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There's a few games and updates heading our way that have caught my attention, and so I've kept an eye on how things have been developing.


Big Game Roundup
Mass Effect 3 logo Guild Wars 2 logoThe Secret World logo

Aside from the fact Mass Effect 3 is launching on the 9th of March, which is all over the internets along with the GAME/Gamestation debacle, the hypemachine is on overdrive for Guild Wars 2 now that Star Wars: the Old Republic has lost its new and shiny edge, and FunCom's upcoming The Secret World is still generating a lot of interest.


Tidbits

A recent interview with the BioWare studio founders conducted by Penny Arcade mentioned that the possibility of a Mass Effect MMO is an interesting one. There's some mixed feelings about it, given the mixed reception SWTOR got, but back before SWTOR details were known there was a good deal of interest in an MMO set in the Mass Effect universe. I have to admit that now I'm not so sure either. A single-player focused MMOFPS isn't something I'm looking for in an MMO.

My last post looked at awful customer service in the game industry, and whilst I did eventually have my Star Trek Online character restored*, my experience was very bad. The news that Blizzard has just laid off over 10% of its workforce, primarily those in support roles as it turns out, is not an encouraging sign that the industry-wide situation will improve any time soon.


Update

The buzz surrounding Borderlands 2 had been quiet for the last few months until a few days ago, a video coupled with an official release date annoucement brought peoples' attention back. September 18th, as it happens.



There's been plenty of new information about the game, from the overhaul of itemisation to what powers the new Siren (Maya) will have. Spoiler: it's called Phaselock and translates as support/crowd control with damage on that affects mobs rather than the Siren herself. The latest infodump relates to the new Assassin named Zer0, a cyborg ninja that displays numbers and emoticons on it's featureless helmet. Previous articles detail the Commando going by the name of Axton, Maya the adventuring Siren and the first character that whet folks' whistles: the gunzerking dwarf Salvador. IGN has plenty of articles that go into further detail.


Dark Horse

One game that has been overlooked is Otherland, based on the Tad Williams novel series of the same name set in a cyberpunk-genre future. It's likely to be a small, niche game and hard details about it are scarce but there is a video demonstrating themes, ideas, areas and combat. I'm definitely keeping an eye on this because that city looks fantastic and I'm a sucker for cyberpunk and Sci-Fi.



In some ways it's a game within a game: the game itself appears to show both the real world in the setting, and the various virtual Otherlands. I'm most interested in seeing how this will pan out in terms of gameplay. Speculation time: I wonder if it will combine large elements of both worlds rather than the real world existing as little more than a background affair, as it did in the old Matrix Online game?
It's pitched as being Free to Play, but there's no hard details about what is being sold for cash to fund it, be it vanity items only or power items. No surprise there, everyone's jumping on the Pay to Win bandwagon.

I'll continue to keep an eye on what's what, and might even find some interest in TSW again. FunCom has done a great deal as a company to turn me off their products and kill any enthusiasm I once had...



* After repeated support tickets and emails I eventually had an actual human email me back. He started off snarking at me and I pointed out in detail exactly why I was unable to do the things he suggested I ought to have done, such as use the ingame GM system when the whole problem was that the character could notg et in game... Eventually it was passed to a GM who took one look at the character, rolled it back to the last time it'd successfully logged in and voilá.
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In between jetting off to chilly climes, going through the Champions Online archetype rotation, popping into Anarchy Online for it's halloween activities and hitting up Rift now I'm starting to approach end game, I've been playing bits and pieces of other games.

3DS

First up is Zelda: Four Swords, DSiware released for the 3DS and free to all with a 3DS, DSi or DSi XL as part of the 25th anniversary celebrations. It's a limited time release and will be vanishing mid-february.

4 swords logo

It's primarily meant to be played multiplayer with up to 4 people playing differently coloured Links, workign together to complete each area of the game. It can be played singleplayer as well, with two Links both controlled by you. This is a little tricky at first: you can switch between them with the R shoulder button and you can set one to follow behind the other, or stand around wherever you left it. The trick is to get the hang of issuing these orders and swapping between them smoothly and quickly. Each Link can hold only the 1 special item beside a sword, and using the right item (and thus the right link) for a particular part becomes critical. In addition, each Link is measured on how many coins it collects, damage it inflicts etc. These all give a score at the end of each area. (Beyond that, I've not yet discovered a use for coins beyond a fee to raise you á la Fairy if you die.)

The emulation for the 3DS is basic. It's not 3D and doesn't suspend properly either, as it was directly ported from the original 2002 DSi version. It's got a tutorial area that explains how the game works and what items can do, which is helpful. Some of the items are funny, like the magnet and many of them are ye olde staples from almost any Zelda game you care to name. It held my attention for a while but ultimately as there's no real story or point to any of it beyond progressing through areas because they're there, I got bored.


PC

Bunch of Heroes is an indie-ish PC game available on Steam. It's very simple: pick a character, team upw ith a friend or two, pewpew enemies and complete objectives in each area. The graphics are cartoony, it's filled with ridiculous puns and there's action to be had all round.

Bunch of Heroes logo

As a co-operative game, it's something of a twin-stick shooter but in an Alien Swarm style more than anything else, mechanically-speaking. WASD to move, mouse to aim and fire. The primary enemy here is zombies (inifinite numbers thereof), you have limited ammunition though there are crates to bust for drops. Nothing groundbreaking here and in fact I got fairly bored of it after the first area.


