Monday 31 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.

Sunday 30 August 2009

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.

Saturday 29 August 2009

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!

Wednesday 26 August 2009

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”.

Tuesday 25 August 2009

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.

Saturday 22 August 2009

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.

Friday 21 August 2009

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.

Thursday 20 August 2009

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.

Wednesday 19 August 2009

Indie Pack Reviewlet: Blueberry Garden

Blueberry Garden won the Best Game prize of this year’s Independent Games Festival. It’s an “interactive fairytale” in which you control an odd en-beaked individual (possibly Raymond Luxury-Yacht, though there’s no guide to confirm whether it’s pronounced “Throatwobbler Mangrove”) on his travels around a hand-drawn world.

At first glance it seems a fairly conventional platform game, you move with the cursor keys and jump with space, but you soon get the feeling you’re not in Miner Willy’s Mansion or Vorticon VI any more, Toto, with the distinct lack of enemies you have to carefully jump over to avoid losing a life. In common with The Path, Blueberry Garden is about exploration and discovery, but where The Path is dark, disturbing and heavy on the death, Blueberry Garden is fresh, whimsical and much more interested in fruit (so far, at least; I’m presuming you don’t fall into an inescapable pit of doom and despair further into the game). Something else Blueberry Garden has in common with The Path is relatively high system requirements: a 2GHz dual-core processor and 256MB graphics card are suggested, and the laptop did struggle with it. The game was just about playable but slowdown and stuttering did spoil things slightly, so I didn’t fully explore the garden, though I did start to make a fairly impressive tower of a giant pencil, block of cheese and a tomato…

Again it’s not something I’d go out of my way to pick up, but if I had to go exploring and the choices were a nice garden with some blueberries or The Forest of Death and Blood (“is there a story behind that name?” “why yes, everyone who goes there dies of death and blood”), the garden would edge it, and at £3.99 it doesn’t even need to last two hours to achieve Sherbet Dip Dab hourly cost parity. Overall: a blueberry-stained thumbs up. If, of an evening, I’m tempted to plunge into the sound and fury of Angry Internet Man forum debates over the bitter controversy of the day, I might go and wander around Blueberry Garden for a while instead; I suspect it would be far better for the blood pressure.

Tuesday 18 August 2009

Indie Pack Reviewlet: The Path

Difficult one, this. If I’d come to The Path totally cold I really don’t know what I would have made of it; as it is, there were several good articles and interesting debates over at Rock, Paper, Shotgun around the time of release. The Steam page says: “The Path is a game about growing, about changing, about making choices, about accepting the consequences of these choices. A game about playing, and failing, about embracing life, perhaps by accepting death.” I say: it’s not exactly a game, more an “interactive experience” or “downloadable installation piece” or “experiential user-controlled unstructured narrative conveyance” or perhaps “Neville”, if you prefer. Once again one of the RPS collective does it full justice in a Eurogamer review, and perhaps the key phrase I’d slightly out-of-context-edly extract from that is: “It’s totally no fun. It’s interesting, but there isn’t a fun bone in its mopey body.” Not really what I was after when unwinding of an evening; still, I fired it up for a bit of a wander around the forest, and hit something of a problem in that the laptop couldn’t cope very well and juddered through the introduction (the systems requirements do specify “no integrated graphics”). Turning all the graphics options down rendered it almost playable, but it still juddered and stuttered during interactions, which robbed any atmosphere that was building up. I’ll try and give it another go on my main PC sometime, perhaps at two in the morning when sleep deprivation is starting to kick in to give it more of an unreal vibe (not an Unreal vibe, though, I’m not sure a voiceover of “MULTI-KILL!” and “RAMPAGE!” would entirely be in keeping with the spirit of the game).

I’m glad something like The Path is out there, pushing boundaries, exploring the meaning of games n’ all that, but it’s not something I’d go out and buy, though £7.25 seems reasonable enough if it’s your bag. That’s one of the nice things about the multi-game pack, it gives you the opportunity to try things you wouldn’t normally bother with (even if only to confirm your preconceptions). Overall: the stuttering idea of a thumb in a forest at an indistinguishable angle.

Monday 17 August 2009

Indie Pack Reviewlet: Darwinia

In Darwinia you pitch up in a computer world under attack by a nasty red virus, and are tasked with helping its creator save the native Darwinians. It has strong RTS elements, but scales things down so you only control a few units, and increases your part in the action so that rather than just clicking your squad and clicking an enemy to get them to attack you directly control laser and grenade fire.

The prologue/tutorial is quite in-depth, introducing you to the various elements of the game, but I was somewhere towards the end of it when I had to shut down and couldn’t easily find a save option (might just be me, though). Next time I started it up the game crashed just after building a second unit (probably more to do with the crufty Windows install on the laptop than the game itself, it ran pretty smoothly with a couple of the options turned down), and with limited time I didn’t get back to it again. Still, from what I saw there’s plenty of game there for a most reasonable £5.99; it was released a couple of years back, and I remember PJ spoke most highly of it at the time. Another one I’m looking forward to returning to in a spare moment; an electronic thumb up, in between battling a virus.

Indie Pack Reviewlet: Crayon Physics Deluxe

Crayon Physics Deluxe does exactly what it says on the tin: you draw stuff with Crayons, it’s subject to Physics, and it’s Deluxe. The object is to navigate a red ball into a star, and the method is with whatever you can draw: weights, ropes, pivots, hatstands, marmots, members of Alec Douglas-Home’s 1963 cabinet…

It’s a very well realised game, technically ran absolutely fine on the laptop, but it never quite clicked for me. I think I have two main shortcomings: a lack of crayon-based physical imagination, and a lack of drawing ability (not that you need to produce masterpieces, but even my blocks and rectangles were a bit wonky), which results in a combination of not really being sure how best to approach a level, and then having some difficulty executing those plans I do come up with (I just can’t get Reginald Maudling’s hair right). Perhaps the mouse is a bit of an obstacle, and either an iPhone version or some sort of graphics tablet would work a bit better with the central drawing motif of the game. At £15.99 it’s pretty expensive for an indie game, I don’t think I’d personally be too tempted at full price. Overall, a slightly ropey crayon drawing of a horizontal thumb.

