Tuesday, 21 December 2010

The big PC rebuild project of 2011

So, I wanted to take a little break from reviewing to talk about my upcoming projects to rebuild a couple of my desktops.

I have an old Compaq that I got about 5 years back now with Windows XP, two 160gb hard drives and some old vid card, an Nvidia 7600 GT I think, with 256mb power and the rig has 2 gb of DDR memory and the CPU is an old AMD Athalon 64 3400+. So it is pretty old and served me well as a games machine for a long time, but had limited upgrade potential and as the years wore on I saw little point as it would mean a total rebuild anyway. And the base itself is not really big enough to accommodate many of the monster GFX cards of modern times. With my usual approach of 'Go big or go home' when it comes to computers I would naturally be going for one of these, so tat meant a full ATX-E capable case.

This happened around summer last year when I finally assembled the pieces and a fresh copy of Windows XP, going for a 64 bit version of XP pro to work with the 8gb of DDR 2 gaming memory and a massive 1gb Nvidia 285 GTX card the size of a house brick. Married to a gaming board by Gigabyte with much upgrade potential straddled by a sexy Intel Core 2 Duo 8400 with 3ghz of speed and a heat sink putting my house's radiators to shame.

I relegated my old Compaq, thumping on strong like a faithful old terrier getting past its better years but with a strong heart still, to media work now where I store movies and TV series files and such. But having an old version of XP home, and the hardware not liking SP3 causing a crash and roll-back when upgrading, means it is going to drop off the map eventually. And it limits my media steaming capabilities not having Media Centre on board and I cannot convince my XBox 360 or PS3 to access the shared folders on the network to play stuff on my TV downstairs.

My TV has a USB input and plays nearly all media files save for WMV/A files, so sticking an external hard drive into it and playing the files from there is no major issue. It just means I connect my Win 7 laptop to the hard drive and move files through the network from the Compaq upstairs onto the folders on the hard drive.

This can be tiresome at times though and I long for a more holistic solution. One would be a wifi external network hard drive connected to my TV downstairs that I can view as a network location on any PC in the house and move files to it. This would mean I could send them from the desktop upstairs using some kind of synch software on a schedule or manually activated. This would free up my laptop from the task as I need to perch it near the TV to connect it so it is not convenient to use as a social networking machine in my living room while moving files. I could also access the drive from the laptop or elsewhere to reorganise the folders as needed and rename them if required.

I am still looking at this as an option for the media PC but nothing seems to be on the market right now that would do this for me. Possibly the Seagate range of GoFlex stuff might introduce something but short of getting a very expensive Linksys NAS media hub the size of a compact PC tower I likely going to be waiting a while. And as I use my PS3 mainly for BluRay to begin with I would like to use the streaming capability more effectively. So this means rebuilding the media PC into something better.

Sure I could just install a copy of Win 7 on there anyway but if the hardware does not like SP3 to begin with it does not bode well. So a hardware upgrade and full rebuild is still on the cards.

I am not sure what I will go with yet, and I might get myself an Intel i3, or a mid range i5. It would not need more than 4gb of RAM anyway as it is only streaming to one device and I am happy with the download speeds on just 2gb of RAM to begin with. And this is old DDR standards too, so when I get an i-series in there it will need DDR3 as a standard anyway which is blistering by any standard. And since you get both 32 bit and 64 bit on an Win 7 disk anyway I have it for if I need to unlock it so I might as well install the 64 bit version off the bat. I am contemplating a fast hard disk too, like a 10k rpm disk, but only if there is any point to it for the usage I will put it to. Some might suggest a Solid State Disk for total speed, but they have limited read/write lifespans and if I am watching stuff and streaming it that will be a lot of read/write cycles and most likely I will wear out the disk in short order. Plus they are expensive to buy compared to conventional HDD technology where you could get 2tb of space now for the same price as a 100gb SSD.

So, there is much research to be done, and this is just for one PC rebuild. The main dilemma I have is that I might want to upgrade the CPU, and by necessary extension the motherboard, of my new games rig to an i7 in the future when they become more reasonably priced. But in this age of austerity and such I look at the long term savings I could get from this. While the hardware is not a priority right now, doing such an upgrade would need a new version of Windows installing as switching out the CPU and motherboard can de-authorise an install of Windows. So where does the dilemma come in?

Well, Windows XP 64 has some issues too, namely not accepting SP3 since they do not make it for XP Pro 64 to begin with. This is now an issue for my gaming since a few things are dropping support for SP2 like Windows Live Games marketplace where I tried to download a DLC for FO3 and was told I could no longer do this. So this is forcing my hand to upgrade to Win 7 now. I do not mind this as I wanted Win 7 on the game rig anyway but it was not released at the time so I settled for XP Pro 64. If I now upgrade to Win 7 then when I want to update the backbone of the hardware I will need to reactivate Windows anyway.

I hear, though, that you can ask Microsoft nicely over the phone to do this without charge if you tell them you have upgraded the computer and it is the same machine. So getting the cheaper upgrade copy of Win 7 might not be a total waste of money but I want to see if I can do this first. And since I want to put a new version of Win 7 on my media PC I will rebuild then a 3 user 'Family Pack' would be nice to have. They sold them last year when Win 7 was released and then they stopped printing them. However they are back on the market again but they are only upgrade versions. While this is a good thing for my games PC, it is not for the media PC as I will be putting in a totally fresh hard drive as stated earlier. Even if I do not go for a 10k rpm + disk I will put a new hard drive in to upgrade to the latest SATA version as the old ones are the original version and there is no sense doing anything half arsed.

The issue here is that you cannot install an upgrade version onto a blank disk because it will not let you unless you have a fully active copy of Windows XP or higher already installed. So a 3 user upgrade for Win 7 is pointless... or is it?

You see, in my stupidity I ordered two copies of XP Pro 64 last year and one of them is still in the box, unused... Since it is of no use I can always install this on the media PC and then install Win 7 over it. And I will still have one copy of Win 7 upgrade to spare should I need it.

I am not sure what I will do with that one yet since I have no other computers I could put it on and no old versions of Windows to play with, except maybe the one on the old disks I will no longer have on my Compaq. Not that it will be a Compaq any more by then but anyway. The other thought I have is that both my XP Pro 64's are OEM versions. I am not sure what impact this will have on upgrading them or reinstaling them on different machines but if I am able to do both with little fuss then I could always save the spare license of Win 7 for when I need it to overwrite the XP Pro 64 disks in the future.

So this is the prospect on my mind right now and I have some research to do before I start saving up and buying stuff. I have already secured a Win 7 family pack since even if I only use two of the licenses it is cheaper than buying one upgrade and one full version for my needs. Looking forward to backing up my folder of files and stuff... Well maybe not. Theoretically I should be able to run the update disk, do a fresh install of Win 7 64 bit, and reinstall the driver disk for the motherboard. Everything else after that should go as seamless... The update advisor says there are a couple of unknown issues and most of them are unimportant.

So I am getting into this today. Wish me luck, people.

Monday, 29 November 2010

Read Dead Redemption revisited: Undead DLC... Muwhahaha...

Hey folks, so I thought it was time, now that I got the Minecraft blog out of my backlog that I look for something else to play through.

Even though I still have to complete games like Front Mission Evolved and Dead Rising 2 and a flurry of other new titles are coming out all the time with christmas around the corner. The Kinect has launched, Black Ops is out, though not on my wish list as such, and previously new titles are turning into old ones. And here I am going back a few steps to another old one with a new DLC that has been out for a month or so now. Also, anyone with eyes will have noticed that this is the fourth game blog in a row with the 'Zombies' tag, because who doesn't like zombies? The darling of the video game scene since the likes of the Commodore 64.

But this is zombies in the wild west we are talking about... and Red Dead Redemption no less. RDR was, as I originally stated in my previous review earlier this year, pretty authentic feeling and experienced very little outlandish elements beyond having one super hero cowboy wrecking other people's shit in the dusty landscape of New Austin. And now, seemingly out of pure novelty given its release around Halloween, Rockstar have thrown some undead into the mix with Undead Nightmare.

My initial reaction was... Ohh god.... that's going to ruin it. but as much as I love the game I figured I would give it a try anyway and see if my favourite story driven sandbox has been enhanced or if Rockstar have just squatted over the rim and laid a steaming coil of crap in the corner.

Watching the trailer you cannot deny that it at least looks well made, and does not have the hallmark of a novelty expansion stuck to the side of an otherwise serious game with prit-stick, despite the setting mismatch. And much of the media who have reviewed the game and done previews before the launch were foaming at the mouth to get their hands on it and saying nothing but good things. Either they got their perspective different from my own or they know something I don't.

First of all, after downloading the DLC (along with the Liars and Cheats and Legends and Killers DLCs in a multipack) I noticed when going to single player that you have an option to play the undead expansion separate to the normal game. Guess it makes sense given the way the game ends in normal mode. It did not leave any leeway for add-ons that do not follow on with the story where it left off unless they force you to go play the whole story again and weave themselves into the main plot as a new sub plot.