Android

For the daily commute, I have been at the mobile gaming again on my Android. Minecraft Pocket was finally released for all Android platforms (an iOS version is out now as well) after it's Xperia Play exclusive offer finished and I picked it up as my first paid app.

Minecraft Pocket logo


It's a very pared down version of Minecraft (now officially released) - Minecraft classic essentially. it's purely creative mode with no monsters, health, equipment or resource gathering. You simply select what blocks you want to build with, run around the world you create and build things. The size of the world is also very much reduced, though you have forest, water, mountains, trees and so on.

You can multiplay over wifi or bluetooth, with one phone hosting a server that others can join. As a note, by default your map will be a publically available server unless you turn that off! I've not given the multiplayer part a go as yet.

It runs my HTC Sensation somewhat hot, I have to say, and the graphics start to glitch after a while though that is rectified by pausing the game, switching back to the home screens, then hopping back into the game. It's quite the battery drain as well. I also don't like the D-Pad controls too much, though as these things go they're fairly good. I haven't yet fully adapted to the complete loss of tactile feedback from a capacitive touchscreen when using controls that used to be physically pushed (moreso for the analogue controllers of the later consoles).

Overall I've found it to be fun now and then for building something silly but it really ought to have a flight mode enabled so that it can be a pure building simulator, given all the other aspects of Minecraft's gameplay are gone (adventuring, circuitry, combat etc).


Next up:

I've been playing more of the Alchemy games on my 'droid and I'll be giving those a go-over soon.
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I've been giving Sanctum a proper playabout over the course of the last week, after an initial evening back in July chasing after the Steam Summer Camp award related to the game. It's a first person tower defence game made by indie developers Coffee Stain Studios, and it's main schtick is that when the building phase is over, your character (Skye) leaps into the fray with a choice of firearms and helps with the defence. The multiplayer function is co-operative and good fun to boot.

Sanctum Screen

You are placed on a map that has a mixture of fixed components like ramps and walls, with entrances on one end where aliens will swarm from and a big glowing core on the other end which is what the aliens are trying to destroy. The open space is mostly given over to sites where you can choose to construct blocks to house towers or place something on the floor. The strategy comes from how you choose to herd the aliens through block placement and kill them through strategic tower use, bolstered by your own FPS skills. The FPS aspect isn't hardcore - you don't have HP and the aliens don't care about you though if you get in their way you will get bounced about. Each wave of aliens you successfully destroy (before they destroy your core) gives you a money reward. Towers, floor items and weapon upgrades all cost money. You have to choose whether you want to spend your earnings on upping your own personal combat capabilities, for example upgrading your sniper rifle, or on upgrading your existing tower/floor structures, or in placing new basic ones. Towers act on their own initiative, either going for the closest target or else choosing targets randomly. Flooring acts on aliens that run directly over them. You can run and jump about to shoot and the placement of Televators (teleporters combined with elevators to move up to the top of the block layer) gets to be critical to avoid getting yourself stuck out of the way with a long run back to the action.

Building Screenie
Chargin' mah lazorz...

Examples of the sorts of towers and flooring you get:-
  • Gatling Guns which are cheap, high rate of fire, low damage and target the nearest ground units
  • Scatter Lasers which are more expensive, have higher damage and lower rate of fire and randomly targets both ground and air units
  • Slow Fields that snare enemies passing over that square
  • Amp Fields that decrease the armour of the aliens passing over the square
Alien types are specialised and swarm in numbers without much in the way of AI. Some examples:-
  • Bobble Heads that are immune to all damage except to their tiny, fragile, waving bobble-heads
  • Chargers that move very fast in straight lines but slow down considerably at corners
  • Dodgers that fly and move in random jerks
  • Spore Pods that don't do much of anything beyond fly slowly and die easily, except that they come in large numbers

I became quite the sniper rifle and assault cannon fan. Sniping the bigger and tougher aliens to thin the ranks before they come into tower range, then switching over to the assault cannon to spray the smaller, faster things. At the lower difficulty ranges, you can easily out-DPS your towers and go all rambo. At harder levels you are the emergency backup.

Combat Screenie
Getting up close and personal in multiplayer


The three bits I don't like are as follows:
  1. The difficulties are shagged. That is to say; the difference between difficulty levels follows abstract mathematics as yet unknown to modern science.
  2. Occasional bugged (or possibly just ludicrously unbalanced) mobs. An example of this is sometimes found in the Big Walker waves. Usually when found in a wave, these aliens have got a wodge of HP that means they take a good pounding before keeling over. Once in a while, there will be a bugged one (or perhaps it's some sort of special invulnerable one) that will take the combined firepower of all my turrets and myself sniping for 4-digit damage in the weakspot for the duration of the entire pathway to the core, and STILL doesn't fall over. It's taking damage, as the mass of orange and red numbers can attest to, it's just not dying. Exceedingly frustrating.
  3. Occasional bugged Achivements, though that's hardly unique to this game to be fair. Still irritating when you've got to that last awkward strawberry fish and shot it in the head at point blank range and it squeals in its death throes and... no record of it.

