25 Feb 2009

Total Bore (Ha!) - NecroVision Demo

Whilst I wait for my thoughts on the Empire: Total War demo to digest, I thought I'd show you a prime example of how not to make a first-person shooter, or you could say how not to make a scripted scene, or even a demo, or a game in fact. All of these things apply when relating to the recently released NecroVisioN demo.

It's a given that certain games can feel a bit generic - a bit rushed - as if developers are waiting for a particular gaming craze to surface so that they can push their game into the midst of it in the hope of watching it sail along with the crowd. The Farm 51, creators of NecroVisioN, certainly haven't struggled to deliver what we as consumers see as run-of-the-mill gaming. Innovation is certainly a no-no when you're looking to flog the latest brainless shooter. The only thing pushing the boundaries here is the shift from a WWII setting to that of The Great War. Everything else is present. Zombies, Germans, melee action, dodgy cockney accents... Hell, yes.

It also looks like Painkiller's turn-of-the-century love-child.

Of course, I'm always of the mind that no matter how traditional a game's setting or mechanics may be, as long as they are implemented well I will be contented. The problem is, with NecroVisioN, everything you do is a slower version of something else. Stabbing enemies with a bayonet is akin to poking a wet flannel with your finger. Even moving around is like pushing your way through a marshmallow-filled void. That last bit makes no sense, but just try it for yourself. Or don't.

Regardless of all the above, the demo features a three-minute cutscene which has you staring at a dying mockney ally as he delivers a morbidly dull exposition. It takes so long that you begin focusing on everything you hate about games and realising that NecroVision ticks a lot of things in that list. The animation is awful, the voice-acting makes me dizzy and, by fuck, I just want to shoot things now.

So I took the liberty to record the whole thing. As you'll see, by the end of the clip, I couldn't have risked the boring bastard not ending his own life so I did it myself. Anyone who watches it that far though may want to investigate how it is that their lives became so empty, just like I have.

20 Feb 2009

Empire. Demo. Out. Now. Yes.

Okay, it's genuinely not often that I get this excited about the release of a game, particularly the release of a sequel to a sequel to a sequel to a game. However, today we can rejoice as the Empire: Total War demo hits the interwebs, exclusively available to download via Steam. My nerd levels are fluctuating violently, I'm salivating like a rabid dog and all of a sudden I need to go to the toilet.

Currently I'm downloading the game through my molasses-slow BT internet connection -fuck you, BT. No, really, fuck you- and I'll provide an update of my experiences when I'm through playing it.

I've recently made a sort-of-promise to myself that I won't use this site to publish news on top-end commercial games mainly because there are bigger sites that will do that better, but what the hell. I needed to voice my stupid, nerdy excitement somewhere and this, being a PC gaming blog, is the perfect place to do that.

It's possibly the game I've been most anticipating this year and almost certainly one that will see me through til the end of it if nothing better comes along. So lock up your daughters, or at least your female offspring who have a particular interest in historical real-time strategies. Empire has arrived.

Updates to follow... and a mess in my pants... probably.

17 Feb 2009

INTERVIEW: Frictional Games

In honour of the imminent release of The Penumbra Collection this month, the developers of the series, Frictional Games, have been kind enough to answer a few questions regarding their impressive back catalogue. For those of you who aren't aware, the Penumbra series of games combine elements of horror, survival, puzzling and storytelling in equally compelling measures.

Frictional's Sound Director, Jens Nilsson and Lead Programmer, Thomas Grip provide the answers...

Much of the gaming media hailed the Penumbra series as a reinvention of the adventure genre. Was this your intention when you were creating the games?

No! We only wanted to make a survival horror game with less violence, more puzzle solving and exploration as gameplay elements. We never really viewed it as an Adventure game and we had a hard time understanding some problems we had early on when trying to communicate with the Publishers/Press when releasing Overture. They all seemed to think the game was a point-and-click adventure game and we thought it was obvious this was a first person horror game – having previously released the Penumbra Tech Demo.

For the creation of a psychological-horror game, how do you gauge
whether something is likely to be scary? Fear in the Penumbra games doesn't tend to come from cheap frights so much as a build up of tension, or even a lack of anything occurring. Is it hard to tell whether you've hit the right mark for the scares during development?

It's really hard. We have all the ideas and we do all the design, then when we implement it you never get the feeling that “oh, this is really scary stuff”. You always have the problem of having faith in that it will be scary for the actual player later on. Even in testing it is not easing the worry about not being scary, the people testing are never like a 'normal' player so they don't think the game is scary either. For them it is only a job so to speak, so they don't really set their mind to the right mood.

We try to keep it simple, ask ourselves what we think is scary and what sort of horror we enjoy and then try to create that as well as we can. Spending a lot of time analysing and thinking about what it is that we like and why/how that feeling is created.

