Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Bark: Alignment update

Every so often I like to do a gaming mental health check, using an AD&D character generator test. Here are my latest results.

I Am A: True Neutral Human Sorcerer (5th Level)

Ability Scores:







True Neutral A true neutral character does what seems to be a good idea. He doesn't feel strongly one way or the other when it comes to good vs. evil or law vs. chaos. Most true neutral characters exhibit a lack of conviction or bias rather than a commitment to neutrality. Such a character thinks of good as better than evil after all, he would rather have good neighbors and rulers than evil ones. Still, he's not personally committed to upholding good in any abstract or universal way. Some true neutral characters, on the other hand, commit themselves philosophically to neutrality. They see good, evil, law, and chaos as prejudices and dangerous extremes. They advocate the middle way of neutrality as the best, most balanced road in the long run. True neutral is the best alignment you can be because it means you act naturally, without prejudice or compulsion. However, true neutral can be a dangerous alignment because it represents apathy, indifference, and a lack of conviction.

Humans are the most adaptable of the common races. Short generations and a penchant for migration and conquest have made them physically diverse as well. Humans are often unorthodox in their dress, sporting unusual hairstyles, fanciful clothes, tattoos, and the like.

Sorcerers are arcane spellcasters who manipulate magic energy with imagination and talent rather than studious discipline. They have no books, no mentors, no theories just raw power that they direct at will. Sorcerers know fewer spells than wizards do and acquire them more slowly, but they can cast individual spells more often and have no need to prepare their incantations ahead of time. Also unlike wizards, sorcerers cannot specialize in a school of magic. Since sorcerers gain their powers without undergoing the years of rigorous study that wizards go through, they have more time to learn fighting skills and are proficient with simple weapons. Charisma is very important for sorcerers; the higher their value in this ability, the higher the spell level they can cast.

Find out What Kind of Dungeons and Dragons Character Would You Be?, courtesy of Easydamus (e-mail)

Detailed Results:

Lawful Good ----- XXXXXXXXXXXX (12)
Neutral Good ---- XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX (17)
Chaotic Good ---- XXXXXXXXXXXXXXX (15)
Lawful Neutral -- XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX (16)
Chaotic Neutral - XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX (19)
Lawful Evil ----- XXXXXXXXXXXXX (13)
Neutral Evil ---- XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX (18)
Chaotic Evil ---- XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX (16)

Law & Chaos:
Law ----- XXXXX (5)
Neutral - XXXXXXXXXX (10)
Chaos --- XXXXXXXX (8)

Good & Evil:
Good ---- XXXXXXX (7)
Neutral - XXXXXXXXXXX (11)
Evil ---- XXXXXXXX (8)

Human ---- XXXXXXXXXXXXX (13)
Dwarf ---- XXXXXXXX (8)
Elf ------ XXXXXXXX (8)
Gnome ---- XXXXXX (6)
Halfling - XXXXXXXXXX (10)
Half-Elf - XXXXXXXX (8)
Half-Orc - XXXXXX (6)

Barbarian - (-2)
Bard ------ (-4)
Cleric ---- (-4)
Druid ----- (0)
Fighter --- (0)
Monk ------ (-19)
Paladin --- (-23)
Ranger ---- XXXX (4)
Rogue ----- (-4)
Sorcerer -- XXXXXX (6)
Wizard ---- XXXX (4)

Nice to know that my alignment hasn't changed since last time (though I am sliding dangerously close to Neutral Evil), but very interesting that I've switched from Half-Elf to Human and my class has changed to Sorceror, too. I guess like Anders from Dragon Age: Awakening, I just want to be able to shoot lightning at fools, too.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Bark: They call it schadenfreude



I can't wait to see what kind of vegetable The Sun will Photoshop the head of Fabio Capello into tomorrow morning.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Byte: Steam summer sale

Dammit, Steam! Why must you tempt me with cut price games that I feel compelled to buy, even though I know I probably won't put more than a couple of hours into each of them??

Mount and Blade: Warband's a must at that price, though. And so's the super-duper-starship-trooper version of The Witcher, too. My review copy doesn't want to work anymore, so I had to, really...

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Byte: 3654 Days'o'sex

This week is Deus Ex's 10 year anniversary. RPS's Verdict is probably all you really need to read about the game, but that's not going to stop me from talking about my memories, both old and recent.