Indie Pack Reviewlet: Mr Robot

Due to the unseasonal clemency of the British summer I didn’t get a chance to fully explore several games of the pack, so a few fairly brief impressions: “Just like that, ahh.” “Oooh, Betty.” And now a few brief thoughts on the games: Mr Robot is a charming isometric puzzler that, at a dramatically lower resolution and with fewer and more garish colours, could be from the 8-bit era (in a good way; Knight Lore and Alien 8 are quoted as inspirations). You’re a little service droid on a spaceship where the humans are in cryogenic storage, overseen by HEL 9000 the central AI. I’ve only played the first few screens (HEL 9000 still appears to be in full possession of its electronic faculties, and I don’t think it would be a massive spoiler to predict that might not last too long) so can’t make any grand pronouncements, I haven’t even collected any party members or seen the “Ghost Hack” abstract RPG, but it’s definitely a game I’m looking forward to getting back to. It ran absolutely fine on the laptop, and £5.99 for the whole game seems most reasonable. A provisional robotic thumbs up.

Sunday 16 August 2009

Indie Pack Reviewlet: World of Goo

Another not exactly first impression, as I bought World of Goo on the Wii back in January. One of the potential annoyances with packs of games is if you already own some of them, and although you can sometimes “gift” extra copies of games on Steam, that’s not the case with any of the indie pack. On top of Audiosurf if I already had the PC version of World of Goo, or it wasn’t a very good game, it might have raised the irritation level from “small piece of grit in shoe but only for a minute until an opportunity arose to sit down and empty shoe” to “small piece of grit in shoe but in circumstances where much walking is required and it would be considered rude to expose your be-socked feet to all and sundry like perhaps a guided tour of a large workplace with dignitaries”, but as it is I’ve been loving getting Goo-y again (as a metaphorical actress may or may not have said to an entirely hypothetical bishop).

Once again I’d direct you to John Walker’s lovely Eurogamer review for a full assessment of the game. I’d agree that the Wii version of the game ever so slightly shades the PC version by virtue of how well suited the Wiimote is to the control system (though the mouse has a slight edge for precision), plus support of up to four players simultaneously, but it’s the slimmest of differences, a mere few extra chocolate shavings atop the magnificent baked cheesecake of goodness that’s common between the two platforms.

Having finished the game on the Wii I didn’t compulsively play through the PC version, but it was always a joy to drop into for a quick level or two; apart from anything else it reminded me how great the music is, from the first joyous “pompompompompompom”, and being available from the author’s website you can even play through it in Audiosurf.

Technically, no problems at all, it ran absolutely smoothly on the laptop. It’s the most expensive of the pack at full price, £16.99, but well worth it. Three thumbs up, comprised of goo balls, floating on red balloons.

Saturday 15 August 2009

Indie Pack Reviewlet: Audiosurf

Bit of a cheat, this one, as I bought Audiosurf when it was released a year and a half ago. In Audiosurf you “surf” down a track based on a song picking up coloured blocks into a grid, matching colours together for points. When I first got it, deep in the throes of Guitar Heroism, the gameplay didn’t quite click for me; Guitar Hero note tracks are carefully hand-crafted by skilled editors, whereas Audiosurf automatically generates its game tracks from any MP3 you throw at it. The tracks reflect the music they’re generated from, swooping downhill when the tempo is quick and climbing uphill when slow, the block colours changing from cool purples and blues to warm yellows and reds with the intensity of the song, but it’s a fairly broad impression of the music as opposed to the pin-point reflection of the guitar lines that Guitar Hero offers, and that took me a little while to fully appreciate.

What you gain over something like Guitar Hero, of course, is the infinite variety of your own MP3 collection, especially if your musical preferences generally don’t tend towards index-and-little-finger extending RAWK! Classical, baroque, jazz, trip-hop, game soundtracks, Dylan bootlegs, Interröbang Cartel, Harry “The Hipster” Gibson’s classic “Who Put The Benzedrine In Mrs Murphy’s Ovaltine”, if you’ve got it as an mp3, wma, ogg, flac or iTunes file, you can pipe it into Audiosurf and see what crazy tracks result.

Once Audiosurf clicked for me I really got into it, and could quite happily lose a couple of ours with “just one more song…” Something I particularly like is its straightforward high score table; in this internet connected age, most high score tables are frankly depressing as you find yourself in competition with thousands, if not millions, of other players, and after a triumphant, almost-perfect run of something you shout “yes!”, punch the air, and then find, after an awful lot of scrolling, you’re at position 10,472 on the table. Audiosurf lets you choose your battles; if you really want to test yourself you can play one of the included songs (particularly Still Alive), or something terribly popular with the playerbase at large (Through The Fire And The Flames). In the darker recesses of your MP3 collection, though, you’re bound to be able to find something with rather fewer players that you can boldly proclaim yourself Pro Champion of.

Something else I’ve come to appreciate in the past year is just how difficult it is to make a decent game based around any MP3 you can throw at it. I’ve tried a couple of others since, Raycatcher (a bargain from a Steam sale, natch) which was distinctly “meh”, and Jam Legend, that promised to turn your music into Guitar Hero-style tracks, but really didn’t for the couple of examples I tried.

Hardware-wise the laptop coped fine, after cranking the resolution down a bit, but as I’ve played it plenty before I only ran through a few songs on holiday. Overall, two bouncing-to-the-crazy-beat thumbs up, and well worth the full £5.99 individual purchase price.

Indie Pack Introduction

I remembered the laptop charger so, as planned, I spent the odd evening and mercifully rare rainy day of last week’s holiday with “The absolute, autonomous, freewheeling, grassroots, nonaligned, nonpartisan, sovereign, unconstrained, uncontrolled, unregimented games pack” from Steam, ten popular and acclaimed indie titles.

The laptop I was using wasn’t really an ideal gaming platform, 1.8Ghz Celeron processor, 1Gb RAM and shared graphics adapter using up to 128Mb of system memory, but it coped fairly well with most of the pack.

On with the games…

Friday 14 August 2009

The morals of a goat, the artistic integrity of a slot machine.

