PC roleplaying

Dungeon & Dragons Online: Stormreach

Last night I took my initial steps in Dungeons & Dragons Online: Stormreach. The game is two years old and still supported. I heard good things about it from the Gamers With Jobs podcast and decided to have a go, as I haven’t played a modern MMORPG at all, really. Anarchy Online was my last attempt.

It’s pretty enough, albeit a little generic. It runs smoothly on my med-spec PC with everything maxed out. Being a console player, I find the user interface a little difficult, but it’s nothing distracting. My initial impressions are not good: both of the characters (a human Paladin and a warforged Fighter) I’ve created have disappeared after logging out for the first time. I find it hard to motivate myself to create a third character.

I haven’t played it enough to really pass judgement, but there is one thing I want to bring up: the Dungeon Master. When I got into the first dungeon, a narrator’s voice boomed out, giving a bit of atmosphere and setting the scene. This being Dungeons & Dragons, I found this entirely natural, even though I don’t recall a similar approach from any other game. Things quickly moved on: when I encountered a crazy man, the Dungeon Master explained that the man was addressing me, badly acting out the crazy man’s voice in a melodramatic fashion – exactly like a less than stellar, real-life Dungeon Master would. This felt extremely weird to me. I haven’t witnessed anything comparable in a videogame.

I took it in stride, because I feel that the narrator is a great device. I can take the generic dungeon settings and lifeless characters much better when they’re being supplemented by the narration. The narration makes the game feel like a tabletop experience; I’m giving the audiovisual execution more leeway because I’m being asked to do so. Without the narration I would probably bemoan the way the game can’t match a tabletop experience, but this device conveniently bridges that gap and makes it feel like Dungeons & Dragons. Then again, it wouldn’t take much for the narration to begin to grate.

I’m looking forward to some more Stormreach, although I don’t expect this to turn me into a MMORPG fan. It had better not, too – I agreed to not get lost in these games (well, World of Warcraft, specifically) when I signed up for my new job as a videogame producer.


Blueberry Garden

Blueberry Garden Postcard 4

There are wonderful things happening in indie game development these days. For some reason, the Swedish are rocking out especially well. Erik Svedäng’s Blueberry Garden looks beautiful. It’s due out in Summer.

There’s a trailer on the site.

Freeware PC tabletop games


Teardown screenshot

Space Hulk is back, again, this time sanctioned by both the previous videogame licence owner EA, who has granted the use of some its old assets and Games Workshop. I find this curious, as GW has been known to be very protective over its intellectual property.

Teardown is a freeware release and it’s out now. They’ve put some effort towards the aesthetics. It’s got heart-warming 2D charms, basic sound and a considered user interface. I could not resist playing a couple of games last night even though it was well past my bedtime.

They have made precious few changes to the game, chief among them a ranking system for surviving Space Marine Terminators in a campaign, which is obviously welcome. Oh god, those pictures bring back the memories of painting my own Terminators as a teenager. I wonder where they are now?

Update on 5 March 2008: The Teardown site has been taken down due to excessive bandwidth usage. Also, Games Workshop has issued a letter on an undisclosed matter, presumably concerning their intellectual rights. All of which is too bad, I hope the guys work it out without severe financial consequences.


Off-Road Velociraptor Safari

Off-Road Velociraptor Safari. I’ve said that at some point, physics alone cease to be fun, but that point is not here yet, and if it was, adding dinosaurs to the equation makes the point moot. Somebody needs to pick this up, add a little glitter and release it on Xbox Live Arcade.


First impressions: Crysis

I have a low-to-medium spec PC and wasn’t looking forward to Crysis too much. My system: AMD Athlon 64 X2 4200+, 2 GB DDR2 533 MHz, GeForce 7600GS 512 MB, running Windows XP. I’ve been playing with the settings for a couple of days now and have settled on most settings on low, some on medium. Getting a second gig of RAM helped a lot and cost all of 20€. On low levels, it doesn’t come near Far Cry’s level of beauty, especially since you need to drop the resolution and anti-alias, too, but its entirely playable, only chugging in heavy close quarters combat. When you’re not in combat, I could push it up to medium levels and yeah, it’s a huge difference. I’m sure I’ll revisit this once I get a new GPU some day. The physics feel like something new, too, but obviously they require a lot from your system. Even on low levels, they’re impressive, with trees coming down from stray bullets.

Once you get over the looks and accept that you’re going to be looking at something much worse than you’re used to, there’s a game in there, too. It’s been compared to Far Cry a lot, but really, this is so much better. The much-touted nanosuit makes all the difference. You’re changing suit modes all the time to adapt to the situation. So far I’ve spent most of my time in cloak mode, sneaking around enemies and picking them off one by one, but it’s easy and quick to, say, switch to strength mode to clear a big gap and go back to cloak while still in the air, switching again to speed mode to cross the opening ahead and so on. It really makes you feel like a super-soldier.