Deus Ex is one of those rare games that I keep coming back to, despite the fact that I've completed it. Though the story of how (and when) I completed it is a tale worth telling in itself. I bought the game the week it came out (thanks to KG's legendary review of it in PCG) and it was the first game that ever really made me see the potential that videogames had as interactive storytelling devices. (Note that I hadn't actually played Half-Life at this point)

The first level (Liberty Island) was a marvel, though predictably, I initially tried playing the game like Doom and ran into the steepest learning curve I'd encounter in a game until playing EVE Online - though my first memory of Deus Ex (after the hideously animated, but intriguing, opening cutscene) was of Paul Denton running up to you at the beginning and asking you to pick from a sniper rifle, a GEP gun or a mini-crossbow. I was horrified. I'd never played an RPG (on computer, at least) so while I knew from the review that it wasn't your average FPS, I wasn't expecting to have to make a decision quite that quickly. How was I supposed to decide based on so little prior information? I took a punt on the GEP gun, which probably turned out to be the best decision I made in the first 15 hours of the game, in all honesty, since you don't get the opportunity to pick another one up for hours, while the other two are freely available to be picked up from NPCs in the first level. Hurrah for out-of-context problems!

Anyway. My first attempt at wending my way through the NSF ranks to get to the top of the statue was an absolute disaster. I didn't twig the RPG accuracy mechanics and ran out of ammunition before I'd even killed two terrorists. And then I got slaughtered. The number of times I died trying to beat that level the first time... I'm not sure I can even give a reasonable estimate. But we're talking dozens. There was something compelling about the game, though. It took me probably about six hours to explore all the options of how to complete that one level - the front door, the crate climb at the back, the air ducts in the tower foyer, hacking ATMs, lockpicking medbot hideaways, using the turrets to blow away the NSF guards... The game just gave you so much scope. Once I'd grasped the mechanics of the game - by playing that one level for longer than it takes to complete Call of Duty: Modern Warfare! - I was absolutely hooked. The game also tapped into the whole X-Files-inspired government conspiracy theory zeitgeist of the late-90s, early-noughties (this was pre-9/11, though much was made of the lack of the World Trade Centre towers on the Manhattan skyline in the opening level - eeriely prescient, looking back), so it was easy to overlook the manifold technical flaws, because it was just so different to everything else I'd ever played.

Perhaps the most surprising thing for me at the time was the fact that once the initial mission was over, the game didn't simply whisk you off to the next one. Instead, you got to go back to base and kick around the HQ, where you'd be able to listen in to the idle chat of your co-workers and their paranoia about the vending machines, read papers and "accidentally" finding your way into the ladies toilet... (and getting your wrist slapped by Manderley for it) It had an absolutely coherent game world and the transitions between maps made total sense within the context of the game, making it a relatively seamless experience.

The game really comes alive in Hong Kong (despite the dreadfully cheap voice acting) and there are some brilliant levels - not least the infiltration into the MJ-12 research lab. Hong Kong is also the first place where you meet the absolutely rat-bastard, hard-as-nails MJ-12 Commandos, who have wrist-rockets that would make Boba Fett proud. If you haven't got a scoped, silent pistol or a sniper rifle at this point to take them out with headshots, you're going to have a hard time with them, even with the ballistic protection mod. Of course, the real Deus Ex hardcore insist on only killing people with the lightsaber (sorry, Dragons Tooth sword) that you pick up in Hong Kong, or indeed, not killing anyone at all (I never had the patience for that). I think Hong Kong is many people's favourite section of the game, and I'd probably agree with that, though there are still several standout levels in the rest of the game.

The Naval Base infiltration when you get back to New York, so that you can sink the tanker carrying the plague virus is a real corker. Security bots, lots of mobs, and several ways into the submarine pen, each with their own distinct challenges. Then when you're actually on the tanker, there are plenty of things to do in there beyond just cracking the seals to sink the ship. I doubt it would make many people's favourite level list from Deus Ex, but for me it was one of the most memorable, because by this point I'd ploughed enough points into the support skills (Computer, Lockpick and Electronics) to really have a go at every single entry point and open up all the options in the game.

After that, it gets a little mental with the conspiracy theories and the plotting (but in an endearing way), when you go back across the pond to Paris, where there are some even more spectacular moments in the annals of atrocious videogame voice-acting. Oh lord, the accents. And I thought the faux-Australian of the philosophical bartender in Hong Kong was bad... Keep your ear out from the "I am a Frenchman" clearly voiced by the guy from Paris. Paris, Texas, that is... Brrrr. The Paris levels aren't so great, but the Notre Dame level was a highlight for me, as it was the first level where I seriously tried infiltration, albeit with a silenced sniper rifle. Those MJ-12 commandos didn't last long. And the finale of the mission is a showdown with Gunther, who regrettably doesn't last long either. Not against an assault rifle packing 20mm explosive rounds, anyway.