After checking out a little of the small additions with the other packs to the main game, and given most of them are multiplayer content heavy anyway, I reloaded the game and selected the undead nightmare. The scene is set in the main story with John Marston after he returns home and is living it up on the homestead before the finale of the game. A storm is kicking up something wicked, literally, and a monologue voiced out of some 1960's B-movie sets the tone ending with an almost comical wicked laugh. Muwhahahahahahaha...... *Cough* And even the menu text reminds of Zombies Ate my Neighbours, all gooey greenish yellow and splotchy.

So yeah, impressions were not so great at this time, and as music worthy of the Munsters kicked up I started shaking my head. People who know me will know how I favour continuity of theme with my games and so far this game was doing a good job of biting the forehead of continuity and feasting on the mushy grey stuff inside before I even lifted the controller to my fingertips. When you finally do get to control the scene you are popping your first zombie in the face with the classic double barrel shotgun and then hog-tying the wife and son to stop them from munching on your vitals.

Then your story begins and it seems structured in the familiar sense of any other Rockstar free-roamer with mission activation waypoints and freedom to wander between jobs as much as you like. The last scene of the intro leads with a suggestion to head for Blackwater and find a doctor, but as I always do with games like this I ignored the initial jobs to see the extend of what I can explore freely first. Despite the almost cartoonish introduction and spooky writing, and even the map screen shows the water as being red like blood, the atmosphere hit me as being very well done. There are low hanging clouds, patches of fog on the ground and not a living thing to be seen, including animals at first. The music ditches the Adams Family feel and goes back to western with a good dose of slightly spooky tension completing the scene and the control systems all feel and work the same as we are all used to so nothing has been 'improved' there that I can tell.

Then I realised it was like restarting the game anyway, given the skills and array of weapons on hand and the poor quality of stamina in the horse you start with. You have fewer clothing options, but at least a couple of new one and some familiar ones too. Two of them you have to work towards getting like the other special garments in the original game. And there are some undead specific journal challenges to work your way through in ranks. Also the 'stranger' encounters have been replaced with 'survivors' and I had to catch myself to make sure I was not playing Dead Rising 2 by mistake. Well, ok not really. Survivors go with the theme of zombies like icing on cake or bangers with mash. Putting an already established western theme with it though is like serving the bangers and mash with custard instead of gravy.

OK, no more bashing of the 'theme mismatch' since I recognise it is subjective and you all want to hear the meat of the game so I will highlight the good and the bad and the undead ugly scratching at my heels from beneath the ground of the old grave yard.

As I said, the controls are the same so nothing has been fiddled with. See my original review for my thoughts on this as they were mixed. Detail wise, I have already said the atmosphere is good and the models and cutscenes are as sharp as usual. The in game map, which we all know had markers showing different animals that you might find in certain places, now shows clusters of humans too, which I can guess already will be places you see zombies.

As for everything else, well I don't know at this stage. My idea to head off into the wild and see what lurks before throwing myself into the mission was pointless. You are cut off from the rest of New Austin and Mexico as bridges are down again and nothing actually lurks anywhere. So guess the first missions railroad the story for a short while by way of introduction. All the safe houses you had in the original game are naturally not available too and you are sleeping at the ranch in the hay loft above the small stable building having walled up the wife and son in the main house.... not good planning on his part if you ask me. I would trade the double bed for a sleeping bag out by the outhouse any day but John Marston is a tough frontier cowboy so maybe he likes it this way.

A minor disappointment came my way once I realised I was trapped in West Elizabeth and it might be petty of me but I am sure I mentioned this in my original review too. There is not really a sense of the landscape changing to fit the progress of the story and despite the bridge being 'out' it was more a case of someone having rewound time to a point where the bridge was being built and then set fire to a couple of things. There were small cranes ready to rebuild the bridge and piles of wood and work benches scattered in places and the only telling details to give you the impression that they were broken down in the undead rising the previous  night were the flames. I mentioned in my first review that the town of Blackwater had some houses under construction to give the effect of progression when you play as John Marston. Then fast forward to a few years in the future to play as the son, Jack, and the same houses have not had a single plank or brick laid since.

Also, I did note that the rivers were not, in fact, running red with blood as the map shows us so not sure what that is all about...

So on to Blackwater I rode and began the story finally in the hopes of it releasing me into more exciting prospects outside the mission structure and revealing to me it's rotting dangly bits in all their undead glory. And then my initial disappointment at the 'cut and paste and apply glitter' approach to progressive scenery was soothed a little when the town of Blackwater was done a little better than the bridge. Broken furniture littered the street and buildings were boarded up and it seems the art team have done at least some work on making it look like civilisation was cut short overnight. However, one of my other bugbears emerged as the walls are scrawled with the usual 'The end is nigh' messages and I think to myself, why do people always find time when running and screaming as the end really is nigh to write their inner most thoughts on the walls?

But this aside I was thrust into a short cutscene ending in the expected manner and then the whole town came alive with the undead... so to speak. I am not sure if this is because with all my tomfoolery the sun ad begun to set when I arrived in town and the dead only rise at night, which would make sense, or if this initial encounter in Blackwater triggered this. But I soon found myself mobbed and called over my horse to high-tail it out of town and back to the ranch. Coward? Maybe, but bullets are few and zombies are many as Rockstar have added in the typical and classic survival theme of conservation of supplies. Again, raising my past review I did register my displeasure at the lack of utilisation of true survival in the wilderness where the only real reason to harvest meat and skin was to sell them on and herbs with medicinal uses were not really used at all so I get the feeling I am going to lament this lack of content in the game even more now there is a real emphasis on survival and the carrying of supplies or foraging for berries and such.

On the way back to the ranch I indulged in a little sniping of bats that has started to appear and collected a nice undead bat wing. Also, I was chased by wolves and after no less than 5 bullets from the revolver one of them still did not go down. I suspect a headshot might have changed that but I was kind of harried and concerned more with not dying until I got a good feel for things. As I ventured on I was gifted with a flaming torch weapon which was pretty cool and told to go burn some corpses by a hysterical redhead who was clearly in denial about her dislike of the men in her life.

On returning to the town a new mechanic rose from the depths like something out of a Thriller music video as some survivors took to a balcony and started sniping the dead. A progress bar appeared at the top of the screen like a beat-em-up health bar and I began to fill it when I took down corpses. When it was full it emptied itself and one of the markers above it lit green. So I guess I needed to fill the other marker and some targets appeared on my mini-map. I took them down, and one of them was curiously a chest in the bank building. Once I filled the second marker a final wave of enemies appeared on the radar. Once I killed them the town was declared safe 'for now' and a message told me that the town can come under attack again and if it falls into undead hands I will not be able to shop or sleep there until I clear it once more. This brings back a fond memory of the gang land wars in GTA San Andreas where you trigger a turf war and fight for control, and they can fight back against your own turf too at random. In all, while not a new concept in gaming by any stretch, it was a welcome addition and a distraction to compensate for the lack of other mini-games and occupations from the original. And the funky fog clears when you clean out a town, though the fires do not get put out so my earlier disappointment with dynamic scenery states lacking returned a little putting me in a state of neutrality at best on the subject.

A curious incident also arose while I was searching for the treasure map hinted at in the journal. A blue circle appeared on the fringe of my mini-map covering an area and a message said a 'mythical creature' had appeared there. I looked around and only saw a few horses and none of them stood out as being particularly unusual, apart from also being undead. So not sure what that was about but would guess it is some other kind of hunting challenge or maybe the four horsemen journal entry. When it happened again I looked around some more and found one of the four horses of the apocalypse, War, who is always on fire and looks pretty awesome. Running into a pack of zombies causes them to ignite into flame and he also has infinite stamina. There was also Pestilence that is near impossible to kill. The other two horses I have not found yet as I guess they are into the Mexico area and have not reached that yet.

There are also the usual random encounters as you ride along, where people have camps set up, one of them with his undead wife leashed to a stake in the ground while another seems to have taken to eating the undead and invites you to sit and share the fire. I approached one guy with my usual apprehension from the first game expecting an ambush and pulled out my gun ready to rumble. The guy soon took exception to my lingering while armed and tried to attack me. Another identical camp I found I just sat at the fire and watched as John tucked into some flesh before vomiting on the floor. There are people running from the undead or making a last ditch stand in the woods while calling for help number among them, one of them you hear before you see as he has an automatic field gun. And as before, there are some people making sport of this and bet you they can kill more undead than you in a time limit. Eventually I became aware that the only survivor encounters were generally people defending themselves from the zombies and started to wonder, where are all the looters? After all when the world turns upside down the general theme would always include the usual arse holes who please themselves and it looked like it was a pretty one dimensional apocalypse. Sooner or later I was proven wrong as I came across a guy trying to accost some 'favours' from a lone woman around the ranch and it felt good to kick him all around the field just for a change of pace.

Another feature they have adapted would be the bounty hunting, though it takes the form more of search and rescue. You take on a missing person rescue mission in return for ammo and head out looking for the lost soul, saving them from zombies and bringing them to a settlement.

I also noticed that when aiming at a leg or arm the crosshair goes blue instead, indicating an incapacitating shot of some kind. And on the subject of shooting it can be pretty hard to deliver a kill shot to a zombie since they have to be head-shots and they wobble around a fair bit. In dead-eye mode you can do this ok, and the advanced features of dead-eye are already available from the start but the recharge is slow to begin with and the lack of a 'legend of the west' duster coat giving you the bonus is keenly felt. Sooner or later your dead-eye meter is empty so you have to make good and frugal use of it because manual aiming for the head is pretty hard. The tactic in this situation is to stagger them with shots to the torso and quickly adjust to their head while they are standing still.