I remember many a school lunchtime misspent down at the local arcade. A friend and I would sneak out past the school prefects who stood on guard at the gate, and make the long walk down to our local electronically-chanting neon Mecca; through back streets and alleys we wended our way, thus avoiding any teachers or police officers who would want to enquire as to why a couple of youths were in that part of town on a school day. I remember the entrance, it was dark and seemingly impenetrable, and the first time we stood before it – like two adventurers stood before the gaping hollow of the dragon’s lair – we almost didn’t venture inside. Scared perhaps, that it wasn’t an arcade at all but the mouth of some strange creature set to look like all the other shop fronts, to tempt young men inside with the mimicking chime of arcade games and slot machines, before gobbling them up in one swift violent movement, then slowly settling itself back in place ready for the next unwary school kid with pocket money to spend. Of course we didn’t have pocket money to spend, but we did have our lunch money. We had come to the conclusion very quickly that we didn’t need food, we felt that we could subsist purely on the thrill of mortal combat, the challenge of a street fight, the engagement of afterburners to outrun our enemies. The siren song of the machines inside was too much for our little Odyssian expedition, our fears were quickly washed away as we were swept inside and into that whirling maelstrom of noise and smoke and strobing light.

It was a good time, for the most part, but it was always over too soon. Ten pence went a long way in those days, enough to get you three or four credits on the slightly older machines, where now you’d be lucky to get one credit for a pound coin. With our eighty pence of lunch money you’d think that we could have lasted there forevermore, trapped unwittingly on a digital Aeaea, feasting on the delights of the den of pixelated pleasure. Little did we understand at the time, however, that arcades were a business and thus had a vested interest in you spending as much with them as they could possibly convince you to part with. It is a treacherous situation when you pay money to play a game where the profiteer can set all the rules. Many of the games we played would have a wall, a point at which it was almost impossible to pass without feeding an inordinate number of coins in to fuel your character’s lives and thus allow you to play on, just that little bit further.

Just that little bit further. Oh perfidious phrase! How you have visited misery on so many of those arcade gamers who would follow your promise of glory; yet what triumphant jubilation and what gleeful satisfaction you have rained upon those few lucky enough to overcome your challenge and win through.

My concern is such: MMOs seem to be making a shift towards the philosophy of the arcade, but where previously we had coins, we now have micro-transactions: virtual game currency linked to real world currency by a piece of plastic card. When we ran out of credits in the old arcades it was time to crawl around on the floor looking for dropped and forgotten coins, to rummage around in the return trays of the change machines and the game machines, before finally resigning ourselves to the fact that we had no more electronic lives left and beginning the long walk back to school. Such physical limitations are not so readily present in our Internet enabled world of electronic commercial transactions, and it’s all available without so much as having to step foot outside the front door of your home. What’s more, if ever the phrase ‘just that little bit further’ wished for a home where it reigned supreme, king of all it surveyed, untouchable and godlike in its power over the majority of its minions, it wishes no more, for it has found its throne and it observes with lofty indifference its subjects toiling daily all across the captivating land of MMO.

‘A coin for a life’, that was the agreement in the days of the arcade; a simple one-for-one transaction, a deal with the devil of temptation no doubt, but one where you could at least see the terms of the contract clearly. But now the contract has changed: that coin is no longer equivalent to a single coin in the real world, it is now ‘coin’ plural, or a ‘gold’, a ‘credit’, a ‘point’; furthermore it buys you much less than a life, a little more health perhaps, more mana or energy or other potion of wondrous invention to boost your character’s dwindling fuel. But wait! It can also buy you improvements to your character, better weapons and better armour. Even better companions. There are now a myriad number of options to help you carry yourself over that wall and on to the next, it is no longer the binary choice of “Continue: Yes/No?”, no longer continue to play, but continue to play better.

‘Just that little bit further’ teases you, seduces you, wraps itself around your body and whispers in your ear:

“You can have it all: you can go further and faster and higher than any other. All it will take is a little more coin.”

Wednesday 12 August 2009

Reviewlet: Gears of War 2.

After another splendid session with Jon Shute’s Console Club[TM] last night, I decided to write-up a quick reviewlet for our current game of the moment – Gears of War 2. There will be spoilers, however, so if you haven’t gotten around to playing this game, you think you may yet, and spoilers are the sort of thing that matter to you, then you may want to look away now. Have they looked away? Yes? Good. You know, I never liked them. And they smell of Fisherman’s Friend.

Gears of War 2 is a simple game concerning the plight of two He-Man impersonators charged with wiping out a race of alien creatures who have a muscle structure so improbably ripped that they can bench press 800lbs with their orbicularis muscles alone, and are thus a clear and present danger to the masculinity of all He-Man impersonators on the planet. Our two heroes are at times joined on their missions by other meatheads, who are presumably taking time off from their busy day down at the gym, where they flex at their oiled-up thong-wearing reflections in the mirror, then head into the locker room and whip each other’s naked bottoms with towels in a manly heroic fashion, before heading into the shower and engaging in some hot steamy guilty sex. As only heroic manly meatheads can do.

Where was I? Ah yes, homoerotic allegory in the post-modern apocalyptic war genre. I mean, World Wrestling Entertainment. Ah no, Gears of War 2. No wait, same difference.

In the single player campaign we are quickly introduced to our two steroidally overdosed heroes, shortly followed by Token Nod who is, coincidentally, related to a well known character from the first game in the series. Token Nod never takes off his face-covering helmet, however, and therefore might as well be wearing a red Star Trek ensign shirt. The game even tries to explain away the fact that Token Nod never takes off his helmet, while Muscle and Musclier never wear theirs, when Dom (you can recognise him because he’s the homogeneous pile of muscle that isn’t wearing a bandanna) explains that wearing a helmet severely restricts the experienced combat veteran’s ability to spot a sniper. I was going to suggest that they didn’t wear a helmet because they had no use for their head, what with all motor and cognitive functions being controlled by the master muscle in their underpants, but clearly the game’s developers had thought of something even funnier. Last and by no means least likely to be seen staring in a porn film in the near future, is Token Hotty, she with the supermodel looks and a military uniform cut so tight that it must have been applied with some form of hyper-advanced vacuforming technique.

After a brief optional tutorial, and then the customary introductory waffle “Now listen up you magnificent menageries of muscle. Aliens are trying to destroy life as we know it… blah, blah, blah… we must fight them in the trenches… blah, blah, blah… or life as we will know it will end forever… blah, blah, blah… no more hot steamy shower sex… etc.” you’re finally allowed to get on with the game, and it is actually a game that I enjoyed a great deal for the most part.