It's a really well presented game, in my opinion. I love the aesthetics (even if the 'futuristic' UI style has been done to death) and the soundtrack is great too. There's been some free updates and also some cheap DLCs (a couple of dollars for the lot in a recent Steam sale) consisting of new maps and tower/flooring types. If you Steam it, there's a ton of achievements as well ranging from the usual 'kill X of Y using Z' to uncovering hidden easter eggs. And boy, that's a lotta easter eggs...


The icing on the cake

There's a veritable ton of hidden bits to find, from random items tucked away in obscure corners of the map you didn't even know had pathing to whole other areas and layers to explore. Hardly any of these have to do with building towers and pewing aliens but the amount of work that's gone into some of these secret parts is quite mind-boggling. 'Voyage au centre de la Terre' is one such example with a whole other section of labyrinthine tunnels, unique script dialogue and such. Masses of guides on how to access everything can be found all over YouTube. The various additional levels haven't skimped on the hidden bits either. All in all it adds plenty of extra goals to pursue and extends the longevity of the game. For once, in a break with recent gaming tradition, there are no cake references either.
It's been a long time since I've played a game with so many random extras that have nothing whatsoever to do with the gameplay, the genre, the setting and so on.

Sanctum is not too expensive on Steam at the best of times but when it comes up in the sale rotation, it definitely gets a recommendation from me.
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It's that time again for Indie game developers to band together and release their offerings packed together for whatever you, the buyer, wants to pay. The Humble Indie Bundle concept has been a massive success so far and the next installment is already on the go.

Humble Bundle 4 Logo

The offer is on for another 12 days from today, and you can choose whether you want ot DL the games directly, or go through another medium such as Steam. The games are available for Windows, Linux and Mac OS though there is a warning about some games not working with the cheaper integrated graphics chips found in lower end laptops or netbooks

As with the previous offers, there is a basic pack on offer and if you pay more than the average donation amount, you will get a second set of games added in. In this instance, the additional games are more offerings from the Frozenbyte studio. This Finnish company made it's name recently with the multiplayer physics-driven platformer Trine and it's successor Trine 2, both of which were popular on Steam. What sets this bundle apart slightly is that there is only one core game in the main pack: Frozen Synapse. This turn-based strategy game has done the rounds, being a fairly recent release, and has had good reviews. The rest of the games are the over-the-average bonus material, with two bonus bonus unfinished game betas.


The haul

The games found in this bundle are a mix of finished products, some of which have released previously, and two unfinished games.

The basic bundle:-
  • Frozen Synapse which, as mentioned above, is a multiplayer take on the RTS genre offering simultaneous play. Tactical planning and a dose of good luck are key here.
The extras:-
  • Trine, as also mentioned above, which supports up to 3 players in a side-scrolling platformer with very fine graphics. Pick from a choice of Theif, Knight or Wizard and by switching between them or working together with friends you can progress through the levels.
  • Shadowgrounds, a fairly old top-down shooter with a Doom-esque story that's fun to play if lacking in polish.
  • Shadowgrounds: Survivor, which is the sequel to Shadowgrounds and is set after the original game. It contains many of the same elements as the original game and reminds me of Alien Swarm.
  • Splot hasn't yet been finished so it'll be Downloaded later on. It looks to be a surreal physics-based platformer.
  • Jack Claw, which was canceled during development and remains unfinished. I don't know much about it yet other than it looks to be an action game involving someone named Jack who has a mechanical claw-like appendage that can be used to grapple, throw etc.

Hopefully I'll get the chance to spend some quality time on the games this weekend and can report back later on how they pan out. The current average donation is under $5 so for $5+, you get all of those games above which is a pretty good deal in my opinion.
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... on my PC and on my Android.

First of all, it goes without saying that I hop onto Champions Online now and then, usually to faff about with the character creator. Cryptic recently had a birthday event to celebrate 2 years of the game, and there were presents and suchlike which I had a blast pewpewing for.

Champions Online logo


Pity the costume items were random from presents but so it goes.


For the Commute

Recently I have discovered the nifty little Android Game called Alchemy (see prior entry). My first real foray into Mobile gaming and it's not even a Gamer's Game: no flashy graphics, no kill count, no online play etc. It's simple, fun, quite the battery hog and keeps me entertained when I'm not busy.

In summary: start with Fire, Water, Earth & Air. Combine them up into new items such as Metal, Sand, Sea and Life. Continue on until you invent Locomotive, Werewolf, The Beatles and Borscht. There's a current total of 380 of them to uncover and there's a free version of the app that works well enough.

Alchemy/Android image

For a detailed look at the game, read my previous journal entry.


For the Horde Telara!

On the PC, I have recently got back into the Trion Worlds MMO Rift in a big way. I was out of the game on anything like a regular or serious basis for some time, keeping only a vague ear to the ground on what was developing. With pretty much everyone I played with having moved on for a variety of reasons, it got dull and difficult to keep my characters in good equipment on my own (and one thing I can't stand is allowing my characters to become gimped and a burden).

Rift logo

The recent months have seen a fair number of updates to the game; redesigned graphics for some models, lots of new NPCs and quests, some very nifty UI tweaks (my favourite of which is the new Quest Item bag that saves on your very limited inventory space in a massive way), new encounters and dungeons, redesigned encounters and dungeons and a lot of tweaking of the various souls. All of this comes as part of the world event-driven storyline expansions that are released every month or two. Version 1.4 was released recently and in honour of the game's 6 month anniversary (half-birthday they call it, cheesy but there we are) there was a round of free game time and various ingame freebies available including the obligatory references to the cake not being a lie, which coincided with Champions Online's 2nd birthday, as mentioned above, that also proved the cake was real.