So while Paris isn't so fantastique, things do pick up again for the remainder of the game. The level where you have to rescue Gary Savage's daughter (before heading off to the Ocean Lab to sort out Walton Simons) is another tight little level that gives you an almost bewildering amount of ways to approaching one particular problem: how do you kill the three MIBs (who explode on death) guarding Savage's daughter, without tipping them off and having them murder her before you eliminate all of them, or have her die in the fight. The Ocean Lab is a bit of a pain in the arse, frankly (goddamn greasy greasels and krappy karkians!) - a silenced sniper rifle is pretty essential if you don't want to get your legs shot off trying to approach the building. From then on, it's a pretty straight run towards the end game in Area 51, which is actually where I left the game and stopped playing. I can't remember what I started playing instead (No One Lives Forever, maybe?) but while I started new characters and tried out different kits (hacker, non-lethal, assault, etc) - playing the game through again as far as Paris - it was years before I dug out my old save game and actually went back to complete the game. I did blog about it at the time (a year or two back), but I can't seem to find the post right now.

In some ways, it was a bit of an anti-climax, as I'd spent the entire game hoarding explosive ammunition, so I wiped through the final level in about half and hour flat, blasting my way through MJ-12 commandos, security and spider bots with absolute impugnity, using my GEP gun and the 20mm assault rifle ammo. I didn't try out all three ending - just the Helios one - though I may go back and try out the other two in time. Given that it's the 10 year anniversary (and also given that I'm on holiday) I am tempted to go back and play it again and really try my best to break the game, knowing what I know now about the levels, story and the way the game engine itself works.

Deus Ex is still probably the most well-designed game ever made, in terms of allowing the player to approach situations and find creative solutions that the designers never anticipated. And it's this that I really love about Deus Ex. Most games give you one tool to do one job. Or maybe they give you a couple of ways of solving one problem. Deus Ex designs in at least two ways of approaching a problem and if you're creative enough, you can use the game mechanics to find at least two more. Whether it's a LAM trap reverse-ambush, a turret hack or simply sneaking through a vent and avoiding combat entirely, Deus Ex can be played if you like combat, or if you like stealth, or if you like trying to find ways of subverting the design. There's obviously a bit of a risk there, in that you throw away your suspension of disbelief and don't take the game seriously, but the story is well-executed, if outlandish. The fact that the designers catered for so many eventualities in the way the story can develop (such as choosing to kill Anna Navarre instead of Lebedev on the 747, or blowing up the hostages - either by accident or design - in the Battery Park subway station) shows just how good this game is.

If you never did play it back in the day (or in the subsequent 3650 days since), it's still a must-play for a PC gamer. I don't think we'll ever see its like again (not with today's blockbuster-or-bust development 'philosophy'), and it will be interesting to see just how well Deus Ex 3 lives up to its heritage (my prediction: shiny, but ultimately a bit rubbish. What a shame.). It still rates in my Top 5 PC games and it's certainly one of the most replayable, thanks to the design. I'll have to get around to playing some of the mods I've missed out on, as well - especially the Nameless Mod, of which I keep hearing very nice things. So how could I sum the game up, in one short, pity sentence that entirely removes any need for you to read that huge mass of text above? Ambitious, intricate, brilliant, flawed, yet more than the sum of its parts; Deus Ex is all these things and many more - I can envisage it still being revered as a classic in another ten years. It's really that good.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Byte: Best. Game. Ever.

Well, maybe not ever. But it is brilliant. I heard about this via RPS and was totally sold by the video, especially the music in the first half. It's just so appropriate. Warning: the video does contain some naughty words.

Go play Transformice today! (If you can find a working server)

Monday, June 21, 2010

Byte: Movie misquote review - Dragon Age: Origins

I love the sound of Shield Bash in the morning. Sounds like... VICTOLY.

(Inspired by: Apocalypse Now)

Bark: They think it's all over... it is now!

No, I'm not talking about the England football team's sense of entitlement, rather the fact that for pretty much the first time in nine months, I actually have a free moment. Though the coincidence that my PGCE course should finish in time for the second week of the World Cup and the first week of Wimbledon is a real bonus...

Teacher training is without doubt the hardest thing I've ever done, but now, having survived the year, I can say that it's also one of the most enjoyable and rewarding things, too. That's not to say that I'm not looking forward to a nice, long, relaxing summer. I have every intention of doing a huge amount of gaming and writing over the next two months, until I start my job in my new school in September.

