Tackling the Deposed King (Big Hint)

The optional Deposed King is one of the hardest bosses in Darksiders II. I stumbled across him first at level 13 and was soundly defeated and I didn't eventually overcome him until level 17.  He is not a very complex boss. Most of his attacks are slow and easily avoided but he hits very hard and one particular hammer attack leaves you frozen for about 10 seconds while your health drains away at an alarming rate. Even one of these can be enough to kill you so there is absolutely no room for error as you whittle away his large pool of health. This is the source of the difficulty and frustration with this encounter. You spend a long time getting his health down only to die because of one mistake. Anyway the simple hint I have is to stack resistance gear. Gear in Darksiders II has two mitigation factors:  defence, which protects against most normal attacks and resistance, which protects against elemental attacks. Defense is more generally useful so you have probably maximised that at the expense of resistance. Well the Deposed King's ice attack does surprise, surprise elemental damage. If you abandon your normal gear for high resistance stuff then you will take far less damage from the King's freezing attack making the whole fight much much easier.  You can choose your own method of hurting him. I took the cowardly approach of using the gun to build up wrath and then unleashing wrath powers. You can also get a few good hits in when his hammer is stuck in the ground.

Having finished the game I can confirm that I enjoyed it very much. The gameplay was more polished than the first Darksiders and it had none of the difficulty spikes of the first game. I preferred the settings of the first game though. I think they were more varied and more colourful.

Friday, May 03, 2013

EVE Frustration

I re-subbed to EVE yesterday and spent two hoour in game without getting even a single frigate out of the dock. The game has been in the news a bit lately with their annual fan fest in Reykjavik. I am also aware of forthcoming changes in skill trees that make it very beneficial to skill up destroyers and battle-cruisers before the next patch so I decided to buy a months sub to finish off the training needed. This is perhaps not the best motivation for returning to a complex mmorpg and indeed I am at a bit of a loss to decide what to do with my month of play time. Implementing my skill training plan took about an hour - downloading the latest version of EVEmon, setting up APIs and ensuring that I can get the skills required before the patch deadline. After that I decided to play around with some frigates partly because there has been some significant changes to frigates since I last played and partly because frigates are cheap to lose if I screw up. The once humble Slasher seems to be the new go to Minmatar frigate so I decided to try one out. That means downloading EFT, figuring out what will fit, realising I have none of the required parts, scouring the local market and so on. By the end of my second hour I was still sitting in a hangar staring at spreadsheets when real life intervened and I had to log out of the game.

I really don't think I am in the mood to return to an mmorpg.

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Memories of my father and his penknife

My late father always carried a penknife (pocket knife). He was a practical man, a carpenter by trade who later started his own building company and he firmly believed that every man and boy should carry a handy knife. I was seven or eight when he brought me into one of those wonderful old tobacconist shops to buy my first penknife. Even though that shopkeeper convinced him I was too young for such a sharp implement I acquired one soon enough and obeyed his tenet of carrying a penknife through most of my school days. I remember it being somewhat unusual even back then for a middle class urban kid to carry a pocket knife.

This was back in the days before high tech pocket multi-tools had come to Ireland so I mostly recall my father carrying a simple single bladed knife. He used it for everything. The same blade that cut carpet tiles served to peel the apples that my father loved to eat.  It never seemed to do him any harm.

My father is dead almost twenty years now and I have a small regret that I never bought him a really fancy Swiss army knife. I think he would have greatly appreciated the quality of steel in the blade. He was an accomplished sharpener with a selection of whetstones and carborundums that allowed him to hone any piece of metal to a serviceable edge but he would complain that cheaper steel couldn't hold its edge. On the subject of sharpness I still recall his advice that a blunt edge is more dangerous than a properly sharpened one. The sharp blade cuts where you want it to. The blunt blade skips and jumps and finds its own uncontrolled path.

I have my own Swiss army knife now (a Victorinox huntsman ) and an even fancier Leatherman surge. Perhaps more importantly my daughters have penknives too. They know this is partly in memory of their grandfather who died before they were born but it is still surprisingly useful to carry a handy knife around in these days of blister pack frustration.

When my father passed away my mother asked each of his children to choose a personal memento to remember him by. I chose his penknife.