Monthly Archives: August 2009

Thought for the day.

Let’s all close our eyes…

Hmm, on second thoughts, I probably should have put the rest of the post first, because now half of you are sitting there in front of your PC screen with your eyes closed.

We’ll just wait for them to realise their mistake. Won’t be long I’m sure. In the meantime, I want the rest of you to absolutely, categorically not picture Gordon Brown outside the front door to Number 10 dancing naked to Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean.

Ah the rest of you are back, jolly good.

Let’s all – after having finished reading the rest of this post – close our eyes and just try to picture for a moment the developer meeting that first came up with “You know what players would really like in a character creator? They’d absolutely love it if we chose that as the moment to show off our character animation system! I know, we’ll have the characters jive around as though their most sensitive erogenous zones are being fed upon by fire ants! Oh! Oh! And if the player zooms in on the character’s head, well that’s the perfect time to have the character demonstrate the ‘Trying to Follow A Fly Around the Room’ animation”.

It was probably the same people who thought that having quest-giving NPCs run off on an escort mission as part of their quest chain would be fun for all the family. Five times I tried to hand in a quest as other people clattered in and set the NPC running off down the hill to get slaughtered for the umpteenth time.

In entirely unrelated character creation news, I added Normal Girl MkII to the bottom of my previous post.

Also, does anyone know which circle of hell was full of people forever making characters in an MMO? I need to know how much rope I shall require to climb out of here.

No object is so beautiful that, under certain conditions, it will not look ugly.

Character creation, the final frontier. These are the voyages of the Bizarreship Melmoth. His five year mission: to explore strange new worlds. To seek out new character models and new costume pieces. To boldly try to create a female character in Champions Online that doesn’t look like the hideous love child of David Gest and a cheap inflatable sex doll.

Good grief I’ve seen some freaky looking female characters in this game so far.

So just a bit further down this post is Normal Girl, my attempt to create a female face that doesn’t make me do that “Wooahaahhh sweet mercy AHHHH!” thing. It’s pretty difficult too: Champions is, like Everquest 2, one of those MMOs that allows you Total Customisation[TM] of your character. You can change every aspect of their face, oh yes, anything at all, as long as it makes the thing look more hideous, you can do it. I imagine the problem is that having a head model that allows you to tweak facial details to any great extent means having a framework that is somewhat flexible, and therefore the modelling artist is, conversely, very restricted in just how they can shape that framework into something even vaguely human. I’m not saying that every face should be Aria Giovanni-esque, but if we could have a few more standard female avatars that didn’t have mouths that looked as though they were perfectly adapted to connect to a vacuum cleaner attachment, that would be nice. Unless you’re creating the Stupendous Suctioneer, in which case fair play to you.

As I said, it isn’t terribly easy, and I’m not claiming that Normal Girl there is a work of da Vincian greatness – attractiveness is terribly subjective – and she’s a bit more Mary Poppins than Poison Ivy, but if you see potential in what is presented there, you should be able to save the comic cover image (keep the file name, I think it may contain information that the game needs), pop it into your Champions Online screenshots folder, and then load it into the character creator. If nothing else it might give an initial point of reference from which to work.

Another quick tip for the more classically attractive comic book heroine is to turn the ‘muscle’ slider in the body options all the way down; by default it’s set about half way, which isn’t enough to encourage the tool to create strong muscle definition, and as such you instead get a sort of strange bulging shadow that looks incredibly like cellulite. Hey, maybe it was deliberate and Champions Online is the first game with truly realistic body options, although if that is so then they do seem to be missing the ‘beer belly’ and ‘ear hair’ options for the male characters.

As for me, well I’ve recreated my favourite City of Heroes character Thief of Socks, and I’m currently enjoying running around Egoing things to death.

So far Champions Online has proven to be a lot of fun, more on that soon.


Here’s Normal Girl MkII. The trick to this one was to select Determined from the Moods section of the character creator, then going back and editing the face based upon that setting. For some reason this isn’t saved in the character data or on the character selection screen, but it is maintained between logins. So if you load this file, you need to go to the Mood section and pick Determined before it will look like it does in the screenshot.