The game is broken up into acts and chapters, with each act being an overarching segment of the storyline, and the chapters being missions within that segment. In turn each chapter has various checkpoints strewn throughout it, as is the norm with such games, and there are often small sections of dialogue between the characters as you reach certain points. Generally these involve a lot of macho posturing, shoulder bumping, and I’m sure if there’d been hot steamy showers in the vicinity… oh, I think I’ve made my point. There was, however, a disappointing lack of fist-bumping between the characters; I do like a good bit of fist action between a couple of frenzied sweaty mounds of masculine muscle, but who doesn’t? Ok, ok, I’m done.

Having said all that, I do have to confess that I found the part where Dom finally finds his wife Maria, to be quite haunting. The acting is, perhaps appropriately, a bit Arnold Schwarzenegger (“Nnnnnoooooooooooooooooooooo”) but the transition from Dom’s reality into actual reality, where it jars us into a shocking comprehension of the horrors of what Maria must have been through at the hands of the Locust without spelling it out for us, is very well realised. This is achieved on two fronts, the first is that the Unreal graphics engine is powerful enough to present a detailed and harrowing character model, no words are required because a thousand are being painted to the screen, sixty times per second. The second is the use of Tai Kaliso. Tai is introduced early on in the game, and his character is quickly developed (as much as character development ever exists in shooter games) in the eyes of the player as the stalwart, indestructible and unswerving spiritual warrior. Marcus, the aforementioned bandanna wearing meatpile and lead character, describes Tai as “tough as a Brumak though, so if anyone could make it it’d be him” after Tai walks away unscathed as the sole survivor after his transport is destroyed by a Locust ambush. Later, when Tai is rescued by Marcus and Dom after having been captured by the Locust, he immediately commits suicide when given a weapon due to the nature of his time when incarcerated. Thus when we see the reality of Maria’s condition, a simple civilian exposed to such horrors that made a hardened combat veteran commit suicide, we understand that although the body is still alive, the mind is utterly broken, and how it must have suffered to reach that state. For anyone who has truly cared for another and ever worried about their safety, this is quite a heart-rending scene.

It is a shame, therefore, that this is quickly shrugged-off with a bit of bullheaded bravado. And possibly some shoulder bumping, I forget. It was the only part of the game where I felt any sort of emotional connection to the plight of the world and the denizens thereof, and it showed quite clearly that the developers could readily have achieved such emotional manipulation had they wanted to.

The game itself is a third person tactical shooter which relies heavily on cover mechanics to enhance the tension (useful when there haven’t been any steamy showers for a while), and to give a more realistic feel to the combat. Charging gung-ho into the midst of the enemy is a recipe for a quick death, and judicious use of the abundantly available cover provided by doorways, walls and crates that are conveniently placed in open areas at the perfect distance from one another to provide superb continuous cover for an advancing force, is advisable on the easiest difficulty setting, and pretty much mandatory at any level thereafter. The cover mechanic works well in the main, a simple press of the A button when near to anything that looks like cover will generally result in your character slamming up against it and, where feasible, ducking down behind it as you’d expect. From cover the character can choose to aim their weapon by holding the left trigger (which also works when not in cover), at which point they will pop out from cover and the game will temporarily switch into a first person shooting mode. Releasing the left trigger at any time ducks the character back into cover. As long as the cover is blocking line of sight between your character and the enemy it will significantly reduce any incoming damage, pretty much to zero, barring well placed grenades and such. The other option is to blind-fire, which simply requires the player to fire using the right trigger as usual, at which point the character will shoot without leaving cover but at a greatly reduced level of accuracy. The advantage to blind fire is obvious, you cannot really aim at an enemy, but you can lay down suppressing fire for yourself and your team mates without any risk. The only grating problem I have with cover is in its interaction with the Roadie Run. The Roadie Run is activated by holding down the A button when out of cover, at which point your character will enter a sort of crouched jog which allows you to cross open spaces quickly whilst reducing the target you present to the enemy. It’s awkward at first because the camera moves such that it’s almost level with the floor, which results in you looking up towards the third-person perspective of your character’s bottom, like one of those camera angles in porn films where they’re trying to get a better shot of the action. Despite the distraction of Bottom Cam the Roadie Run works well, and is useful for escaping ambushes, but the problem comes when you accidentally run into an object that can provide cover, at which point the game assumes that with the A button held down you want to take that cover. So what results is you being surprised by a bunch of rather meaty, bulgy-veined and angry alien lizard things, turning around and running away (Brave Sir Robin), only to clip a nearby crate and thus have your character slam into a crouch ‘behind it’. Only it’s not behind it, because the enemy were behind you in the first instance, so what you’re actually doing is cowering up against a crate while facing them. Not only this, but you can’t see the enemy chuckling to each other as they slowly walk up to you because the camera angle is designed to look beyond the cover to where the enemy should be, were you the correct side of it. Finally, it takes a bit of time to disengage from cover into open space and instigate Roadie Run again, at which point the camera then flicks around from Cover Cam to Bottom Cam, throwing you off just long enough that your character veers off and slaps into a nearby wall. And takes cover against it… at which point the following paragraph seems apposite.

In representing injury to your character Gears eschews the conventional health bar for what I can only describe as the Soreness Indicator. As your character takes damage a red image slowly fades onto the middle of the display, the more solid this image becomes the closer to death your character is. My only problem is that because it starts out so faint and gradually becomes more clear, my first impression of the image was that it was akin to the puckered posterior from that famous Internet image of a certain Mr Goa Tse, hence my reference to it as the Soreness Indicator. It turns out that it’s not, and that it is in fact the Gears of War logo, which seems more logical now that I think about it. But the Soreness Indicator is still relevant, because with one enemy pounding on your character the Soreness Indicator takes some time to fully develop, but as one would rightly imagine, with several enemies pounding away at once the Soreness Indicator quickly develops to the point where your character can take no more punishment and cries out in agony while collapsing to the floor. The Soreness Indicator is quite a clever take on the health bar though: due to the subtle nature of the graphic fading in, it’s quite hard to tell precisely how damaged your character is. You can tell that a character is ‘pretty healthy’ or ‘close to collapse’ or somewhere in between, but there’s no definitive readout as there is in many games where a health ‘fuel bar’ gives a fine level of precision as to just how close to empty one is running.