And that’s the big idea they’ve got, I think: instead of making you look like a lost tourist (Far Cry) who just happens to be able to take clipfuls of bullets and still return the favor, you’re clearly much superior to your enemies. You look like a techno nightmare (the suit resembles bare muscles you’ve worn on top of your body) and tear through whole fortifications with ease. Still, it requires tactical thought, because a couple of shotgun blasts from up close will still take you out, or getting caught in a crossfire. It’s actually something new, as an FPS experience. I wasn’t expecting that at all.

In addition to the nanosuit modes, the various weapon accessories have a lot of effect, too. Unfortunately I really can’t use the scopes as the visual effect wreaks havoc on my performance, but the others are sweet, too. I find myself switching weapons and accessories all the time, whereas in most games you quickly find your favorites and have no reason to ever deviate from them. You go with a silencer and reflex sight when you’re infiltrating, take off the silencer and put on a laser sight when you’re discovered, and so on. It really adds to your options.


First impressions: Hellgate: London (PC)

I wasn’t able to get in on the alpha and the beta of Hellgate: London due to technical issues, but the retail version works just fine. I’d been looking forward to this a lot, as a demon-bash is always fun and the dynamically created levels are something I appreciate (dating back to Nethack, I guess). The aesthetic design can be outstanding (my guns look very cool) and I appreciate the way the story is handled: demons came, mankind is fighting a losing war, get to it. For the living!

The game’s looks are a mixed bag. Much of the character design is good, but the effects are just lame and the lighting isn’t quite there, although it’s adequate. Cranking everything up high it got a little better, but took too much of a performance hit for my liking, considering how it looks.

A couple of hours in with my marksman character (your basic gun-toting soldier) in the singleplayer game, I have a strong urge to keep playing, which is of course a good sign. You get new powers all the time and the basic “the next level is just half an hour away” feel is there. But it’s not all good.

For one, the environments are repetitive and rarely memorable. Of course this is a side effect of them being created dynamically. They’ve somewhat alleviated the problem with plenty of debris and destructible stuff. A bigger problem is that there’s just not quite enough variation in the environments. I could do with more height differences, water and so on. (These might be coming, too, I’m only a couple of levels in.)

The combat is the main ingredient of the game and I’m afraid they could do with some more work here. It’s lacking solidity. Combat feels too much like Anarchy Online or its kind – the kind of disconnected MMO experience that I don’t want in my singleplayer games. Attacks lack punch, physics are kind of all over the place, there is constant clipping evident in the enemies. Things like detonating grenades don’t have the oomph you look for. Also the enemy AI is not impressing me. These days I want my enemies to flank me, ambush me – and no, them being single-minded demonic zombies is not quite enough of an excuse.

All that said, I really like the premise, I like the way my character looks (I really wanted to post screenshots here), and there’s a healthy dose of humour in there. Looking forward to the higher levels and the online experience. I just hope there’s more variety around the corner.

PC Xbox 360

Half-Life 2 (The Orange Box, Xbox 360, PC)

I only got started on Half-Life 2 a couple of nights ago as I got The Orange Box. In order to review Episode 2, I obviously need to go through the original game and its first expansion (being Episode 1). The prospect of playing through what is essentially two games in order to review three more (Episode 2, The Portal, Team Fortress 2) seems a daunting task, considering that there is a bunch of other games to review, too.

However, it’s been such a thrilling ride so far that I don’t mind. I don’t like Half-Life’s clinical mood when compared to the likes of the Halo series, but the pacing is just sublime. Every scene presents you with a new thing to do, changing the scenery while at it, and drags it out to just the right length. The way City 17 is portrayed is something other developers should mimic – you want to know what goes on behind those apartment block exteriors, not to mention the huge tower rising from the middle of the city. The storyline is gripping, too.

There were technical issues. I first installed the game on the PC, but ended up playing it on the Xbox 360 due to the infamous stuttering issue. One night’s worth of hard drive defragging later, it now runs smooth. Comparison-wise, the 360 version is not quite as pretty, with overdone bloom and some low-res textures, and it doesn’t have that solid 60 FPS on a three year old PC title frame rate, but it loads much faster and I prefer to play with a pad. (Thinking about it, the PC version probably supports a 360 pad, too.)

PC PS3 Xbox 360

Fallout 3

The Fallout 3 teaser went live this week. Check it out if you haven’t seen it, although it doesn’t really reveal anything besides the planned launch time, which is fall 2008. In my opinion the concept art gallery they had before the video did a better job at setting the scene.

People are expecting it to be Oblivion with mutants, but we’ll see. Not that I would actually mind that.

What is certainly interesting is the most recent news of the franchise branching out to the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. While I do have a gaming PC, I’m most likely to buy this for the 360, the same as pretty much all games these days.