As for bullets themselves, well as I said they are more scarce in this DLC as all the shops are shut, naturally, and you are limited to what you can scratch around and find when you kill a zombie or find a chest when defending a new town. You get ammo as a reward for doing some of the encounters as well so it is not all bad but you can soon find yourself out of lead if you just indulge in mindless sport. This seems to focus your mind a little more too and keeps you on track, not to mention you have most likely played the original game to death and done all there is to do if you have owned it for any length of time before the DLC came out so the need to explore soon wears off as Undead Nightmare delivers a more focused campaign feeling. Also, another new mechanic that makes a little use of the old herbal gathering part steps in out of nowhere when you are awarded an upgrade for your bullets to fire phosphorous rounds that set zombies aflame. Pick one of each of two kinds of herb and they are consumed with each activation of the upgrade which lasts for a short while. And as with the buffs in Dead Rising 2 there is a conspicuous lack of indication on how long the effect lasts for and when it is nearly over, aside for the lack of fireworks when you shoot a shuffling corpse. And it did not seem to last long at all, like maybe three or four shots at most.

The zombies also come in several flavours. There are the usual zombies with nothing special, there are the 'bolters' who suddenly spring towards you very fast, and there are the bruisers who are pretty fat and take a good licking before they go down. They can charge at you and try to knock you down as well so be careful. You will also encounter some zombies that spit poison at you and one person wants you to capture one of them, because naturally there are crazies all over the west who have been out in the sun too long anyway. There are even some zombies who might qualify as a 'boss fight' since they are named and several seem to be from the original story. They might be people you killed yourself, or people you just tried to help to no avail. They usually show up either in survivor encounter jobs or when you are called on to burn coffins at a graveyard to lessen the spread of zombies. Not that it actually seems to have any effect there and it is a shame it's not mixed into the whole territory defence aspect of the game.

As in the original game, you can say hello to people as they pass by and the usual pleasantries are exchanged depending on your honour status. While the honour status seems to be missing this time around, with more important things to worry about beyond reputation, the hellos have also changed to something more fitting the situation with John saying things like he is happy to see another survivor and such. So some more work has been done there beyond simply scripting inside a current engine and new voice acting is not restricted to the storyline.

As I said earlier, the controls are pretty much the same as the original game and nothing innovative is added as such, and so the same control issues are present as well. However they are not as present in usual game play since you rarely need to duck into cover due to a lack of people with guns shooing back at you.

The story takes a few liberties with the central plot characters and while not wishing to spoil too many of the encounters you will come across some well knowns from the original adventure who meet a bad end here and there. It becomes clear that this is not meant to be some kind of 'missing chapter' in the story where everything sets back to normal and you continue on to the game's finale so we can see why it has not been ingrained into the original game like other step-in-out style DLCs.

Overall, and my own minor objections on theme mismatching aside, Rockstar have done as good a job as can be expected when planting the undead into an established background and have made a decent zombie themed game out of it. If anything, as it stands on its own, if RDR's original outing had never existed then Undead Nightmare is a very decent and passable game for the zombie killing lovers. There is also a host of new multiplayer challenges to play through with friends or on X-Box Live, but I have not toyed with them as I have mentioned my views on XBL multiplay in the past. I never liked stepping into a game with a bunch of strangers who I cannot reach over and slap when they act like retards and grief people so I am dependent on my very slim list of XBL friends to assist me there. But single play has plenty of content to make it worth the cash.

Friday, 26 November 2010

Minecraft: Adventures in block form.

Sorry about the lack of blogging lately. It has been a little busy for me and I have not had much time on this game since the update came out. It has been written for a while but needed a few details padding out with the newly introduced content and such and I had not much time to explore them all. Anyway here goes...

In my last blog I said I was going to introduce people to Minecraft. Some people at work have heard me speak of this game and others who know me on the net are most likely already playing it with the same level of addiction as I am.

Minecraft has grabbed my soul with a kind of very basic gameplay could in itself be a study on game design. Minecraft is the core of open-world gameplay with little fluff and fancy graphics that seem like they were torn from an old NES game and converted into basic 3D. It is a simple sandbox with no story and no premiss to the setting, as open-world games usually are.

I would direct you to the official website of Minecraft, produced by Mojang Specifications. But this would give you little information on the actul game and I guess you need to see someone play it or be introduced to it in person to fully grasp it. The only footage you will see on the main Minecraft page right now will be a mine car on rails going round like a roller-coaster and it initially looks like some kind of novelty physics demo with construction involved. Think Garry's Mod for Half Life 2...

But it is more than that. Not much more but more. Anyway, stop reading for a while and watch the video here.

X's Adventures in Minecraft on YouTube.

There are a lot of vids on his channel, about Minecraft and it describes the essentials of the gameplay better than I can in words, but I will try anyway and give you my own interpretation of the game, for the sake of people who skipped the vid link. No.... actually, if you did then go back and watch it!

Minecraft randomly generates a world made of blocks around you as you move around the map. It is not pre-set, and is different for everyone who plays, except in Multiplayer which is not quite finished yet compared to single player. But more on that later. I will just say that the game is still in Alpha and in development constantly. The world generated will be six (yes, six, as in 6) times larger than the real world. Each block is 1 meter cubed in size, to give you an idea of scale.

There are trees that grow, and leaves that vanish as you take down the main trunk. You can replant saplings that fall from them as you harvest and they will regrow after a time. There are animals that roam the lands, like sheep, cows, pigs and chickens. You can kill them for different resources like wool, ham, leather and feathers. They all have some uses. The same with the wood you collect which you use for crafting things like shovels to move dirt, sand and gravel blocks, picks that are better at breaking down stone blocks and harvesting resource bocks like iron and stone used to make even better tools and swords to defend yourself.

Against what? Rabid blood thirsty sheep? Well, no. You see, there is also a day and night cycle. In the day you are pretty safe (but not 100%). Outdoors is safer than underground or in dark places, because at night several monsters will spawn. There are zombies who deal damage by touching you, same with giant spiders that are fast and have a jumping lunge they can catch you out with if you're not watching. There are skeletons who fire arrows at you and finally creepers who explode if you let them get close. To be even more evil, all the monsters have a unique sound they make like the screech of the spiders or rattling of skeleton bones, but the only sound a creeper makes is a short hissing noise when they get close to you just before they explode! When the sun rises, and if exposed to open sky above them, the zombies and skeletons will catch fire and eventually die. But creepers and spiders stick around until you move away far enough for them to despawn. Spiders will not be hostile in the day, unless you attack them or they were already after your blood in the night. But creepers will still attack.

On your first day in the game you will need to gather some basic resources and make a shelter to hide in fear from the undead. You will need somewhere where they cannot get to you, and usually the choice is a cave, as X does in the vid on YouTube. You will also need to stop monsters spawning inside the cave at night and also in the day with the use of torches. You will need to find coal, which can be found underground but also above sea level in the sides of mountains and maybe even under the dirt beneath your feet if you dig down a few blocks. But you are pretty much shooting blind there and you need to make use of your time wisely at first. You have no resources and they take a while to harvest. If you cannot find them then be prepared for a night of fighting and watching your back...

Eventually you will collect enough coal to make some torches to light your cave or even a house you can make from any kind of block you wish, and even make other stuff like glass from sand cooked in your smelter. And if you have a good mine system near your house but get fed up of moving your stuff back and forward when your inventory is full you could make mine carts with a chest inside to store stuff you dig up, and a powered cart to push them down the tracks you can craft with wood sticks and iron for rails.

Tools and weapons will wear out with use meaning you need to craft more, and the better the materials you use the better the tool and longer it will last. Diamond picks, for instance, last a lot longer than a stone pick, and they harvest stuff like gold, red stone and more diamonds faster than a stone pick. To harvest gold you need to use at least a steel pick anyway, and when you encounter obsidian you will only be able to pick it up with diamond picks and even then it takes a long time to break one block.

There are other hazards in the world in the form of water that flows into your caves if you break into a body of water elsewhere. The current could push you around and if it flows far enough it might push you down a deep hole you were avoiding, maybe to your death. If you dig deep enough you will eventually find lava and this too can flow into a cave, though much slower. And blocks like gravel and sand will fall down when you remove blocks beneath them. If you get trapped inside two blocks of either of these you will suffocate unless you can break out fast enough. If you wind up under water you have a breath gauge which turns to health loss the longer you stay down past running out of air. And having heavy armour on like gold or steel will make it harder to swim up to the surface or fight a current that pushes you away, or down in the case of a waterfall.

The designer of Minecraft, Notch, has also stated he wants to add in environment hazards like cold and heat damage.

Now, I have started writing this a few days before the Halloween update (or the 'Boo' update as it became known to Minecrafters) where everything I have said so far was the simple fact of Minecraft. So now I will tell you what Minecraft is now, since I plan this blog for after the Halloween release.

