Monday, November 1, 2010

When will Movie Theatres die?

My wife and I had our 5th anniversary this last Friday. We went and saw the movie RED. We both enjoyed it and had a genuinely good time. We like going to the movies. However, we have a son now.

In order to go to the movie we had to get my dad to watch him. We had to arrange a time to drop him off and pick him up. This isn’t necessarily difficult, but we had to time everything against the Theater's listed Show Time.

This last weekend Christopher Nolan stated he wasn’t going to shoot the next Batman Movie in 3D. The next Harry Potter movie won’t be employing it as well.

As I thought about this news I began to wonder. When will the Movie Theater actually die? Movie Theater's have been around a long time. They have gone through hard times and good times. There have been some great innovations in screen and sound technology. But, as is often said, the times have changed.

Right now, Big Screen TV’s are becoming increasingly cheaper and with better options. Many of them have built in applications that connect you to Netflix, Youtube, Vudu, HuluPlus and other sites with streaming movies.

What I want to know is, which big name studio will be the first to completely abandon the Theater? I know smaller companies already have. But they primarily shoot made for TV movies or pornography. I’m talking about large quality movies for the mainstream.

There are many advantages for the Production Companies to do so. They don’t have to create Posters, or those goofy giant stands for the Theater. They don’t have to make multiple copies of the film and ship them to the theaters. There wouldn’t be any groups trying to hijack one of these film copies and uploading it to the internet and cutting into the profits. Only two copies of the movie ever need to be made, the physical and the digital.

There are advantages to the consumer. I don’t have to drive to the theater. I don’t have to worry about getting germs from the crowds. I don’t have to work out logistics with my family to watch my kids, so the wife and I can have a date. We can wait for them to go to bed and start and pause the movie as we need. We can bring our own snacks to the living room.

A Studio can negotiate with Netflix, Vudu or whichever site they choose, a new category for newly produced movies. Ask for $5 per stream or whichever price they think this service is worth.

This type of thing already goes on in the Software world. I regularly buy games on Steam and now Impulse. I purchase the software, download it and play it. If I need the hard drive space back I can delete the local copy, but the software is forever tied to my account. I can download it and play it again when I want to. Not having to make or keep physical copies around is convenient and starting to become more natural.

I know I am not original at all in my thoughts above. I have heard it for years, even back when movies were being put on VHS and were being rented.

So who will be the first Studio to drive the nail in the Movie Theater's coffin? And more importantly, when will the hammer fall?

There is nothing like ending on a heavy metaphor.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Bargain Hunter Review #3: Red Faction: Guerrilla

I apologize for the lateness of this post. I've had it typed up for a while, but StarCraft2 interrupted my posting. Now let's get to the review.

When I was thinking about how I was going to describe this game, there was one word which continually entered my mind: ambition.

Red Faction: Guerrilla, RF:G from here, is an ambitious game. This game is made by Volition, a company with a solid history. How or why they decided to transition from SpaceSim to shooters is beyond my imagination. I actually avoided the Red Faction series because I loved their previous Freespace games and wanted more of those. They never came, but the Red Faction series stands tall on its own feet. This is due to the GeoMode gaming engine, which powers the Red Faction games. This engine allows the developers to create any structure, or terrain in previous games, and make it destructible. Every man made object you find on the surface of Mars can be blown apart. This level of destruction is the key component of the gameplay in RF: G.

See, wasn't that pretty.

The Story
You play the character of Alec Mason. He has come to Mars to work as a miner with his brother. His brother turns out to be a member of a "terrorist" organization known as the Red Faction. I put terrorist in quotes, because Mars is controlled by the Earth Defense Force or EDF. The EDF is a totalitarian regime. People are rounded up and shot without trial. If the EDF even suspects you are a Red Faction member, you are guilty. It turns out Mason's brother is in the Red Faction and is gunned down by EDF guards who soon turn their sites on you. You've been on Mars less than a few hours and already you are guilty of being a "terrorist". Thankfully, some Red Faction members show up and assault the guards holding Alec Mason. While a guard has his back turned, Alec Mason reaches for his Sledgehammer and delivers his first blow for the Red Faction.