Whilst there is always argument and debate about the changes that are made, and they're not always for the best, overall I think Trion Worlds is getting it right in terms of the optimisation, bugsquashing and playability. Best of all, there still isn't a sodding cash shop for power items: it's still a sub-based game that isn't pay-to-win. To me, this is a HUGE point in its favour.

A couple of current niggles include throwing so much XP at the characters over the recent half-birthday celebrations that everyone overlevels much too fast and you end up fighting grey mobs in sub-par gear with the zone quests only half finished (yeah, I make a lousy powerleveler). The other is the removal of the soul quests because apparently newbies found it too confusing to have to quest for other souls or something. Now you just buy them from a trainer and in the process lose a chunk of the darker side of the characters' stories: where do you think those souls stuffed inside of you came from in the first place? They could have left both options in IMO.

Rift Bahmi on a Tartagon
Do not mock the turtle.

I'm currently splitting my playtime primarily between lowbie Defiants on Argent and highbie Guardians on Icewatch. Still not hit 50 yet for the raiding but I'm keeping my main characters in Artisan Mark-made blues and Zone-Puzzle Purples as much as possible so as to be solo/duo capable and not a gimp.


If anyone is interested in giving the game a free trial, let me know. I can Ascend a Friend, which is a cheesy way of saying I can get you a free copy of the game + 7 day trial. For that I can get a hat and you get to put up with me popping up at random intervals.
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Some months ago, Atari announced it was getting rid of it's Cryptic Studios subsidiary, the company currently responsible for Champions Online and Star Trek Online, and the upcoming D&D Neverwinter game.
Naturally there were concerns throughout both playerbases about what the future would hold for the two games. As a part-time Champions Online player, I too was keeping an eye on these developments. At the end of May it was announced that Perfect World Entertainment would be purchasing Cryptic Studios as a wholly-owned subsidiary. PWE has many other MMOs; predominantly produced and operated by it's Beijing and Shanghai arms such as Forsaken World and Perfect World International. It's also the company behind the Torchlight series. The deal was completed mid-august and information is now starting to filter through about how this will affect their products.
Whilst the company itself began in America, its growth and rise to a position of major player in the asian MMO markets has been thanks to its Chinese operations and the tailoring the PWE's products to its primary audience this is reflected heavily within the MMOs themselves. As an example, within Forsaken World the english translations are hit and miss and quite often the text in english fits very poorly within an UI that was clearly developed around Chinese or Korean scripts. All of this has, of course, brought speculation on whether the CO and STO games will have their development and progression influenced by the models used by the existing PWE games. They are, for the most part, your standard free-to-play, pay-to-win model that dominates the asian MMO scene.

My experience with STO is limited but I do know that like CO, it already has a cash shop and there has been controversy over core parts of the promised game play during development being held back and then released in said cash shop only if you pay extra even as a subscriber. Given that such things are the reason for PWE's financial success, there is something of a consensus through the various playerbases that more of the same is incoming.

CO would be somewhat buffered by virtue of the fact it already operates a dual subscription system with a choice of paying a fee and getting most things thrown in with it, or else playing a basic version for free with that you can then pay to gain access to the restricted content. Even so, a shortcut to power items with $$$ is not too popular particularly among its paying customers. There is better news, however. The FAQs about the deal have indicated that the development teams aren't going to be changed or reduced in size and at present it looks as though Cryptic still has control over those two products. Cryptic are finishing off the switch over from Atari-branded logos, items and cash shop, and it looks as if there's minimal disruption for players for the foreseeable future (yes, lifetime accounts are being upheld).

Ultimately, only time will tell if the directions of the two games will be influenced by the asian MMO position of their new parent company and it is something I shall be observing with interest.
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I've been keeping an eye on what's being hyped for release in the future and whilst most offerings end up being the sort of thing I'd glance at if a demo or free trial comes along, there's often a game or two in the midst of the release schedules that I pay attention to.

Right now, I've got my eye on Borderlands 2 and The Secret World in particular.

Pandora's Vault

The original Borderlands was an FPS with RPG elements and co-op play game that initially passed me by. I saw a friend play it at a Halloween LAN party a couple of years back and whilst I do like post-apocalytpic-esque settings and sniper rifles that set stuff on fire, it just didn't interest me all that much. I acquired a copy of the game on Steam eventually after various parties had waxed lyrically about it and after a bit of a rough start (I absolutely loathe the jumping mechanics in the game) I finally got the hang of the thing and decided that sniping skags in the mouth from half a kilometre away was where it's at.

Whilst it can get grindy trying to find decent weapons, the game is more fun in co-op mode than solo and there's plenty of entertainment to be had from the NPCs and antagonists even if the quests missions are the usual 'go here, pick up this item, kill that guy'. Whilst my interest in the game waxes and wanes, it's one of the more popular cross-platform games out there and when Gearbox announced a second game, there was much excitement.




The story continues where the first game left off with a new set of player characters (the original Vault-hunters are apparently lurking about as NPCs). Thusfar one of the new character types is the dwarfish 'Gunzerker' pictured above, going by the name of Salvador. It seems to be something of a cross between the berzerking close-range Berzerker and the gun specialist Soldier by going up close and personal with a pair of heavy guns. Another confirmed character is some sort of variant on the original Siren by the name of Maya, who won't have the Phasewalk ability. Further Power details haven't been released yet.

