On Skyrim V: Stronger Together

  11:30:18 am, by   , 746 words  
Viewed 89610 times since 09/04/11
Categories: Games, Elder Scrolls

One of the features of The Elder Scrolls from Daggerfall onwards has been Factions; organisations that you can (often) join, each with an associated set of quests, and a hierarchy of ranks through which you can progress. Fighters, Mages and Thieves all have guilds; Daggerfall and Oblivion allowed you to join the shadowy Dark Brotherhood while Morrowind featured the slightly more honourable Morag Tong; Daggerfall had Knight orders and Temples of the Eight Divines; Morrowind had the Great Houses of Vvardenfell; Oblivion had several small factions such as the Order of Virtuous Blood and the Knights of the White Stallion.

What can we expect in TESV: Skyrim? Todd Howard seems to have confirmed that the Dark Brotherhood is back, but there's no word on the others. Presumably we'll see the Fighters Guild again. It would be a real shame to have stopped the Camonna Tong taking it over in Morrowind and the Blackwood Company driving it out of business in Oblivion only for it to gently fizzle out during the next two centuries. I imagine we'll see the Thieves Guild again. The increase in visibility and prosperity brought about by the ending of Nocturnal's curse should help keep it going, and its only serious rival, the Camonna Tong, is almost exclusively a Morrowind operation, although we did see a couple of its operatives in Cyrodiil so you never know...

The Mages Guild, of course, is a different matter. We know from The Infernal City that the guild is no more, and has split into the "Synod" and the "College of Whispers". Of course, Skyrim is set over 150 years after TIC, so the guild might have reformed, but either way I hope we'll learn more about the split and the reasons for it. It seems likely to me that necromancy was the cause, and "College of Whispers" has a more necromantic sound to it, so my guess is that's where the necromancers went with the Synod being the anti-necromancy faction. We shall see.

The problem I've always had with the factions is that, apart from giving you some extra quests, a free bed, and a quantity of free goods... there's not much to them. The members hang around their guild halls or hideouts complaining about the lack of work, or how there's no time for research but don't do anything else. Why can't I bring along another Fighters Guild member on a quest? Yes I'll have to split the fee, but so be it.

In the Mages Guild people were always reading books, mixing potions and so on but never learned anything new. How about letting them teach players new skills? Not just the sort of ability training we had in MW and OB, but - for instance - why not make it a requirement to talk to a guild alchemist when you level up to learn about the new properties that are available with plants? It doesn't really make much sense when you hit 75 alchemy you suddenly know ''all'' the properties, having had no idea about the fourth property mere moments ago.

For the Thieves, let me hire one to steal something for me. Or to open a door I can't unlock yet. Or sneak up and pick somebody's pocket.

The other problem is that you can gain ranks too quickly. In about two weeks, you can go from a prison ship/prison cell to champion of the Fighters Guild, Arch-mage of the Mages Guild and head honcho of the Thieves. I know you can't really slow this down too much because it'll be annoying, but how about introducing rough timing rules like you can't become Arch-mage in less than two months? On a related subject, gossip and rumours shouldn't spread instantly: you can complete a quest in Cheydinhal, run faster than any other living entity straight to Anvil, and find people there talking about it like it's old news.

Anyway, back on topic.

I can't really begin to speculate as to what the faction quest lines will be about - or even if there will be an overarching quest line for each guild. The reunification of the Mages Guild is one idea that springs to mind, or a huge battle between the two successor factions, perhaps. It's difficult to see anything more engaging than the Dark Brotherhood story from OB - the secret internal traitor idea was perfect for that faction. Perhaps this is the time for the showdown between them and the Morag Tong?

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Steam's Potato Sack Part 3

  05:11:12 pm, by   , 573 words  
Viewed 9719 times since 06/04/11
Categories: Welcome, Games

Part three of my trip into Steam's Potato Sack sees the same formula as the last two. Three games; one I hate, one I like and one that comes in the middle.

Killing Floor
I suppose this might actually be quite a good game, but I hate it. The trouble is that you need to play it with friends and I don't have any that play this game. You can go on the Internet to find people willing to play with you but I've done this kind of thing before, going right back to playing Quake over a 28.8kbps modem back in roughly 1997. You can find people it's worth playing with, but it's much more likely you're going to run into a bunch of idiots instead. I tried to play it on my own and was overwhelmed after about two minutes, and quit. Sorry, but games need to have a decent single player mode so that misanthropists like me can enjoy them. This doesn't so it goes on my hate list. Tough.