Overture was criticised for the combat mechanics which were then
removed completely from the sequel, Black Plague. Do you look to player and media response for guidance in the development of your games or was the combat something you were already not fond of? Did the subsequent changes get in the way of your initial vision for the series?

The whole idea with the episodic format was from the beginning to be able to take the feedback from the first game and adjust in the second and then again adjust in the third. It only got to be two episodes so we didn't get that third chance to adjust the game further based on the feedback.

With Overture we really wanted to make sure there was a last line of defence for the player, a weapon to use when in a tight spot. We tried really hard to make the combat difficult and cumbersome so that the player would seek out other solutions as a first choice, the problem was that we didn't expect the need of the player to hit things when they get something to hit with to be that strong! This in combination with how the combat was handled to be made difficult was perhaps not the best, there might be other ways to do a game with weapons but yet keeping them at a very low usage rate. We have some ideas that we are to explore in the next project!

The changes we made didn't really change the vision for us, on the topic of the weapons, removing them was not a big issue for us. That particular change was more welcome than anything as it changed the game more towards our goals of minimal player violence in a horror game.

The puzzles in the games generally have practical, believable solutions, such as reading a manual to get a generator up and running or spreading your weight over thin ice. Were you intentionally trying to steer away from the abstract puzzle solutions that you typically tend to find in adventure games?

Yes, we always wanted to have hands on, believable solutions to the puzzles. When the physics turned out to work so well for controlling doors, drawers and such we also started to try and come up with practical puzzles, that could be solved with a mix of items and physics usage. The idea with having believable solutions was to further enhance the players feeling of being part of the game, using physics and believable items to make the gameplay more hands on and exciting.

What were your reasons behind going for a puzzle-centric expansion with Requiem?

We had finished the Penumbra series with Black Plague and there was an opportunity to do an expansion, with less budget and development time than a full game. We discussed a couple of options of what would be possible to do as an expansion, basically we had two ideas. One was to re-use most levels and content from Black Plague but to play as a different character. The other was to do a puzzle game with much more new content, where we had levels with concentrated puzzles and everything made with physics to really try and explore how far you could go with physics in game. We decided to go with the second idea as we really felt that would be the most fun to create, be more exciting for us as it would be more new grounds to explore and solve and also that the end user would get more actual new content and gameplay for their 10 USD.

I understand that you're keeping a tight lid on the development of your currently untitled next project. Are there any details you are willing to give out?

We have been working on the game for over a year. At first only at around 10%, with ongoing discussions and early planning of the project, since around May 2008 at about 40-50% and since September 2008 we have been almost 100% concentrating on the new project.

The engine has been revamped and improved in all areas possible, tools and editor have been developed, the graphical style of the game has been tested and discussed and of course the whole design has been hammered on.

We are now at a point where everything is planned, the idea is settled, we know how the game will look and how the technology is ready to be used for implementing it all. It's very exciting as we have not had so well developed tools before, we used to only have 1 programmer in the company working full-time, but now we have had two and one has been working solely on tool/editor development. This will, hopefully, result in a game where we can concentrate a lot on making much more fun and intriguing content due to saving so much time we previously spent on the implementation of it all.

The game itself will be a 18th century survival horror experience, where you as the player will explore and old castle to learn its mysteries and unravel its terrors. There is no connection to Penumbra, it’s a brand new game and idea but much of the gameplay will be similar. There are the physics, exploring and damp ambience but there will also be a bit more interaction with enemies and continued efforts from our side to explore how to tell stories and to make a fluent gameplay.

The Nordic Game Program has provided you with a grant of 300,000 DKK (around 35,000 GBP)
for the new project. Recent titles to benefit from this funding include Kloonigames' recent hit, Crayon Physics Deluxe. In the future are we likely to see a much larger quantity of Nordic games entering the mainstream markets for the rest of the world?

Hopefully! If we recall correctly the NGP funding will continue until 2012, each year with two events where funding are up for grabs. Usually 5-6 games gets funding per event, so it should result in a nice collection of additional titles that has the opportunity to get finalized and released. The funding is usually not enough to develop the whole game, but enough to get the technology and content developed so far that it is possible for a prototype to be created and demoed.

It's a great opportunity for developers to get enough money to try out their ideas and it is really good for them to be able to show either a publisher that they have the idea and competence to do a game, or come so far that they are confident they can on their own finalize and sell the game.

The Penumbra Collection is out on 27th February in the stores and, if you like to try before you buy, the demos can be grabbed separately from Fileplanet.

9 Feb 2009

How to Have Fun with Games - Fallout 3: How to hurt friends and not influence people

You know how games are generally tiresome, dull affairs that are more likely to bore you stiff than entertain you? No? Well, regardless, there are ways to enliven your experiences within these 'electronic worlds' that will help pass the time until you thankfully have to wash the dishes or wash your armpits or wash the dog or something.

