Thursday, July 31, 2014

Byte: Shadowrun Returns

What's this? Another post? I'm really spoiling you, aren't I? We haven't reached the heady heights of three posts in a single month since January 2013!

Since I'm in a writing mood, I thought I'd tell you about the other game I've been playing a lot of recently. I'd been keeping my eye on Shadowrun Returns for a while now, so when it came up in the Steam Summer Sale, I thought I'd grab it, since I'm always up for a bit of isometric RPG action. I've put about 30 hours into it over the last few weeks, and I've really enjoyed it. If you've not played it, or don't know too much about it, be warned: HERE BE (some minor) SPOILERS.

On the game's original release, Shadowrun Returns drew some unfavourable comparisons to the original Neverwinter Nights from some commentators, saying that "well, the SDK is great, but the campaign's a bit rubbish - wait until some player-created campaigns come out". That was unfair on Neverwinter Nights, and I think its unfair on the Dead Man's Switch campaign, too. I'll get to the Dragonfall campaign a bit later, because I've not quite finished that yet, but I have completed Dead Man's Switch and had an experiment with most of the character classes, and I've really enjoyed it.

I have to confess that I didn't know a huge amount about the Shadowrun universe before I bought the game. I knew that it had its origins in a PnP RPG, but I had no idea that it dated back to 1989 and that it had spawned a series of games on consoles in the 90's. I had seen the multiplayer shooter on Xbox 360 and PC back in 2007, but didn't bother with it, since it looked a bit rubbish and didn't review terribly well. And I'd also pretty much lost interest in online shooters at this point (if it's not Unreal Tournament, I'm not interested, basically!), but when I first saw the trailer for Shadowrun Returns, my gut instinct was "hey, that looks pretty cool", though obviously not to the extent that I immediately got out my wallet. No doubt I was distracted by a moderately crippling Diablo III addiction at the time, but I digress...

The game setting is not going to float everyone's boat, given that it's a stylistic mash-up between Snow Crash, Neuromancer and Lord of the Rings. (Controversial Opinion Alert: I didn't enjoy Snow Crash as much as I should have, because I found the writing style a little too self-consciously clever and too meta for its own good. Neuromancer was way better. Oh, and as for Lord of the Rings - the films are better than the books. There, I said it.) However, if you can buy into the central conceit of the setting, the underlying lore of the game world is quite rich and involving - well worth mugging up on in the wikis. Character classes are cyberpunk twists on the standard AD&D character classes, with ranged or melee combatants (Street Samurai and Physical Adepts), Mages, and pet/minion classes (Riggers & Shamans - and to a lesser extent, Deckers, once they're in the Matrix), giving you a nice range of player archetypes to replay the game with. You can even build your own custom classes, for example, I'm playing through Dragonfall with a Ranged Street Samurai/Decker multiclass, who is pretty awesome. You can also pick from a traditional range of high fantasy races, Human, Elf, Dwarf, Ork & Troll, each of which have their own preferred stat (be it Body and Strength for Orks and Trolls, or Willpower for Dwarves), though in Dead Man's Switch, you don't really earn enough Karma points to unlock stats and skills to their maximum, so the stat point limits will only really have a major effect on the gameplay if people start creating longer campaigns. There are certain points in the game where your race might have an affect on dialogue choices and the like, but for the most part the race choices are a matter for personal aesthetic preference (I've always had a weakness for elves). Speaking of aesthetics, I should mention at this point that the art style is superb and gives the game a lot of atmosphere. It's a really nice game to look at, from the character portraits to the level design. There are also some nice tips of the hat sneakily stashed away, such as the BTL (Better Than Life - an addictive virtual reality sim) chip pusher based on Steve Jackson, creator of Munchkin, Zombie Dice and many more board games, so watch out for him.

