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Thursday, November 30, 2006

She Lets Me Slip Away...

Not so much Splinerisation lately, sorry. I won't fob you off with excuses, I've not been busy, although my time has been occupied. I've been neglecting the numerous impending essay deadlines this week in favour of Neverwinter Nights 2; and although I wouldn't go so far as to say my review was wrong... I will admit to reviewing without first giving the game a proper chance to earn my appreciation.

The game has charm. I've come to learn this through days of adventuring. That dwarf Khelgar I mentioned? He's now my best mate. Although I've been feeling utterly relaxed whilst playing from the comfort of my bed, the truly epic story has kept my buttocks firmly clenched. The AI is still rubbish, mind.

I'll probably write more when the game is completed and re-played with a party of housemates.

Anyway, read below this post for an entirely inaccurate review. I promise to avoid making the same mistake twice.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Review : Neverwinter Nights 2

By no means a perfect game, Neverwinter Nights 2 meets (and exceeds) all of the role playing genre expectations. Intricate character creation and development? Check. Huge world complete with towns, dungeons and lavish, lust-inspiring loot? Check. Multiple-solution problem solving, including moral dilemmas for both the honourable and maniacal? Check. NWN2 even includes a varied and constantly evolving storyline, arguably lacking in NWN1. Why is it then, when so much good can be said of Obsidian's latest effort, I still find myself tossing and turning throughout Neverwinter Nights?

Have you ever suffered through one of those dreams in which you desperately want to achieve a goal, but your efforts are in vain because your mind won't let you succeed? The state of angst I wake up in after one of those dreams is comparable to maneuvering Khelgar the dwarf into a tactically viable, non-suicidal position within the cave of a thousand tiny annoyances. NWN2's AI is atrocious, beyond acceptably poor, enough to drive you into the realms of deepest dwarven hatred. The problem is not simply confined to Khelgar. All AI-controlled party members (up to a maximum of three, plus yourself) fail to grasp the most basic tenets of their role within the group. Rather like joining forces with drunken technophobic cave-dwellers and attempting World of Warcraft's Molten Core, a Neverwinter Nights 2 player will soon discover their party members' preference for randomly targeted violence and staring off into the distance. The 'Broadcast Commands' - general orders, such as 'Stand Your Ground' or 'Follow Me' - help a player to reign in their party, but often go ignored when most vitally needed. The solution I found worked best for my play style was to place all group members onto 'Puppet Mode', essentially rendering them thoughtless in battle unless issued orders directly from HQ.

Although AI caused me most frustration, this game is full of minor, quickly accumulating niggles. The graphics are sub-standard, accompanied by framerates and loading times worse than Oblivion. There's a bug which crashes the game if the player has anyone but their main character selected at the end of a battle in which dialogue is automatically triggered. Many equipped items do not show on the avatar such as one has come to expect. Unsuccessful attempts at thievery go unpunished, even though the player is informed of a critical failure... I could go on, but to unveil all of NWN2's flaws would be to spoil the fun.

And the game is fun. Everything that was great about NWN1 can be found in its sequel, and then some. The orchestral score can be mood-defining, capable of evoking joy, excitement, intrigue and awe - often all at once. The story, (arranged into acts) manages to be both lengthy and entertaining. I found the characters to be particularly well realised; the first two hours of gameplay both introduces and kills off more memorable and ultimately likeable characters than most games can hope to boast in their entirety.

Although I can't recommend NWN2 for Game of the Year, there is a lot to be found, and liked, right here. The singleplayer campaign is perfect for literally days of epic fantasy, and the multiplayer features all of the dungeon master functionality of the original game. As time goes on, we can only expect for NWN2 to improve, with Obsidian having already released the first patch and an active fanbase of modders out there.

You can buy Neverwinter Nights 2 from Play.com

Friday, November 24, 2006

Our Biased Media

Respect, Virtually

There have been a couple of major events since Splines was last updated. The Playstation 3 and Nintendo Wii have launched in the US, the ESA apologised for issuing a 'cease and desist' order to fellow gaming blog Bits Bytes Pixels & Sprites, and nothing what so ever has happened regarding funerals within virtual worlds. Of cause, nobody of sound, rational mind would choose to write about funerals at such a period of gaming furor.