In particular, you may not realise that there is a way to actually have fun whilst playing your fourth favourite post-apocalyptic RPG of all time - Fallout 3. And that way is... to hurt your friends!

Do you hate the way the characters in this game speak hammy lines like emotionless androids? Then give them a hefty right-hook!

Do you despise the combat engine with all it's stop-start repetition and heads that slide off bodies as if they were held on by wet sellotape? Then punch them in the face!

Laugh as your teacher and classmates tumble to the floor and then get right back up again like nothing happened! Feel your sides split as you incur no consequences at all for beating down your fellow vault-dwellers!

Honestly, after leaving Vault 101, I felt even more disappointment than the usual 'what the fuck have Bethesda done with the Fallout licence?' guff. Where do I go from here? What can possibly excite me more than murdering everyone in my childhood home with my bare fists (apart from the ones that just wouldn't bastard die)?

I'm a man on a mission and that mission is to destroy everyone in this world... with my knuckles. Will I succeed or can I not be bothered to? Only time can tell and, in Fallout 3 - if nothing else - there's a whole load of that.

The 'These People Actually Get Paid?' Awards for Poor Journalism 2008

The saga continues...

Most pitiful review:

'Playing Metal Gear Solid 4 was the most fun I’ve had in my life but sometimes I caught myself feeling guilty for using a combination of tranquilizer gun, strong arsenal and the NV mod...' - Anon, The Sixth Axis

If ever I think one of my reviews is leaning towards the realm of unerringly applauding fanboy, I look towards this Metal Gear Solid 4 review and realise that I'm not quite there yet.

If only half the passion this person had could be put towards some sort of charitable purpose, I think we'd all be living in a better, happier world. Never before have I seen such overtly hyperbolic sentences. Never since have I witnessed such strenuous attempts to evade realistic criticism of a game. I think we can all learn something from looking at this review, if only that we should never read or write anything like it ever again. Not that you could easily replicate something of this particular standard of writing... It reminds me of the beauty of words in the same way that a freshly-coiled turd reminds me of the miracle of life.

5 Feb 2009

Keep your eyes on Dyson

Dyson is beautiful. Not in the classic, photo-realistic, multitude-of-polygons way that so often permeates critical analyses of games, but in a more poetic sense of the word. There is beauty in the way it moves, the way it sounds. There's beauty too in the way it influences the player, the calming effect it has. It could almost be a form of meditation.

Am I getting carried away? Perhaps. But there is something truly refreshing about the way this game plays and the way it feels to play it. Just look at it:

Created in a single month for entry into the TIGSource Procedural Generation competition, Dyson is a real-time strategy set in space. The premise is unusual though - no starships or evil galactic emperors here. You start off with an asteroid inhabited by Dyson trees and your only objective is to spread their growth across asteroid belts by utilising their seedlings and firing them off into the ether to capture further ground. It sounds a bit wacky admittedly, but once you get a grasp of the rather simple control system it all becomes completely natural.

Without going into to much detail -because you'll pick it up quicker by playing the game than reading this- some trees attack and some trees defend. Defence-trees shoot out homing spike-balls to destroy incoming foes and attack-trees produce the seedlings mentioned above. All asteroids in a level provide different quantities of three resources. Energy determines the size your seedlings will grow to, Speed determines their speed of movement and Strength determines the attack power they will have when fully grown. Simple and effective, but strategically open too.

Looks good? Too good? Well, have no fear, there is bad news too. No multiplayer is planned at the moment for the game, which is a great shame as the AI can certainly have it's moments and I would love to battle it out with someone in such a unique setting. But still, I will complain no more. At the moment you can download the game here and, for free, it's an absolute steal. Get on it.

3 Feb 2009

REVIEW - Monster Trucks Nitro

Red Lynx, creators of the much celebrated motorbiking-physicsy-stunt-game Trials 2 have moved on from two-wheeled bone-breaking fun to four-wheeled non-bone-breaking fun with their latest release, Monster Trucks Nitro.

Working along the same lines as Trials 2, your objective is to travel - in a monster truck this time - from one end of an obstacled course to the other within a time limit. It's physics-based, foolish fun. Taking place on a familiar two-dimensional plane via the above-average three-dimensional graphics engine, it's something that fans of Red Lynx will likely snap up without a second's consideration. However, I would like to issue a word or two of caution...

Monster trucks plus jumps plus stunts plus physics plus nitro-boosts should amount to a game that is more fun than this actually is. It's a good distraction for sure, as long as you're content with racing the same twenty-something tracks repeatedly in order to gain medals through faster finishing times, but MTN slips below the addictive, biker-maming pleasure that was apparent with Red Lynx's previous product. Although a faster and more fluid game than its predecessor, it's in the lack of features that the problems lie (not to mention the unforgivable omission of a broken bone counter).