Dead Man's Switch starts with you alone in your apartment at 3am, wondering how you're going to be paying the bills next week, when you get a videocall from an old colleague, Sam Watts, informing you of his death (the titular Dead Man's Switch) and a promise of 100,000 nuyen (New Yen, geddit?), which is apparently a lot of money, if you can track down whoever killed him. So off you pop to Seattle, to try and find Sam's killer. The game plays as a detective story as you get drawn deeper into the intrigues of Seattle's shadowy underbelly, with you eventually uncovering the motive behind Sam's death and a string of murders carried out by the same serial killer who accounted for Sam.

The characters are well-drawn and interesting and if you know your Shadowrun lore, it's quite cool that the person who shows you the ropes in Seattle (after waking him up from his "room" in the morgue) is Jake Armitage, the protagonist from the first Shadowrun game on the SNES. Later in the game you also get to meet Harlequin, who is great fun. I also really liked Cherry Bomb, Coyote and Dresden, though a few of the other characters (such as Jake and Shannon) were a little underwritten and it would have been nice to see them fleshed out a bit more.

Combat is turn-based and well-balanced, and later in the game ensuring that you have the right balance of skills in your team (DPS, healing and area control) gets ever more critical, as you're quite heavily outnumbered in some scenarios. The combat is reminiscient of the revamped X-COM (a game I really need to get back to this summer), with the cover system and overwatch being really useful to set up ambushes.

The story rattles along and you can play through the entirety of Dead Man's Switch in around 12 hours, which not such a bad thing as far as I'm concerned, as at least it means that you're not having to play for weeks and weeks to get closure (Baldur's Gate, I'm looking at you). The disadvantage is that the story does run on rails, when the actual gameworld is sufficiently interesting enough to warrant a full on sandbox. A proper sandbox mode is, apparently, in the works by some enterprising modding team and will no doubt make an appearance on Steam Workshop at some point (but more on that in a minute). It is also a bit of a shame that Dead Man's Switch does descend into a Starship Troopers dungeon crawl in the last couple of hours (don't forget to invest a couple of points in the Shotgun skill, or you'll regret it by the end of the game) and the fact you'll have probably called the final ending of the game right at the beginning, but it is a game or almost unique character and charm. I certainly enjoyed Dead Man's Switch enough to want to replay it with a couple of the different character classes for the first few hours, just to see how they worked. Even better, several homebrew campaigns are starting to make their way onto the Steam Workshop now, some of which are of full campaign length, if 12 hours is too short for you. Of course, a lot of them will be pretty rubbish, but there will be a few gems in there eventually, too - so keep an eye on the user ratings for the best picks.

I also picked up the Dragonfall DLC and have been playing that a lot, though I haven't quite finished it yet. It addresses a lot of the complaints against Dead Man's Switch, as you have more of a relationship with the Shadowrunners who are permanent members of your team, is a little less on rails in that there's a central hub and you can do sidejobs in no particular order, but the main story still does run linearly - so it's not quite the full-on open world glory of Chapter Two in Baldur's Gate 2, but it is a distinct improvement. In fact, it's fair to say that Dragonfall builds on and supercedes Dead Man's Switch in all aspects: better characters, better writing, better story and better combat. If there's one thing that I would criticise, it's that I would have liked there to have been in both campaigns would be romance options for your player character. Only Bioware seems to make the effort these days, and even they don't do it particularly well anymore. Baldur's Gate 2 is still the best RPG for letting you build up meaningful relationships between your player character and members of your party, and that came out nearly fourteen years (FOURTEEN YEARS!) ago. I mean, just look at Glory. Now there's a young woman desperately in need of a hug. If you were brave enough to dare. I would have liked the chance to dare. Just sayin'...

So Shadowrun Returns isn't a game entirely devoid of faults, but there is a lot to enjoy, too. I would recommend it on its own merits, rather than the "potential" of what might spring up in terms of user generated content on Steam Workshop, because the quality of that is likely to be all over the place for some time to come. I would also hope that Harebrained Schemes, the developers, will put out some more DLC in the future, too, because the game deserves another official expansion. Anyway, that's enough from me. I have to go and catch the next installment of Wyrm Talk. It's educational...