In general Gears is a very polished, graphically accomplished ‘follow the path and kill anything that moves’ shooter. The weapons are varied and sufficiently satisfying to use, with each one feeling different enough from the rest to make it a difficult tactical choice as to which ones you should carry with you – you have two heavy weapon slots, one pistol slot and a slot for grenades, of which you can carry only one type at a time. There is a decent variety of enemies, from snipers and close combat shock troops through to chain-gun wielding armoured hulks. The AI is acceptable, ranged types try to stay at range, certain other types will try to flank you, and yet others will try to pop a grenade underneath you in a way that makes your Soreness Indicator scream for mercy. I will say that it has one of the most horrible handling vehicles of all time, and I can only assume that the developers were in some sort of competition with the creators of Halo for the Most Infuriating Vehicle Control in a Meatheads vs Aliens Console Shooter category at the next Game Developer Choice Awards. Thankfully the vehicle segments are short enough not to draw down the full Controller Through TV Screen wrath of the frustrated gamer.

Finally I’d just like to address a complaint that I heard on a recent podcast about the colour palette. “It’s drab, and dreary. Brown. Washed-out” they complained. Well, just in case you hadn’t noticed, it’s a gritty ‘realistic’ fighting game, set in a world that is, for the most part, in utter ruin due to a massive globe-spanning war, and a huge portion of time is spent running around ruins and tunnels underground. What the flying ferret did you expect? Super Mario Brothers? “Oh, I like the game well enough, but it could have done with more cornflower blue in the scenery, and those aliens are so drab dahrlingk, couldn’t we spruce them up with a slinky little Dolce&Gabbana number?”. I think the graphics in Gears of War 2 are splendid, character animation is also superb, as is the bulk of the voice acting, mainly thanks to the inestimable talent of John DiMaggio as lead character Marcus Fenix.

I’ve only dabbled briefly in the competitive online play, so I won’t be commenting on that. The co-operative multiplayer, especially the Horde mode, is outstanding fun however. I’ve mentioned it before, and I really do like some of the ways that it enforces group cooperation without it actually feeling like you’re being arm-twisted into it, I guess a better word would be ‘encourages’. Either way, I think I’ll save that discussion for another post, although I will state for the record that it has nothing to do with steamy hot showers. Honest.

Originality is the art of concealing your sources.

Since the Hype Machine for FFXIV seems to have shunted the press-mania cog onto the main drive axle and engaged speculation overdrive, I thought I’d try to help out Square Enix by coming up with a few bold and vibrant new marketing taglines:

Square Enix’s FFXIV: Innovation and originality are our greatest strengths.

Square Enix’s FFXIV: Random battles and grind: we know how to MMO!

Square Enix’s FFXIV: You thought 18 hour boss battles were tough? This time it will take that long just to get through the introductory battle sequence and music!

Square Enix’s FFXIV: Cat girls, bulky meat-heads, androgynous lead characters and cutesy fur-balls, since 1987; so much so that we’re just renaming the cat girls, bulky meat-heads, androgynous lead characters and cutesy fur-balls from Final Fantasy XI!

Square Enix’s FFXIV: No really, we can innovate! Just consider the last thirteen games as practise. The originality is coming. Real soon now. Just as soon as we’ve copied and pasted everything from the last game.

Square Enix’s FFXIV: Ok, ok, but we do tell a mean story. And as we all know, MMOs and storylines go together like moogles and mouse traps.

Square Enix’s FFXIV: Admittedly not many people can understand our stories unless under the influence of psychotropic substances and witnessing the whole event through a kaleidoscope.

Square Enix’s FFXIV: And look: you level up your weapons now! Not only will your character look like everyone else, but they won’t even develop in a different direction! No individuality at all!

Square Enix’s FFXIV: In fact, we’re removing races and sexes too, the only option will be the blond-haired androgynous humanhyuran.

Square Enix’s FFXIV: Nothing will stop this perfect MMO master race from crushing and looting all life on Vana’diel Vana’diel 2 Not Vana’diel Eorzea (which is definitely not Vana’diel. No). Sieg Heil!

Square Enix’s FFXIV: Hey, at least you know it’ll look pretty.

Still no news back from their marketing department; I imagine they’re having trouble choosing just the one.

Monday 10 August 2009

A noble craft, but somehow a most melancholy!

Observe the craftsman sat on the porch of his rickety weather-beaten workshop. His tanned arms, sinewy and dextrous, carefully manipulate a bow, sanding off the final imperfections.

It’s taken him an age to make.

The yew he collected himself from the ancient forest that surrounds his cabin, dried for a year before it was ready to be carved. A single piece, the sapwood and the heartwood coexist in laminate felicity, together they form that bond of harmonious cooperation that all marriages would aspire to but very few attain: there is flexibility, and with that flexibility comes strength.

The bow string is formed from the sinews of a deer that he hunted himself, his neighbour the forest is a generous giver of gifts and yet asks for nothing in return. The craftsman is conscientious, however: he plants new trees each year and attempts to improve his neighbour’s lot. The bow string is scraped using tools that have been passed down through the generations, each as lovingly made and cared for as the weapons which they are used to create.

The grip is formed from the leather of the deer, boiled and preserved and stretched and cut. A carving runs the length of the bow; Artemis accompanied by a deer hunts the wolf who flees before them, and so the carving runs. The carvings are inlaid with silver, ore that he mined himself and smelted in small quantities. It is applied with a fine brush, its bristles made from the tail of the deer. Nothing goes to waste: the bow is formed of the deer, the deer is slain by the bow, and the cycle begins anew.

When he is finished he looks over his work. It is art and appliance: form and function. He turns it over and over in his hands checking for any imperfection, rests it by its midpoint on his outstretched index finger and confirms that it is perfectly balanced. He leans back and takes a single arrow from the basket next to the door. Unhurriedly he gets up and steps down from the porch, draws the bow and feels the tension in his arms. The arms of the bow pull back, as if the bow was trying to draw him. He launches the arrow, the air whistles as if in admiration as the arrow passes, and is then stunned into silence as the arrow strikes the tree straight and true.