I'm going to kick off my summer by starting a new meme - videogame reviews in the form of movie misquotes. You'll see what I mean by that in my next post. But other than my games writing, I also want to work on a film script based on an idea that's been kicking around my brain for the last few months. I'll keep you posted of how that goes. So here's to a brief period (at least) of more frequent blogging and writing - and a nice, relaxing summer.

Friday, June 04, 2010

Byte: Modern Warfare

I recently got around to playing Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, thanks to it coming down to a reasonable price on Steam. Having come to the game after all the hype surrounding it has calmed down, I would have to say that it's one of the best shooters I've played since Far Cry 2 - though I would have to say I prefer Far Cry 2 in respect of it not being utterly on rails, though some of Modern Warfare's set pieces are absolutely brilliant.

The reason for this post, however, is less to do with the fact that I've finally gotten around to playing the game, but more to do with one particular level - All Ghillied Up - which is probably my favourite in the entire game, since it plays like what my conception of what being an elite, special forces soldier would actually be like on a mission behind enemy lines, without backup. Some of the level is Operation Flashpoint-esque: crawling around in a ghillie suit, trying not to be trodden on by enemy troopers (or run over by BMP-2s), while still allowing you to do silent takedowns of lone patrols (Gotta love that silenced M-21). The level is great for building suspense and tension without ever really giving you much of a chance to relieve it. I was on the edge of my seat pretty much the whole way through.

A lot of the time in linear FPS games, you can see where the level designers have thought "we need to throw in more excitement here", if you've not had a firefight for 200 yards, but this level is all the better for restraining its hand. Less is most definitely more. I was shitting my pants as I was crawling through a field, three yards behind the arse of my commander, as a couple of dozen troops and four BMPs were coming the other way toward us. You know that one mistake is instant death - fighting your usual "I'LL TAKE YOU ALL ON!" impulse that you get in FPS games really sets your heart pounding.

And still, there are odd moments of levity. Captain MacMillan (your CO for the mission) has some great lines, not least when you see a wild dog gnawing on the corpse of a dead civilian - "Pooch doesn't look too friendly." It's the kind of gallows humour you'd expect from people whose trade is the dealing (and possible receiving) of death.

It's a great level, and the fact that you don't do a lot of shooting covers the big flaw in the overall game (and its sequel) - infinitely respawning enemies. They're there to help to force the pace - as in, they stop respawning if you keep moving forward - but I still think infinite respawns are a hateful design choice. Some situations call for a defensive action, but COD doesn't have any of that - it either makes you keep moving or run out of ammunition, and that's a big flaw in any shooter that could be seen as being of a more tactical bent (like the ArmAs or Delta Forces of this world). No Spec Ops soldier in their right mind would push themselves forward into the kind of situations that COD presents you with - but admittedly, it is just a game, and therefore NOT REAL.

It's the SAS levels that really make the game for me - the USMC ones are good, but lack a little of the edginess of the SAS ones. I was also pleasantly surprised by the voice-acting. Captain Price and Gaz are real standouts, despite them being voiced by cast-offs from The Bill and Eastenders, respectively. Somehow, it just works. And the final couple of levels are simply awesome - given that its the Brits, not the ubiquitous Yanks who take the lead in the missions. The finale is great, too, where Soap has to take out three Ultra-nationalists (include The Big Bad) with just seven rounds from Price's .45 calibre pistol. They don't call me "Double-tap, one kill" for nothing...

Actually, they don't call me that at all, but that's another story...

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Byte: Reasons why I play more games on consoles than PC

I'll gloss over the fact that I've not posted here in months and instead get straight back into dispensing my inimitable brand of games punditry. (It's inimitable not due to reasons of style, but because no-one would be stupid enough to want to copy it...)

One of the many side effects of doing a PGCE is that all your free time tends to evaporate, being consumed by the three-headed monster of lesson planning, resource preparation and assorted administration. This means that over the last nine months or so, I've had precious little time for gaming, let alone blogging or games journalism. Over these nine months, there have been quite a few changes in my gaming habits.

Firstly, nightly gaming sessions are now non-existent. These days I'm lucky if I get to play for more than an hour at a time on a couple of nights a week. With my gaming time now so much more precious and limited, I can't afford to be so indiscriminate with my gaming habits.

Secondly, the time of day when I usually do get to play is in the early hours of the morning, when all work has ceased and I don't have access to my gaming PC (due to its location in the bedroom) - my lady would not approve of me clicking and tapping away as she tried to sleep.