Super Meat Boy
I almost put this game in the "Hate" category, but it's got just about enough going for it that I put it in "Meh" instead. The story is that you're Meat Boy and someone called Dr Fetus has captured your girlfriend, Bandage Girl. You have to guide Meat Boy through a series of levels and rescue her. It's a platformer, and I'm not a huge fan, but there's quite a lot of skill involved, so it's more than a simple Mario game where jumping around at random will usually get you quite a long way. If you're interested in platform games, the Wikipedia article will tell you more. Apparently the game has a rating of over 90% on MetaCritic, so there must be plenty of people who like this kind of thing, but I'm not really one of them. The music's good though.

To be honest, this is a pretty dull game with a really good twist, but the twist makes it brilliant. The idea is that you are moving along a road that twists and turns, and bounces up and down, and you have to pick up different coloured blocks to form groups of colour that then count for points. The fun part is that the shape, incline, and length of the road, as well as the location of the blocks, is determined by a music track that you give the game. If you play some kind of thrash metal in the background you're going to be in for a pretty busy journey, while playing Clannad is likely to produce a largely empty one. When I gave it Yes' version of Simon and Garfunkel's America, the road bounced up and down like it was full of potholes. As one final twist, you get to see who else has played on certain tracks, and it's interesting to see that there are obviously a load of old rockers like me out there because even Yes and King Crimson tracks had been played before. So the idea is really basic, but I can see it being quite fun to play at parties, and it's a good excuse to bring out some old tracks from the ol' MP3 collection and hit the road. This is one of the few games in this set I can see myself playing again and again, so it's got to get a "Like" rating, hasn't it?

Steam's Potato Sack Part 2

  04:08:41 pm, by   , 682 words  
Viewed 6027 times since 06/04/11
Categories: Games

Time for the next set of three games from the Potato Sack. See here for part one if you missed it. It's worth saying that I'm not trying to write proper reviews: I'm writing down my initial feelings after playing the game for a few minutes (or as long as I can stand it, in one or two cases). Last time I picked a game I hated, one I liked, and one somewhere in the middle so let's try that again.

1... 2... 3... KICK IT! (Drop That Beat Like an Ugly Baby)
Yes, that's the game's name - and a more stupid name for a game I have never heard. Like last time's "AaAaAA!!! - A Reckless Disregard for Gravity", this one is by Dejobaan games, and I hate this game even more than I hated that one. The first five times I tried to load it, it gave me an error screen saying that Steam was down. No buttons on it, no close box, nothing. Luckily, ALT-F4 worked but this was hardly a great start. Eventually I got the thing to load and found that just about everything was covered with messages saying that the game was still under development. After fighting my way through those, I discovered that the game is basically the same as the other one except there's some way of linking your music to it. I played for two minutes before becoming so sick of it that I quit. Why do people release garbage like this?

Toki Tori
The first of two games from Two Tribes software. This one is basically a platformer and I have to confess that I didn't play it for too long, partly because I grew out of platform games with Jet Set Willy, and partly because it's far too cute. You play something that looks like an egg with wings and feet, and collect other eggs to complete each level. To help you, you can build bridges, use other items and gain weapons to kill the baddies on each level. I didn't get past the bridges though because the music drove me nutty, even if I turned it right down, and the constant cuteness was just wearing. I can't help think that this is a game my 5 year old niece would like and that it really isn't suitable for 37 year olds. Check out the website if you're interested. To be fair, it seems fairly well-done, and I'll try it on my sister's kids next time I see them and see what they think.

Like last time's Cogs, we have a logic game as a winner. RUSH is even better than Cogs, though, because it doesn't have a timer going - something that I always find a bit annoying. In this game, each level consists of a 3D landscape made up of featureless white blocks. In this scape are one or more tiles that produce coloured blocks, and other tiles to which these blocks must be guided. Once a block is created, it moves in one direction until it hits a wall whereupon it turns to the right. You have other tiles, which cause the blocks to change direction, pause for a moment, slide to one side without changing direction, and one or two other, more complex things. The tutorial is incredibly helpful, and then the game is split into easy, medium and hard levels to make playing a learning process. And wow, is it a learning process. The easy levels are all pretty easy, which is how I guess they got the name, but some of the medium ones are already damn hard, and having unlocked the hard levels, I'm struggling to work out where to begin on most of them. The absence of timer, however, means you can take your time working through a solution, and there are a pair of Hint buttons if you get really stuck. I've played this game for longer than any other except Amnesia, so it's definitely doing something right. Again, if you don't like logic puzzles it might not be for you but I love it.