I will detail the issues in a way that the developers will surely appreciate:

There are no online leaderboards to spur you on once you hit gold for each course, so there's no reason to go back to them besides competing with yourself. This sort of thing can only provide so much entertainment, particularly when many of the fastest times are set due to good fortune on the track rather than the product of skilful precision.

The front-flips and back-flips that can be performed by the trucks are a simple pleasure and seem to serve little purpose other than to slow you down mid-air and evoke a cheer from an invisible crowd. Something as simple as a boost on landing a trick would have added another strategic layer for squeezing out the best times, but as it is I managed to play through the entire game without somersaulting once.

For the love of all that is holy, please provide us with a track editor for this game! I can only imagine what this could become with a huge community following, swapping tracks and time trials. There's a scope for complex and varied maps that just isn't expanded on satisfactorily in the game.


So, there you have it. It should be more exciting, the scale bigger, the jumps faster and it lacks the maming of a computerised puppet every time you accidentally (or purposefully) fail a jump. Perhaps if there were explosions and fireworks every time you made a wrong move it would be more appealing, but as it is, MTN sits firmly in the middle ground awaiting evolution and expansion.

I can only hope that Red Lynx will see to updating this game with some simple adjustments in the near future because the bare bones of a classic indie time-waster are present. They just need to be expanded on or, dare I say it, broken in several places...

VERDICT: Currently at half-price on Steam, it's worth a pop.

2 Feb 2009

WEEK(END) WASTER - Sid Meier's Railroads!

It's not easy for me to explain the pleasure I get from playing Sid Meier's second incarnation of Railroads! without sounding like the kind of person who sits at train stations on cold weekend mornings with a hot flask and a notepad. But the thing that differentiates this game from other rail simulation/strategy games is that it feels more like a child's toy than anything else.

The strategic elements only go so deep, having been stripped down to concentrate on fast-paced business rivalries and building up your empire. The focus is on creating an efficient, profitable business without sacrificing too much of your cash or shares in the process, but never ventures far into the realms of micro-management and train nerdery. And believe me, when you first connect up two cities in the beginning of a game you'll get an instant feeling of gratification, watching the little thing puffing backwards and forwards, loading and unloading, transporting its cargo across the map and you'll realise that this one line will eventually lead to an entire cross-country network of bustling freighters and switching signals, of booming cities and… now I'm beginning to sound like an anorak.

But it is truly interesting to watch. The land deforms like soft clay to accommodate your track as you lay it down as simply as clicking where you want it to begin and where it should end. The route finder will do the rest, excavating hills or cutting through the larger ones with tunnels and constructing magnificent bridges over waterways. It leaves you to worry about battling the competition and not the interface.

The game is split into various campaigns across America, carrying through from the first steam-driven locomotives to the speedier modern age. It's a history lesson for sure, but its subtlety is remarkable. As your business grows and time moves on, you'll notice that cities have changed depending on your interactions with them. They'll expand and evolve, the wooden shacks will be replaced with concrete skyscrapers and new technology will arrive to quicken your transportation of goods. Cities will swell and you'll have moved from steam to electric-powered in a couple of hours, but it's almost seamless. Throughout this transformation you'll wonder how the land used to look in the past, when you laid that first piece of track and how on Earth you've come so far.

At its heart, Railroads! is a simple management sim. Your primary objective is to destroy all competing rail tycoons via the transportation of goods and people. Various places on the map provide certain resources such as meat or wheat or trees and, if you manage to link these up to a city where the relevant industry is present, you'll begin to make some profit from the goods. Processing trees at a paper factory for example, will give that settlement a sustainable quantity of paper, which you can then turn into newspapers if you build the right factory or transport it to somewhere with a printing house.

When you're not fighting with your opponents for resources on the map, you'll be fighting them in the auction houses, bidding for new rail patents or industries. Couple these basic mechanics with the usual Meier™ victory conditions and you've got enough on your plate to make for a very busy meal.

So, ultimately, Railroads! is a weekend waster which should suck you in after just a few minutes of tutorial. It's best described as an arcade Railroad Tycoon and shouldn't be criticised for not being anything more. It's certainly not a stupid game, with enough underhand tactics and tricks you can employ to swing the game in your favour, but the strategic elements may be too simplistic for some and the game does tend to become a bit of a slog once you've amassed enough of a yearly turnover to demolish your opponents. But for those who have always wanted a model railway in their attic but never fancied admitting it to their partner/friends/parents it's one to have a look at.

You can pick the demo up here and the full game for under a fiver on Amazon.