[Tales of a Scorched Earth
Thursday August 03, 2006

Click. Kill. Reward.

Written by gatmog at 12:14 PM
Categories: game culture, pc gaming, rpg, the cultural gutter

I love (love?) Titan Quest. I am still playing Titan Quest. While the quests are not randomized and the areas not re-constructed between playthroughs like Diablo II, I still gain enjoyment from the basest desire to collect a coordinated set of gear and a weapon that does massive amounts of damage. This bait to keep playing is also what drives every single MMORPG. It's a predictable, well-worn formula that has remained the same since the days of Rogue and Nethack. Why does it still work? This month's article at The Cultural Gutter assesses this unhealthy fascination with clicking a mouse.

Tuesday July 18, 2006

Titan Quest: it is massive

Written by gatmog at 09:41 PM
Categories: pc gaming, reviews, rpg

[The helm's comb had multiple uses. For example: brushing off sandals, cleaning under the horse...]Apparently I was wrong about Dungeon Siege II; there are still studios out there willing to shamelessly crib from Blizzard's Diablo II design documents. This makes Titan Quest an easy target for criticism. And as much as I enjoy criticizing failed attempts at recapturing Diablo II, I really think Titan Quest has finally done it. There is a suitable storyline that is not overbearing. There are piles of unique looking monsters and a variety of magic weapons to kill them with. There is the unstoppable desire to click on things. Titan Quest appears to get everything right. If only Iron Lore had similarly aspired to attain Blizzard's level of polish, it might have been one of the best games of the year.

Continue reading "Titan Quest: it is massive"
Monday March 27, 2006

choose your fate

Written by gatmog at 09:54 PM
Categories: pc gaming, reviews, rpg
[I wish it was as fun as it looked.]

When people get excited for a game like Oblivion, it gives me hope. It's a single-player RPG released during a period of RPG development where if it's not massively multiplayer, it's not important. It'd be like a step backwards, right? Last year wasn't a great year for games overall, but it was also pretty poor for RPGs. Even I spent most of 2005 binging on World of Warcraft, dragging myself away from it long enough to play through Dungeon Siege II. Which incidentally, has been named best (only?) RPG of 2005 by many media outlets. What struck me as noteworthy was that Wild Tangent's FATE was named runner-up to PC Gamer's RPG of the Year. The same year where the genre was obliterated by a single MMORPG kept out of the running only because it was released in 2004. Granted it's quite the feat to receive that much attention as an independently published title, but that doesn't mean it's a good game.

After playing the three dungeon level demo last year, I wrote FATE off as a clone of Darkstone rather than lazily comparing it to Diablo. The distinction being that it was a clone of a clone, boiling out everything that made its inspiration interesting. My initial impressions were correct after adventuring through seventeen more levels, though now I have more to say about it.

Continue reading "choose your fate"
Tuesday September 13, 2005

the intense clicking of evil

Written by gatmog at 05:43 PM
Categories: pc gaming, reviews, rpg
[Hey! An actual dungeon!]

The more I played Dungeon Siege II, the more I came to terms with its shoddily constructed story, infuriating party limitations and repetitive clicking. Don't let that be some kind of disclaimer, however - I'll be god damned if this isn't the best time I've had with a single player action RPG in recent memory. Opinions on its quality have changed very little since my impressions of the demo; seeing the full version has only galvanized my belief that this game truly is the successor to Diablo II. You can find my full review over at Clickable Culture.

Friday August 12, 2005

Dungeon Siege II: a successor is named (again)

Written by gatmog at 12:17 PM
Categories: demos, pc gaming, rpg
[Get ready for the next great action RPG experience]

Through a mixture of flagrant opinions and glowing reviews, Diablo II has come to define the action RPG. After the recent release of the 1.11 patch I reinstalled, hoping to pull myself away from the steely grip of World of Warcraft. Playing Diablo II again reminded me of a few things that one should come to expect when playing an action RPG, creating an ideal opportunity to prepare for the Dungeon Siege II demo.

Ever since Diablo II's release five years ago, many games have tried to claim its mantle. In the past I've named Divine Divinity, Dungeon Siege, Guild Wars and World of Warcraft as successors to the game until Blizzard sees fit to revisit the world of Sanctuary. Even Wild Tangent's Fate has been recently compared to the elegant simplicity of Diablo II, but for me it plays more like a clone of Darkstone than a true homage.