This story has a base attraction to just about every worker that simply wants to do his job and go home. It's a tale of the working class rising up against those who abuse them.

Mars looks great. The canyons and mountains have distinctive red tones. The sun is tiny like it should be. I would think the Development team did some research on how rock strata looks. Most of this game takes place in canyons. The Mars Colony is an active environment.
There are people driving on roads or just standing around civilian structures. Because of all this "activity", RF:G suffers from the Barren Wasteland syndrome you often see in shooters. Remember all I said about the wonderful GeoMod engine allowing you to blow things up. In order to make a game with so much data run smoothly a compromise has to be made. You couldn't feature the details of destruction like this and set the game in a jungle. Now some people might say, "Why not? Crysis did it." But Crysis needs nearly $500+ of video card power alone to play it with a decent framerate. RF:G makes a compromise with the typical barren rock wasteland to reach a wider audience.

The argument could be made that Mars is already a wasteland. While that may currently be the case, by the time this game starts Mars has been going through the process of terraforming. If more foliage was desired, writers could simply write that the terraforming has come a long way. Boom! Now there could be Forests.

This is not a criticism of the game. The visuals are great and appropriate.

I am a bit iffy on the in-game cutscenes. I think they are well done, but something seems slightly out of place. It doesn't seem quite as good as the HalfLife2 facial animations. Perhaps they exist just below that quality level, or somewhere too close to the Uncanny Valley. They don't detract from the gaming experience, so don't worry too much about it.

For gameplay sounds, nothing seems to stand out. There isn't anything that pops or sounds memorable. The sound effects for guns, cars, trucks, haulers, exploding buildings all sound like they should. Perhaps this was the goal. But sometimes, it's good to go a little over the top to give a game some oompf!

The Soundtrack is great. The soundtrack does not detract you from your actions. It swells up for emotional effect when it needs to. It dies down and disappears in the background when necessary. The Soundtrack doesn't tire the listener out. The Soundtrack is everything it should be. Normally in games I turn the soundtrack off. I get tired of the repetition. I didn't have to in RF:G.

NPC's/Artificial Intelligence
I'll have to split this up into the different types of NPC's you see.

The Earth Defense Force:
EDF Soldiers will run for cover in this game. They also will charge right up to you. It's a mixed bag, depending on your location. One of the weaker points of the AI involves any Armored Vehicle with a turret. If you kill the gunner the driver will step out of the protection of the AV to attempt to man the turret. A swift sledgehammer attack, or a few rounds from the Assault rifle can rub him out the EDF gene pool.

The EDF has superior numbers and firepower. After you finish the Parker Sector, the EDF has a near limitless amount of soldiers to throw at you.

The Red Faction:
Some missions will have members of the Red Faction fighting by your side. Also, as you raise morale, sometimes passing Colonists will join with the Red Faction and assist during one of your attacks. They are very competent about taking care of themselves. Sometimes a few of them will die, but as far as taking on EDF solders, they are really good.

Occasionally, they will do some of the most frustrating things that any AI can do. Imagine assualting an EDF Guard Tower and some miner's join you. You decide to leave and get in a vehicle when some clueless NPC's stand in front or behind you. You don't want to run them over. This obviously lowers morale. There isn't a horn on the vehicles either. I was frustrated by this the first 3 or 4 times it happened. Eventually, I gave up and just started running them over. If that happens to you, that's my recommended course of action.

The Colonists:
Colonists are a mixed bag. Most of the time they'll simply swear at you, as you drive by. Many times they panic when the shooting starts. Some of the time they'll join you. So you don't want to scare them too badly, or get them hurt. They are a potential pool of cannon fodder. A really frustrating scenario, which you'll run into, is when driving along the roads of mars and a civilian decides to turn right in front of you and you have an accident. If EDF troops happen to be patrolling nearby, your alert level goes up and bullets, rockets and whatever else they have is flying your direction. Even though it was clearly the colonists fault.

Don't run over or kill too many Colonists. It lowers the Morale.