PC Xbox 360

Perfect Dipper Super (Guild Wars, Perfect Dark Zero)

I won Kotaku’s comment of the day contest. The story about the World Of Warcraft guild paying for its member’s family’s upkeep during a three-month stint in chemotherapy is exceptional, and I felt awkward commenting on it, but I do stand by my observation on communities being the real “next generation” of videogaming. Anyway, I’m getting gaming swag and a couple of games from the cool folks at Kotaku.

The game loot is all PC, sadly: Guild Wars: Factions, Lineage II and Auto Assault. I don’t know much about the latter two, but Guild Wars sparks a lot of monologue.

I was always interested in GW due to its excellent art direction, but Eurogamer’s enthusiastic review really got my attention. GW seems to do lots of things right.

To begin with, there is no level grind. There is a level progression, but I’m told you’ll cap out on level 20 within one week of playing. I take it that the levels are there mostly to gradually introduce the elements of the game. But you won’t be spending your valuable time killing ever so slightly more powerful bunnies to get a couple of percentage’s worth of increase to your damage potential, when you reach the next level in perhaps a couple of more hours of killing bunnies. Many folks say that World Of Warcraft doesn’t really “begin” until you reach level 60. I’m supposed to grind until that to enjoy the game? No thanks.

Guild Wars is based on instances: whenever you embark on a quest alone or with your mates, you go at it without the other gazillion players in the same space with you. While many argue that instances kill the “realism” (yeah, right) in an online game, I say the opposite. World Of Warcraft and its like suffer tons because you have all the other players (many of whom look exactly like you) crowding your view.

GW allows the player interaction (and everyone’s in the same world, no server-specific content here), but only in the hub areas – out in the instanced world, you can adventure just with your buddies. No queuing (sp?) to kill the monster spawn that’s required in your quest. No killstealing. I couldn’t put it better than Eurogamer reviewer Kieron Gillen in his review of the original Guild Wars:

“I was recently playing another MMO Beta. No name, as I’m currently under a non-disclosure agreement. It’s very much based in the Korean model, with lots of extremely repetitive monster-bashing, but cute enough.

At around 3 AM in the morning I had a moment of terrifying clarity as I pulled back my camera to examine the surroundings. I was in a field packed full of people, all hacking down virtually identical monsters with their own virtually identical attacks and sullenly ignoring each other. Everyone’s attacks, for a second, seem to synchronise, in a steady heartbeat, pumping XP through the body of the playerbase and money into the heart of the developer.

This is humanity reduced to the rhythm of a machine, the player as a combine-harvester, the point of the game suddenly clear. Not to be fun, but to be addicting. I was in a Killing Field. If this is all that MMOs are – and the core of most mainstream MMOs are – what exactly is the benefit to the player of these areas being shared?”

Guild Wars has no subscription fee. This is the single thing that got noticed when it was gearing up for launch, and probably the reason why it’s successful. Now, I perfectly understand why most “massively multiplayer” games have subscription fees and I have no regrets paying for the excellent Xbox Live Gold service. But paying money for a single game does not fit my gaming tastes, because I’m a dipper; I dip in and out of games, often playing a single game for one or two nights and then shelving it for months (or years!). So committing myself to spend all of my game time to one game just won’t do.

Related to this, Guild Wars is also designed to not require lots of time to enjoy. Many people tell me they only play it occasionally, and it doesn’t punish you in any way for this. You can compete, even though you’re not a hardcore online nerd. Indeed, the game notifies you when you’ve played for a long time and advises you to take a break! Commendable.

Guild Wars is built on player vs. player (PVP) gameplay. PVP is not for me in other online “ropleplaying” games, because it’s reserved for the elite only, novices need not apply. GW removes the barrier by setting the level cap within reach of the casual player. So you can get immediate access to the good stuff. I don’t know if I’ll like it, but it sounds so tactical with its interchangeable skills that Magic: The Gathering and its ilk spring to mind, which is a good thing.

Speaking of the interchangeable skills, this is a major innovation. All online RPGs to date (to my knowledge) suffer from new players making blunders in character creation. Then they notice that they can’t succeed with the character they’ve made… after playing for weeks. GW takes this crap away, you can be a different guy in every single game you play. Although you’ll probably have favorite setups you always use, you’re not stuck with them. Every time you head out from the hub areas, you pick eight (yes, just eight) powers from your selection to use. This reminds me delightfully of building a deck in a collectable card game (albeit a small deck).

In Xbox 360 news, I got Perfect Dark Zero. It does a couple of things very well despite not being anywhere near the Halo-levels of FPS goodness. The basic gameplay is all right, although nothing special. But the structure keeps things tight.

There is no saving: you need to complete a level in one sitting. This is not a problem, because they rarely take you more than half an hour to complete. After every level, you get very detailed statistics of your performance, which are then compared to your personal best, and crucially, to the world record. I have a strong urge to beat the par times and get higher on the world ranking. This leads you to viewing the singe player game as a sports arena; you play through the levels thinking how you could be more effective, not just to see the next level. Once you know your way around, the levels can often be completed in around five minutes. I would urge other developer to take note of this, it is very compelling indeed.