Steam's Potato Sack Part 1

  08:13:53 pm, by   , 784 words  
Viewed 13562 times since 03/04/11
Categories: Games

Yes, it's another post that mentions Steam, but on the other hand it's a post that isn't about Skyrim, so give me a break here.

Steam has become the standard for the online purchasing of games, much as Amazon has become the standard for the online purchasing of books. The reason is that it works, you get what you want, and - critically - it's often cheaper. This post is entirely about something that happened out of an attempt at buying some cheap games. Just remember that I'm not employed by Valve, and am in fact the one person on the planet that didn't think Half Life 1 and 2 were perfect games. Personally I found them a bit dull. Anyway.

Steam had a sale over this weekend. It offered 13 "Indie" games in a deal where you could buy the lot for 75% off. In terms of pieces of paper with Her Majesty on them, this meant a total price tag of £108.87 was taken down to just £27.22 so I went for it. The main reason I did this was that the deal included "Amnesia: The Dark Descent", which is something I've wanted to play, so I thought it was a good idea to, essentially, buy that for full price and get 12 free games. I've wanted to play that one since Yahtzee's review, a review he followed up by giving the game fourth place in his game of the year list. No, I'm not turning into a Yahtzee fanboi, but I loved Saints Row II after I bought it on the strength of his review, so I'm giving another one a chance.

Let's pick three of these games at random and talk about those, then I'll end up with a proper look at Amnesia, since it's the one I bought the set for.

AaAaAA!!! - A Reckless Disregard for Gravity
This is the worse game I've ever played in my life. The idea is that you jump off some structure and have to freefall past weird, free-floating buildings before landing in a designated area. You earn bonus points by "hugging" buildings (flying near them) or "kissing" them (gently bumping them). Basically, it's a flying game where you have to imagine you're falling rather than moving forward, and it's simply not fun. Why is flying close to a building fun? Why should I bump into it? Garbage. Don't bother with this one. No, seriously, it's crap.

The Ball
While loading, the game proudly tells you it's based on the Unreal Engine. It could be the original version for all I can tell, because the graphics are pretty basic for this day and age. However, the idea is fairly original in a sort of Portal-esque way. You've been stranded in a deep hole and find a weird glove that can either attract or repulse a huge Ball. That's... it. You have to use this ball to overcome the various hazards you will encounter during your escape from the hole. This might mean sending the Ball through lava, or over spikes - things you can't experience for yourself - or using it to smash down walls to access new areas.

Now usually I like this kind of game. I loved Portal, for instance. But the trouble is that once you've done the first few challenges, it's just more of the same. People remember Portal for the Cake meme, and forget that after the a while the game involved nothing more than trial and error because you were bored with it. Ditto this one. If you like logic puzzles then you'll probably love this.

Having just slagged off logic puzzles, you might be surprised to see me give a good write up to a game entirely about logic puzzles. Cogs has several different types of game, but they all involve you moving things around to allow MacGuffin X to move from A to B. This can involve moving cogs to allow motive power to be transmitted along a gear system; steam to be transmitted along pipes, and various other things. There are music challenges later, and I have to confess that I didn't reach those because I wanted to write this before going to bed. To unlock the later levels, you need stars (and it is always stars), and you get those by completing earlier challenges quickly and with few moves. This adds the crucial element of fighting against yourself - because even if you get stuck on a later level you can go back and improve your score on an earlier one.

I played this for only a few minutes, but already I love the steampunk look to the game, and I know I'll end up playing it right through.

On Skyrim IV: We the People

  06:46:50 pm, by   , 1183 words  
Viewed 55170 times since 30/03/11
Categories: Games, Elder Scrolls

Part 4 of my general wishlist/ramble through memory lane takes us to the NPCs that populate the game world.

A lot of bytes have been spilled on this topic. Some people prefer NPCs to have individual dialogue and some hate having to talk to every Tom, Dick and Harriet that they come across. Some prefer a wide variety of variations in appearance; others prefer different types of clothing; still others claim that it's the behaviour that's important.

Let's rewind a moment. Let's go back to basics. What does "NPC" mean?

At the most basic level, NPC is an acronym for "Non-Player Character", which doesn't help much, because it doesn't give us any information that we couldn't have guessed anyway. It tends to end up as a generic term for "Killable things to whom special rules apply", which isn't much more help, so let's look at cases.