Your Character
The only character development comes from which upgrades or weapons you select to buy. You are limited to 4 weapon slots. One of which will always be a Sledgehammer. So in reality, you have 3 slots to fill up with weapons. Some weapons that I didn't think were useful, became very useful when I started to use them. So try them all out for a few missions. Also, if you don't like your loadout, when you kill a soldier you can swap out with whatever they are carrying. You can make new weapons available by taking them from soldiers and visiting the weapons cabinets at the safehouses.

It's a shame you are limited to so few weapons. Many of the weapons are just plain fun, but since you are limited you try go with a more Utility route in your loadouts.

Don't think that having one of your slots permanently reserved for the Sledgehammer is a bad thing. The Sledgehammer is incredibly useful. It's probably the most useful item in the game. It can one-hit kill any NPC. You can use it to tear down buildings. If an EDF soldier jumps behind cover, then use the Sledgehammer on the Wall or barrier. You'll bust through the cover and kill the soldier with ease.

I would highly recommend getting the armor upgrades. Those will keep you alive.

There isn't much in character development. It all comes from the story you are playing.

Destruction is the name of the game. The game tries to make you addicted to it. Like that's a problem. To earn upgrades or weapons you have to gather Salvage. You gather salvage through... you guessed it: Destruction. The more man-made objects that are destroyed, the more Salvage you get. You can also earn salvage from the mining nodes that are sprinkled on the landscape. But those are scattered pretty far about.

What is this game like to play? If you could imagine
a game that was the cross between Grand Theft Auto and Borderlands, then this is it. I know of some popular people on the internet that think that Borderlands was the best game of 2009. I tried Borderlands. I didn't think it was nearly as good as RF:G. Perhaps Borderlands is best played in co-op mode. I'm guessing co-op gave Borderlands the edge in their minds. Borderlands takes place on a desolate planet with a static environment. Most of the humans you saw there, you were trying to kill. This isn't the case in RF:G. In RF:G the humans bring the world alive.

There is a basic structure to success in the Single Player Experience in RF:G. Mars is divided into sectors. At the start you can only work in the Parker sector. If you ever played an MMO, I would consider the Parker sector like that first zone every character starts in. It's just there to get you started on your journey. Once you hit the Dust Sector it's like hitting a wall of EDF. This forces you to adjust your tactics. You have to adopt a Guerrilla style of gameplay. Your over all goal is to Free Mars from the EDF. But you have to liberate each sector first. To liberate a sector you have to do three things.

1. Lower the EDF Control level to Zero.
2. Raise the Red Faction Morale to 100. This isn't entirely necessary, but it helps in a huge way.
3. Complete the Red Faction specific missions in that sector. There are usually 3 or 4 per sector. The last one usually flags the sector as liberated.

Raising Morale has two effects. Red Faction weapons lockers will start spawning on the map. The higher the Morale the more lockers will be made available to you. These will allow you to replenish your ammunition and switch loadouts in the field. The second effect of a high morale, is that civilians will more likely join you in a fight against the EDF.

Once you move out of the Parker Sector to the Dust sector, you can drive about in an open world style to all sectors except Eos. It's the last sector and therefore special to the storyline.

Needed Improvements
1. There are several times in the game where are you without a vehicle and need to get somewhere. You go out to the road to "acquire" transportation, but for some reason there's no traffic. The means running by foot to find a vehicle. Later in the game, there's an upgrade you can buy that transports you to a Safehouse. This should have been enabled by default.

2. The little details stood out too much. By that I mean, buildings seemed empty. There were the typical crates in buildings, but they were mostly surfaces. The more fancy buildings had empty counters, computer and a radio playing on a mantle someplace. There are no plates, no coffee cups, picture frames or anything that makes the buildings personal. This make the game feel sterile. I'm sure these items aren't in the game since most of the buildings you enter, you are there to demolish. Also, where was the food. What do the people on Mars live off of. I didn't see any gardens, just a few plants and some grasses in the Oases and Eos Sectors.

3. There are a few opportunities in the game where you get to drive a giant Walker. These things do a lot of damage and just walk through structures. This is arguably the most fun part of the game.

