Steam's Potato Sack Part 1

  08:13:53 pm, by   , 784 words  
Viewed 13652 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 55278 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.

On Skyrim III: Questing for Perfection

  05:18:02 pm, by   , 902 words  
Viewed 24464 times since 18/03/11
Categories: Games, Elder Scrolls, UESP

Of all the new features introduced in TES V: Skyrim, the one that has UESP's active editors simultaneously wriggling with delight and squirming with horror is "Radiant Story".

At its most basic level, this seems to be a way of avoiding the problem with some quests in Morrowind and Oblivion where you could screw them up by doing something before you got the mission. The previous games handled this in several different ways, depending on how much work the developer realised was necessary / was prepared to do. In Morrowind's Alof and the Orcs quest, you got the chance to continue if Alof was dead, but had to work out everything for yourself. That's fair enough. On the other hand, you could never complete Oblivion's Acrobatics Master Training quest quest if Torbern was dead when you received it. Another way of dealing with the problem was to make certain characters "essential". In Morrowind, killing one of these people gave you a nasty message that basically said you were screwed and should reload an earlier save: in Oblivion, you simply couldn't kill such NPCs, which could lead to incredibly useful allies or incredibly irritating enemies if things went wrong.

Another problem, mainly with Oblivion rather than Morrowind, was that you could completely clean out a dungeon only for some NPC to tell you that you needed to go there, whereupon it suddenly filled with foes. A great example of this is Hrota Cave, which is totally empty until you begin the Den of Thieves quest, at which point eight assorted thieves move in and suddenly everyone in Anvil tells you they've been there for ages. The alternative, of course, is to completely lock up a location until the related quest begins (e.g., Anga and Pale Pass).

From what's been revealed so far, Skyrim's solution sounds rather elegant. If, for instance, you kill Joe the barman, who was supposed to give you a quest, Joe's family might be able to offer you the quest instead - obviously after making you jump through a few hoops for killing hubby/daddy/illicit lover/whatever. Similarly, if you've already been to Scary Dungeon, which would normally be the location for the quest, the game will relocate it to Mysteriously Empty Mine - nearby, but which you haven't visited. Presumably if you've already visited everything the game will set the quest in the dungeon you visited least recently, and if you deliberately run around all the nearby dungeons before getting the quest to find out what happens, a giant boxing glove on a spring flies out of your computer and punches you in the groin for trolling.

This isn't going to solve everybody's problems. A worryingly-large number of people on UESP's talk pages complain that they've killed everybody in the world and can no longer complete a certain quest. Tough. If you've killed not just Joe, but Joe's children and wife, his closest friends, his less close friends, and anybody who ever even glanced in his direction, then you've missed out on the quest and it's your own fault.

Presumably there's some kind of limit as to where quests can be located. Again, we don't know exactly how Skyrim's dungeons are going to work but to use an Oblivion model, it wouldn't make much sense being asked to retrieve a rare magical tome from a monster dungeon just because you'd been to all the mage/necromancer locations in the area. Has the engine progressed to the point where all previous inhabitants can be switched out and replaced with more appropriate ones? If so, add one more problem to UESP's list... Another way of handling this would be to have the potential quest-giver say something like "Well I heard a rumor about a treasure in some local cave but it seems somebody went in there recently and proved it wrong." if you've looked into all the obvious locations, then have another line for when things have respawned.

At the start of this post I implied that Radiant Story was going to be a big problem for UESP but I got lost explaining what RS is and haven't really explained the problem yet.

The main problem is ease of description. Daggerfall offers several random quests: for instance, some publican in a tavern somewhere will ask you to do X at nearby dungeon Y. Our pages on such quests aren't really very helpful, since they can't tell you where to find X or how to accomplish Y. With Morrowind and Oblivion, most quest pages are filled with detail not just on X and Y, but on how to avoid tricky monsters M and N, where to find powerful treasure T and how to screw quest giver G for most cash. The trouble starts when everybody adds their own personal favourite methods. Until recently, most quest pages were festooned with loads of pointless notes about methods, cheats, hacks, oddities and so on. Most of those have been ruthlessly (but usefully) pruned, but now imagine what it's going to be like when even the quest-giver and location aren't fixed.

To summarise: it looks like we've got a lot of challenges ahead when it comes to writing the quest pages. As Bethesda tell us more about what to expect, we may be able to start honing in on the options. Whatever happens, UESP will provide the best content possible - however long it takes!

Dead Money but Not Dead Enough

  04:43:50 pm, by   , 1842 words  
Viewed 438115 times since 14/03/11
Categories: Games, Fallout

Back in October last year (my how time flies!) I wrote a post about Fallout: New Vegas, in which I described my disappointment with the game. My final paragraph contained the phrase "If I give it a few more hours, I might like it too", which turned out to be a decent prediction, if not 100% accurate. I've played a lot of FNV since then and although I've forgiven the game a lot of its faults, it's still not going to make my top 10 list.