Dungeon Siege II is probably the closest anyone's come to duplicating the Diablo II experience. Overbearing story aside, every single gameplay mechanic is intact - complete with the waves of monsters intent on your destruction.

Maybe it's nostalgia, but I remember Dungeon Siege having fairly impressive visuals. Dungeon Siege II seems to have taken a downturn, or at least assumed that we wouldn't notice a significant advancement of their three-year-old engine. Character models and environments appear meager in comparison to Neverwinter Nights. While the expansive canopy of trees in the demo's first mission can be impressive, it gets to be distracting when you're trying to click on the swarms of monsters heading in your direction. Thankfully, the original game's camera system is still in place. I also liked that the automap actually follows you this time, complete with auto rotation. I can't even describe how livid I was at having to determine what direction I was going on Dungeon Siege's static maps.

When Gas Powered Games said you would have more control over your character in Dungeon Siege II, they came through with their promise. In addition to leveling one of the four main skills through use (Melee, Ranged, Combat Magic or Nature Magic), you gain points to spend on "specialties" for each of those skills. Specialties are passive abilities that add bonuses to your character's attacks such as improved fire spell damage, or more accurate shots from ranged weapons. On top of that, these passive skills contribute to what Powers your character can use. Powers are a unique twist - they're one-off abilities that are separate from your mana pool, but take time to recharge. My fire mage gained a Power called "Flame Nexus" early on, which does a great amount of damage - but is indiscriminate in its sphere of casting.

The "Kill-Reward" philosophy is alive and well in Dungeon Siege II, and for the most part that's the only reason I kept playing. The story is absolutely horrid, and the voice acting does little to alleviate its hollowness. Though this could hardly be considered a weakness, as both the original Dungeon Siege and Diablo II focused very little on developing the backdrop for your quests, and instead stressed the need to level up and get more powerful gear to take on The Big Boss Monster. The truth is, this meta-concept didn't matter during play - it was always about one more level, one more quest, one more chapter - the act of clicking itself became an addiction of sorts. I'd say the biggest problem I have with playing Dungeon Siege II is that you must click every spot you want your party to go. This is infinitely annoying during the many retreats I had to make from its intimidating larger monsters.

I think what impressed me the most about this demo is the amount of gameplay included - there's enough in there for anyone unsure of delving into the final product to make an educated decision. It's very clear that Gas Powered Games has gone through great lengths to try and duplicate the experience of Diablo II; that it should come five years after the fact is probably a testament to Blizzard's original design. That Dungeon Siege II should succeed in doing so is an indicator of its own quality, and I fully intend to be playing the full version when it hits next week.

fresh blood through tired skin

Wednesday May 25, 2005

spellweaving

Written by gatmog at 09:06 PM
Categories: pc gaming, rpg

A game that was curiously missing from E3 was Mad Doc's Spellweaver. According to a small article in the May 2005 issue of Computer Games, Spellweaver is an RPG that uses voice recognition to cast spells and issue party commands. To me this feels like a natural progression of the genre. Instead of being satisfied with the impersonal click of an icon or execution of a macro, uttering the words themselves should add an entirely new dimension to the gameplay. Unless you're self conscious or something.

This kind of player interfacing was attempted with Konami's Lifeline last year. The game put you in control of the main character's escape from some kind of space station, using only your voice to guide her out of each encounter. It resulted in critical indifference or players screaming at their televisions in response to the poorly implemented design. Arx Fatalis took a different approach to spellcasting with their mouse-stroke system, allowing players to at least "feel" like they're casting a spell.

Mad Doc Software intends to push this interaction even further. Spells are cast by uttering simple, phonetic words in combination. Because the words have no basis in the English language, it makes it a lot easier to localize the game. Not to mention adds to the fantasy of the situation. You will also be able to issue voice commands to the party, though given the success rate of most RPG/RTS pathfinding this may just be adding another layer of complexity. I'm also wondering how chaotic it will be to verbally issue commands to your party even if the game is paused.

The question I have is about gauging spell success. What happens if you mispronounce the words, get them in the wrong order, or take too long to speak them? I would like to see some kind of backfire effect. Immediate feedback adds immersion to this feature, instead of merely limiting it to a selling point. In the end, Mad Doc says that the speech commands will be optional, making me think this is just a way of apologizing in advance if the voice recognition doesn't work.

Spellweaver will actually be the first game to use the Dungeon Siege II engine, a game whose own release has been delayed a number of times and at last check is due this August. I'll likely be watching for both.