We are all special cases

Listening to the latest Limited Edition podcast (now with a new feed, if you haven’t caught up), there was a bit of chat about Champions Online. Being a big comic fan you’d expect co-host Shuttler to be into a new superhero MMOG, but one of the problems he pointed out is that superheroes, by definition, should be out of the ordinary, a special case, whereas in Champions or City of Heroes you can’t throw a kryptonite rock without hitting a dozen flying super-strong ice-shooting magically-empowered alien science experiments. Though all MMOGs suffer this to some extent (the 2006 Azerothian census broke down employment in the region as: 0.4% – Farming (livestock & dairy); 0.5% – Farming (arable); 0.8% – Innkeepers; 1.4% – Retail; 97.9% – The Chosen One Who Will Rid This World Of Evil), suspension of disbelief is particularly difficult in a superhero game. There is a comic precedent, though (probably loads, but one springs to mind): Alan Moore’s Top Ten, a book that follows the story of a police force in a city where everyone has superpowers. As you’d expect from Alan Moore it’s a great story that looks at some of the issues that would unfold in such a situation, not always with a totally straight face (my favourite bit is a little side-plot of the problems of pest control when you have an infestation of Ultramice). It also reminded me that there are a few spinoffs that I must get around to picking up sometime; might be a few more ideas for Champions costumes in there too!

The Noble Axe

A couple more bits of Guitar Heroism/Rock Banditude: firstly Melmoth pointed me towards Plastic Axe, a most splendid looking blog for all things polymer-chain guitar related that also hosts “The Vault”, an ambitious project to track all the songs available to virtually rock out to across the various Guitar Hero, Rock Band and Rock Revolution games.

Then I was catching up on Twitter, and noticed Simon Mayo had posted: “Anyone any good at Guitar Hero? Will be playing on air later. But will have the virtuoso skills of @ruskin147 to rely on.” Tuning in to his show, it possibly had the best line-up of subjects ever: Andrew Roberts talking about The Storm of War, a new World War II history that sounds most interesting, then Ross Noble and Chris Addison talking about various tours and DVDs, and finally a segment on Guitar Hero with editor of Metal Hammer Magazine Alexander Milas, International Music & Licensing Manager for Activision Blizzard Sergio Pimental and BBC Technology correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones.

Ross Noble, it turns out, is an Expert level Guitar Hero player, or at least was until he had to go cold turkey for fear of it taking over his life, so there’s definitely a constituency of plastic-guitar wielding comedians (Noble and Richard Herring for starters). The show should be available for a week on the “Listen Again” link (Wednesday 26th August), or there’s a half hour podcast of the Ross Noble/Chris Addison segment that’s really worth a listen not only for Guitar Hero, but also the sure-fire smash hit replacement for Big Brother “Weed or Not Weed”.

The future’s not what it used to be

A light drizzle of game signals the beginning of the end of the summer drought of computer-based entertainment, as a prelude to the usual Christmas downpour. September is packed to the very gunwales with plastic rock, starting with The Beatles: Rock Band, subject of a superb article in the New York Times. It’s on target for a 9th September release as far as I’m aware, though until I actually have the box in my grubby mits I’ll be lightly sceptical, what with the Wii Rock Band 2 raft foundering on its way to the UK, making an increasing mockery of Joystiq’s headline “Rock Band 2 may not be ridiculously late in Europe” in the run-up to its first anniversary. Still, even if the release is delayed until actual beetles rule the earth there’s always Guitar Hero, coming up to its fifth instalment. Some cracking tracks in the set list, I’m particularly looking forward to 21st Century Schizoid Man.

On the MMOG front of course there’s Champions Online; a few jaunts through the start of the beta (mostly in the character creator) have been rather fun, though not really enough to decide whether to plump for a lifetime subscription. With the whole monthly fee model rather in question at the moment for MMOGs (an APB FAQ recently revealed it won’t have a monthly subscription), 6 months for £36 looks like the better bet of the pre-launch subscription deals. I’ll be interested to see how the mix-n-match power selection works out later in the game, hopefully it should provide an interesting way to customise the way your character plays exactly as you like, though I have a slight worry it may lead to a small number of min-maxed “uber builds” slightly unbalancing things.

Champions and plastic rock should pretty much take care of September, with the Steam indie pack filling any gaps, and talking of Steam one of the news items it popped up the other day was for Alpha Protocol, coming in October. An “espionage RPG”, it looks rather interesting; if we’re very, very lucky, it might just offer a Deus Ex-y storyline of conspiracy and intrigue, with many possible approaches for missions, so I’ll be keeping a keen eye on previews of that to see if it has any chance of living up to the hype.

Indie Pack Reviewlet: Braid

“People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but actually from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint, it’s more like a big ball of wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey… stuff.” So said The Doctor in Blink, but it might well have been Jonathan Blow talking about Braid, for it’s a very timey-wimey game.