Today, I'd like to talk to you about funerals.

In the glory days before the time of university and a receding hairline, I was loyally devoted to playing Sony's MMOFPS Planetside. The bunch of buddies I fought alongside called themselves Vanu Corporation, and I still regard their burgeoning forum as an online sanctum, to be trawled and spammed to excess.

I was informed through this forum that a prominent member of the Planetside community had recently died, and that there was going to be an online funeral held in-game at which the player's sons would speak about their father. Being as it is that Planetside involves a fair amount of weaponry, Vanu Corporation offered themselves as funeral security. Forum chatter turned to the principles of defending a herse. Anti-aircraft MAXes on the hill, extra ammunition hidden along the convoy's route, empire commanders pleading for temporary peace in an eternal war.

As it turned out, the event passed without incident; but I don't believe it is security which prevents violence at organised events within an armed virtual community. I believe two factors play the greatest roles - respect and fear. To someone unfamiliar with persistent online gaming, the very notion of virtual funerals may seem absurd. To those who have experienced what it is to know 'internet people' better than 'real people', a respectful online community can exist in tandem with non-stop killing. It is through respect and fear that an MMO gains emotional meaning; the respect a comrade can have for another will lead to wonderful things being accomplished, and the fear of shame or shunning that a miscreant may have imposed upon him should he behave beyond norms deemed acceptable by the community ought to prevent misdeeds from being committed.

So I guess what I'm trying to say is that it is not through the imposition of force, but the cohesion of community, common good will prevail.

On a side note. There have been many such funerals within MMOs since the beginning of time (MMOs have existed since the universe formed, right?) and there have been many such success stories to accompany countless massacres conducted by angry funeral gatecrashers. What I'd like to know is your opinion on the moral nuances of killing those attending a virtual event. I think it would be fair to ask that if the game mechanics allow for the ability, and every player pays an equal sum to enjoy the game, why should killing attendees of a funeral not be allowed? I wouldn't intentionally spoil any event arranged to honour the dead, but I do enjoy causing mischief online and it is with some shame that I admit to allowing a sly chuckle escape when I hear about weddings being canceled due to artillery etc.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Ploys R' Us

My Google homepage helpfully informs me that it was Benjamin Disraeli who said "How much easier it is to be critical than to be correct"; poignant words indeed, particularly because today my great eye bares down on this chap, and his critical but unhelpful comment.

"One of the worst things going for us is that we're called videogames"
Doug Lowenstein - Entertainment Software Association

I believe that the best which can be said about this statement is that, upon primary ponderance, the notion makes perhaps a little sense. Ultimately, the worst that can be thought is, 'How on earth could this nonsense be uttered by a public representative of gaming?'.

Presumably, the ESA chief believes the 'game' part of 'videogame' to be the main problem, because of the connotation the word carries with children and their toys. Now, you can find some excellent arguments for and against this train of thought all over the web, so I'll try and assume another tack.

I believe it's fair to make three statements in regards the current state of the general public's view on modern gaming. 1: Gaming is becoming culturally and critically accepted, but, 2: A few aspects of modern gaming mean some people remain skeptical. However, 3: The word by which we choose to name our hobby and passion has little (if any) baring on the level of skepticism gaming draws upon itself.

The factor which will dictate the opinions of gamers and non-gamers alike is that of quality. It is only through developing games worthy of respect that gaming will be accepted gladly by the mainstream populace as a cultural artifact. Altering the paint scheme of a fast-food takeaway which fails basic health and safety tests may momentarily increase the level of custom, but it is not without addressing the underlying issue that the number of explosive-diarrhea sufferers will be reduced.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Grand Theft Mario

Monday, November 13, 2006

Art Toad

We're back on familiar territory, reader*. Recent Splines supplements covered the topics of video games as art and government grants for game developers; today I'll be combining both contemporary issues into one byte-sized nibble.