I have this vision of the growing demographic of obese gamers, lazing around like Jabba the Hutt defining their thumbs and/or suffering the early stages of Carpal Tunnel syndrome. Having voice controlled gameplay may seem exciting at first, but no movement is required. I'd hardly call barking into a microphone a workout. What happens to reflexes? In FPS games, that's all it takes, really. I wonder how well a voice-activated FPS would work? Could this style of play be adapted to other genres? RTS games are also an ideal candidate, as I could easily see myself giving commands like "Build two farms" or "Four peons go mine copper". Combat could be similarly simplified: "One squad of firebats and two squads of marines assault enemy base. Five siege tanks flank missile silos." This is now entering the realm of the true desktop general. Suddenly I think of Ender's Game and picture a massive army directed by children entrusted with saving the human race.

you squeal and you squelch

Thursday April 28, 2005

Hellgate opened

Written by gatmog at 10:59 PM
Categories: fps, pc gaming, rpg

Putting aside all nostalgia surrounding LucasArts adventures, Diablo II is the best game I have ever played. Including the expansion, I was completely enveloped in its womb of kill-reward gameplay for about 2 years, caring little to interact with humans on Battle.Net and instead opting to grind my way to a complete set of Sigon's Complete Steel. Blizzard North effectively established the model for action RPGs, and the only thing that's come close since is probably World of Warcraft. Or maybe Guild Wars, if it wasn't so...instanced. When Bill Roper announced the creation of Flagship Studios, which was to be made up of a number of ex-Blizzard North developers, I was intrigued. Soon after, Namco was named as publisher of their first project, known only as an RPG. All eyes turned to Flagship. Would someone finally get a Diablo clone right?

One of the reasons for forming Flagship was that Roper was tired of Diablo. I don't blame the guy; aside from a much bigger game, and better items, they weren't really challenged to develop anything beyond the original game's basic concepts. Enter Hellgate: London, Flagship's mystery RPG that according to Flagship's Erich Schaefer, will "blaze a new trail and not simply create clones of our past successes." Sounds like a great idea. I'm always up for a little innovation.

Except.

I saw the screens, and I became immediately terrified. Not because they were scary, either. I saw a clone of Doom 3. Doom 3 was criticized for it's very bland monster design, and I see it here. Even the story has hints of the same: a portal to Hell (Hellgate!) opens in London (London?), a subsequent demon invasion, and then the human race sends out a one man army for damage control. It's getting ridiculous.

Where Flagship is careful to make the distinction, though, are the randomized items and maps that will supposedly increase the replay value. This "item centric" gameplay will encourage the player to collect new weapons and equipment to outfit themselves against the demon horde, though I find it hard to believe this is a selling feature in 2005. The weapons themselves are also being described as "spell delivery systems" as opposed to "guns" in the traditional FPS sense. And being an RPG, Hellgate: London will take into account player and weapon stats, with a small part being played by actual player skill. Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines did this with firearms, but combat was more of a distraction than a core part of the game. The excellent story and character interaction were why I kept playing. It doesn't sound like Hellgate is offering the same, but there is a significant amount of questing that will move gameplay along so I'll reserve my judgement on that point.

The randomized levels are also a bit peculiar. Why? Is it a carry-over from the Diablo days, where critics praised the notion of never adventuring into the same dungeon twice? I can't see how this method of level creation will support continuous gameplay. The graphics engine was apparently created in-house, and when you're dealing with 3D there will naturally be loading screens. Part of what made Diablo II so easy to play for hours at a time was that gameplay wasn't broken up by the game loading the next area.

The character classes are also touted as being fully customizable, but there isn't nearly enough information on that now (ie. number, types, etc.). Compared against other FPSRPGs like Deus Ex or Morrowind, expectations naturally run pretty high. Character customization and development will be what makes this game worth playing, because I care little about shooting demons after playing Doom 3.