Like Blueberry Garden, it starts off with the platform game staples of the cursor keys to move and space to jump. Unlike Blueberry Garden, it continues with the platform game staple of a wandering thing you have to jump over or stamp on the head of to avoid death, and ladders to climb, and moving platforms, and things to collect (pieces of jigsaw puzzles). Time starts going wibbly-wobbly the first time you die: press shift and time rewinds, enabling you to put right what once went wrong. It’s a little like having Quick Save/Quick Load keys that we’ve become accustomed to in many genres, but even better, a retrospective quick save where you decide after the fact where you saved the game. This changes the basic gameplay similar to the way Sky+/TiVo changes watching television; it’s remarkably convenient, but it doesn’t change the fundamentals of the platform.

I was hopping through the third world of Braid, enjoying the freedom that rewinding time gives you, not worrying that a slight slip would force you all the way back to the start of a level to re-do everything, when it began to annoy me. I just couldn’t see how to pick up certain jigsaw pieces, or how to kill a boss who needed five chandeliers dropping on his head when there were only two chandeliers available. I didn’t want to totally spoil things with a walkthrough, but a quick Google on “Braid hints” turned up a splendid page that understands that too much information would ruin the game, and just nudges you along. Literally one line was the hint I needed, I’d seen the glowing objects in the level, of course, but hadn’t twigged that they existed outside the timeline you control (the very first puzzle you have to solve depends on that property, but I thought it just applied to keys as opposed to all glowing objects). As soon as that clicked, the game transformed from “quite fun platform game” to “work of fiendish genius”, and you really have to start thinking in non-linear time. Subsequent worlds employ different mechanics; the one in which time moves forward when you go right, and backwards when you go left is a particular mind-bugger.

Braid is beautifully styled, with visuals like a painting. It even has a plot about, would you believe it, a lost princess; finish a world and, in a stunning turn of events, it turns out the princess isn’t in that castle. Just as the gameplay twists the standard Super Mario fare, though, so does the story, with books in lobby areas peeling back layers and looking at time, loss and regret. If that sounds a bit too arty for you, though, you can pretty much just ignore it and get on with the puzzles, or even the simple joy of rewinding time and going “beeeeoooowwwww!”

Braid ran perfectly smoothly on the laptop, and £9.99 is a more than reasonable price. It’s a very close-run race between Braid and World of Goo for “game of the pack”; I’d say World of Goo *just* edges it, but they’re both wonderful games that, in the world of ever-increasingly budgeted blockbusters, show there’s joy, innovation and real quality out there in indie-land. Two thumbs up, one of which travels into the past while the other remains in the present timeline.

Indie Pack Reviewlet: Everyday Shooter

In some ways Everday Shooter is so Old Skool it would spell “Old School” properly; it’s a shooter in which your “ship” is a blob, on each level you fly around a single screen, you have three lives and die when you touch pretty much anything. In other ways it’s as much of an “art-game” as The Path; the author describes it as “…an album of games exploring the expressive power of abstract shooters. Dissolute sounds of destruction are replaced with guitar riffs harmonizing over an all-guitar soundtrack, while modulating shapes celebrate the flowing beauty of geometry.” The combination of the two works rather well.

You move your ship with the cursor keys and can fire in one of eight directions using WASD, or a combination thereof. True to being an “album of games”, you’re on each level for the duration of its background song with the objective of firstly surviving, and secondly scoring points by collecting blobs left behind after destroying certain enemies. Each level has a different “chaining mechanism” that enables you to cause much explosion-ism for great justice (and scoring opportunity). The points you earn, as well as being a simple measure of score, also allow you to purchase extras, such as more lives and graphical filters.

One of the real strengths of Everyday Shooter is that you can pick it up and play straight away, and put it down after five or ten minutes feeling like you’ve actually done something, a little like the golden age of arcades only without needing so many 10p coins, so it was ideal for a bit of holiday gaming. It ran well on the laptop, and at £5.99 is pretty reasonable. Overall, an eight-way shooting thumbs up.

Thought for the day.

Guild Wars 2 with a new interpretation of questing? Final Fantasy XIV with truly epic environments? SW:TOR with storytelling as a design goal? APB with unparalleled character customisation? World of Warcraft potentially getting a revamp of Azeroth?

Champions Online initially being surprisingly compelling once you dig a little bit beneath the surface?

‘Faeces just got substantive’, as I believe my homies on the street would say.

Bloomin’ Bloom.

Or: Two quick things to potentially improve your Champions Online graphical experience.

I’ve had a very short time to play around with Champions, what with other games and that Real Life thing proving somewhat stalwart distractions, not to mention Champions crashing on me for the first four attempts to get through the character creator when I did have a chance to play; I shalln’t be saying much until I’ve had a chance to make a nice scalpel incision, insert a pair of Melmoth’s patented stainless steel game spreaders, and have a good old rummage around in its innards.