The quote below comes from the mouth of French Minister of Culture, Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres:

"People have looked down on video games for far too long, overlooking their great creativity and cultural value... Video games are not a mere commercial product. They are a form of artistic expression involving creation from script writers, designers and directors."

To place this statement into context, Monsieur Vabres, (and, with him, a portion of the French government) hopes to offer French cinema-style subsidies to help encourage game developers to operate out of France.

Whether this policy will come into existence or not is yet to be seen; a similar lack of observation causes me to ponder upon the potential extent of governmental interference in the creation of French computer games. Will subsidized developers be essentially constrained within the pockets of ministers, or will they have freedom to roam the receptacle, to create within confines?

You can find a Game Politics article on the French decision here, and an interesting, recent, IRC debate on the potential for games to exist as art here.

*Thanks for coming back Colin.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Peripheral Vision

'Evolution or Revolution'? A question long asked by skeptical observers of technological development since Grah first saw Ug roll a smoothly chiselled stone out of his cave and proudly proclaim his new invention would soon bring about the Ford Ka. Ug claimed his Wheel would revolutionize the brontosaurus trade, but Grah saw the Wheel as only a simple refinement of the reliable and abundant Rock blueprint.

We now know better, of cause. Whether evolution or revolution, a helpful change to existing gadgetry will attain mainstream acceptance so long as it simplifies and/or amplifies the process. With our increased cranial size, we know that Grah was wrong to assume that Ug's changes were unnecessary. Ug realised the importance of experimentation, fostering new ideas into tactile matter and shaping the future through trial and error.

I propose that the PC as a medium for gaming is in danger of loosing its traditional role as a proving ground for new ideas; the revolutionary impetus is shifting towards the consoles, which by their generational nature require that players regularly embrace new technology. What I mean by this is that every five years or so the console gaming community is refreshed by new software and, (more importantly) new hardware. When a customer purchases a 'next generation' console, they can be assured to be provided with a totally re-invented gaming system. Today I hope to focus on the peripheral; the method of control traditionally associated with joysticks, joypads, keyboards and mice.

So, if the consoles can be said to be 'generational' in their method of upgrade, how can we view this process with PC hardware? The PC bares many similarities to that of consoles, both exist thanks to the cooperative integration of similar components; however, the burden and privilege of upgrading a PC falls solely on its owner/s. The artefacts that make up a PC could be said to exist on differing timescales - a graphics card may go from being cutting-edge to obsolete in three to four years, but a mouse or keyboard (the peripherals I talked of earlier) may never need to be replaced until a tragic caffeinated accident occurs. Because of this, peripherals are often overlooked for upgrade as owners tend to prioritise the replacement of objects assessed to be of greater immediate value to them - that means shiny new graphics and ultra-fast processing speeds.

For all of its strengths as the technologically superior cousin of the console, the PC could well loose its value as a format for original and inspiring ideas to be brought to life simply by failing to encourage its customer base to experience exotic peripherals, evolved from the reliable and abundant Keyboard and Mouse blueprints.

The problem would appear to be twofold:
Firstly - the Personal Computer's customer base is a vauge and abstract notion. How do we define a PC? Do we include Apple Macs? Microsoft may own a veritable monopoly over the PC operating systems, but not over PC gaming. Electronic Arts are certainly the most influential gaming publisher, but just how far does this influence extend? A massive degree of inter-corporate cooperation would be required to develop and release a reasonable alternative to the keyboard and mouse.
Secondly - even if the customer base could be defined as anyone who has used a keyboard and/or mouse to play a game within the last year, even if the hardware developers and the software publishers could come to a consensus as to what sections of peripheral must be chiselled in order to transform Rock into Wheel... why should anyone want to upgrade when the keyboard and mouse combination work perfectly fine?