The craftsman nods to himself as he takes a cloth from the pocket of his worn leather apron and begins to slowly massage oil into the limbs of the bow. As with any act of love, he takes his time and is thoughtful and considerate with every action. By the time he is finished, the sun has begun its inexorable rise, throwing back the blanket of morning mist and lifting its head from the pillow of the forest canopy.

The craftsman holds the bow before him one more time, with a wistful look on his face, his eyes full of pride and fatherly love.

Then he chucks it on the pile with the twenty other bows he made earlier, takes the lot down to Norman the Merchant and sells them all for a few measly copper pieces.

Saturday 8 August 2009

Steam Indie Games Weekend Deal

I really ought to be packing a suitcase at the moment as I’m about to head off for a (hopefully) nice relaxing week on holiday, but a last minute browse through the feedreader found news of Steam’s indie games sale on Tales of the Rampant Coyote.

Away for a week, with a laptop that can’t handle big, graphically intensive stuff, and a collection of indie games for less than £2.50 each? At least one of them is a copper-bottomed actinium-edged classic, and several others have sounded interesting but not necessarily the sort of thing I’d want to shell out £10 for, so the pack is merrily downloading away.

If I get a few quiet evenings (or a couple of days of the traditional British summer and resultant torrential rain) I’ll try and write up a few thoughts on each of them, although bearing in mind that the best laid plans of mice and men often go wrong, and frankly these are, at most, third- or fourth- best laid plans, I probably won’t even get a chance to play them, let alone write. Like if I don’t get a shift on, I’ll forget to pack the laptop charger, but I thought I’d just point out the sale while it’s still on in case anyone fancies playing along at home.

Valhalla, I am coming!

Ever wondered what makes bloggers tick? What makes podcasters pod? Why are we here? What’s life all about? Is God really real, or is there some doubt? Well the answer to all these questions, apart from the last three, can be found at Grinding to Valhalla, where Randolph Carter is assembling a mighty array of interviews with writers, MMO bloggers and podcasters. And me n’ Melmoth. So if you’re interested in the grind of blogging, the transition to podcasting and 30 litres of custard and a feather duster, take a look at my One Shot. And if you want to understand just how bloggers will destroy the world, Melmoth explains all in his interview.

Thursday 6 August 2009

Fool me once.

“All powers and power sets are considered unfinished and are subject to change at any time.”

But please, take it on faith, whichever ones we choose to put in will be great! So buy a lifetime subscription now. What’s the worst that could happen?

“In other news, gamers across the globe continue to lay siege to the headquarters of game developer Cryptic Studios tonight, in protest at the ‘Shelf stacking’ and ‘Paper folding’ power sets, the only two power sets currently available in the company’s recently released MMO, Champions Online. A spokesperson for the gamer movement described the power sets as a ‘steaming pile of Kryptonian Vrarg dung’. Ouch. And now it’s over to Diana for a summary of the weather.”

News-o-matic 3000

You may have heard the News-o-matic 3000 on Kiasacast Episode 5, our first attempt at an automated news delivery system. Unfortunately something went a little wrong with the wiring, we think in the text-to-speech circuits, so we’re going to give it a try with plain text output instead. Here we go now…

And in the news for


it seems that


has been delayed due to


which is a shame, we were looking for-


-ward to pl-


Oh dear. Still a bit of fine tuning needed, I think.

Wednesday 5 August 2009

It is easier to pull down than to build up.

If there’s one good thing about EVE and forthcoming Champions Online it’s that their single server architecture philosophy means that players like myself, who seem to be utterly cursed when it comes to server selection, will be able to play at ease knowing that if we can’t get into the game, then nobody else can. It also means a lack of server mergers, where one generally loses the name that they hand picked to represent themselves in all their virtual online glory.

Exhibit 1: Lost all of the names of my characters during the Warhammer Online mergers.

Exhibit 2: Currently waiting for the only EU English RP realm in WoW that’s not up and running after the 3.2 patch, where funnily enough all my characters live.

So while I wait I’m making up some “yo’ momma”-style jokes to tell around the Ironforge mailbox:

Yo’ character so epic that aircraft mistakenly try to land on its shoulder pads at night.

Yo’ character so epic that Purple Haze is now an official medical disorder.

Yo’ character so epic that at Christmas, Santa puts the kids’ presents under it.

Yo’ character so epic that you look just like everyone else.

Yeah they’re awful, you can blame Blizzard for making me wait and thus have time to inflict those upon you.

Kiasacast Episode 5

For those of you who are not monitoring our podcast RSS feed or stalking us on the Twitterverse, brace your main hats and hang on to your sails, because we’re pleased to announce that it’s time for Kiasacast episode 5: The burnout yo-yo!

This episode of the podcast includes:

– Introduction and news

– Reader mail – where we find out that we’re still cursed after tigerears bit us under the light of a full moon

– This month (maybe longer) in KiaSA, including::

     – Everquest 2

     – Jumpgate

     – Lord of the Rings Online

     – Star Wars: The Old Republic

     – And more…

– Book Club

– Twitter questions


     – Last episode’s tune: Wing Commander theme tune

Download Kiasacast Episode Five

Tuesday 4 August 2009

And you may ask yourself: how do I work this?

With the world map turned a suitable shade of pink in Empire: Total War and Grand Theft Auto IV heading towards the culmination of the main plot, I’ve had a nice break from MMOGs and I’m starting to think about seriously contemplating heading back into a massively multiplayer world. Not *actually* playing just yet, that would be crazy; just as you need to warm up before exercise, and as every good meeting needs a pre-meeting (preceded by a pre-meeting agenda discussion), you need to take a run-up at these things. Y’know, Google around a bit to find out what’s going on, keep up with the blogs, form a guild for a game that’s not even in closed beta yet, and disband the guild in a violent schism over a hypothetical interpretation of what a metaphorical guild policy might or might not mean in relation to the non-existent terms of agreement that won’t be drafted by the legal team for at least a year. The usual stuff.