Here's a video from THQ staring Richard Machowicz

Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be that many Walkers around. There are 2 or 3 you get for missions and that's about it. Nothing I can climb into and just use. Since the Red Faction are a group of miners and they use these as tools all the time, I would expect to have more available.

I noticed that in the next iteration of Red Faction they have evolved the Walkers into Combat Mech Suits. They look great. So hopefully that will satisfy the requirements of this improvement sections.

4. As with all games dependent on Physics as part of the gameplay, there are a couple of places where something seems to go wrong. I'll name a couple.

A: I was driving along the road and I tried to make a sharp right turn. My vehicle decided it could fly. I tried hitting "Use" to get out, hoping I could fall to the ground. Thankfully after 10 seconds or so, the vehicle respawned with me on the ground.

B: On one mission I had to ram a lot of towers with my vehicle. My vehicle sustained so much damage I had to get out. I got ran over by an EDF AV. Then again, and again and again and again. Thanks to the physics engine, my character was ragdolling on the ground underneath these vehicles unable to get up at all forcing me to reload.

C: Sometimes when you destroy nearly 90-99% of a buildings supports, some wayward beam that must be made of Carbon Nanotubes is holding the entire structure up.

I don't know if this is an issue with testing, or the way computers try to handle physics. Physics in games has been around a while, but we are still in the infancy of of how to program it correctly. I'm sure future physics engines will correct for some of the things I mentioned.

5. RF:G suffers from Consolitis. Consolitis is when a game designed for a Console like the XBox or PS3 are ported to the PC. It also may refer to a PC Game that gets dumbed down to play on a Console and thus "ruining" the PC Enthusiast experience. These Controls are meant for a console controller. There is a bit to much play in the steering of fast vehicles for a keyboard. I think this also limited the number of weapons you can carry. I wish I could carry a lot of the weapons around. Being limited to 3 wasn't particularly fun. I eventually came across a loadout that worked for whatever situation I was in though. So maybe I didn't need all those weapons. Still, a lot of work went into making those in the game, only to have them not be used due to slot limitations. I wish there were more freedom in what I could carry.

6. Impromptu missions from the radio. I'm not sure this is a needed improvement. I like the feature, I think it needed more fine tuning. Let me explain. Every now and then random missions will come over the radio. You can choose to ignore these if you wish. But accomplishing them raises morale. These missions have you doing all sorts of tasks. That is unless you are in the Dust Sector.

In the Dust Sector, I got a "random" mission 3 times in a row. When you enter Dust, near one of the Safehouses there is a garage and barracks that the Red Faction live at. When you drive by you get a cry for help over the radio. "The EDF have found us, please come help defend us." I accepted this mission and drive up. Next thing I know 3 EDF Armored Vehicles and a tank pull up. Unless you take out that tank quickly all the buildings will be destroyed. During these missions there's a meter in the upper right showing you the number of EDF and RedFaction soldiers left. You have to get the EDF Number to 0, while of course keeping as many RF members as possible. When you start this mission, the EDF number starts at 15. I got it down to 9 and destroyed the tank and the 3 AV's. Then, the number popped back up to 15. Here came two more AV's. I destroyed them and got the number down to around 7. Here come more AV's. This went on for 10 minutes. I finally finished the mission. I go get in a vehicle and start to head towards the SafeHouse. I immediately get another call on the radio, "Looks like the EDF wasn't happy about not finishing us off. Please come to the barracks." I accept the mission thinking, "Back to back missions, that's clever." So I have to suffer through the same fight, but with much lower ammo than before. I win the 2nd round, go hop into a vehicle and start off for the Safehouse when once again over the radio comes a call for help to defend the Garage and Barracks. Naturally, I declined and went to the Safehouse to get a good rest. Every time I drove past that location on the map, I got a call to help defend there. This was really annoying.

One type of random mission is to stop a convoy or chase down a defector. Remember what I said about consolitis. Trying to chase down a vehicle with a keyboard was difficult. Sometimes I would fail the mission and would get yelled at over the radio by the Red Faction Leader for my failure. This made me resentful to the RF General. I didn't see him out here tracking these people down.