Notch first of all added a new realm to explore called Hellworld, though he renamed it to The Nether just before release, and was also called The Slip for a short time too. Anyway, I will keep calling it Hellworld... The Hellworld can only be reached through a portal, the first aspect of magic-like mechanics in Minecraft, and Notch has said he would like to add more magic to Minecraft in the future to facilitate things people request on the forums. You need to have 14 pieces of obsidian first, and make a large rectangle standing up, that is 4 wide by 5 high. So that gives you a 2x3 space in the middle. Set this on fire with the flint and steel crafted item already available, and you have a portal to Hellworld. Why go there?

Well, there are new resources in Hellworld, one of them a block that glows as bright as a torch and another that burns forever if set on fire. But given the scale of the world itself on the surface, Hellworld is compressed and runs parallel to the real world. Your portal will be mirrored in Hellworld, and when you move just 1 block away from it in Hellworld, and then go through another portal there that you might make, you will be 160 blocks away in the real world from the first portal. So this becomes a good fast travel method. Though.. keep reading for my initial experiences of this. It was not as advertised.

There is a new hostile creature in Hellworld too; The Ghast. This is a 4x4x4 square large flying jellyfish thing that is hard to kill since it moves quickly, and spits fire. In a world where blocks catch fire easy and burn forever (And water evaporates in Hellworld btw) you can die pretty fast. They also have a very slim chance of spawning in the real world around your portal and they are the first mob that will be able to destroy a block with their attack. None of the others, save the creeper, destroy blocks. And even then the creeper only destroys them when they blow, and they still only do this when they are 1 square from you so they don't break down walls to get to you, and neither do Zombies.

Having said that, the Ghast does not blow up much of the world like a Creeper does. Maybe one or two blocks break on their attack and I hear they do not break cobblestone or obsidian but I have yet to try this. Since they fly the only real way of hitting them is with a bow and arrow and they dodge well. Also their size seems to betray the eye on gauging their true distance so getting a good aim on them is tricky when arrows are affected by gravity. However you can, if you time it right, hit the fireballs and deflect them away from you.

Also, Notch has added biomes to the game, where the climate can change as you generate new areas by exploration. Old areas remained the same, though there are slight variations in grass and tree collour added in where altitude and temperature takes effect on the world, but the changes of biome type, ie, snow or desert, only take place in new areas generated after you apply the update. So, to put it another way, if you have only wandered a few minutes away from your spawn point and home then that area will be as it always was and everything beyond when you venture out in future could randomly change. If you have explored for hours on end and have a massive map already generated you will have to go further to find new biomes. In the future there may be new block types or even resources in biomes and the monster spawns could become more biome specific.

Notch intended to remove torches, ie the stick and coal type I talk about above, as being an infinite light source that they were when I started writing this blog. They were to be replaced with a lantern instead as an infinite light source and made torches finite so they burn out over time. You can reignite them with flint and steel and they burn for a while but expire again soon. So your priorities when starting the game for the first time would be to make temporary torches, as they are quicker and easy to make at first, and search out some steel and flint quick to relight them as you need them until you build up a supply of lanterns. Fortunately for long time players, torches placed down, in the inventory and stored in chests would be replaced with lanterns to begin with, saving people a large job of putting down more new lanterns where they want infinite light.

However, Notch could not get torches to burn out properly, whatever that means, so this was scrapped for now. And you can still harvest the red hellblocks that burn forever, though not good in a wooden house. And the yellow light blocks I have heard being called sulphur are as bright as a single torch. When you collect them they drop into dust and you need 9 dust to remake one block of light. I am now using them in my ever growing house to keep the middle sections lit and they look better than makeshift torch holders since they cannot be fixed to a roof and only the floor or the sides of block.

As part of the Halloween spirit you can collect pumpkins that are already carved and turn them into lanterns or even wear them as a helmet, that does not provide armour value though it creates an effect of looking through the eye and mouth holes which was pretty funny. And while before the update, if there was just a little light from a torch a monster would not spawn, there is now a chance of them spawning in slightly lit areas, getting greater the deeper you go so deep mine shafts and caves might still have plenty of monsters unless you stick a torch every other block. Notch has added in the ability to fish, making use of the already in-game fishing rod, new sounds for hell as well as new music and a clock you can craft that shows you the time of day. The sunset is nicer, with an orange sky instead of just a dimming blue sky to night as well.

Overall you make your own destiny in Minecraft and could dabble in multiplayer mode to craft with friends and make whole cities. A search on yourtube might show you some people's crafted areas they made with friends on servers. A visit to Crafthub shows you the potential for construction if you have the imagination and time.

Minecraft comes with an old free version that is just a world builder with unlimited blocks and no crafting or monsters or even day/night cycle. The alpha version is around 10 euro until it goes beta. Pay for an Alpha game? Well Mojang Specifications is an indie developer planning to continue development on Minecraft in the longterm and maybe bring more games to people soon. They are practically in their baby stage looking for backing and investors still and have about 5 people on staff so far, most likely all of them a friend of Notch. So if you think this game is worth your investing and supporting the makers then do buy it. If not then don't, as no one forces you to until it is done. As I look at it now, it is not so much a full sandbox game in its own right, despite the constant updates and content additions, as it is worth the money in the first place.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

My games wish list.

OK I figured I should put myself up a list of games I plan to try out and review. Still got a lot of the tax man's reimbursement in my account so might as well put it to use bit by bit and go on a gaming spree. Not really had one in a long time and doing these blogs has reignited an old habit of games binges that killed my social life as a teenager.

So, what is in my cross-hair for blogging and maybe just good old fun? I have some old titles on here but a few new ones too, and some I won't be getting just yet. I have some idea on what order I will play them though but won't be sharing that. Being like a magpie, I tend to drop the juicy worm I have for lunch because something new and shiny grabs my attention and on the spur of the moment I grab it.


New(ish) stuff.
Castlevania: Lord of Shadows
Fallout New Vegas (Might get this when some multipack with DLC's come out instead of being sucker punched for DLCs a month after release. Also, a large mod library should build up soon, so see my Fallout 3 comments for why I would wait for this)
Halo Reach
Enslaved Odyssey to the West
Fable III (Might need to set a load of time aside for this one..)
Starcraft II (Heard mixed things about this, so want to see for myself)
Red Dead Redemption: Undead DLC (Zombies in the wild west? It's either 'Ohh hell yeah!' or 'Ohh dear god... no....')

Older stuff.
Mass Effect 2 (Yes, I need to play this badly... but as I said I am a bit of a magpie...)
Bioshock and Bioshock 2
Alpha Protocol (OK not that old but by the time I get there it may well be so I will pre-empt it and file it here.)

Also I have a small set of some games I am playing still, some of them on and off, or replaying slowly.

Fallout 3's DLC packs
I still havea couple of backs to try out on FO3, however I am running XP64 on my gaming rig and you can't get SP3 for it. And now Windows Live does not work on SP2 since a few month back. I need to upgrade to Win 7 soon enough. I had this planned for my media server I am planning and if Windows made their family 3 pack again I would go for it in a heart beat... maybe their relaunch will have the 3 pack again. Also as you know, I like the mod scene for this game and I like to replay the campaign very slowly to explore the vast wastes with new mods I will try out on the way, or even make a little mini-story out of using and uncovering the mods. All in my head, of course, reflected in the game play like finding a new weapon as if I were going on a quest for it.

Dragon Age: Origins
Keep putting it down for a few reasons too long to list and worthy of an actual review. But I don't plan on it. So I guess I will keep playing with it and reach the end at some point.

Gratuitous Space Battles
Just a fun indie game with no real story beyond unlocking new ships and weapons for them. There are some mods too so I might check them out in time.

Stand by for a bog on this after Halloween. If you don't know what it is, check out their home page. But my blog will include an intro to this.

Dawn of War 2
I played this as far as I could be bothered before the campaign chase got on top of me and taking down an ork boss fight was near impossible with the XP cap on the units already reached. There is a challenge in games, and then there is silly. I have never been big on games with in combat health management being more than half the time of the fight and the boss fights were just this. I might return to it some day but I might not.

Dawn of War: Dark Crusade
I never finished the Dark Crusade campaign with my Necron army. I had pretty much all the map under my control and all but one HQ unit destroyed, leaving only the Orks I think and a few occupied territories to take over. When I made my new games rig I did not backup my game saves for many games, mainly because I was forced to reformat the old hard drive after a silly move in building the PC. My motherboard drivers deleted and the system needed resetting from the partition, wiping the data and my saves. I never got round to reinstalling it but I still look at the box wondering if I have time to stick it back on or if I should retire the game completely from my games rotation.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Dead Rising 2. Frustrations in Fortune City

It has been a while between work and other stuff but I have finally taken the chainsaw to this review and remade it a little. I always try to get near the end of a game's story before I review it but this one is a little different. The story is not all that big story wise, but we will come to that in a bit and why it might take you a long while to finish it.

So, here I am now with the game I should have picked up before Front Mission Evolved. Dead Rising 2 is, naturally, the second in the Dead Rising games, save for a short interlude in the form of Dead Rising: Case Zero. I have not played this one so I don't know what it is all about except that it involves your character from Dead Rising 1 and 2.