However, I’ve read a fair bit about how the current crop of ‘testers’ have not enjoyed the graphical style of the game, and I have to say that it is something that immediately grated with me. Perhaps I’m used to CoH’s smooth and elegant style, albeit a little dated now, or perhaps my eyes just don’t like being made to witness the computer generated equivalent of the BBC’s Willo the Wisp as viewed through a hazy drunken stupor whilst wearing your friend’s hideously strong-prescription glasses.

In short: I hate Bloom.

I don’t know what Bloom does, or why developers insist on putting it in their games and making everything turn a slightly trippy shade of woah, but I wish they’d stop. Or turn it off by default, so the three people out there who like that sort of thing can be the ones to go and find it buried in the video options and then play around with its settings.

Case in point: my character, a remake of my Thief of Socks from City of Heroes, had a bloom effect applied to his head that was so strong you couldn’t actually make out any of the detail beneath his hood. Not without looking really closely, and then having those strange spots in front of your eyes for the rest of the day that get stronger when you blink. I think perhaps ‘bloom’ is the name of that effect, you know, when you look into the sun and then blink and see the sun spot behind your eyelids, and the quicker and harder you blink the more powerful the effect, and each time it strobes it goes ‘bloom’. Bloom. BLOOM. Like some sort of Spielberg alien trying to communicate directly through your eyes and into your brain.

Where was I? Oh yes, BLOOM. So I turned the bloom effect off and had an instant improvement: I could see my character! So there you are little fellow, tucked away beneath that big blob of bloom! However, having done this, the rest of the world, having been ensconced in, and possibly entirely formed of, bloom, was now so dark that I thought I’d entered an instanced mission, possibly called Attack of Emperor Emo. The solution to this, after a little bit of fiddling, was to turn off Post Processing. I won’t be entirely convinced about turning off Post Processing until I’ve tried a few areas with various lighting effects, it may just be that the starter area is incredibly gloomy due to the prevailing invasion.

It’s all entirely subjective of course, and I feel that everything is still VERY SHINY OW MY EYES, but I thought I’d share my findings in case others also found that these settings also dramatically reduce their occurrences of expeditious eyeball evacuation.

To find the options mentioned, press Escape and then select Options.
Go to the Video tab and tick the “Show advanced options” box.
Go to the Effects section and use the Bloom drop-down to turn Bloom off.
Post Processing is a radio on/off button just above the Bloom setting.

Never let it be said that KiaSA consists of nothing but puerile persiflage.

Mostly puerile persiflage, admittedly.

Indie Pack Reviewlet: Gish

Gish is yet another game featuring a 12-lb ball of tar as its hero. Honestly, developers, can’t you come up with something original? Here’s an idea just off the top of my head: there was a conflict around the middle of the 20th century, where most of the World had a War (for the 2nd time, as it goes), surely there’s scope for some kind of shooting-based game there? Anyway, at least there’s a twist to Gish that sets it apart from all the other tarball based games: you have a human ladyfriend who gets kidnapped, and you have to get her back!

You may not think a ball of tar is ideally equipped for such a rescue mission, lacking as it does opposable thumbs (any thumbs, in fact, not to mention hands, arms or limbs in general), but Gish has three rather handy abilities: he can extrude spines, enabling him to stick to surfaces, he can increase his density and he can become slick. This allows a variety of actions, such as sticking to, and climbing, walls and ceilings, smashing blocks and enemies, and sliding through narrow spaces.

Gish is a very kinetic game, there’s a real sense of movement in the character and its interactions; your default jump isn’t very high, but when you land you compress slightly, and if timed correctly and you jump again when compressed you jump a little higher, compressing more on landing, enabling you to build up to more impressive leaps. Gish also has a surprising amount of personality for a ball of tar with yellow eyes and fangs.

After a simple opening level introducing you to the basic control mechanisms and a fairly straightforward squish through some sewers, I started to get a little frustrated as the game got a bit trickier. I’d tend to get past sections with trial, error and random key mashing, die further on in the level, and have to re-do the earlier bits with more trial and error. I suspect I just need a bit more practise to get various techniques down and repeatable; it’s another game I hope to get back to with a bit more time (if only Steam did sales on Time). No technical problems on the laptop at all, it ran very smoothly, and very reasonable at £5.99. It even includes some player vs player modes like “sumo”, and “football” featuring opposing blobs of tar attempting to manoeuvre a football past the other side to score a touchdown, which look like they could be quite fun with a few people. Overall: a blobby tar thumbs up. Just please, developers, no more platform/puzzle games based around balls of tar with structural altering abilities! Here’s a tip: some fellow called Tolkien wrote an obscure book almost nobody’s heard of, I reckon a Game in which you Played a Role in that sort of setting could sell like hot cakes.