Gearbox has stated that the interactions between the players and the world have evolved, and that choices, time taken and actions performed will all have story-changing consequences. NPCs will react more, the characters will interplay (in the style of Left 4 Dead series characters) and the game equipment will be given a more differentiated look so you can tell roughly what sort of weapon it is without having to read the fine print on the stats. Screenshots so far hint at the iconic graphical style being retained and ramped up.

The game is slated for release sometime in 2012 on the PC, PS3 and the XBox 360. More information can be found here and there's a short trailer for it here.

Begin the Beta Tests

The Secret World, formerly known as Cabal and The World Online, is about to start sign-ups for beta testing and was recently one of the featured titles at Gamescom 2011. It's another FUncom game, which means I'm wary indeed: not about the storyline, which is in the safe hands of Ragnar Tørnquist, but about everything else.




The inital viral marketing for the game was quite successful with the message "Dark Days Are Coming" and a faked tourism webpage for Kingsmouth, one of the in-game locations. Pitched as a modern-day conspiracy/supernatural 'horror' MMORPG (yes, FC are trying to pimp the RPG aspect), there is much hype surrounding the fact that characters are not restricted by a class or level based system and that there are three mutually antagonistic factions they can choose from; the righteous crusading Templars, the corporate puppet masters of the Illuminati and the chaotic and mysterious Dragons. Set in various locations throughout the modern world (and perhaps the near future and near past as well), the game world focuses on battles for dominance between the three factions and at the same time in dealing with monsters, demons, parallel dimension entities and other weird stuff that the rest of humanity has no idea about.

There's plenty of screenshots and snippets of data about the game so far through the official website linked above, with interviews and community speculation about how the game play will work, and recently there has been a reveal about large scale PvP zones. Combat mechanics are unclear at this point.

Electronic Arts is going to be handling distribution of the game, which has caused some concern over a possible Origin requirement. Origin is horrid along the same lines as Games for Windows Live so I sincerely hope that this won't be the case. Still, I'll toss my hat into the ring for the beta testing because I like the premise and it'll be a long time before the World of Darkness MMO shows up or the Anarchy Online revamp hits.

EDIT: The latest TSW trailer has just been released and can be seen here:


Animations look dodgy but the setting is coming along nicely.
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So what am I playing?

Mostly, I've been playing lots of games for a short while each: grazing, one could say. A mixture of being busy with other things, low attention span at present and drifting from game to game.


On the PC

Aside from the various contents of the Humble Indie Bundle, my PC gaming focus has been scattered with the usual Minecraft making an appearance here and there, particularly when I'm semi-distracted and thinking about/watching other things (mostly I'm invading others' servers to poke around their creations).

For a bit of destressing and distraction, I was playing a bit of Zen Bound 2. It's an indie 'puzzler' game that's meant to be something calm and relaxing to play. I say puzzle game in the loosest sense: you have a wood carving of something that has beads of paint on nails sticking out at various points. Attached to it is a rope which you wind around it (by spinning and rotating the carving with your mouse) that splashes paint where it touches the surfaces, and also triggers the paint blobs. You complete a level by covering a carving in at least 95% paint. It's a weird little game that doesn't hold my attention for too long but for a change of pace it's very nifty. Out now on Steam.

Zen Bound 2


On the other end of the spectrum is the action-packed and fast-paced Diablo-clone dungeon crawler RPG known as Torchlight: it has a cutesy graphics scheme, game play and music almost entirely ripped off from Diablo II but overall is quite polished if somewhat easy. There's a mod to allow multiplayer but it's quite buggy, sadly. Where Diablo II is hardcore, Torchlight is much more casual gamer friendly. Where Diablo II has 7 classes, Torchlight has 3. Where Diablo II has hired mercenaries, Torchlight has pet wolves/lynxes that can nip off to sell your junk whilst you continue to bash through a dungeon. It's a nifty little game but it's nothing groundbreaking. A native multiplayer option would increase its interest and longevity enormously.


Torchlight Logo



Finally, I seemed to have acquired a copy of Breath of Death VII through Steam and after ignoring it for a while decided to fire it up on a whim, not having read anything about it. Immediately I was entertained at it's faux-8bit (with bits of up to 16bit!) graphics, the tropes and stereotypes that are at once both gleefully hammed up and spun on their heads and the incongruously modern music. The gameplay is classic RPG with convenience added, like being able to run without having to collect a magic item, being able to pick a fight whenever instead of running round in circles on the world map waiting for a random encounter, MP regain being a function of how few turns it takes to kill stuff and leveling up giving you an option to pick one of two extra sets of stat bonuses. The dialogue is brilliant and every moment (so far) has been a giant tongue-in-cheek parody of every 8 and 16bit RPG I've ever played. Absolute gold and well well worth the price on Steam.
 
Breath of Death VII



On the 3DS

I have to admit that in my 'ooh shiny new toy!' phase of Droid ownership, my poor 3DS has taken a back seat. Aside from regular maintenance of my Streetpass Plaza and Pokedex, I've had a bit of a play with Dragon Quest VI: Realms of Revelation, one of the first Dragon Quest games released outside of Japan. As I got past the pompously orchestral opening theme it brought back that warm 'n' fuzzy retrogame feeling as it harked back to the 16bit RPGs of yore. None of this was a surprise, however, given it was originally released for the SNES back in 1995 and re-released for the (regular) DS in May 2011. It's a classic Japanese RPG and so far has been quite fun to play.