"Would I recommend you spend money on it?"

I spent $5 on this game during the Steam Sale. According to Steam, I spent 42 hours playing the game. Now, I'm a completionist, so I like to finish as many of the side missions as possible. I also had to restart some of the Red Faction missions a few times. I did not finish all the missions. I eventually got frustrated and decided, "You know what, I'm just going to destroy stuff." That made me happier in the end. So, if you just stick to destroying EDF Property and doing the Red Faction Missions there is about 30-35 hours of gameplay.

This is a great SinglePlayer Game.
I was unable to play any MultiPlayer. It seems no one is playing the Multiplayer portion of this game. Which is a shame. Maybe people are too busy playing Call of Duty or Team Fortress 2 for their Multiplayer fix. Which is a shame, I think this would have been really fun to experience.

In conclusion: I had a lot of fun destroying everything I could see. I would recommend you buy this game. This is easily worth $5 and I would even go as high as $9.99.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Bargain Hunter Review #2: Trine

What do Chuck Norris, bacon and the Bugatti Veyron have in common? They are awesome and in this review. The intrawebs may implode. You have been warned.

Trine is a Gem of a game. Like every great gemstone Trine has some flaws.

This game is not for everyone. Trine is for a specific person or personality. What it does do for its target audience, it does extraordinarily well. Everyone else will just miss the point. I’ve been trying to figure out what that target audience might be and I came up with the following questions.

Did you watch Pushing Daisies?
Did you love Pushing Daisies?

Did you understand
that Pushing Daisies was a macabre fairy tale popup book brought to life on the television?
Would you mind playing a side scrolling jumpy puzzle game with great production?

If you answered yes to at least 2 of those questions then there is a high probability you will enjoy Trine. This game isn’t for the power-gamer or someone simply wishing to finish the game. Imagine 2 people walking through a flower garden to get to a destination on the other side. One of them walks straight through and reaches the destination in mere minutes. The other one takes half an hour because he or she is admiring the work that was put into the garden. Trine is purely designed for the 2nd person. This game is to be admired while it is being played.

The Story
The good king of the kingdom dies. During his life there was peace. Since he had no heir, the kingdom fell into disarray a
nd the undead began walking the land. It is a generic fantasy backdrop, but the narrator presents the reasons for each of these events as you start or complete each level.

There are 3 actors who play a part in the “tale” of Trine. I can't call them characters, that label just doesn't seem to fit. For the rest of the review, I'll use the term Actor. The game starts with each Actor headed to the Astral Academy for different reasons. This place is where ancient artifacts were kept. The Thief is greedy and looking for treasure among the artifacts. The Wizard is looking for a fireball spell to impress the ladies. The Knight is trying to protect the Academy from looters and ne'er-do-wells. All three wind up at a shrine at the same time and lay their hands on an artifact that binds all their souls together.

It turns out that this artifact is called the Trine. Even though all their souls are trapped, they can project one physical form into the world at a time. Thus, while you possess all three actors at the same time, but you can only control one at a time. The only way this changes is if you happen to be lucky enough to play in coop mode.

Trine is gorgeous to look at. The use of layers is simply incredible. There are not many games that make you pause to admire the environment, but Trine is one of them. One of the many things the game excels at is to seamlessly fuse the background layers with the layer you are playing on. You will be running through forests watching trees pass in the different background layers. You will come across a river you have to cross. The act of pausing to jump or solve whatever puzzle may be present, causes your eyes to follow the river to its far distant source in the background. These moments happen often in Trine. Your characters have full 3D animations and watching them move, jump and fight is a pleasure. My words alone cannot detail it, so I’m going to link to a video supplied by the makers of Trine.

With all the visual attention Frozenbyte Games put into Trine, I was surprised to notice a couple of missing animations. I don’t know why they were omitted. I’ll go into more detail later.

The visual quality in Trine is married perfectly with the sound quality.The Voice Acting is great. That is the second highest complement to voice acting I can give. The highest would be excellent where game company Bioware exists. There is one Narrator and 3 actors presented to the player, the Thief, the Wizard and the Knight.