Byte: More thoughts on Elite: Dangerous

I've spent about five or six hours today playing with the latest Beta release of Elite: Dangerous, and if you check out all the screenies I took and posted on my Flickr feed earlier tonight (see the widget above), you can see I've been having a little bit of a ball.

There have been a few substantial changes since the final part of the premium beta, the biggest one being the change I've been waiting about six weeks for: solo play. In short, it (almost) makes the game exactly what I wanted, back when I signed up for the Kickstarter. They've opened the game up to 55 systems, which while still a tiny playground compared to the game's stated aim of recreating a whole galaxy, does at least give you some sort of indication of the ultimate potential of the game. The revised galactic map is a great tool, now that it shows trade routes and available hyperspace links. It certainly helps in planning multi-stop trade routes, or aiding you in the decision as to whether you should take on that cargo haulage mission or not. Yes, the bulletin board is now available, bringing with it a cornucopia of assassination, anti-piracy, anti-faction insurgency or plain cargo haulage missions for you to engage in (or not, if you'd just prefer doing your own thing - they're entirely optional).

Graphically, the game has gone through a noticable overhaul, especially with the space station modelling. The Coriolis stations were pretty stunning to begin with, but now they're amazingly sexy - the intricacy of the texture design inside and out is extraordinary. The ship interiors also seem a little more lived in and realistic, though that could be my imagination. The stars themselves have also been improved, with greater levels of detail in the texturing of the photosphere, including magnetic loops and prominences, plus better coronal effects. I'm not sure if they'll be modelled in real-time in the future, but it would be awesome if you could see flares popping off a G-type star every once in a while.

Trading has also been revamped, with a greater range of products, and the trading interface has been substantially improved since the start of the premium beta, as it now shows buying and selling prices on the stock exchange, plus it also keeps track of how much you bought your cargo for, so you can keep tabs of your profit margin, which is essential when trying to find out which commodities are the most profitable between two trading stations. It really helped me today, and I was able to make a big stack of money in a couple of hours after fortuitously scooping up four tonnes of gold in LP 98-132, flogging them off on the black market for over 4000Cr apiece, which allowed me to finally upgrade my Sidewinder to a Hauler. That one stroke of luck, allied to me finding a safe, profitable trade route in Federation Space allowed me to make more progress in solo play in a single afternoon than I'd had in multiplayer since I'd joined the premium beta. I'm still about 100k short of being able to upgrade to a Cobra, but that shouldn't take too long, since running fish from Chango Dock to Aulin Enterprise nets 6000Cr profit per run, and I can make 500Cr per tonne in profit running Progenitor Cells (whatever the heck they're supposed to be) back the other way. I don't quite have the capital yet for a full cargo hold of them in the Hauler, but if you top up the different with Synthetic Meat, you're still making a tidy profit. And it's a whole lot less risky investing 30k in cargo when you don't have to worry about PKers hanging just outside the no fire zone, waiting to scoop up your progenitor cells. (You can always tell the PKers from the bots, since bots don't have their names prefixed with 'CMDR'), though even in solo play you can't afford to get complacent, because even the pirate bots will have a go at you near the space stations if you hang around too long getting in and out of the safe zone. Once I've earned enough money and gotten a properly kitted out Cobra, that's when I'll head off into the wide black yonder trying to stir up some trouble, because I quite fancy doing a bit of pirate hunting. All I need are a pair of gimballed beam lasers, a missile rack and a gimballed multicannon, plus a point defence system to take down enemy missiles and I'll be invincible. Well, maybe... Still, it's something to aim for, right?