I'm seeing a lot of information out there now that follows the standard PR fluff routine in preparation for E3. A few screens, a few vague details about what the game is about, and hints of a fully playable version on the exhibit floor. That's all well and good for Flagship, because I doubt I'm the only one that was curious to see what they were up to. That being said I can't help but feel an overwhelming sense of loss. It's great that Flagship are trying something different, because in today's gaming market that doesn't usually get you very far unless you've got a track record or hot property to back it up. Sure, I can support a little innovation, but part of me wanted that isometric clickfest.

like my first time that I caught fire

Sunday February 20, 2005

a bloody valentine for Troika

Written by gatmog at 04:17 PM
Categories: pc gaming, rpg

Last week a forum post announcing the liquidation of Troika's former offices made an appearance. Many (myself included) thought this was some kind of joke, but in the back of my mind I knew that the financial and critical success of Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines was dubious at best. Based on confirmation by the lead programmer of Bloodlines, Troika has all but been dissolved with many of its team members having joined other studios. This would explain the lengthy response for a patch for Bloodlines, as well as its focus on only critical bug fixes. Gamespot picked up on the rumour late last week, with Troika co-CEO Leonard Boyarksky performing damage control with the words "we wish that post hadn't gotten out". Though an official announcement about the studio's status is due at the end of the month, I've since surrendered to these accounts as truth.

Born out of members from the team that developed Fallout, Troika's first published game was the cautiously received RPG Arcanum. Set in a kind of gaslight or "steampunk" setting that mixed traditional fantasy with the industrial, Arcanum had a detailed and unique character creation system, and a refreshingly original world to adventure in. Temple of Elemental Evil, though a poor game, contained the most rigorous interpretation of the Dungeons and Dragons ruleset I'd ever played. But like those whimsical tabletop sessions of yesteryear where memories of that one player constantly banging his fist on the tattered copy of the Player's Handbook keep interfering, you easily lose sight of what made it fun in the first place. Plus the voice acting was fucking terrible.

I'll readily admit that Vampire: The Masquerade: Bloodlines was completely covered in weeping sores, but underneath that slippery exterior is the best game I played last year. Combat may have been flawed, but the adventure presented within was something I will hold close as one of my most favourite gaming experiences. To think that Troika had been developing their own post-apocolyptic game, that now along with Van Buren will probably sink to the bottom of the ocean of unfinished games.

I'll miss Troika. I'll miss them because I know that CRPGs are slowly drifting towards action-oriented affairs; the stuff is guaranteed to sell. Troika was never known for delivering a polished product, but I'll always stand fast to the belief that they had some of the best ideas for roleplaying games. The games industry can be very unforgiving when you expect them to accept an unfinished product in stride. Maybe if they had a little room to breathe, we would have seen Troika mature into a Blizzard or a Firaxis - genre leaders in an industry full of copycats and publisher focus groups. But given where this industry is headed, I think we all knew Troika's demise was inevitable.

one more song to slay this earth

Monday January 10, 2005

Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines

Written by gatmog at 08:54 PM
Categories: pc gaming, reviews, rpg

Edited January 14, 2005

[Beckett makes another appearance.]Appearances can be deceiving. A central theme in Vamipre The Masquerade: Bloodlines, what the world chooses to believe has great effect on what they see. The principle behind White Wolf's World of Darkness is that an entire universe lies in the shadows of our world, hidden by the denial of beliefs deemed superstitious or the machinations of an unseen hand. And what lies beneath Bloodlines' rough exterior is one of the best RPGs I've played in a long time.

As a finished product Bloodlines should be an embarrassment. The first developers to use Valve's brand new Source engine can't even put together decent looking textures, and barely comes close to imitating the amazing lip-synching that went into the characters of Half Life 2. There are obvious typos in the dialog options, graphical slowdowns, and the same sound stuttering that became such a problem with Half Life 2 before it was patched. Watching my Tremere neonate prance around the screen and dance wildly at bars while attempting to seduce people for my next meal felt shameful. To be honest, I thought I had made a mistake picking up this game. But to take Bloodlines at face value is to set yourself up for disappointment. I've dismissed games with fewer bugs than this, and if there is one game that deserves a second chance it's this one. Bloodlines' ultimate undoing is that you have to dig deep to truly enjoy the story presented in its immersive world.

Continue reading "Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines"
Thursday September 30, 2004

a few thoughts on Fable

Written by gatmog at 09:48 PM
Categories: gaming, rpg, xbox

[Evil is good.]Not being the owner of an Xbox, I can't say I was especially excited about the release of Fable and its promise of an RPG redefined. Like Halo before it, Fable is the latest big name genre title meant to convince people why they got an XBox in the first place. Not to say the the 'cube is any better; both platforms seem to get the short end of the third-party stick when it comes to RPGs. So when I was invited to a gathering to play Fable, I took it as an opportunity to see what all the Xbox-humping was about.