The basics of the game are this. Your character is Chuck Greene, former motorcross champ who's wife was killed in a zombie outbreak and his daughter was bitten. He was fortunate enough to have a shot of something called Zombrex on him at the time and this staves off zombification for about 24 hours but then you need a booster shot. When his career hits rock bottom he cannot afford the boosters without doing some odd stuff, like participating in the Terror is Reality show in Fortune City. He and a bunch of zombie killers are pit into an arena like gameshow where they mow down zombies by the dozen on bikes with chainsaws and get cash prizes for winning. Most of this money goes to buying the girl her Zombrex.

Simple, yes? Well, not really. Like all big and simple turning cogs a single wrench can screw it all up. Your first taste of the game comes in the form of the afore mentioned slice and dice with motorbikes so the game does not mess around and puts you in the thick of the blood bath pretty early. Then it halts for a second for the sake of the story as your make your way through the back stage areas with your winnings to find his daughter before all hell breaks loose and the zombies in the arena break out. You fight your way through them to the green room and pick up the girl and run for the door, finally getting to a shelter where some old police officer has the beds all warm and the coffee brewing in the corner.

However, you still need the next dose of Zombrex for your girl and the only place that has some is back outside. Luckily you find a way out of the bunker on a mission to find the Zombrex in the mall and this is where your game, as advertised, actually begins.

Now I say 'your game actually begins' but really it has already begun. There was a glaring lack of tutorial and adjustment to the game controls to begin with, and you pretty much figure it all out yourself. This is a theme that, annoyingly, persists through the game at all levels. If you are anything like me you have a quick skim through the manual, forget it all in an instant and return it to the box content to muddle through the controls. So I would hardly call the introduction the typical tutorial phase but, hey. Zombies wait for no man.

The game itself is all on a timer, with 72 hours of game time (not real time though, which might have been nice, but I will come to this later) before the army gets to town after sealing it off. And your only goals so far seem to be finding a shot of Zombrex every 24 game hours and maybe locating survivors to escort back to the shelter. This is facilitated by a Zombie rights protester (yes, you read that right) who also made it into the shelter. She is watching through CCTV in the shelter's security room and when she sees something interesting she will radio Chuck and give him a waypoint. This could be anything from a potential survivor to suspicious activity. Eventually these waypoints will expire if you don't act on them and you could miss out on a few things like weapon combo cards or a shot of Zombrex, saving you the job of locating one later. Though, if you have not got one by the time her shot comes around it is your own fault because a few hours before it is due you will get a message hinting you will get some Zombrex for going somewhere and doing something, But you should be prepared for a harder fight to get it.

Back to the timer thing though, and the whole mission structure as well as random encounters are completely choreographed by the game's passage of time and all have and expiry attached to them. Most of them will not affect your overall game though there is a central strand of missions too that will fail if you let them run without action. These will divulge the emerging plot where Chuck is framed for the outbreak and you need to find out who really did it and why by chasing down the reporter in town that broke the initial story on an anonymous source that tipped her off.

At first, my reaction to the timing based missions was not good. I fully expected a GTA/RDR style mission system where you have an open world to please yourself in, that maybe unlocks better stuff as you progress, and you could instigate missions in your own good time. As much of the game elements like crafting of weapons and exploring areas of the map or even playing the gambling mini-games in the multiple casinos speak of a sandbox open world, and throwing a timer in there seems like a horrible mismatch of gaming styles.

After the initial mission of finding Zombrex, as well as a detour to rescue a couple of survivors here and there, I was thrown at the first real mission that would eventually expire if I did not act on it. I found the reporter who put out the story of Chuck releasing the zombies, did her little job and once done I realised the mission system would not unlock the next mission until a certain time of day still to come. So I had a lot of spare time meanwhile to do that whole sandbox thing.

Since the games infuriating lack of documentation on how the missions are handled, my advice to anyone would be to tackle the central missions as soon as you can, because you don't know how long they will take you, and you won't have it hanging over you the whole time as you explore, level up and find new weapons to beat zombies in the face with, Also, you will always have to take time out to get the ever rare Zombrex from somewhere, be it a pawnshop run by looters with a very capitalist philosophy of supply and demand, or helping people who might give you some for free or a clue to the location of a stash elsewhere.

There is also a levelling system for the character, as you hack through zombies and gain.... not xp but 'pp'. I know... not sure what pp stands for and I don't care. It amounts to the same thing really. However, your character auto-levels and his attributes change themselves without your input. I find this entirely annoying as I like to control my play style and feel this being taken out of my hands as being against the spirit of this minor RPG like aspect. This as well as other frustrations in the game makes me wonder if the developers knew what kind of game they wanted to make and some elements should have just been left out in favour of others that gel better with the core gameplay. Again, I will come to this soon.

Other frustrations with the game, besides the lack of documentation and tutorial, is the combat system in general. It feels kind of clunky in more precision engagements, like when you take on a small gang of armed men in one mission you have no duck and cover system, no diving rolls (at least until you level and unlock the ability, again at the game's whim), no shooting back round corners and even worse, no sprint. OK when surrounded by zombies who shuffle along with the speed of growing grass for the most part, and you are armed with a wide and wild swinging battleaxe that cleaves everything it touches in two with ease, this is pretty much what you want. It will put many fine dedicated hack and slash games to shame. But when you want a little more control you find it lacking and it has cost me dearly. Maybe the PC version of the game will be better with weapon aiming for guns and such, so I will keep an open mind on this, but again the developers now mainly cater to the console market and the kind of gamers that enjoy co-op and multiplayer parties as a more social gaming experience than PC games can deliver. So why not cater to console gaming controls too?

Also, the timer based system of mission activation and expiration becomes a teeth gritting pain when you lose the mission and die and you realise your last manual save, and you can only save manually in toilets that are too spread out for my liking, was some time before the mission activated. You can have entirely too much fun and forget to save and then have to do it all over again if you are not careful, waiting for missions to become available. And you will die a lot on some of the encounters at first.

There is an emerging difficulty curve that drop kicks you in the face when you least expect it. I did note early in my play time that the game had no difficulty setting that it asked me to select at first so I figured given the more playful and light hearted nature of the game set by Capcom that they were aiming at the casual gamer and the only difficulty would come in the missions and the occasional race against the clock. After all, between missions you are simply in transit from one location to another as you please. Your first encounters with the Psychos is a little different though, and they will kick your arse very fast on your first play through. Again, the control issues do creep in but so does their clearly scripted behaviour in combat. I noticed that when attacking one of them she would take three hits before they automatically knock me down and I have no defence for this at all. And what followed was a good 2-3 health drop as controls are taken from you and they deliver another automatic blow.

There are means that the game compensates for this when you die, and I am not sure I like it because it smacks of poor balance and idle development. Essentially, you could do with the game giving you the option to restart the mission at the beginning of the encounter, but that is conspicuously absent and you are forced back to your last save point in the loo. Or you could just restart the whole story again from the beginning. The advantage in doing this is that you start with all your levels and skills where you left off. Some might call this a means of giving the player a helping hand when they begin to fail a lot, but a game should not be unplayable to the end on the first run and there should always be a means to complete it even if it is hard. And sure there is with this one too but you have to ignore a lot of stuff in the process and just get on with it and die a hundred times. I don't play games to die repeatedly and rely on blind luck to pass the next stage and a lack of skill based victory seems to become a more frequent theme in games.

Another gripe I have is with the dialogue system outside of cut scenes. To speak with people you approach and press the correct button, but there will be no voice acting unless it creates a cut scene. Not in itself a bad thing, if a little tacky overall. However you have to do this often with survivors fighting off zombies by the dozen to get their story. The game will not halt while you speak, and you will get a short bit of back and forth between your character and the other person. All the while you have to read this and attack zombies that get too close. And the text waits for no man as it moves on to the next dialogue with barely time to read and digest what is being said. However, the final annoyance comes when you realise that the conversation has stopped abruptly and you need to, once again, press the talk button to continue speaking and get more info. I am not sure why this is. Maybe the game wishes you to see what is happening a little first before you decide to help the person or not. But one guy needs literally convincing he has much to live for and after the 9th click of the B button he finally accepted my help and came with me.

Maybe Capcom needs to understand the target audience of such a game. There will be people that know they will want to help right now and go talk to the person, have them follow them to the shelter and reap the rewards and karma etc. And there are people who will either carry on walking or sit back and laugh as they get swamped by the undead. I don't see people picking their decision to help people based on some random and fast moving dialogue like 'I was out shopping for shoes when all this happened!' That is not going to move me to an emotive decision of weather this person it fit to live or die. I doubt I will find someone who will say 'I was lurking by the potted plants near children's play pen, slowly abusing myself, when suddenly zombies broke into the Mall. Please help me.' so I am not sure what I will read that I will make a choice on and all the extra clicking under these circumstances just torments those who want to do it all or who have a kid soul in the bleakness of the zombie apocalypse, shining like the last bastion of civilisation and hope.

Even more confusing in this system was the cop in the shelter telling me he would help by giving me the key to the maintenance rooms (this unlocks crafting) so I am like all 'yeah cool, thanks.' Only to find that the pause in dialogue happened and I had to actually speak to him again just to get the damned key off of him! Again, it makes no sense to me why this is and maybe the game is actually glitchy like this or perhaps Chuck has an on-off case of ADD and looses concentration if he is not driving a baseball bat with nails glued to it into the pallid face of the nearest zombie.