I’m hankering after something new. World of Warcraft peeks around the corner every now and again reminding me there’s a level 70 rogue who hasn’t yet felt the Wrath of the Lich King; there’s the Land of the Dead to visit in Warhammer Online; Dungeons and Dragons Online has the alluring prospect of Unlimitedness soon, Age of Conan and Lord of the Rings Online both tried to tempt me back with free activation, but there’s something about being in a new MMOG at launch time. Queues, bugs, frustration and server crashes, for example, that prove the wisdom of Van Hemlock’s three month rule, but there’s also the other side. The Shiny New Game Experience, like opening up the box of a glossy new gadget, or shoving a teaspoon through the foil of a new jar of coffee; everyone’s starting together, in the same areas, experiencing the same things. At least for an hour or two until the more dedicated players pull away, and 72 hours later, before the head start is over, they’re at the level cap, amped to the eyeballs on Pro Plus and Mountain Dew, and posting bitterly on the forums that there isn’t enough content.

Another perk of playing a game at launch is that, whenever you talk about it in the future, you can liberally pepper the conversation with “when I played it back at launch…”, then shake your walking stick and tail off into mumbling until they wheel you off for Horlicks and Countdown. That said, actually having experience of what you’re talking about is usually considered bad form in the blag-u-spore when making grand pronouncements, so it’s not like you actually have to have subscribed to join in the Four Yorkshireman style one-upmanship. Just open with “fire blast was so overpowered back at launch”, someone counters “… oh, they hadn’t sorted that out? I raised it as an issue in open beta”, someone else chips in “… course, it was totally useless in closed beta, they went too far the other way when they tried to fix it”, and you can trump the lot with “… when I said ‘launch’, I meant the launch of the pre-pre-pre-pre-pre-one-before-alpha version, where you punched the spell you wanted to cast onto a Jacquard card, fed it into the mill, cranked a handle and the Engine printed the outcome of the attack as 40-column ASCII art on vellum.”

On the new game front, there look to be two main possibilities launching in September: Aion and Champions Online. Aion sounds… fine, Melmoth’s had a look around, the leopard skin leggings appear most laudable, but nothing I’ve read about it yet leaps from the page and screams “YOU MUST PLAY THIS GAME!” Which is good. If that happened, I’d really need to lay off eating cheese before bed. Champions Online, on the other hand; having spent many hours tinkering with the City of Heroes costume creator, and being intrigued by the Champions equivalent for over a year (from pieces on Massively and elsewhere I think we can now safely say customisation extends further than a single hat), I could probably spend the first month just playing with that. There we go, then: I’ll play Champions at launch, and if you’re going to play something at launch, you might as well pre-order the box for a few bonus tchotchkes. Touring several online retailers I was weighing up the pros and cons of a bonus harlequin hat vs. an item that gives minor damage resistance vs. some insect-wing-type-things, and wandered over to the Champions site to see what they had to say, and noticed their lifetime subscription offer.

Hrm. Dilemma, that. I’m certainly tempted; I’m not convinced I’ll dive right in at launch and stay there for a solid year or more, but I could easily see myself dipping in and out over several years… if the game is still running, I imagine people who took out lifetime subs to Hellgate: London were mildly displeased when Flagship went into receivership. Somewhat less dramatically, I might just not like it that much, it’s a bit hard to tell without having played it, so I might as well stick the pre-order in, as that comes with beta access of some variety, give it a crack, and postpone the decision ’til then. There’s a deadline of August 31st on the lifetime subscription at the moment, but I wouldn’t be wildly surprised if that was extended by a couple of weeks, or even a longer, “due to popular demand!” There’s every chance the deadline won’t be extended, though, so don’t go printing this out and waving it at Cryptic telling them it’s a contract if you want a lifetime sub on September 2nd and they’re not offering them any more.

A big factor with Champions has to be City of Heroes; can they both succeed, or must one fall? Are there enough superhero MMO players for them both to be viable? I imagine a decent chunk of the current CoH player base will at least take a look at Champions, quite possibly pick up the box and play for a month, but after that? NCSoft obviously have one eye on Champions with their announcement that CoH players subscribed between August and November will get beta access for the Going Rogue expansion, but from a personal perspective I’m more interested by the fact that they recently combined the North American and European forums; it may have no significance beyond the forums, but perhaps it’s a precursor to combining the North American and European servers? I’ve got all my high level characters, shiny veteran rewards and the like on the North American servers, and couldn’t face leaving them behind to start over on the European servers, but if I didn’t have to… I might get back into it. Interesting times. Until then, anyone interested in a guild for Transformers Online?

Monday 3 August 2009

In the news.

Slashdot reports on Nissan’s All-Electric LEAF vehicle:

“In Japan, Nissan unveiled their all-electric LEAF (press release, and Flash site). Slated to launch in late 2010 in Japan, the US, and Europe, this car will have a 100-mile range, seats 5, has an advanced computer system with remote control by iPhone, and promises to be competitively priced. While this car’s range won’t work for everyone, it could be a game changer as a commuter car.”

Yes, one presumes that it would indeed be a game changer, in the fact that now when you start playing Grand Theft Auto on your iPhone, you run over people in real life.

Sunday 2 August 2009

Thought for the day.

I think the general discussion, triggered by Zubon’s original post has covered most of the bases, but my basic thought is thus: computer RPGs are to pen and paper RPGs as movies are to books; it’s about having your world defined, as opposed to having it outlined. It’s much harder to bring one’s imagination into play in the former. Not impossible, but the odds are stacked against it.

Saturday 1 August 2009

It was still sixteen years ago today

Computer Shopper wasn’t the only computer magazine I bought in October 1993; that post concluded: “Though no one would have believed, in the last months of the the twentieth century (give or take seven years) PC gaming was being reported upon elsewhere in the timeless worlds of publishing…”, and the elsewhere in question was PC Zone.

In the last piece in this series I looked back at The Games Machine, a multi-format games magazine from 1988 that didn’t have an awful lot for a PC-owning games enthusiast in it, which is why I’d switched to PC Plus, Computer Shopper and the like afterwards. 16-bit gaming in the late 80s and early 90s in the UK was dominated by the Atari ST and Amiga, with Sega’s Megadrive also propelling Sonic the Hedgehog into national consciousness. The PC fought back, especially as VGA and the Adlib and Soundblaster cards gave it video and audio parity with the Atari and Commodore machines, and the odd game like Wing Commander finally caused some jealous glances from the other camps (it took a couple of years to get from PC to Amiga), but for the most part the PC was still the beige-boxed office workhorse.