Because Chris was too damn impatient to wait, he had already purchased his copy and played for a short time before the "Fable Summit", firing off an unexpected three word review of "holy fucking shit". Naturally I became excited at this point and was ready to see what Mr. Molyneux had for us after his critically lauded Black and White. Since Chris already had a go at it, and Tony preferred to uh...watch, I was left holding the controller and taking my first steps to becoming a renowned hero in the land of Albion.

Continue reading "a few thoughts on Fable"
Tuesday July 20, 2004

gas powered: Dungeon Siege II

Written by gatmog at 07:57 PM
Categories: gaming, rpg
[valiant heroes versus the Morden Viir]

Up until a couple of weeks ago, Gas Powered Games was going to have Dungeon Siege II ready for this Fall according to my watch list for 2004. A recent announcement has now pushed it into Spring 2005, which makes me wonder how much play balancing needs to be done in the game. The engine is more or less complete from the looks of it, and despite my offhand comments about its E3 showing will probably hold its own against the competition - as long as their promises of a more refined RPG experience are fulfilled.

At first glance, Dungeon Siege seemed like the exact remedy for fans that grew tired of Diablo II. It provided an enormous new world to explore, all beautifully modeled in three dimensions. It seemed like an evolutionary step in the genre, as long as you were careful to erase all prior knowledge of Darkstone. I played the hell out of Dungeon Siege when I could finally run it on my new PC, but in hindsight I look on the game a little more objectively. Easily the biggest complaint with the game was the lack of character customization and player involvement. At the time I felt this was completely natural - if you use a particular skill more, you get better at it. There were tons of items and different armor types to at least modify the appearance of your character, but in terms of fiddling with stats, those features were nonexistent. A particularly resourceful player could even script their party to play through the entire game unassisted, complete with collecting loot.

In Dungeon Siege II, Chris Taylor's team at Gas Powered Games is planning to change all that. With a highly customizable skills system and more combat involvement, DS2 may turn out to be more of an RPG than its predecessor. Like the original game, there are no classes for the main character: you simply equip a weapon or spell and train. Along with gaining experience by weapon or spell usage, you will get Skill points to spend whenever you level up. It's a welcome change to have added flexibility in multi-class character development, and a feature that borrows from the open character concept of the Divinity games. The careful expenditure of these points will unlock new abilities for your character - including the more potent Powers. Because this is a party-based game, though, some definite balancing will be required to prevent it from becoming an exercise in micro-management.

The new Powers can be particularly devastating, and will harm your party members if used hastily. So you will want to avoid unleashing a fiery blast upon a creature that your party is clustering. To that end, while issuing commands when the game is paused, you can combine these special attacks for a more efficient use of your party's Powers. Obviously there will be limits on the use of Powers successively - your characters will need to recharge to use them again. The Powers will be managed separately from the mana pool, however, and you will still be able to cast the normal array of spells while the character is recharging. The basic spells from the original game appear to have remained in the same state.

You might remember from the original game the variety of monsters that you had to battle during your long journey through its diverse landscapes. Similar to Diablo II, there were occasions where you would find monsters that were double your character's size. But where the former was happy to repaint existing monster sprites, Dungeon Siege provided a much larger array of enemies to cut down. I even remember fighting an Ice Dragon on more than one occasion in Dungeon Siege, its intimidating stature filling up a good portion of my screen. This time around, many of the monsters are designed to fill the hearts of even the most stalwart of adventurers with fear. Just take a look at the Morden Viir calvary: not only is it a fine example of some of the new enemies you will be fighting, it does a damn good job of making me want to play this game. Taylor boasts that there are also specific super-sized boss monsters that look like they've been ripped out of Final Fantasy - completely overshadowing your party and surely in possession of some earth-shattering attacks.

Besides the lack of hands-on character advancement, one of the biggest problems with Dungeon Siege's development was that it tried to be everything to all levels of gamers. With Dungeon Siege 2, Taylor again states that there will be "something for everyone", but the way I see it some part of this equation has to give. I want Dungeon Siege II to succeed, because the original took the successful "click-kill-reward" formula and still managed to come up with something fun to play and great to look at. But with games like Guild Wars, Knights of the Old Republic II, and Dragon Age heading to the PC in the next year, it's going to be tough to compete if all that is being offered is a rehash of the past.