First, having played the game for longer, I've experienced the full range of its bugs. Well... there are probably more bugs, to be fair. I can't find them, though, because certain actions crash the game before I can reach other, probably game-crashing, bugs. This was such an issue on the game's release that Bethesda had to put out a press release urging people not to return the game but await a patch that would actually make the game playable. To be fair, a patch duly arrived, but it's like shoring up one wall of a house to make sure it doesn't fall down, only to discover that it's the only wall still present: the game seems to be irretrievably buggy.

Second, one of the major fun things in the game gets taken away from you as soon as you start to enjoy it: the casinos. Win enough chips at any of the casinos in New Vegas and they ban you; and it's pretty easy to get banned from all of them, meaning you can no longer play the three games on offer (blackjack, roulette and slot machines). Apart from the money-making aspect, playing in the casinos is a nice way to relax after shooting up a Fiend encampment, and for the game to take it away is pointlessly cruel. True, with a luck of 10 you're basically making your own money, but then the same is true no matter what you do late in the game, when you can haul huge amounts of loot back to vendors and sell it.

Third, I really dislike the plot endings. I'm not going to spoil it here with exact details, but no matter what you choose to do you end up in a bloodbath. There may be ways of avoiding this but if so, I haven't found them so far. Yes, you can avoid rivers of blood, but you always get at least a small stream.

On the other hand, the game offered enough that it's kept me busy, even if a decent fraction of the time I've spent on it involved reloading saves after a crash. Then reloading earlier saves because my latest save was already glitched in some way.

And so we come to the main subject of this post: the first piece of DLC: Dead Money.

It sucks.

It is absolutely bloody awful.

I have never wanted to do harm to a fellow programmer before playing this (well... apart from one or two I was working with) but this DLC almost makes me want to track down the developers and do serious, major damage to them.

I'm going to try to avoid huge spoilers, but if you haven't played it (you lucky, lucky bastards) and think you might want to do so (save your money!) then look away now.

I've always been told that one should give positive feedback first so the recipient is buoyed up when the criticism arrives, so I'll do it that way.

Dead Money has a very, very good story and several of the best characters to appear in any Bethesda title - indeed any recent video game title. To boil it down into a non-spoiled soup for easy digestion, the Sierra Madre Casino was completed just before the outbreak of war. It was to be the biggest, most luxurious entertainment complex ever imagined, and all was ready to roll when the bombs started to fall. Miraculously, the casino remained largely intact and several people were attracted to the riches presumably contained inside. You are the latest to become enmeshed in the plot. You end up as an involuntary worker for Elijah, who "enlists" your help, along with that of three other unfortunates, to open the casino and plunder it. Elijah is interesting in himself, but the other three - Dog/God (don't ask), Dean, and Christine are even better characters, with a wealth of back story to be discovered.

On your quest to find the first of these three, you discover that the area around the casino is filled with horrifying "ghost people", who return to life unless killed in specific ways. You also discover that the collar being used to ensure your obedience is sensitive to loudspeakers: radios and PA systems can trigger it and blow your head off. To make matters worse, the area is filled with a toxic cloud that is harmful to human life. As you find your fellow prisoners, the story develops... but I can't really say any more without spoiling things.

So what's my problem? Brilliant writing and interesting characters? Cool new enemies and challenges?

Well to begin with, this is yet another Fallout DLC that takes your equipment away at the start. Several of the FO3 addons did this, and it's basically a dick move to make your life harder. There were various levels of logic involved in the FO3 addons, ranging from "It's all a Virtual Reality" to "We feel like doing it" but here we have somebody who apparently wants you to help him taking your gear away even though he's not going to be there when you wake up. This is massively annoying. It gets worse if your character hadn't bothered to put much time into improving his or her melee/unarmed/explosives skills because you're going to need 'em. The Ghost People I mentioned earlier don't just need killing, they need eviscerating if they're going to stay dead, and the only realistic way to do that is with the new hand-to-hand weapons you find. You can use guns, but since ammo is harder to find than a eunuch's testicles you're going to run out pretty soon.

Some people are going to claim that having your equipment disappear is necessary to balance the mod. Rubbish. I've paid my cash and it's up to me how I want to play it. If I want to drop all my stuff outside (there's a chest where you can leave it) then I can do that. If I want to go in fully stoked, I should be able to do that too. Denying me the choice is nothing but annoying.

Next: you can't go back. Once you've started the mod, your committed. That's it. You have to finish the whole damn thing before you can return. While this might make sense in terms of the story, locking a game player in like this is never a good idea because they're just going to get mad at you. In my case, the first time I played it I reloaded an earlier save after about an hour because of technical problems and because I wasn't enjoying it. If I want to waste an hour of my life on something unenjoyable, I'll watch an episode of Outcasts. I should be able to leave and come back again later.