By 1993 the PC was poised to take over at the vanguard of non-console gaming, one of the signs being we finally had a couple of magazines devoted to games, the first of which was PC Zone. There had been other less business-oriented PC magazines, particularly PC Format, but they tended to cover the whole gamut of leisure-type activities. PC Zone was, as it boldly proclaimed on the cover, “100% games”, and up to issue 7 in October 1993.

Compared to the £1.49 for 582 pages of Computer Shopper, PC Zone was £3.95 for a mere 130 pages, but contained far less advertising, and came with no less than three 3.5″ cover disks: 5 playable levels of Sink or Swim (“go beyond Lemmings with Zeppelin’s puzzler”), the complete game of Bio Menace (“Apogee’s orgy of death & destruction”) and Manga Mayhem (“stunning gallery of Anime graphics”). The latter tied in with one of the cover stories, “Manga: fun with girls and guns”, and I’d be lying if I said its illustration of scantily clad fox-girl-things wasn’t at all a factor in picking up the magazine. The other main cover story was Lands of Lore, “exclusive review – classic game”.

On the news pages we had a couple of screenshots of Freelancer, “in its very early stages of design”, due in the first quarter of ’94. For fans of Terry Pratchett, “Teeny Weeny Games has acquired the much sought after licence to Pratchett’s Discworld books and is developing a game for the PC and PC CD ROM (along with other formats). However the game won’t see the light of day until next summer at the earliest.” A more in-depth four page preview looked at Beneath a Steel Sky, with lots of Dave Gibbons artwork including the evolution from his early sketches to a screenshot of the game, and an interesting annotated screen illustrating some of the challenges of designing for the game engine, such as limiting vertical movement to prevent sprite scaling, and avoiding exits on the Y-axis.

The review section kicked off with Lands of Lore from the cover, David McCandless being sufficiently impressed to award it 90 for “PC Zone Classic” status. I vaguely remember playing Lands of Lore, and I’m not sure I’d call it a classic; it was one of the last of the tile-based rotate-90-degree type RPGs a la Dungeon Master and Eye of the Beholder, and with games like Ultima Underworld already offering more freedom I found it slightly same-y.

Seal Team from Electronic Arts was an ambitious attempt at using a flight sim engine for a first-person squad-based tactical shooter sort of thing set in Vietnam. Rather more considered than something like the all-guns-blazing Wolfenstein 3D, Seal Team was praised for its atmosphere, as your squad cautiously crept through the South East Asian jungle to investigate a village, but the graphics were somewhat lacking, especially for a game that needed pretty beefy hardware to run well, so came out with a score of 77. I tried a demo, but couldn’t really get on with it.

Platformer The Lost Vikings was Recommended with a score of 80; hex-based wargame Clash of Steel got 67, one for the grognards really, while Ambush at Sorinor, a fantasy strategy wargame did slightly better with 70. Trading game The Patrician (“It’s up to you to trade, lie, cheat and bribe your way to the top (try to imagine Howard’s Way with German names and funny hats)”) got 65, with the conclusion “Desperate for a trading game set in the Hanseatic League but which could have been given more zap? Look no further.” NHL Hockey, an early EA Sports offering (they hadn’t even tacked the year on the end) got a big thumbs up with 91. Simon the Sorcerer, a point n’ click adventure, got a score of 86, being welcomed as a British take on the genre dominated by Monkey Island and the like, even if the humour didn’t always quite work.

Back in the Bargain Bin LHX Attack Chopper got 88 (at least it ran on a CGA machine, I quite enjoyed that on my old 1512 while hankering after Wing Commander on a 386), F-15 Strike Eagle got 85, and I’m not sure of Loom’s final score as I’d cut out a coupon from the other side of the page, but it shows how staple adventure games and flight sims were at the time.

A whole feature looked at upgrades; not new hardware, but game expansions, data disks, and “deluxe versions”, overhauling previous games. As a couple of examples, Wing Commander Academy was a standalone game, based on the Wing Commander II engine, but removing the plot, and giving you the ability to design your own missions. A couple of years after Wing Commander had been such a revelation the engine was a little dated, and Academy only scored 60. As the review said, “Wing Commander Academy has one major problem. It’s coming out of the shadow of X-Wing. After spending hours in flud and smooth and exciting full screen space combat, it’s difficult to go back to Wing Commander’s jerky, halting, quite repetitive one third screen experience.” To prove the point, also reviewed was Imperial Pursuit, a data disk expansion for X-Wing, scoring 80; much as I’d loved Wing Commander at the time, X-Wing, and even more Tie Fighter after it, took the space sim to the next level so I never went back for the third Wing Commander game.

After the reviews came The HackMasters, starting with an exhortation to back up any files you might tinker with, then a couple of quick guides to hexadecimal and the DOS debug command. Who said games couldn’t be educational? Suitably forearmed, the rest of the section was then a mix of conventional passwords and cheat codes for games like Flashback, The Incredible Machine Part II, Robocod and Syndicate, and debug commands to edit save games of Worlds of Legend, Betrayal At Krondor, Zool and Space Hulk, for kitting out your marines with extra flamers and assault cannon. The TruePlayers, on the other hand, went with more conventional walkthroughs, this issue including Day of the Tentacle and Shadow of the Comet.

With all the furore over the pricing of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 recently, it’s interesting looking back at the prices of games back in 1993. Lands of Lore, with an RRP of £35.99, was a positive bargain; Clash of Steel and Simon the Sorcerer were £39.99, and Seal Team and NHL Hockey were £44.99. Those were just the floppy disk versions; a multimedia verision of King’s Quest VI on CD ROM was another fiver on top at £49.99. Mail order companies at least knocked a bit off the prices; “Only the Best Computer Software” of Bristol listed Lands of Lore at £24.99, and the CD ROM King’s Quest VI at £32.99, but it was easy to see the appeal of Shareware.

Speaking of which… a couple of pages in from the back cover was a full page advert for the game that would firmly install the PC as a viable games machine. With a green-armoured space marine blasting the horde of demons surrounding him, “ID Software’s DOOM is real-time, three-dimensional, 256 colour, fully texture-mapped, multi-player battle from the safe shores of our universe into the horrifying depths of the netherworld! Choose one of four characters and you’re off to war with hideous hellish hulks bent on chaos and death! See your friends bite it! Cause your friends to bite it! Bite it yourself! And if you won’t bite it, there are plenty of demonic denizens to bite it for you!”