Something else new to this release are the custom paint jobs for the Sidewinder and the Eagle. I'm not sure if I entirely approve of this kind of thing, but provided the game doesn't go down the slippery slope of Pay To Win and the microtransactions remain purely aesthetic, then I suppose that's okay. However, I would definitely not be happy to have to fork out extra real world money to get access to the best ships in the game (this is something that has ultimately put me off playing Star Trek Online, incidentally - there is definitely a Pay To Win element there with some of the top tier vessels), even if I am going to be playing solo (which takes away the element of being disadvantaged to other players). I think I've already spent quite enough money on the game already, buying myself into the premium beta. I suppose I can't blame Frontier Developments for trying to get maximum revenues from their game, but it does seem like a bit of a cheap money grab, especially when you recall that the different paint jobs for the ships in Frontier and First Encounters were randomised. If you wanted your ship in a particular colour scheme, you had to get lucky at the shipyard. I remember hunting high and low for days to get an Asp with shark teeth decals in First Encounters. Speaking of the shipyard, if there is something I'd like to see in a future release, it is the ability to preview the specifications of ships available in the shipyard. It would be nice to know exactly what you're getting in terms of hardpoints, hyperspace range and cargo capacity before you fork out the cash. Still, it's a minor gripe, and overall the game is shaping up magnificently well. I seriously doubt that I'll have to buy another game all year.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Bark: 100,636

According to Christopher Hitchens, “Everybody does have a book in them, but in most cases that's where it should stay.” Unfortunately, after nearly two years of battle between my psyche and my keyboard, mine has escaped, at least into Word and PDF document form. It's not quite out into the wild yet, as it's still being contained using the technical wizardry of USB sticks, but surely it's only a matter of time. That is, if anybody might possibly give the tiniest of shits about reading it.

I actually finished the first draft (about 92,000 words) back around Christmas time, and have been tweaking and expanding it over the last couple of months, to a point where I'm happy that it's in a state where it can be read by People Who Are Not Me. It's now closer to the "standard" novel length of 100,000 word (100,636 to be precise, though I'm sure you figured that one out already), which translates to 256 A4 pages of text (including formatting) of 10 point Times New Roman in MS Word. All in all, I'd estimate that it's taken somewhere between 2000 and 3000 hours to write, which is a considerable time investment, and also would go a long way to explaining why I haven't exactly been prolific in terms of posting blogs over the last couple of years.

In common with all the other creative projects I've indulged in over the last seven or eight years, such as sketching and drawing, games journalism, script writing and ceramics, I set out to write the novel purely for my own edification, rather than out of some grand design that I might try to make some money out it. For a scientist (and science teacher) I'm remarkably willing to be able to devote time to pursuits that yield only intangible, existential rewards. Instead my main motivations were simply to have fun doing it and see if I could even do it in first place. I'm rather pleased to find that the outcome to both objectives has been success, because I have written a bona fide novel with a beginning, middle and an end, and I had an absolute ball writing it, creating a universe, plotting a story, creating characters and twisting the plot in ways that even surprised me at times.

This does, of course, raise further questions like: "Is it any good?"

I have no idea, in all honesty - at least from a totally objective point of view. I'm obviously way too close to the whole project to be anything other than utterly biased as to how good it is, but in my defence, I have binned previous creative writing projects I didn't think were going anywhere, or I was otherwise unhappy with, so it must have something going for it. I can't claim that the story is massively original, as I have referenced elements from a lot of my favourite sci-fi novels, games and films, especially those in the space opera genre, which is my personal favourite. So the story does owe quite a lot to the work of another Scottish "Iain M.", though I'd hope that I've been able to put enough of my own spin on the genre to make sure that it's not utterly derivative - after all, my own background as a Physicist and Science Teacher gave me an imperative to make as much of the science in the book as real-world as possible, without totally dumping the speculative element of science fiction in describing the possibilities and implications of future technologies.

Like the Daddy of all space operas, Star Wars, I've also tried to make the story a very personal and human one, mainly focussing on themes of the nature of love, friendship, duty and family. I had a lot of fun with developing the personalities of the characters. Anyone who reads the finished text will probably learn a lot more about me than they ever wanted to know, as in some respect, all the characters embody some aspect of my personality - not just the main character who (in the spirit of my dearly departed writing hero, Iain Banks) is reassuringly Scottish.

Over the summer I will email the story out to a few trusted friends, who should be able to give me a fair dinkum assessment of whether it's worth developing more, or whether it should be buried under a pyrochastic flow somewhere remote, where no-one will ever find it. Time, no doubt, will tell. Now all I've got to do is decide what my next novel will be about...