On the note of weapons and crafting custom weapons, all your weapons have a durability which, to me, is way too short or should have been handled different from what it is now. I would have liked a system where some weapons, naturally wood based ones and toys and such, do break after a time. It is only to be expected. But others like chainsaws and drill motors should only fail if used too frequent and need a cool down time. If observed they will be cool for a while again and you can go on mincing the moving corpses at will. But go too far and it might break down and be useless. These things will cut down half of the Amazon but they will only last for about 20 zombies? Give me a break here. Also, the crafting is good but if your lovely weapon of death like the wheelchair with a lawnmower on the seat is going break after you push it through only half of the main street or even less then let me carry some of the items in bulk so I can craft on the fly. Example, nails. A box of nails fits in a backpack nicely. I gather a few of these here and there and when I find a baseball bat or propane tank I can get into it instead of having to equip them to my small weapon bar and take them to a crafting bench, and then do the same again for a baseball bat. Though I guess this system keeps it to using what you have to hand, which is not always a bad thing I guess. But it gets old after a while.

DR2 dropped another point for me when I was suddenly, after a dozen times of waggling the left stick on my controller to shake off a zombie that latched on too tight, confronted with a different quick time event. This time, as I instinctively began shaking the left stick I realised too late I should have been mashing the Y key instead, and then it asked me for the left stick action once more. This sent me back to the end of my last mission after I had spent a good hour or so playing and stocking on some good weapons so I was not impressed.

So I have summed up al of my dislikes about this game. Lets move onto the likes as I tend to leave my blogs with negative comments lately and I don't want people to think I do not like these games because I do. The world is well presented, the animation in the cut scenes is pretty good, even if the characters are all stereotypes, and despite the clunky combat in the boss like fights where I think I can only win on blind luck or a lot of grinding to level up on a reply from the beginning, I do like the fact that nearly everything is a weapon. Even kids toys like a foam hammer or a police helicopter. I was overjoyed when I realised you did not just beat them over the noggin with it but you could set it running and leave it in the air like a chopping dervish to cover your back from hordes of the undead while you maced the faces in front of you.

You can craft a few few of your own weapons by combining one with another and by using them you will level up faster. But that is only if you have the combo card for it, which you find by doing missions, leveling up or rescuing people. You don't need them to experiment with crafting and if you find a combo you can use it but don;t get the benefit of double pp from your kills. However, as pointed out elsewhere, it is odd that you can combine a machete with a broom, but not a kitchen knife. Or why can I not simply equip nails into the leaf blower in splatter some undead to the walls even though I can put jewels inside to sand blast a million dollar smile into their faces.

Either way you will find the weapons to be entertaining. I accidentally discovered the firework lizard mask. I noticed that some fireworks draw the zombies away for a while and the mask is another way of doing it at the expense of another victim zombie. Stick it on one of their heads and the fireworks lodged in the mouth of the mask will draw in the zombies while the wearer walks around without knowing how ridiculous he looks.

Finally, there is a means of enhancing your player, and I fear I will descend into a rant about how it is poorly executed but here goes. You can mix drinks to gain boosts to certain aspects such as movement speed or damage resistance. And drinking them too often will cause Chuck to be sick, which in itself is funny. Even drinking normal alcohol will cause this and the resulting slippery mess on the floor will cause zombies to slide down on their arses and flail around in the chunky carrots. There is even one drink combo that causes this as the primary effect. However... and here comes the slight rant, as with the rest of the game you have little clue what the drinks will do for you since there is no documentation of them. Discovering a drink combo does not give you something like a combo card so you can remember it later or even describe the effects. So when you make a Painkiller you wonder... does this just heal a lot of health or does it give me damage resistance? More than likely damage resistance. But what about Nectar? Anyone know what this does? You need to go look at some strategy guides online to discover their uses and it seems like half the lack of documentation is designed by Capcom to make you buy one. This is hardly the usual JRPG game that has so much stuff to do it warrants buying one though. Also you have no visual reference letting you know how long the drink effect works for.

The other buff you have is magazines. You carry these with you and they give you bonuses to things like gambling, driving or weapon durability. Once again though, there is a downside built in with them since they take up one of your weapon slots so you cannot carry lots of them, forcing you to pick one you feel is best for your play style. This is no bad thing either, however ones such as weapon durability, in my opinion, are essential and it would have been better executed if there were a limited number of them dotted around that you actually consumed by reading them and gaining a permanent boost to that attribute. And if you go back to play through again, and continue levelling, you either lost their boosts, and needed to collect them again or you kept the boost but the magazine was no longer spawned. And this could have been more of a theme with the levelling system in general. In my Front Mission Evolved review I did rant a little about how I did not like the difficulty curve being matched by an increasing stock of better weapons and parts you did not have to work for, so it might seem like I am no advocating a similar system as a fix for another game. But I would have liked my actions to enhance my character rather than a levelling system, or even have it run along side the pp gathering aspect, and give me control of what attributes move, leaving other bonus buffs to be presented to me as I explore or complete side missions like psycho battles and survivor escorts.

Dead Rising 2 is not what I expected, and clearly I am disappointed overall with it. Though I am not a great multiplayer fan and being subjected to retards on XBox live from around the world does put me out of my comfort zone when gaming. So the social gaming side may well be better overall than the campaign, and competing in the minigames online to gather cash and more pp for single player gaming could open a whole new dimension for me. But I will leave this to other reviews to disclose. The pure visceral part about cleaving through hordes of slow moving zombies is still a joy and some weapon combos will make you cackle with evil glee as you test them out so it is worth getting if you are not put off by my rants about the failings of the game. It just could have been so much more than what it became and given a choice I would not have paid full price for it. Pick up a pre-owned maybe or wait until it goes budget buy.

Saturday, 16 October 2010

Coming soon, after some hack and slash editing...

Dead Rising 2.

I was meant to have this out mid week after a short play through, however, Dead Rising 2 has been anything but a short play through. After having played a little deeper into the game and finding stuff out for myself, I come to realise what I love to hate about the game and my original review will need a rewrite.

I might have been a little unfair in my first draft and while everything I say will stand in my rewrite, it was entirely too negative. Essentially, DR2 is a game that does not reveal itself all at once, and not all in the first play through. And this is something I want to talk about a little as an amateur reviewer.

It is easy to judge many books by their covers, and people that do so are easy to spot for people in the know. Many film and game reviews I have seen take games I do like and make big deals of their flaws as though they are the only thing that the game delivers.

By the same token, it is easy to paint a reviewer who gets things wrong with this same tar-sodden brush. As not every reviewer will get a game review right based on a game that, like Dead Rising 2, does not tickle their fancy in the first couple of days. Like a good wine or a piece of cheese DR2 takes time to mature before you can appreciate it. It may stil taste like cheese, but it is at least good cheese and this depth needs to be explored in context as well.

Hence, my latest review taking a little more time between my work and more work. Like the many zombies of Fortune City, the cleaver must come out and much chopping and hacking is in front of me before I am completely happy.

Until then.... my three or maybe four dear readers.

Sunday, 10 October 2010

Front Mission Evolved

Yes, something as new as new gets. As recent as your last breath. As.... current as a box of currants.....

Anyway, I picked up a copy of Front Mission Evolved this weekend, developed by Square Enix. What is it? Why did I get it? I would not be surprised if many people had not heard of the Front Mission games, as they have not been rapid with their releases over the years, but their origins can be traced back to the likes of the SNES console, but mainly in Japan and the US. The only Front Mission games I have seen in the UK have been Front Mission 3 and also a reboot of that game for the Nintendo DS, simply called Front Mission.

Essentially, if you like giant mechs with huge machine guns spitting bullets the size of a fat person from a gun the size of a truck then this is for you.

Front Mission 3 was my only other experience of this game on the PlayStation many years ago and took a prideful place among Final Fantasy VII and Resident Evil Nemesis as well as one or two other titles from my old PlayStation library when I got a PS2. I kept them for the backwards compatibility and disposed of the other games I was not interested in. The story is set in the future of Japan where the main character is an engineer for a weapons contractor delivering a prototype WANZER (ohh wait, not that Wanzer, these are a Walking Panzer) to the JSDF when all hell breaks lose and the base is attacked by unmarked forces.

It was one of the few games where you had some limited differences in story based on decisions you make in the game. Early you were presented with the option of staying put and keeping out of the fight, only to be dragged in by one faction, or heading for the front lines in search of your sister who works on the base, and getting tangled up with another faction. From that point your opponents would differ and the story would be told from a different perspective, only to join together near the end with a different ending. And even during game play, where you are going through the story, you could be given a choice such as the left path or right path in the road, and face different odds, though your end point was the same regardless and only the fight was different.

The combat was turn based, you could equip your Wanzer and the Wanzers of other team members between phases in the story, you could visit bars looking for work on occasion or to catch up on gossip or look for key characters and intel, and by or sell Wanzers and weapons at black market and official merchants depending on your character's path so far. There were RPG elements too, with characters gaining experience points and levelling up, training skills and getting better at fighting. You could capture enemy Wanzers and break them down for parts, or blow bits of them to make them impotent in combat. Pilots would eject from their Wanzers too and be vulnerable, and it was sometimes required for the mission to do this, by either activating something on ground level or even capturing a Wanzer.

So, when I heard about Front Mission Evolved last year I kept an eye out for it. So far I have not been disappointed, save for a couple of small issues with the game, and one large one that I discovered not long ago as I played through more.