Dragon Quest VI



On the Android

My Snes9x EX revival continues almost unabated, hampered only by the slight awkwardness of the sensitive touch controls. I'm slowly getting the hang of it but it's taking time as I'm used to lightly resting my thumbs on the controllers as default with button pressing being the application of a bit of force. I'm avoiding twitcher games for the moment for this reason.


To the future!

I'm eying up the potential expansion of Minecraft for the 'Droid. Currently it's only for the Sony Xperia Play phones which is a huge shame as there's plenty of Android phones out there that have the power to pull it off and it's all because of this exclusivity deal that the rest of us have to wait. No word on an iOS version as yet.
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The gamer war of Consoles vs PCs has been around since the earliest days and that is a topic worthy of a post in itself. By the mid-90s, the cost of a console was peanuts compare to the cost of a PC that could run games and in general the two markets preferred a different spectrum of games. Of course, the PC gamers didn't want to lose out on anything tasty the consoles could produce and so Emulation was employed to allow software written for specialist consoles to be run on computers.

Software that Emulates game consoles in order to play ripped versions of the games on other formats, most commonly PCs, took off in the 16-bit days and was predominantly focused on the SNES, with other consoles such as the NES, Game Boy and Megadrive coming along fairly soon afterwards. A peripheral named the Super Magicom was built in order to rip the SNES game ROM files onto floppy discs that could then be read by the emulation software on a PC. All you needed was a reasonable joypad and you were set.



With the advent of home internet, acquiring the rom files to run through an emulator was child's play and it meant you could have access to a huge catalogue of excellent games (and a plethora of rubbish) for nothing without having to buy a new console either. Naturally, this is game piracy and there's been long-running wrangling of exactly what you are and are not allowed to copy, rip, emulate etc. Is having an emulator containing a ripped copy of the console's BIOS to play ripped copies of the games piracy when you actually own the console and the game in the first place? What about backups? As a SNES owner with at one point a considerable library of games, was I pirating by also having those games on an emulator on my PC?

Anyway, plenty of competing emulation programs popped up at the end of the 90s, each with their own way of organising everything from sprite layer display to save games. The biggest names included NESticle for the NES, (Kega) Fusion for the Megadrive and other Sega systems and as the next generation of consoles took off, emulators for the Playstation started to pop up as well. This was made easier by the fact that some fo the developers of the systems were making notes to allow for easy emulation later on; this most notably occurred with the Nintendo64 and lead to the likes of Project64.


For the SNES, the eventual winner in the race was the Snes9x series which had the best performance in terms of correctly replicating the S-SMP sound system, Mode 7 scaling and additional chipsets that were included in special game carts (such as the Super FX chip and it's successive iterations as seen in Starfox, and the DSP maths co-processor as seen in Super Mario Kart). I tried plenty of others in my time (an honorable mention goes to ZSNES) but in the end the most complete and least buggy version I found was Snes9x, and knowing the original cart versions of the games meant I was particularly keen-eyed/eared for emulation errors. Snes9x is still going strong today, in fact.

Snes9x Logo

Retro gaming and Smartphones


All of this brings me to here and now. I got myself a shiny new Android phone recently and in a frenzy of app hoarding I went after a good SNES emulator. I was pleasantly surprised to find several free versions available through the Market. After trying out the rather awful SNESlator Lite and discovering it didn't work with 90% of my ROM collection, I was pleased to uncover Snes9x EX. I'm still getting the hang of a touchscreen for the D-Pad controls but aside from that it's great. It runs fine with the games I've tested and whilst the sound reproduction could be better, a crappy mobile phone speaker isn't giving it a fair chance in the first place.

And now if you'll excuse me, Secret of Mana shall be keeping me sane on the tube ride home...
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Logo


The third of the Humble Indie Bundles was released to great acclaim on July 26th and was available to download for as much or as little as you wanted to pay the developers until August 8th. In it, there are a variety of short and sweet games produced by small independent developers crossing a broad spectrum of genres and the third's contents were as follows:-
  • Atom Zombie Smasher wherein you attempt to save citizens of a city from an oncoming zombie invasion in realtime strategy.
  • And Yet It Moves which is best described as a Paper Mario-esque platformer where the player can rotate the world as needed to turn walls into floors etc.
  • Crayon Physics Deluxe that, despite the name, isn't about the physics of crayons but rather the physics of a ball that you guide by drawing out a course with crayons.
  • Cogs which is a simple sliding-blocks puzzle game with audio and 3-dimensional components as well, all presented in a cutesy steampunk style.
  • Hammerfight is a physics engine wrapped in sword-swinging combat that aims for more realistic melee fighting than the usual 'press button, do the same attack as the last 6478 presses'.
  • Steel Storm was introduced after the initial release and harks back to the old shooters of yore with the player controlling a hovertank, blasting enemies and grabbing powerups (also supports multiplayer play though I haven't tested it).
  • VVVVVV has the silliest name of the bundle and looks like a pre-8-bit platformer but is in actual fact a puzzler where you have to flip between floor and ceiling to progress through each screen.

Though this release is officially number 3, there have been 4 in the series so far: Bundle #1, Bundle #2, Frozenbyte Bundle and of course Bundle #3.