Thirdly, when I do get to play something, I'm usually so tired that I can't managed anything too complicated. It's got to be simple to pick up and play, and also not so addictive that I can't put it down again when I want to get some sleep.

Additionally, when I do want to play something, I want it to work without having to spend hours fiddling around with it to get a frame rate or have the content work properly. Xbox Live just *works*. Games for Windows Live (which I only use for Dawn of War II) is a monstrosity that never signs in properly, even on Windows 7. And don't even get me started on publisher-specific "points" systems that replace real money when you want to download new content for your game onto your PC. I tried that with Dragon Age: Origins, and it's a clusterfuck. Not only does the game refuse to log in to the servers 99.9999% of the time (and yes, I've tried every solution in every single support thread in the BioWare forums, and it's still fucked), I've got "points" (i.e. money) that are sitting in EA's deep pockets that I can't even spend because I can't log into my account via the game client... You're on a PC with access to the internet, for fucks sake. What's wrong with just using Paypal? Or a credit card? I can understand using points systems for consoles, where you might have users that don't have credit cards and buy their points on cards from GAME, but for the PC it's just incomprehensible. Say you want to buy a Dragon Age add-on for the PC. First, you have to register with BioWare and then buy "BioWare points" (with yout credit card) that you can only redeem through the game client to buy content. So if the login system in the client is screwed, they've just taken your money and you can't do a damn thing with it. Surely it should not be beyond the wit of man to be able to pay for and download the content directly onto your PC via the wonders of Teh Interwebs?

So is it any wonder then, that I decided that I was going to buy Mass Effect 2 on Xbox 360, because then, a) I knew it would run properly, b) have a content download system that worked, and c) be on a machine that I could play on when my beloved was getting her beauty sleep.

The old argument (that I used to endorse) for gaming on the PC was that the games looked better, had more depth and sharper controls. Unfortunately, that's no longer the case. Higher resolutions be damned, I'd much rather play Mass Effect 2 on a 32" LCD TV than a 22" widescreen monitor. (I've even played Halo on a 8 foot wide projector, but that's another story) Games on the 360 look just as good as most titles I play on my PC (if not better on the larger screen), and in the few cases they don't, well... I can live with it.

On the second point, it's only really in the strategy genre that the PC truly has the consoles licked in terms of depth. I doubt you're ever going to see Sins of a Solar Empire on the 360, but given that I don't have time to play 4X games other than when I'm on holiday, that's no great loss either. In every other gaming genre, you can't argue for PCs being better on grounds of depth, given that the games that migrate from one platform to another are usually pretty identical. And usually for multiplatform titles, it's the PC that gets the raw end of the deal in being sloppily ported (how many PC games can you name where they're better off played with a 360 pad than a keyboard and mouse?) Bad ports to console are relatively rare, by comparison.

Even on the last point - controls - there's been a definite improvement in recent years. I've played a fair few titles on both PC and 360 over the last year or two and I actually found Far Cry 2 more playable on 360 than on the PC. Given that I'm equally useless in an FPS game with either a mouse or a pad (something I have proven again to myself in the last few days playing Call of Duty: Modern Warfare on PC and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 on 360), I'm leaning towards the console again on grounds of player-friendliness.

My PC is starting to show its age now, and earlier this week I scared my lady by looking at the prices for a new quad-core monster PC that would see me through another couple of years gaming. And then I thought, is it really worth it? There aren't really that many PC-exclusive titles out in the next year that I'm genuinely stoked about. (Starcraft II? Couldn't give a Protoss...) Sure, the PC gets cheaper games, but how many would I have to buy to offset the cost of the hardware, compared to just buying the games on 360? More games than I have the time to play, for sure...

And then there's what might be the final nail in the coffin - DRM. There was absolutely no way I was going to buy Splinter Cell: Conviction on the PC. It's a stonking game, but with Ubisoft's new and slightly evil "always on or you're off" online authentication system, the 360 version was the only option, really. I'm not going to put up with that kind of rubbish for a game that's run entirely locally and doesn't have a server-based component. No doubt conspiracy theorists are saying it's some dastardly corporate scheme to force gamers off the PC onto the more profitable consoles, but personally I think it's just idiocy, rather than a plan. Let's hope that one doesn't turn into a trend.

I'm not about to abandon PC gaming entirely - the awesomeness of GOG and Steam should see to that - but it has slipped off its long-time perch as my primary gaming platform for the time being. Such heresy! I'm no longer a PC gaming fanboy. My former forum alter-ego (LORDTHRAWN) must be spinning in his virtual grave...