It has much of the same game play as the last game on the PlayStation, with the combat feeling very inch of it's size. But there is one crucial difference and that is the combat is simply live action rather than turn based. Also you do not control the whole team like you could in FM3, and the other Wanzers in your squad are controlled by the computer. However you can still blow off chunks of the enemy like their legs to slow them down, or their arms to reduce their accuracy and damage with the mounted weapons. Aim for the torso and you blow them away completely etc etc. There are even sections where you leave your Wanzer and go into a building.

Now when this first happened, and I knew it would since I had seen the screenshots of over the shoulder shooter sections, I was steeling myself for major disappointment. Like 'OK the Wanzer combat was good, so this is most likely going to be the steamy turd on the delicious cheese cake.' We all know what this is like when we played Mass Effect and 'Woah we can drive around in a tank dropped from the air? Sweet!' and the inevitable 'Urgh.... these controls really really blow!' thing. However, the game developers at Square Enix have done as good a job of the combat on the ground as they have in the Wanzers. (Saying Wanzer never gets old btw) Especially a moment when an enemy Wanzer come storming into a hangar while you are looking for something and begins ripping the place up with a machine gun as big as a car. You really o feel naked and vulnerable, except for your missile launcher slung over your back.

However, the storyline is on rails and I have not encountered any character choices to be made by me in the occasional cut scene between fighting. And the story starts pretty much the same. Wanzer test pilot working on a prototype when New York is attacked by unmarked forces and you go looking for your Dad who works at a government military building. You are drafted into the military quickly after assisting some Wanzer army units heading in your direction and encounter a boss fight with a mercenary Wanzer piloted by a cocky and talkative arsehole who gives way too much away with his gloating. So the story does suffer a little from elements like this. Not to mention the obvious romantic subplot that emerges between the main character and the female army Wanzer pilot giving jealous looks at the pretty and intelligent engineer from the testing labs.

And it seems even zombies cannot keep their noses out of futuristic giant mech shooters when the merc leader shows up and somehow uses a system that you also have in your Wanzer, called EDGE, to resurrect and control the dead Wanzers around you. Not bad for a module that is meant to slow down time a little (or rather increase pilot awareness and reflexes, but slowing down the game is a gameplay mechanic used to simulate this). Also, when you shoot a Wanzer until it explodes, I expect that the machine cannot function due to physical breakage... so how they suddenly got up and fought on is a mystery to me. Finally, the female army pilot seems to have some kind of secret and horrible past she does not like to talk about and gets overly dramatic about as she has panic attacks every time the merc leader shows up. The drama is pretty overblown all round with two of the mercs being evil baby-eating kitten-strangling gibbering psychos talking about the symphony of destruction or the coming of the Valkyries.

Despite the odd storytelling and character types the controls are very good, though the aim speed is a little too fast for my liking on the XBox. This is where the PC version might be better with a mouse as movement speed is constant anyway so the digital input of a keyboard is no issue there.

However, after the stars in my eyes vanished I could see a few little problems. They do not emerge until you get a short way into the game, and you are moving through a mountain road with lots of trees around you. When you turn sideways the trees get in the way of the camera, even when you zoom in with the precise aim mode, and you cannot see what is happening. Not good when the road turns 90 degrees and enemies are waiting for you. Also, you do not have the options to capture enemy Wanzers and break them down, and the available body parts and weapons increase only as the story advances. So it seems more like you are simply being given these things because you will need them, and not because you captured them and earned them. It makes this part of the game tat I loved in FM3 seem unfocused and shallow and they really might as well have left you with one single Wanzer type and ask you if you would like dual machine guns, a rocket launcher or the rifle and send you on your merry way.

Now comes the huge problem that made me see red when it emerged. So far I had done the first couple of chapters and spent a little time upgrading my Wanzer between fights before the story moved on and I did not notice that the game resets your Wanzer and configures it for you at the start of a mission. In FM3 your Wanzer would not change unless you changed it and you had to hope it was good enough to get you through the next combat phase. If not then go back and reconfigure and try again with what you have. However, while this is a little annoying and tolerable, since each time you would make changes anyway to kit out the new stuff you have been given, the real wet fart in the face came when I found the default setting of one mission - a rifle, missile launcher and agility backpack - was useless and I craved my twin machine gun, twin missile launcher configuration back. But when I did this and tried for the 5th time to beat this opening engagement it would not let me fight unless I had the rifle. No you must have the rifle! How else would know what fighting with a rifle is like?

It sucks! That is what it is like. My launcher takes out the ranged targets on the shore better than the rifle, and I know two machine gins will not reach them but they will chew up the Wanzers air dropped on top of us as well as the gunships flying over head better than both. Let me have it my way!

Same goes with the hover and quad leg attachments. OK the one mission where you need the hover legs, because there will be a need to cross water, leads you into using them in the pre-mission cutscene with a logical argument. So you kind of go 'Yeah ok, I will use those. It sounds cool.' and don't even notice you cannot use anything but those unless you try to change them. However, when a mission forced me to use the quad legs when they were introduced, the argument was 'you can carry more guns' given their power system boost. Again, I saw this as a good thing but the quad legs are slower with a shorter skate time. (Skating being a fast means of movement and strafing) But when I passed this mission I wanted to get rid of them and back onto two legs that I was used to. After all, bipedal mechs are why people buy these kinds of games in the first place. And for no logical reason I could determine, I was not permitted to use the two leg system. This, again, sucked.

Seems some games try to behave like your mother and still try to feed you sprouts. You get what you are given, and you clean your plate! Want does not enter into it. So as I said, the game might as well give you a pre-built Wanzer to do each mission with and drop the pretence of being able to customise them beyond the weapons you can take, based on certain restrictions like power and funds. I don't find myself mixing and matching the same as I did with FM3, and last night I realised why not. In FM3 different Wanzer parts were good for different things like close combat vs machine guns, vs rifles etc. Some bodies gave boosts to ranged accuracy while others gave power increases or critical hit and stun chance modifiers to power fists and batons. And while some of this is still present, it has been watered down heavily.

You can equip weapon mods called 'battle skills' where a chance based activation gives different properties to your weapons like more damage, EMP stun, extra limb damage and so on. It is kind of like Mass Effect's weapon mod system with multiple slots available on higher class weapons. And while some arms have increased accuracy over others, the worst in class do not drop below 90% which is something I can live with if it means I have more armour and can carry the weapons I wish. Again, this makes picking arm A over arm B a done thing an there is a clear line of good, better and best between them. The configuration sections seems more like busy work and useless labour, even if it does not feel like one of the circles of hell as such it is not a good thing either.

One final thing as I have been playing and writing this breakdown. Have you ever played one of those games where you have NPC allies but every enemy on the map seems like they are only interested in you and you alone? And your allies are completely useless in causing damage to your enemies and you have the sole task of killing everything that hits the map? If you find these as annoying as I do then you will be annoyed with Front Mission Evolved since is does this too. Maybe it is because I launched right into the hardest setting that does this and when I reply to unlock more of the hidden stuff it might be a different story. But as someone that values a little realism in my gaming I find these mechanics to break the credibility of a game.

Overall, Front Mission Evolved is not quite the game it succeeds from a few years ago, and in some ways it is a good thing, though I cannot help but feel if they re-jigged the old game to modern standards, even with turn based combat, and kept the depth of character building and Wanzer capturing,as well as the meaning behind the customisation process, it would not have been worse. Was this ultimately a bad reunion for me with an old friend? Not really, no. The pace is fast in fire fights which keeps you thinking and moving and the chunky feel of the heavy metal combat is something that can only be rivalled by the imagination of a child playing with his robot toy collection stomping all over the small plastic army men and tanks.

Saturday, 9 October 2010

Yes, another old one. Fallout 3: The game and gaming

So, I figured since I raised the issue of Fallout 3 in a previous blog, and the last blog being about PC gaming as an industry, it would be appropriate to dust off an older PC game that still shines like new today. And with Fallout New Vegas ready for release soon, we should all get back in the mood for Fallout as a series. I will not only review this game, which I will try and keep shorter than the last breakdowns, because I will also try and squeeze in some more thoughts in PC gaming in general.

In the last blog, people will remember I linked Chris Taylor's podcast interview with G4TV's X-Play where he threw down a gauntlet to the anti-PC game crowd and the doom-sayers who hail the passing of PC games in general. As I watched the interview one game jumped into mind that highlights PC games, and that game was Fallout 3. The reasons for this were not picked up by Chris, who used examples of MMOs and digital distribution methods like Steam and D2D as key to PC game's resilience, though I stated them as another unique aspect of PC gaming. Modding. And as I talk about FO3 in general you will see why this is a great aspect of PC gaming experience on the whole.

So, to put much of that into context and flesh out the bones of that argument, let us look at Falout 3. A game on both consoles and the PC. First, the story is that of post-apocalyptic America, where people saw the war coming and society geared towards survival. VaultTech, a corporation specialising in fallout shelters, creates a large network of 'Vaults' around the country and people apply for a seat should the bombs begin falling. People are selected and when the day comes they all file into the vaults for a life below ground. Fallout games of the past have involved this concept in their story and take place a long time after the war where the surviving society above ground has degenerated into tribal life and small settlements living in fear of raiders, slavers and mercs.