The idea behind the series of bundles is to cut out the games distributors and offer them directly from the developers at a cost of whatever you, the purchaser, wish to donate. It can be obtained for as little as 1 cent, and if you are on Steam you can be given a key so that Steam will download, install and manage the games for you. There's often other freebies thrown in as well, such as those who grab a Bundle before a certain date get another game free of charge on top, or access to Minecraft for a while. For Bundle #3, there was a promotion whereby if you paid above the average donation, you'd get further games added in: Braid, Cortex Command, Machinarium, Osmos and Revenge of the Titans.


For 1 cent, you say

Financially, the Bundles have been a huge success for the game developers in combining lower costs by dealing directly with the playerbase and the donation system meaning those who wanted to support the teams behind it all could give more than what would have been the full retail price of the games on store shelves (estimated at approximately $50 all in); for example Minecraft's Notch tossed in $2000. This is despite the rampant piracy of the games, made easier by the intentional lack of DRM within the Bundle's games. Proceeds go to the developers and also to nominated charities such as Child's Play and Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Personally, I think this is a great initiative. If you don't pay $50 that's fine because it wouldn't have cost that much anyway, given there's no packaging, shipping or retailer involved: just some internet bandwidth costs and a website.

Of course, you'll get people that complain and whine about the games and it's funny to note that most of those paid the minimum of 1 cent for the lot as well. Perhaps they feel that as they haven't made much of an investment in it, they're not prepared to give it a proper chance or to overlook little imperfections. But enough about people's sense of entitlement! I'd expect Bundle #4 to be in the woorks soon...
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Minecraft is a bit of an indie phenomenon in the PC Gaming world. Conceived and primarily written by Markus "Notch" Persson, it's technically still in beta and is a first-person game with a purposefully retro blocky style that revolves around doing whatever you please. The game is based around the concepts of acquiring resources in the game world (mining, punching trees, killing stuff etc) and building things (castles, piston-driven TVs, reproduction works of art etc). There's also dark-loving monsters that like the taste of your blocky pixel self such as zombies, archer skeletons, giant spiders and creepers (which are best described as suicide bomber ninjas).


How I mine 4 fish?


Minecraft Launcher screen


The game can be played in several ways and there is no end goal as such. There is no story or setting, no protagonist (though your character is a regular bloke called Steve) and no evil villain (Creepers don't count). It's a sandbox world where you are given potential and it's up to you what you want to do with it. If you like, you can turn off monsters, spawn all the materials you want out of thin air, break the game's own laws of physics (which are like the real world's laws of physics, except when they aren't) - in other words you can God Mode if you like and the game becomes a creative building simulator; like Lego without so many of the gravity worries. Or you can play on a player-made custom map where resources are scarce and the goal is to survive as long as you can in a bleak world with a lot of hungry monsters. Or perhaps an adventure map with quests and objectives. Or gather some friends together and compete to see who can do the best. Or you can load up one of innumerable custom-made mods that add everything from new materials to new rules and functionality to completely new realms.

The game is written in java and as such is incredibly customisation-friendly. The modding community for Minecraft is huge and the ability to easily re-write core chunks of the game has surely contributed to its incredible success. Examples of these can be seen in the Yogscast clips that showcase the more elaborate mods with humorous commentary on YouTube.

Yes, the graphics are blocks with texture maps 16x16 pixels big. That's the idea. There's mods about which will reskin the game if your eyes start bleeding but I think it'd lose a lot of its charm that way. Sound effects are amusingly basic with rough 'n' ready sound clips pinched from the Freesound project for cows mooing, thunder etc. Music is the complete opposite with a mixture of simple ditties and very high quality ambient tracks that play at seemingly random intervals. Notch even stuck some achievements into it, whose poor grammar has spawned the low-flying meme of  "Achievement Get!"

Achivement Get


The game is often compared to Terraria because the themes are almost exactly the same: start with diddley squat, mine/harvest yourself stuff to make better stuff including shelter, weapons and armour. Watch out for zombies, slimes and other foul creatures lurking where it's dark. However Terraria is a 2d affair with more monsters including bosses and less focus on building creativity; it appeals more to those that prefer their games with some action.

I've noticed that most people who start with Minecraft then try Terraria find the lack of creative freedom in Terraria to be annoying for a minecraft clone. Folks that start with Terraria find Minecraft to be lacking the action and adventure of Terraria and contains too much pointless building.

My own experiences with Mojang's merry little Minecraft world have been mixed. Initially I didn't get what the fuss was about and the mad frenzy of seemingly everyone I knew in the world ever had passed me by. It looked eyebleeding and boring and almost a year went by with me ignoring all these stupid videos of blocky things making more blocky things that were popping up everywhere I ventured online. It wasn't until I was gifted a copy of the game and one evening ended up bored to death because my mother was visiting and hogging my room, that I finally caved in to a friend's nagging and hopped onto his minecraft map to see what all the fuss was about. Initially I was wandering about just doing random stuff, poking random things, seeing what I could make out of what. The open-ended world tugged at my inquisitive and exploratory nature, and I was full of questions about what you could and couldn't do, what did and didn't exist. A couple more outings onto my friend's map later and I decided that actually this was a right barrel of monkeys.