I don't doubt that Taylor and his team will put together a solid RPG, but my initial impressions of Guild Wars always seem to obscure the view. Massive Single Player campaigns are important, and the Siege Editor was a valuable tool that was gladly accepted amongst the player community, extending the product's life with some standout mods*. Still, when you think about what has already been accomplished with Guild Wars, DS2's tweaked engine and added control over character development may not be enough to move units in the face of its delay until after Guild Wars' target release. Even party based combat, the management of which was not even necessary in the original, is easily bypassed by another outstanding feature in Guild Wars: you play with humans.

*A footnote: If you're interested, I highly recommend at least taking a look at some of the mods and total conversions that have been developed since Dungeon Siege's release in 2002. Copperhead, although not maintained anymore, is a great looking futurisitc mod that actually managed to model firearms. The Elemental has been called "biblepunk" by some, but don't be scared - it's actually quite amazing what has been done with the original game's engine and interface. And of course there's the unofficial re-imagining of Ultima V: Warriors of Destiny, called Ultima V: Lazarus. Strangely enough, you will actually need the the original Ultima game to play this mod.

let me walk these coals


Sunday March 14, 2004

a second look at Sacred

Written by gatmog at 09:02 PM
Categories: rpg

I've pretty much resigned myself to the fact that my CD-RW drive is screwed, despite what I do to try and remedy the situation. After reinstalling Windows XP and getting more or less the same results - the drive refuses to recognize media of any kind, nevermind those of the copy-protected variety - I've written the hardware off until I can get a decent response from Plextor.

I installed the demo a couple of weeks ago for Sacred, a new action RPG from Ascaron Entertainment. I was fairly unimpressed to say the least - I mean it didn't really strike me as being especially original or captivating beyond the skills combo system and horseback riding. After picking up the latest PC Gamer, I read Greg Vederman's playtest review of a beta build of the game, and he seemed to be impressed. The only reason I mention this is because The Vede is usually on the mark when it comes to judging a good Diablo clone. So, I figured I may have missed something on my initial playthrough and begrudgingly installed it again. I wanted to like it this time, too, because playing Divine Divinity almost non-stop for the past week has just invigorated my appetite for the next big PC action RPG. Sadly, though, playing Sacred's demo again has just allowed me to articulate my thoughts on the game more deeply.

Starting with the graphics - the first thing you see in the game, of course - I would say they are pedestrian at best. Ascaron has taken the same approach as Larian with Beyond Divinity: put 3D character models on a 2D backdrop. But when you zoom in, the backgrounds expose themselves for what they are - a low resolution, pixelated mess. Beyond Divinity handled this a lot more cleanly.

To try and get myself to look upon the game with fresh eyes, I used a different class, the "Seraphim", as opposed to my original choice of the Gladiator. The Seraphim is a warrior angel of sorts, but did not show any real aptitude for magic or combat. I suppose fanboys will get a kick out of her Heavy Metal-style outfit, though.

The horse - although a nice gimmick - does not offer any significant advantage in battle, especially when your weapon combos are mostly useless unless you're on foot. In theory it should also offer a significant boost in land travel times, but I found none; I was able to "run" just as fast (and even then, running is more of a steady trot).

I said initially that the interface is pretty self explanatory - and it is - but there are some definite improvements that could be made. The automap is cumbersome, and the quest log, although useful, is not as nice as Divine Divinity's when trying to sort active quests. I like how you can wield more than one weapon, and you can switch them up by clicking their respective slot at the bottom of the screen. Taking a hint from Lord of Destruction, no doubt, but still appreciated. What I don't like is how I must repeatedly click on enemy targets to attack. I thought we were moving forwards, here?

Other little things, like non-interactive, ugly dialog windows, and a fairly non-existent storyline make Sacred a very disappointing experience. When the majority of the game world is open to exploration when you first start, a pre-determined path to gently nudge you where you are supposed to go would be useful. There will be six classes in the final game, and each class starts in a different portion of the world, which is a unique approach. What would have been even more interesting is if each class would have a story to tell, and have each story intersect with each other at different points of the game. I'm of course referring to Sword of Mana, which surprised me with this aspect and makes the game more enjoyable to play through a second time.

Sacred may offer co-operative and competitive multiplayer game modes as well, but it has failed to grip me like that game from 2002 I love to keep mentioning. There's something to be said about simplicity, and sticking to the basic stuff that is known to work well. I think it also says a lot when a game tries to replicate the experience of one that is four years old, and still manages to fail.