Essentially, you are presented with this scorched playground in Fallout 3 full of ambiguous moral choices with consequences and character building as a classic staple of and RPG. Gain experience points and increase your proficiency in various aspects of wasteland life from small and heavy weapons and explosives, to lock picking and sneaking, to charming personality traits that will leave npc characters beaming wide as you pick their pockets.

The campaign is pretty open, like the world that is also full of smaller jobs and quests you can pick up and defeat in many different ways. Some of them give you different rewards for different outcomes, while others don't make a distinction. Others open up a branch where you have an optional secondary quest not always apparent to you unless you talk around to the npcs. Approaching such a game requires you break down your expectations based on other more linear games where you are expected to behave in one way or another and only one outcome will do for your employer. See Red Dead Redemption for an example of what I mean there.

A case in point is soon after the enforced tutorial stage in the vault itself, where your stats are established along with the story of our hero, you are nudged towards the nearby settlement of Megaton (a bunch of walled off houses built into the impact crated of an unexploded and still live atomic bomb) where you wandering around and chatting to people about the first thing in your mind will most likely see you interact with a Mr Burke. It takes a little observation on your part to find this job but you most likely will. In a way I feel Bethesda put this job into the game at this stage the way they did to really give you a taste of what Fallout 3 will offer you time and time again. Mr Burke will wave you over from his little corner of the bar in Megaton and ask you to plant a pulse fusion charge on the bomb so he can detonate it and wipe it off the map for his very wealthy employer. Of course, you and refuse the job and never get the chance again to accept it and just carry on as normal, or you can go ahead and do it and become an instant dark side evil monster of a man.

However, you can also say to Mr Burke you will help him and then go running to the sheriff of the town and tell him about it too. I won't spoil much for anyone that has not played it, but the essences of doing this means you occasionally get ambushed by Talon Company mercs who have notes on their bullet riddled persons that you will dispatch with glee issuing a bounty on your head due to your goody goody actions.

Another example would be the encounter with a nutty scientist who was trying to make giant mutant ants smaller again and ended up making them breathe fire on people and destroy a whole town. He asks you, rather dispassionately, to go help him render the current bath of eggs impotent in the ant queen layer so he can start again with his mutagen batch. Since he showed little compassion for the people killed in the town above the tunnels, I saw fit to also press the button I was not meant to press that would destroy his mutagen sample so he could not do this again. He was rather unhappy at this and refused my payment. So I shot him in the face and took what I wanted from his lab. What the hell, not like there are laws any more to either stop me or bring this man to account, right?

So, you see what I mean by the moral choices, which I really like with a game and has been a rare treat to find. Other features of Fallout 3 is the unique aiming mode called V.A.T.S where you pause time and your targets are divided up into choice cuts on your HUD, each one with a percentage chance of hitting and damage state. You can cripple the arms or legs of an enemy, weakening their aim or slowing their pace. Cripple their heads to disorientate them or even just go for the head splattering brain fragmenting kill shot. This might sound like it critically breaks the flow of your action but you will surprised how much you use and and how it does have drawbacks. Because while you are treated to the head-splatter, limb detaching slow motion kill sequence of one bad guy, his friends are still slowly wrecking your shit and your controls are locked for a few seconds. And each shot you line up takes away action points that regenerate slowly so you have to use them sparingly when encountering a gang.

The ruins of DC doe a good job of herding you into choke points and ambushes to keep the difficulty fluid, and blundering around a corner into a raider outpost early in the game will really ruin your day. The options to run and hide are there but they may choose to search for you if they are certain you are still around. And sooner or later they go home. Keep this in mind for my secondary topic of PC gaming in general as I will come back to this.

Back on the difficulty curve, eventually it will seem more like a gentle slope as you advance in level and unlock more bad-ass means of breaking skulls, from awesome weapons to mad skills. However, the respectable DLC library will keep the challenge going. I had found the wastelands to become tame, as even the fearsome Deathclaws cower before me when I pick them off with a .44 cal hunting rifle and VATS assisted headshots. Then I got Point Lookout for the game and the first scrawny swamp mutant I came across gave me a real run for my money. Emptying nearly two clips from my assault rifle saw him off finally, as I mistook their heads for being the usual weak spot while they were quite resilient in the old noggin. And this was with a top level character with really good weapons. Another point I will revisit in my PC gaming section.

It is not, however, all sunshine and happy days as it seams, as occasionally I encountered some little annoyances with the game. As with many RPG games, inventory management would be a pain and this was no exception. While overall better than many others such as Mass Effect, you only had to press the wrong hot key and all the items you have in your store boxes will flood back into your personal inventory, leaving you to pick out the stuff you didn't want to keep on you once more and put them back into the box where they came from. Also, as you gather your loot from roaming the wastes and exploring that old burnt out town, you realise you accumulate more stuff than you can sell without some effort of travelling around, though there is a fast travel that helps for the most part. The vendors in various settlements slowly accumulate currency, in then novel form of bottle caps, but between your looting and hoarding of weapons and odd bits and bobs, you quickly outpace them and before you know it you have more stuff than you can shift. Again, this is the way RPG games have been and is no major deal on the whole.

However I also felt there were some missed opportunities with the game, and this is where I come onto PC gaming on the whole. I said in the blog about Chris Tarlor's that games modding is what sets PC games apart. Now, before people launch into the comments section and scream 'DLC!!!11!!!1!1!!!' at me, they are categorically not the same thing. And I will explain why, right now. A DLC is made by the game company to deliver you some additional content for a nominal fee. We have had these for a long time in PC gaming too, and they were originally called expansion packs. And while they can create a better gaming experience by giving you additional functionality, they don;t have the same spirit as a good PC mod made by some guy in his converted attic-now-battle-station-command area, surrounded by empty pizza boxes and drained cans of Red Bull.

The modder has seen where a game could be better and has some potential, and endeavours to open that crack of potential into a wide and gaping valley of gaming heaven. They are the enthusiasts that love gaming to the point they want to make it better all the time, and these are the kinds of people who make games in the industry today. However, an official DLC from a game developer is like getting something from a closed club of game makers, where getting a mod gives everyone the chance to give modding a try. And while Bethesda make DLC's too for Fallout 3, they see the major modding scene thriving at their feet and feed it with substantial tools like the G.E.C.K.

Anyone that has played Fallout 3, answer me this. Would you have liked to create a camp fire, cook better food from the basic stuff you harvested, carry a sleeping bag to sleep anywhere it is clear of enemies and even reload your own ammo? Did it make sense to you that even when wearing Raider armour the raiders would shoot you on sight? Would you have liked your own mini-vault elsewhere on the map closer to your favourite hunting grounds? Now, do you have Fallout 3 on a console? If you do then you cannot do any of this unless Bethesda implemented it in a DLC, which they have not. If you have the PC game, you can by downloading much of this at the Fallout 3 Nexus site.

I could download a mod that lets you recruit your character's childhood friend, Amata, as a team member, complete with her own mini-story of how she ended up out of the Vault. I also mentioned earlier I had really good weapons. That is because I downloaded a mod that added more weapons to the game, as well as means to get them if you can. Sure there are some over balanced weapons in the modding scene, and many of them are god mods where you can melt whole armies with one shot. And if you want to go for them then that is your issue. I simply downloaded a pistol that used the .308 cal ammo from sniper rifles. It looked like a chunky middle section of an old machine gun, missing the stock and with a shorter barrel complete with a huge compensator on the end. It was not much more powerful than the standard 10mm pistol, but it looked awesome and felt more satisfying when I fired it, because it was unique an custom feeling. Something I wish the named guns in the game itself would have had going for them. You could get the special hunting rifle, Ol Painless, but it looked and sounded just like the standard rifle. I wanted it to have maybe a custom scope, or a different looking stock, and maybe a different sound too so it felt special to have it. And modding can give me that experience.

It is not just Fallout 3 that has a mods coming out of the ears to make the game much more than it was on release. Other games such as X2 and X3, which I was often disappointed with, can be modded to enhance the game experience. For X3, I downloaded a mod that would create larger battles with the navies and pirates at random, give the pirates more ships than just fighters, so there were pirate cruisers out there too! I could crate a ship factory, which could make a ship from various components in the in game industry, and even buy my own capital ship docks and trade hubs to sell my goods through. Even better, I combined this with another mod that lets me taker over any system if I destroyed the trade hubs and other stations owned by that faction in the system, and placed my own trade hub there. Any non-faction stations would then pay me rent if I wanted them to. Also, I like lasers on my ships, not these slow moving energy projectiles the game comes with. Again, modding gives me this too.

Overall, there are many other aspects of PC gaming to highlight such as their larger array of MMOs, but going over them is not really needed. Console gaming has gone from strength to strength and has a target audience all of its own. They are awesome things and have become the social gaming experience of choice for fast action, quick loading multiplayer games. They are easier to haul to a gaming night with friends than a huge desktop, unless you have a very expensive gaming laptop. They can now have DLCs to get the same expansion to games ported on the PC. This is not about if a PC is better than a console. It is about PC gaming still being as strong as before, and everything consoles are owe themselves to PCs. They have not been more innovative than PC gaming rigs, they have just caught up and kept pace with the times.

My final word? Why, yes it is.