After picking some brains I found the best way of going about playing was to load up on CraftBukkit tools to host my own map servers and after an evening of trying to get the damn thing working, then talking to the router, then figuring out how to let others on, I had my own world to play with. A beach house, sauna, cavern of doom, netherworld holiday camp, armed and armoured airship, sekrit underwater observatory, railroad, giant tree house, floating lookout, lava tank, lots of dead zombies, custom skins for Steve and an invasion of friends later I realised that yes, this game was worth the hype I'd ignored previously.

I did give Terraria a try, incidentally. My knowledge of Minecraft served me well enough but I have to say I got bored of it fairly quickly ended up going back to Minecraft.

News in the intertubes is that there's XBox 360, Android, iPad and iPhone versions on the way - the XBox version allegedly using Kinect. This will either be freaking hilarious, or a total failure.

Anyhow I shall leave you all with this: evidence that it's like lego with zombies...

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Another weekend, another round of games being played with.

3DS gaming

On the 3DS, I've completed Ghost Recon as far as I can without doing the Multiplayer maps, mostly because I don't know anyone else who has the game. I quite enjoyed it, because I do like turn-based tactical squad games. For some reason it made me miss playing Vandal Hearts on my PSX. I might have to dig it out again and see if I can persuade the now-ailing and cantankerous console + TV combo to work in order to play it. Either that or figure out why my PS emulators don't work.

Cover of Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars

Overall, I enjoyed Ghost Recon a lot, though it did take me a little while to get into. The very beginning throws you in at the end of the game (literally) which was confusing and irritating because I didn't have a clue what was going on, what the two characters I had could do etc and as I was about to get my arse handed to me, it faded to black and the game proper began. The game proper is the complete opposite, slowly introducing you to the various gameplay concepts and abilities of the team, who are also slowly introduced. It's an excellent game for stop-start play because of its turn-based nature and the 3D isn't absolutely critical to the game, so in a bumpy tube train scenario there's no issues judging any distances. Some of the scenarios are utter sods, with random surprise spawns that will turn a convincing win to a crushing defeat if you happen to have the wrong unit in the wrong place at the wrong time. There's also a couple of maps where the instructions are surprisingly poor and I had no clue wtf was meant until I'd stumbled through by trial and error. Still, if everything had been completely obvious it would have been a bit dull...


Onwards and upwards into the next game. Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D was a bit of a no-brainer, given it's the first killer game for the system (and hopefully one that will spark more interest, with sales having slowed considerably). This one was a bit of an effort to get hold of. Two hours going from place to place in the Square Mile only to find no copies left anywhere until the HMV at Moorgate made for a frustrating afternoon...
Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D cover

So far, so good. I played the original on my N64 but after I completed it once I didn't go back to it, and that was more years ago than I care to remember so I'm pretty rusty about the whole thing. It's got plenty of rave reviews and I can see why: the graphics are very nifty indeed, the 3D aspect makes negotiating jumping and distances much easier without having to wiggle the camera, the 3DS gyro being used to move the camera is a smart move and they've toned down Navi's interruptions (thank the gods, she was a PITA). I'm also told that the dungeons are the revamped Master Quest versions rather than the original. Given I recall next to nothing about the original, I doubt this will bother me much. Master Quest version dungeons are supposed to be less annoying and more challenging anyway. Unlike Ghost Recon, it is not a stop-start and bumpy-transport friendly game, so progress is very slow. I do like it, although I have to be heretical and admit my preferred Zelda game is A Link to the Past (Zelda 3 on the SNES).

I'll do a review of it once I'm near the end. Currently I'm pottering around getting into all sorts of places I'm probably not meant to until later. Haven't even done Death Mountain yet...


PC gaming

With the Steam Summer Camp on I've been looking over the activities and games now and then, although this year I've been extremely slack compared to last year because my attention has been elsewhere. One game I was given in the Summer camp sale is Sanctum, an excellent little indie Tower Defence game with bold graphics and a nifty soundtrack. I've not mucked about with it too much yet (a multiplayer game with a friend for the Summer Camp Achivement that evolved into a full-on go at the Mine level) but it's definitely something I'll be going back to when I have some time.

Sanctum Game cover

I've played a bit of Minecraft and Left 4 Dead 2 here and there, and next up is giving Terraria a go, a game several of my friends have been sucked into, though I'm not sure how into it I'll get given I've gone off the 2D platform genre over the years, even if it is a 2D minecraft-meets-mario.


MMO Gaming

It's the 10th aniversary of the launch of Anarchy Online at the moment and as I was given a 14 day free account reup on my main paid account, I've been checking it out and catching up with friends and orgmates who'd also got the free reactivation for a bit of a reunion. I have to confess that I miss the game and the people I played with. I hope the project to rework all the professions and the new player experience picks up the pace so that it can all be released with the new graphics engine and breathe some new life into it. I know Game Director Means has only a small development team so its taking a long time but the game desperately needs the rebirth and population boost. Sadly it's FUncom and they don't want to market it which is such a shame because it offers a variety of experiences that no other MMO out there does. There's a reason it's lasted 10 years when other newer games have folded after 2. The population dropped below critical mass for me some time ago once virtually all of my friends and orgmates had migrated to other games or other hobbies entirely, one by one over time. It's even quieter now (aside from all the temporary reactivations for the birthday shennanigeans). At some point I'll do a full write up of the game.

Anarchy Online cover

Now if you'll excuse me, I have some Desert Nomads to kill...

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