Saturday March 06, 2004

one step beyond

Written by gatmog at 03:38 PM
Categories: rpg
[Beyond Divinity takes a few visual cues from Dungeon Siege.]

I may have made a huge mistake by reinstalling Divine Divinity recently. I got it early last year while waiting for the latter half of 2003's RPGs, which were the subsequently disappointing Lionheart and Temple of Elemental Evil. Divine Divinity was largely overlooked I think because of its damned goofy name, but Larian definitely put the effort in and you really can't judge this one until you try it. A very ambient soundtrack, beautifully detailed visuals, and a flexible character creation system make it extremlely hard to put aside. The game fluctuates between moderately difficult to extremely fucking hard, usually in the space of a few map squares. But I don't think I've had as much fun playing a clickfest RPG since Diablo II.

The demo for Beyond Divinity - Divine's sequel - came out on Wednesday and I made a point of trying it out. Now I'm starting to think that April's release of Beyond Divinity may be suitable in the interim while I wait for Dungeon Siege II in the Fall.

Where Divine Divinity was a successful attempt at recapturing the simple and addictive gameplay of Diablo II, Beyond Divinity introduces a number of new features that would be familiar to players of Dungeon Siege and Neverwinter Nights. The obvious example is the updated monster and character models - they are now all in 3D, and the initial appearance of your character is customizable. The backgrounds, however, remain in 2D and definitely detract from the overall "feel" of the game. Divine Divinity had Diablo II beat in terms of resolution - the lush, detailed graphics were capable of displaying at up to 1024x768, and Beyond can now display up to 1600x1200. Though it can be a bit slow even for my tweaked out system. As another handy feature, you can zoom in and out from the action on screen like Dungeon Siege and NWN.

The skills and class systems have been made a lot more complex, which results in even more flexibility when levelling your character. There is a more comprehensive skill tree this time around, but you can dip in at any point if you have the Ability score and level prerequisites (it's not class restricted). For example, you can make Warrior skills like Improved Accuracy, and Repair available at the beginning, but as you gain experience you could add Lockpicking or Alchemy. As an added twist, you begin the game with your soul bound to a Death Knight, which forms the basis for the story. You must escape the underworld and figure out a way to remove the curse. This provides a kind of party-based gameplay, but nothing more than you would expect from hiring mercenaries in Diablo II or NWN. Because of this bond, though, if one of you dies, the game ends. The environments and story ideas seem to be coming more from the quasi-spiritual elements of the Diablo Universe than Lord of the Rings this time around though (in Divine Divinity there is a "friendly wizard" who helps you in your quest to defeat an evil menace known as "The Black Ring"...yeesh). One thing I like about the Divinity games is that they've clearly learned well from the success of previous RPGs, and are not afraid to use this in their games. Allowing map notations, an easily browsable Quest Log, pressing "Alt" to display dropped items, and only requiring you to click once to fight an enemy to the death. Many Diablo clones have been released since its debut, and this is one series that is at least getting it right. If I had to find one real problem, it would be the voice acting. Divine Divinity's was servicable; Beyond's is bordering on embarassing.

I'm as much a fan of a solid single-player experience as a multiplayer one, if the gameplay and story are deep enough. I think one of the bigger flaws held against Divine Divinity was the lack of a multiplayer mode, and if the demo is any indicator, it was left out of Beyond Divinity as well. I'm sure it will be a fine game regardless, but it might have a hard time competing with Sacred, which will be released around the same time and does make a co-operative multiplayer mode available. Depending on the price at release, Beyond Divinity is shaping up to be an RPG worth investing some time in.

Monday February 23, 2004

why would Heaven need a hitman?

Written by gatmog at 10:37 PM
Categories: demos, fps, pc gaming, rpg
[As a general rule you want to run away from these guys.]

The Painkiller single-player demo quietly debuted last week, while most people were still recovering from UT2004. More accurately, I'd be willing to bet money on the fact that people probably didn't care enough to put the demo down, fearing that they might fall out of practice. I must admit playing Onslaught is not like the UT2003 I grew accustomed to. The battles seem to simmer with a kind of intensity, as if Unreal Tournament players were waiting for this mode of play since the original game's release.