The Narrator starts the story and tells you the motivations of the 3 actors. The 3 actors give a brief exchange with one or maybe 2 lines at the start of each level. These exchanges between the actors do a great job of communicating their tolerance of each other to get through their predicament. Sometimes, I wish there was more voice acting to invest the players into the actors. However, you would begin to run into the problem of too much talking going on. I know that sometime in development, Frozenbyte Games must have had this very discussion. The final design philosophy “Less is more” was applied. This was the right decision. The game would have suffered to hear the actors yap all the way through each level.

Ambient sounds are superb. Whether you are passing by a river or walking through the woods, all sounds are accentuated. Caverns and sewers have appropriate environmental effects.

The Soundtrack is also great. However, her
e is one of the minor rough areas of the game. The Soundtrack is all original. There are 19 tracks plus the Main theme. However, the themes for each level are kind of short and can be repetitive. Maybe I'm just taking to long to get through the levels. It seems that each level plays its own theme, plus the Main. If you keep the music on, which I would still recommend, you may want to turn it down about halfway through the game. It gets a little tiring to hear the Main theme so often.

Artificial Intelligence
There are three enemy types.

#1: Skeletons.
here isn't much to say. Skeletons don't have a lot of brains. Don't expect anything more than them charging at you. There are some with shields that can block your attacks. Those are a challenge. There are also other varieties of skeleton that I will leave you to discover.

The Skeletons do navigate the environment fairly well. They'll jump over obstacles and even climb vertical surfaces to get to you. However, sometimes they get killed by the traps that are set for you. Don't worry about them too much. Th
eir primary threat is numbers.

#2 Bats
For me the most frustrating enemy were bats. I couldn't see any predictable flight pattern and they were fast. You would hear them long before you saw them. I would furiously swing at them with my Knight or try shoot a flurry of arrows at them with the Thief. They don't do much damage, but it was a little annoying to always be hit by at least one of them. Bats made the perfect pests.

#3 Spiders
Thankfully spiders are only on a few levels. Otherwise this game might be miserable. Spiders attack you by spitting at you and physically attacking you. While dispatching them is easy, I ran into 3 or 4 that could spit at me through the floor I was standing on. This should have been caught as a bug (see what I did there).
Such jokes are clever late at night.

Your Character
You don't have a character. You control 3 actors. However, there is a lighthearted RPG element in this game. You can collect Experience by killing monsters or collecting Experience potions. There are also Secret chests strewn about which hold items to improve the actors. There are limited inventory slots for all 3 of the actors. When
the actors level up you can assign skill points to enhance any of the three abilities they have. You will rarely spend time on the level and inventory screen.

Gameplay/Class Balance
Gameplay in Trine is really clever. Each actor has un
ique abilities and some of the jump puzzles require you to figure out which one to activate at any time. Some obstacles require a combination of abilities between the actors. Let me explain.

The Knight can jump, but not as well as the others. This is your fighter character. When surrounded by Skeletons you want the Knight out to dispatch them. While you can use the Thief with her arrows, she takes more damage than the knight. The Knight is strong and can move boxes and stones around for another character to jump on. He also sinks quickly in water. While that sounds like a negative, there are some water tunnels you need to take and you don't want to waste your air meter getting to the bottom.

The Thief can jump like a cat. She can also use a grappling hook to swing across hazards or to ascend to a platform. With her arrows she can dispatch enemies or light torches. The great thing about her arrows is that you can hit an enemy behind cover with a high enough arc. The Thief is the actor you will have out most since she is better at physically navigating the game world than the other two.

The Wizard can jump moderately well. He has no direct combat abilities. He can conjure 3 types of objects. He starts with boxes and moves on to planks and then a floating pyramid. The best he can do in combat is to conjure a box or a plank and drop it on some skeletons head. As the Wizard levels up he can create more of each of these objects. The other two actors can use any of the Wizard's conjured items. There were several times I created a stack of boxes and used the Thief to jump from the top of them to get to a higher ledge. That is the simplest example of combining two of the actors abilities to accomplish one goal.