Perhaps the solution to these problems will come through a saturation of knowledge. When the Wiimote and the motion-sensing Playstation 3 joypad are released, perhaps PC gamers will observe and come to prioritise the need to expand the capabilities of their own peripherals. The day that gamers' control method preferences place precision and speed as equally important factors along with immersion and enjoyment, my peripheral vision will be complete.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Super Kim

Sunday, November 05, 2006

This Month in Games : November

Ladies and Gents, we have hit the mother lode! As we all know from the state of Woolworth's adverts on the telly, Christmas comes at least fifty days early in Corporate Land; and as a result November's gaming bounty will keep geeky digits warm long into the dark winter night. This month, we as gamers witness the release of possibly the finest games of the year; In this jovial time, let us remember the games less fortunate than Battlefield 2142, games that offer entertainment but not true greatness, games that are overlooked and left to suffer the season in solitude. Where to begin?!

Sid Meier's Railroads!

Perhaps because this game is really good fun, perhaps because I have an unnatural fondness for railways, or perhaps, although I love writing for Splines, all I can think of right now is jumping back onto Sid Meier's Railroads - I love this game. Playing SMR can best be compared to being presented with a lively tapestry of country and town, industry and business, supply and demand... and being told to spawn a sprawling mess of metal and steam in order to generate profit from a newly-emerging industrial society. Hamlets become towns, which grow into cities, all the time increasing their lust to produce and consume resources - with all their development closely linked to the expansion of the railway network, either by you or your competitor. The naivete of the early scenarios' 'train set' ethos quickly dissipates to be replaced by challenging, ruthless business. Hostile takeovers and industrial monopolies are just some of the dirty tricks you can dabble in, or become the victim of. Buy it here. You won't regret it.

Flight Simulator X

Let's get the important question out of the way first. Yes, the X in Flight Simulator X is pronounced 'ten' and not 'ecs'. 'Ecs sounds better, you think? Ecs would have embodied the evolution implied by the inclusion of impressively detailed photographic mapping of the globe in Microsoft's latest Flight Simulator title. Ecs would bridge the gap between Microsoft's main gaming markets - the XBox series and the PC - emboldening Microsoft's marketing strategy to encourage independent modding of their games and encouraging gamers to transmit across the gap between formats. Ecs carries a certain mystique with it, breaking away from Flight Simulator tradition, and what some may claim to have become a stagnant license. Ecs just sounds better. Flight Simulator X is an impressive, and pricey, (50 pound for the standard edition, 60 pound for deluxe) addition to a gamer's collection. There's reason to assume a progression from earlier editions of Flight Simulator, with a greater volume of interesting ariel challenges and vastly improved depth and height modelling; a frequent virtual flyer or unseasoned novice should consider trying on a new pair of wings. But I'm not going to buy it until either Microsoft reduce the price or make you their new marketing manager and sack this woman.

Okami is a special, beautiful game. Available for the PS2 in the US right now, and in the UK from Febuary, I feel genuinely sad knowing that unless this title comes to the PC I'll never get to play it. Having only gasped at screenshots and read the review, I feel as though it would be best to quote Edge magazine to give my readers an idea of the worldly wonders of Okami.

Extracts from Edge:

"Okami is certainly an epic, a luxuriously long, physically vast adventure peppered with side-quests, mimigames and micro-comedies, and with a cast of hundreds. But Okami is an epic in another sense too, in the precise, literary meaning of the word. It follows neither a single narrative arc nor a logical gaming structure. It is a rambling, episodic tale, by turns grand and nonsensical, crude and beautiful: a hero's journey that continues long after its three acts appear to be over. It is one of the great videogame legends"

The visual style is profoundly oriental. The player's avatar is a goddess, embodied by the form of a magically gifted wolf. Combat and interaction is dealt with in 'brushstrokes', on-screen gestures which, (when performed successfully) trigger a power to be activated. I really want to play this game, and you can find it here.

That's the end of my recommendations for this month. Too harsh? Well, you could always try Neverwinter Nights 2 (PC), Medieval: Total War 2 (PC) or Canis Canem Edit (Bully(PS2)).

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Watch and Gawp

I saw this well known Trackmania Sunrise movie for the first time today. I'm posting it here for the benefit of the 87 year old North Korean technophobe with newly restored eyesight that hasn't seen it yet.