But back to the matter at hand - the Painkiller demo. The ambient music at the menu screen made me feel like I was playing some variation of the Diablo-meets-Quake theme. Playing the introductory "Town" level made me forget for a second that there hadn't been any advancements in level design colour palettes in the past eight years. People Can Fly's PAIN engine is simply gorgeous, but the conventions of the genre become clear after about 3 minutes of playing. Using the Stake Gun versus the swarms of meat-flinging zombies was great for a while, I mean they really get impaled. There is visible recoil and if your target is near a wall they just kind of hang there until exploding to offer up their soul for collection. And those zombies sure know how to aim.

I was about ready to stop playing as I loaded the second level: "The Temple". Although consisting primarily of greys and uh...dark greys, some of the design elements are almost reminiscent of Act II in Diablo II or wouldn't be out of place in The Sands of Time. I can see what the developers were trying to do with this game, and I haven't decided if this is a spiritual successor of sorts to Quake or Doom. With the dark, satanic imagery and constant waves of monsters the designers want you to feel overwhelmed. But I just couldn't get into the game because I felt I had been there before. I can give Painkiller credit for inventing some interesting weapons: the default melee weapon "Pain" is a set of spinning blades you can cut through an angry undead mob with, and almost made me want to watch Krull. Almost.

The “boss” mission in the final level was a nice touch, and once again brought me back to fighting the Cyberdemon at the end of Doom. This time around the sense of scale is really there – this monster wields an enourmous fucking hammer. I watched him knock over pillars in his wake with little effort, while imagining new ways to bludgeon me with his massive weapon. Overall I can't say I was impressed, and I was kind of looking forward to this one. The lack of mid-level saves proved to be frustrating as well, and coupled with the overly familiar execution of a classic FPS theme, I fail to find a compelling reason to play this game.

I also tried out the demo of the first RPG from the developers of the Patrician series of RTS/Trading sims. Sacred is yet another Diablo clone, lodged firmly in the pigeonhole of "action RPG". It's a half decent imitation, but nowhere near being a replacement. The most unique feature being that you can ride a horse - if that's your thing - and attack enemies from horseback. There are a number of special abilities you can gain and combine to form your own "custom attacks", which is kind of a riff on the skill tree in Diablo II. The interface is simple enough; nobody is going to get lost. Combined with a decent engine this could be a good game for someone desparate enough for a PC RPG.

I'm of the belief that 2004 needs a solid PC RPG in this turbulent market, where consoles and PCs are constantly fighting for attention. I was expecting a lot from Sacred, but it just didn't come through for me, even as a clone of one of the greatest games of all time. If anything, this game got me to reinstall 2002's suprisingly excellent Divine Divinity, and got me looking forward to Dungeon Siege II (or even Beyond Divinity).

I picked up PC Gamer's annual awards issue, and as expected Knights of the Old Republic picked up top honors. You really know it was a bad year for PC gaming when a console port could achieve such a feat in a publication that has traditionally been such a stalwart supporter of PC games. I also caught some rumours about KotOR 2, the inevitable successor. Apparently Bioware has been in talks with Feargus Urquhart, formerly of Black Isle and currently the head of Obsidian Entertainment. He obviously brings a veritable banquet of experience to the table when it comes to developing a solid RPG, so if the rumour proves to be true, we can at least rest easy knowing that the series will be handled professionally. In the same issue, out of nowhere Gothic II gets RPG of the year. Usually PCG are content to let a game win its category and game of the year; I guess they think this game is deserving of the praise. I may have to put aside part of my current playlist to go back and check out this forgotten game of 2003.

As an awkward closer, I have to relay that I've seen Lost in Translation. I know now what everyone was talking about. Sofia Coppola has created a very thoughtful film, and not such a departure from The Virgin Suicides. Indeed, there were some laugh out loud moments, but there was always that underlying tone of melancholy and lonliness that left you really associating emotionally with the main characters. I suppose it will win some more awards on Sunday in the same ceremony that will praise Johnny Depp's performance in Pirates of the Caribbean while being hosted once again by the amazingly unfunny Billy Crystal.

when you got that spider bite on your hand

Thursday August 28, 2003

legacy of the crusader

Written by gatmog at 11:37 PM
Categories: pc gaming, reviews, rpg

[not fit for consumption]Are the people responsible for this mess the same ones that brought us such classics as Fallout, Baldur's Gate and fucking Planescape? I have been playing this game since the weekend, and depressingly I am not that far into it because of the glaring technical and design issues that are in the way of what should have been a fantastic RPG.

I hadn't heard much about this game until the hype machine started up before it's release a couple weeks ago. Strangely enough, Interplay never showed this game at E3. Foreshadowing events to come? You bet your ass.

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