The ghost people themselves. At first, the challenge is good. The first time you get attacked by more than one you realise you have a choice: eviscerate the first one you kill to stop it getting up again, or leave it and try to beat down the second before the first recovers. The 15th time this choice appears, with variations including three or - shock - four enemies... it's boring. To be fair, the game repeatedly suggests that you avoid the ghost people rather than fight them, but it then makes a point of creating situations where you can't do that. After you've killed your first dozen of these things, they're annoying rather than scary.

After your first couple of fights, you'll need healing. Unfortunately, all your stimpaks were confiscated along with your weapons (see earlier comment re "dick moves") and you can't sleep outside because of the toxic environment. Luckily, there are new vending machines scattered around the place that will sell you food as long as you have enough Sierra Madre chips to buy it. Yes, you guessed it, yet another damn thing you have to collect. In this case, the chips are scattered around the exterior, and fairly easy to find, but it raises the question: Why bother doing this instead of just leaving the items to find? You have to discover codes that unlock things like stimpaks on the machines, so there's yet another bloody thing you have to find.

Next, this thing about radios and speakers setting off your collar. When you first encounter this, it's an interesting challenge and easy enough to solve without being onerous. It turns out you can switch off radios and shoot loudspeakers to disable them. You'll never guess what happens later? Oh... you did? Speakers you can't destroy and radios embedded in accessible areas? Let's say it again: dick move. For me, this is the second most annoying part of the game. There are places where there is - essentially - no possible way you can complete it first time through. You have got to go through and get killed, possibly several times, until you learn the locations of the speakers you can destroy, and the spaces in the coverage of the others where you can catch your breath. That's utterly rubbish in an A/RPG like Fallout where you should be able to get through on your first attempt unless you've made an unwise choice such as diving into a cave and taking on its inhabitants without the necessary skills.

Finally... the bugs! There are so many! On my first playthrough, the first three (I think) missions went fine but then the fourth glitched out and I couldn't finish it. That one I solved by quitting and reloading a save before I even entered the DLC. A similar thing happened on mission five, which I could solve with a reload, and then when I hit the final mission, I couldn't get it to work at all. Nothing on the Internet suggests a solution and various console commands ended up crashing the damn game yet again. So I decided to write a long blog post and drink some Scotch.

You know what adds to it all? What acts as a final knee in the crotch of good gameplay? The bloody casino ban limit is in place at the Sierra Madre too! You'd have thought that after the sheer bloody misery of working your way through this awful mod they could at least leave the casino open! Except, if I read the reviews right, once you've finished the DLC the whole area becomes inaccessible. One last dick move from a thoroughly rotten DLC.

Good riddance to the whole noxious, bug-ridden piece of poo.

On Skyrim II: Location, location, location

  04:38:31 pm, by   , 409 words  
Viewed 48257 times since 09/03/11
Categories: Games, Elder Scrolls

For me, one of the best bits of news about Skyrim is that the whole map is being hand-generated rather than using a generator for much of it.

I've described elsewhere that my initial to leaving the initial Oblivion sewer was "Wow!", and that I had a similar reaction to Fallout 3. The problem in both games is that the initial sense of wonder quickly fades into complacency: you reach the crest of a hill, and on the far side you see... exactly the same thing as on the other side.

In Oblivion I've used mods to mitigate this problem. The set of Unique Landscapes mods ensure that nowhere in Cyrodiil looks quite like anywhere else, while RAEVWD means you don't have to be up close to see the difference. In my opinion, this makes a huge difference to the game because you can become a part of a proper community rather than feeling you're simply in some cut-and-pasted area.

Morrowind was much better than Oblivion for the variety of its exteriors, but even on Vvardenfell there wasn't huge variety. In Skyrim, with a bit of luck, there'll have been a little competition between landscape modders: "See what I just did in The Pale?" -> "Curses! I've got to seriously improve my work in the suburbs of Riften!" Obviously, some areas have to remain "boring" to let the exceptional pieces stand out, but as long as there are enough exceptional areas, that's fine by me.

One of the clearest, most damning statements about the Oblivion map is UESP's Unmarked Places page. It stalled at less than 20 "interesting" locations, and I had to get tough to prevent an odd rock and four bits of timber being mentioned. If the map was largely auto-generated, then this is only to be expected.

From what I've seen so far, this requirement isn't going to be much of an issue. The landscapes that have been revealed have been stunning. Stunning to the extent of reducing me to the point of staring, slack-jawed, at my monitor.

I know that not every location can have this effect. All I ask is that we have a few more locations capable of doing it.

I've made this the first of my specific "hopes" for the new game, because it's the most important. Obviously I have further hopes for the game but I believe that if it can get its setting right, an awful lot of the rest comes naturally.