Trine offers many options for handling different obstacles. If you favor the Wizard and I favor the Knight, we can have two different experiences. These different possibilities make Trine replayable. Below is a video showcasing what I am trying to describe.

I have to point out that I also tried to build a ramp to avoid the spikey balls with my Wizard. However, the Wizard was so weak he couldn't keep the weight of the crate on the hill like the one in the video. So, I went sliding down the hill.

Whenever I encountered some skeletons that keep spawning near an obstacle, I felt this was a challenge to my patience. This wasn't in a negative way. I would switch to the Knight and combat skeletons until they stopped spawning. I just saw it as an opportunity to gain lost health, mana or even experience. If you find yourself in a situation like this, just be patient and keep fighting.

Sometime during gameplay one of the Actors will die. Sad, but true. When this happens you switch to one of the remaining Actors. In order to get a dead Actor back you need to make it to a checkpoint. You don't have to reach the next checkpoint, a previous one will do fine. You can also bring up the menu and select the option to return to the previous checkpoint. Checkpoints restore dead actors and their health and mana to at least 50%. If you can find it, there is an artifact that will raise it to 75% for the actor that currently has it equipped.

As far as difficulty goes, the game is very casual, friendly and simple for the first 13 levels. Level 14 is like taking a MENSA Exam. Seriously, I got the "Dead on Arrival" achievement without meaning to. This required me dieing 25 times in a level. Believe me, I was trying to avoid this as much as possible. Which leads me to the improvements section.

The difficulty in this game should have increased in a gradual manner to pull the players thought process into more abstract puzzle ideas. Instead when you reach Level 14 you get... well let me just show you what level 14 is like:

Part of the reason I had such difficulty is that I couldn't see beneath my actors at a crucial point. What would have improved the game would be better camera control. The game camera keeps the player in the center of the screen and that is it. Allowing the player to pan the camera with the cursor would have made a serious improvement. They don't need to allow me to pan it far. Maybe only as long as the actor remains on the screen.

The entire last level is a vertical race. This is the only level in the game that is like this. I don't mind vertical jumpy race levels. But the game could have been better if I encountered this playstyle as a portion of some previous levels.

I also had some difficulties finding some of the secret chests. Yes, I know they are secret, but through most of the game there is a little golden glow on the chest so you know where to try for one. Some of the chests didn't have this. I don't know if this was intentional, but there should have been some consistency.

As with all games dependent on Physics as part of the gameplay, there are a couple of places where something seems to go wrong. Since every game encounters these problems you can ignore this bit. I'm only listing it to be thorough.

I mentioned some missing animations above. With such a high quality game, something like this really sticks out. One of the Thief’s abilities is to use a grappling hook to swing across large distances. Sometimes you swing low and run into a vertical surface. If your hook is attached directly above, you will watch as your Thief, frozen in a swing animation, ascend the cliff, with her face. Her legs will be sticking out straight behind her. You will also notice that when you ascend or descend the rope, she makes no animation, just slides up and down. To make a visual improvement Frozenbyte should have added Rope Climbing, Rope Sliding and Wall-Walking animations. I don’t know why these weren't implemented. Perhaps they had animation or physics difficulties and they couldn’t figure it out before the game was released. Perhaps all the solutions they had didn’t work, so they went with nothing. I don't know the reason, but this causes a distraction in an already superb game.

Some people might say I’m being nitpicky, so here is an analogy.

Let’s say you happen to be so wealthy you buy a Bugatti Veyron. When you get in the car you notice the steering wheel is square. Now some of your neighbors might say, "Oh you can't ever be happy. It's a Veyron, look at the rest of it.." But, when something has such a high production value, the smallest flaws stand out more. It's sort of a curse of perfection.

Now I can finally tag Bugatti Veyron in my blog. This makes this review more awesome. Also, since adding bacon to anything makes it better, I’ll mention that for a tag too. Mmmm, bacon.