In Morrowind, NPCs were interesting, in that they often had huge amounts of information to give you depending upon where they were located, what class they were, what faction they were in, and so on. Savants in particular had huge amounts of information about the world around you. Others had information critical to your quests. For instance, there was one quest that could only be found by talking to almost everyone in Vivec. Yes, you could stumble across it on your own, but the "true" route was to talk to the one person with the necessary information. The problem was that most people stood around in one spot for the entire game - a behaviour mocked brilliantly in Yahtzee Croshaw's review of Torchlight. If they weren't standing around stock-still, they wandered randomly and got in your way.

In Oblivion, there were about the same number of NPCs but most of them were supremely dull. Almost all of them had a unique "Hello!" line, plus something about their city, but after that it was all generic rumors. Let's not even talk about the conversations that NPCs could have with each other - I'm sure we all have our favourite idiotic NPC convo to share. From what's been announced so far, it seems people are going to have conversations "on the go" - you won't zoom in on an NPC while talking to them, and the rest of the world will keep going while you chat. This sounds ''much'' better if it can work properly, and let's hope it applies to other NPCs too. It's quite okay for two NPCs to walk past each other with a quick "Hi!" rather than stopping for a chat about consortiums of wizards in Summerset Isle.

Despite the problems, Oblivion comes close to what's needed. A city should be full of independent people, all living their lives until (X) happens, which is where you appear and fix it. In a really ideal game, from my personal POV, if you take too long over doing (X), (Y) should do it for you and screw you out of the reward. For instance, in both Morrowind and Oblivion it always seemed stupid that there were loads of contracts available along with several people whining that there were no quests available. Make up your minds! If Radiant Story is really going to work, let's see the Player lose out occasionally.

There are several bigger problems with OB's AI. For instance, you can steal everything in someone's store in full view, then go to jail, take all the items from the evidence chest.... and the person from whom you stole the items is perfectly happy to see you again. Don't even get me started on the conversations that can spring up after surrendering during combat.

The original videos showing off the Radiant AI from Oblivion seem to suggest it was meant to be far more than it ended up being. On the Collector's Edition DVD (and I'm sure it's on YouTube somewhere) we can see someone trying to shoot at a target; missing; drinking a Fortify Marksman potion and then hitting the target. Then there's the shot with someone's dog wanting food, being fed, but still being a pain at which point the owner stuns the dog. Awesome as this sounds, various rumours suggest that the problem was that people would start attacking each other, seemingly at random. When looked into, it would turn out that NPC x wanted a rake and NPC y had one. Hence, NPC y had to DIE!!!!

At UESP, we're involved in a project to document each NPC's schedule (among other things), and even with the reduced Radiant AI that we were given in the final game, there's still a lot of activity to be recorded. Get involved now!

So I've got this far without saying what I want to see in Skyrim. Let's try to rectify that.

There should be some kind of real economy going on. For instance, a farmer should work in the fields to produce wheat/corn/barley and then it can be sold in a farm store. Another farmer might be taking care of sheep/cows/guars/whatever and occasionally killing one when stocks were running low. Meanwhile shops stocking these primary ingredients would be preparing them, ready for sale to bakers or butchering them themselves. Taverns and hotels should be dependent on these places for ingredients. This suggests an obvious quest or two, when (for instance) a butcher has a problem harvesting his cattle.

There needs to be better transition between schedules. In OB, you could watch two people and see a silly transition from two people talking to each other to two people walking to the same location ''without'' talking to each other! The realism would be hugely enhanced if there were special cases for "Do you fancy going for some food?" and appropriate responses.

In Oblivion an "idle" schedule meant standing around doing nothing. This is just wrong. Nobody does this. If you're stuck waiting for something in real life, you look around the room, pick things up to look at them, wander around to look at pictures, hum to yourself, read a book if you have one or anything other than standing around doing nothing.

The clothing situation is a bit more tricky. Every item needs detailed design so if you want a large variety, it takes longer to achieve. Oblivion was better than Morrowind in this instance - there was much greater variety, but even so it wasn't great. Maybe the key here is to go for styles of outfit that can be recoloured on the fly. That's basically what we do in Real Life - all businesspeople wear suits and everyone else wears some combo of skirt/trousers + T-shirt/shirt (or hoodie these days). Yes, I'm oversimplifying, but look around and tell me it ain't so in most cases.

It sounds like Bethesda have already addressed some of the larger problems with NPCs. What we've seen so far looks great, and what we've heard about their activities sounds great, but NPCs are the heart and soul of a role-playing game, and it's all got to be right for the game to work.