Saturday, August 11, 2012

Byte: Dig For Victoly!

While it might not rank in my top 10 films of all time, I do think that Jurassic Park is indisputably the perfect Saturday Matinee film, just because there's so much there in terms of details that both adults and children can enjoy. It's one of those little details that links (tangentially) to the game I want to write about. There's a scene towards the beginning of Jurassic Park that most people probably forget. It's where Gennaro, the lawyer whom is destined to become a light snack for the rampaging T-Rex, visits the dig in South America where the amber-clad mosquitoes that provide a DNA source for the park's dinosaurs are found. He has a conversation with the lead palaeontologist about who Hammond is going to get to sign off on the park, and the palaeontologist scoffs "Grant? You'll never get him out of Montana. [Why not?] Because Grant's like me... He's a digger."

I always liked that line, because if I'd ever become an palaeontologist (and believe me, I was tempted) I'd be a digger, too. Now, I never did become and palaeontologist, much to my regret, especially after having met one of the UK's most charismatic and successful dinosaur diggers, Dr Phil Manning, a few weeks ago at the Science Live exhibition at The Royal Society. He's doing some amazing work marrying palaeontology with x-ray spectroscopy (dinosaurs and particle physics, at the same time? where do I sign up??), but more on that another time, perhaps...

Thankfully, where real life fails, videogames deliver. I still get to be a digger, though in Terraria, I'm not after dinosaur bones.

My first experience with Terraria about a year ago was rather short-lived. After about five minutes failing around uselessly, I quit and didn't look at it again. It wasn't the fault of the game, I might add. I was trying to play it when tired and a wee bit squiffy, which is not a good idea with a game that has this much depth and a relatively steep learning curve. I came back to Terraria a few months ago, when I realised that it's a game that runs nicely on my aging netbook, and its diggery charms haven't really let go since. It's quite a simple game in many ways, but when you get into it, Terraria's vastly complicated for a 2D platformer. There's crafting, combat, exploring and even world-rebuilding to be done. But the key is digging. DIG FOR VICTOLY!

When you realise that you've got to spend a few minutes chatting with the Guide (the first NPC you will meet) to get some kind of idea of how to get started in the game world, things drop into place pretty quickly from there on. You scrape together a few resources to build a safe haven. Chop down some trees to make a work bench and some rudimentary weapons. Then it gets more complicated. Mine some stone to marry with the wood you've chopped down to make arrows. Kill gels to make combine with wood to make torches. Now you can make flaming arrows. Get more stone and you can create a furnace to melt down metal ores. Get enough iron and you can make an anvil - and then you can make more sophisticated weapons and armour. And once you've got armour and passably good weapons, you can make higher tier tools (mining picks, axes and hammers) to gather resources more quickly, and it all just snowballs from there.

There's a great balance between risk and reward. To get the materials you need to create more powerful gear, you've got to explore - either wider or deeper. And this means you may very well encounter enemies or environments that are profoundly hazardous for your character's currently level of development. Terraria isn't an RPG as such, though there are similarities between Terraria's open world and that of Fallout 3 - wander too far off track and the game world will be only too happy to hand you your arse on a white marble tombstone (a nice touch, it records the manner of your death). Death isn't too punishing in softcore mode as you just lose half your cash - a penalty easily remedied by leaving all your money at home in a piggy bank that you can buy from the Merchant NPC. Hardcore mode is a different proposition (you lose everything) and there's a perma-death mode as well if you're after serious bragging rights. Terraria features all sorts of different biomes, which get increasingly hostile, the further away you get from your character's starting location, in the forest biome. The jungle biome in particular is especially nasty, as is the Corruption biome. Also, the deeper you dig, the nastier things get, though the more likely you are to find useful objects, like Depth Meters, Enchanted Boomerangs, explosives and Life Crystals, so if you want to get the best gear, you've got to take a chance on (literally) getting out of your depth.

There's also a day-night cycle that allows you to gather resources relatively unmolested during the day, but unleashes zombies and undead demon eyes at night, meaning that it's best for you to take cover underground or stay in your home; unless, of course, you want to go hunting for fallen stars, which you can use to boost your mana stat, amongst other things.

Once you've grasped the basics, Terraria is immensely satisfying. There's something comforting about the clink-clink-clink of a pick axe striking rock, digging you deeper towards unknown dangers and loot. Dig deep enough and you'll be fighting demons in lava-filled caves, hunting for golden chests filled with rare gear - gear that you need to stand the slightest chance of surviving encounters with the very same demons guarding them. Liberate enough Life Crystals (that permanently add 20 life to your maximum health, up to a cap of 400), and the game will decide you're ready to start tackling boss battles. The Eye of Cthulhu can spawn randomly after you've got 200 health, or you can summon it at a demon altar, provided you've taken enough lenses from demon eyes. It's usually the first of the world bosses you can fight, and they drop materials and gear that are handy for when you want to start exploring the more hazardous areas. Since Terraria is a sandbox, there isn't really any sort of narrative - you can't "win" the game, though for most people I guess defeating the bosses and handling all of the random encounters that can be set of by blowing up Shadow Orbs in Corruption zones would count. Oh, did I not mention there are explosives? Oh yes, there are grenades, guns, bombs and dynamite. Though using explosives can be as hazardous to yourself as your enemies. Goodness knows I've blown myself up enough times when using bombs as a fast-track digging tool.

The sandbox nature of Terraria is probably the thing I like best. Once you're over the initial hump of the learning curve, the ability to reshape the world is something you can sink hours into. I've built castles out of red bricks, towers made from glass and even flattened the top of the world as far as I dare explore, just to make hoovering up fallen stars all the more easy. You can dig labyrinths, leaving behind a trail of torches or glowsticks to mark your way down through the world. I've put 35 hours into the game, and if the wiki is anything to go by, I've barely scratched the surface of all the crafting possibilities and haven't even discovered all of the biomes yet. There's just so much you can do in Terraria, it's easy to forgive the lack of narrative and the 16-bit retro graphics. In fact, that just adds to the charm, because your imagination is free to fill in the gaps, which I've always found more pleasurable than having photorealistic graphics and an invariably rubbish story forced down your throat anyway. I think I'll be digging for a long time yet. Where'd I put my gold pickaxe and explosives?