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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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During a lull at the Notting Hill Carnival yesterday, there was a comment in the conversation about quests in games and how unoriginal they generally are. Whilst MMOs were the broad topic, this runs through pretty much all game genres that have such concepts such as RPGs with side quests, RTSes with multiple objectives and FPSes with missions.

Quests/missions ostensibly exist to provide gameplay variety and as a source of rewards but from various chats I've had over time, player opinion seems divided and runs the gamut from from those that thrive on goal completion to those that would rather uninstall the game than kill another 10 bloody rats. Games designers too seem to be divided on the subject, if the wide range of implementation I've seen is anything to go by: some games have side quests tacked on almost as an afterthought because it's needed to tick some obligatory box or other, whilst others tie the progression of the game to a questing system to such an extent that you cannot avoid the majority of these objectives.

It's rare that I find a truly innovative or original quest in a game. The current height of quest system design is one that allows for a successful completion of objectives by following more than one path, and where your choices in doing this have repercussions later on. MMOs have been very slow on the uptake here whilst RPGs and first-person games have led the way, a classic example of which is the Deus Ex series in which you can choose to sneak and hack through the game rather than kill and destroy all that you see.

So, I'm curious as to what people think about the topic. Love 'em? Hate 'em? Game makers? Game breakers? Couldn't give a flying monkey's?

Oooh what's over here?

Personally, I see quests and missions as a means to an end rather than a thing to focus on in and of itself. I'm a great explorer of game worlds and maps, and I like to see what's over this hill or in that hidden bunker. I like to click on items that look interesting and potentially clickable just for the hell of it. I'm insatiably curious about how the settings work and where the boundaries of what I can do are set. Quests are a way of getting things done while I'm indulging in my exploratory nature. I reason that there's now a good excuse to travel across the map to a part I haven't visited yet and poke around because in doing so I'll end up killing things and picking up objects and I might as well pick up extra credit and advance the plot/unlock new areas/watch new cut scenes while I'm at it. Whether I read all the text associated with the objective or even care about it depends a lot on how the story of the game has grabbed me. Generic fantasy game #1634 will have me reading only the bolded bit where it lists the mob name I nave to slot or what zone to travel to to follow the waypoint on my map. Something intriguing like a plot twist centred around a character I'm interested in will have me paying attention and eager to see what comes next. Another thing I consider is that because I am very easily sidetracked by exploration, timed quests are horrible for me and as a rule I loathe them.

Going off into new areas often means I find myself in situations which wouldn't normally be encountered until much later and this can often be rather lethal. If I've been given a specific task to in an area at a certain point in the game, it hopefully means that what I'm likely to encounter on the way is appropriate for my current in-game capabilities. Of course this isn't guaranteed, as anyone who's ever run a mission in Anarchy Online knows all too well, where low level characters end up having to travel through areas containing much higher level mobs to get to their low level destination...

All of this does mean that when I'm done with an area and want to move on, if I keep getting sent back to old territory with missions then I'll get annoyed and either sod the mission until a later point or, if I can't do that, I'll sod off and play a different game for a while. Endless back and forth between the same areas on errands gets to be tedious. Tedious tasks put me off, and thus the dichotomy of the quest question continues.
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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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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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