This is a casual game and is rated “E” for everyone, like bacon. One improvement to the game would have been enemy diversity. I don't know if different monsters can alter a rating. For example: Spiders are an "E", Human Soldiers are a minimum of "T", Pirates are "E" to "M" depending on dress and behavior. Zombies would have been nice to see. They would also fit in the lore of the Undead's appearance. Perhaps fleshy bits hanging off a corpse raise the rating to "T" and Frozenbyte didn't want that.

Another tiny issue was the Loading screen. The loading screen consists of a map on a static background with some dotted lines appearing on it while the Narrator explains the next part of the story. This is actually bland compared to the rest of the game. I don't think the loading screen needs to be improved that much. Here is what I believe the loading screen should have looked like. Instead of the static background a simple 3D scene of a desk would have gone a long way. Instead of just a map, there would be a book on the table with the map on the left page and the passage entry being narrated on the right.

Review Addendum: The biggest improvement to the game would have been 3 additional levels you can play after you finish the game. Each of these levels limits you to one of the Actors and plays to that Actors strengths. These could be challenge levels. I would have loved to have seen that.

There is consistent debate on the Interwebs about how games should be rated. Some use Stars, others percentages.
One uses Evil Eye's. I think I simply will ask the question, "Would I recommend you spend money on it?"

I would recommend to my friends that they buy Trine. It is worth spending money on.

I would say the optimum price point would be $9.99 with a sale.
I paid $4 for Trine on the Steam Summer Sale. This was an awesome bargain.

Here is a link to vendors selling Trine. Almost all of those have it for $19.99. However, I checked to see if any of them had it on Discount.
GamersGate has it for $6.78.
Here is a $9.55 copy on

No, I don't work for Frozenbyte.

In a final conclusion, the most awesome site in the universe would be, "Chuck Norris driving a Veyron while eating bacon."

Friday, July 16, 2010

Bargain Hunter Review #1: Torchlight : Coda

I finished Torchlight Wednesday night. I thought it only fair to finish the review.

I said in my last post that I only got to level 28. I asked for NPC's, Bosses and levels that were different and interesting. Well on level 29, which was entirely a boss fight, I got my wish.

The Boss I had to fight was named Medea. It was a rather large cat-lady with a spear. I actually enjoyed this fight more than all the others. At certain percentages of her health, she would split into mirror images of herself. These mirror images were weak and only took a hit to destroy. Finding the real Medea was actually kind of fun. She didn't do this repeatedly to drag out the fight, nor did she only do it once to be forgotten. I considered this fight to be entertaining and it engaged me as a player.

After I defeated Medea, I entered the Black Palace on Level 30. This was really interesting. The art and architecture were really good. The vibrant colors stood out. The Palace has dark blocks for flooring, with cracks that have a pink glow that match the floating pink crystals. The stairs are webbed and there are great statues all over the place. When I entered the Black Palace I also ran into new NPC's. The Blood Disciples would charge me with a flash of light and a smack in the face. Dragonkin would march toward me and breathe fire when they got within range. The most dangerous among them were these annoying skeletons called Enslaved. While they weren't powerful they would swarm me in numbers and prevent me from moving. This caused me to take quite a bit of damage from the Dragonkin. In some areas of the Black Palace there would be chained Boss Fights.

One of my friends suggested I post a link to a video so they can see what I'm talking about. So here is a video. This is NOT me, just a video I found on YouTube.

Finally, after 28 levels I was having fun. It was good fun. I enjoyed it.

But on level 32 that wonderful surprise melted into grinding again. Please understand this is where the game needed some trimming. I enjoyed the first 2 levels, but I still had to go through 3 more, then the final boss. Five levels of repetition killed the joy. Technically, one of the levels in the Black Palace was a side quest. I didn't have to do that section. Since I like to complete all the side quests I can, I was compelled to go.

Well what about that final boss?

First of all, Ordrak looks like something Conan O'Brien whipped up from "If they mated" using Diablo and Mannoroth. If you don't know who Mannoroth is, he was a baddie from Warcraft 3. So Ordrak looked like a 4 legged Diablo.

Secondly, the final boss fight is cheap. I tried to handle the boss fight the way I thought the Development team wanted me to. He summons Dragonkin constantly. Not just a few, but about 10-15 of them. At the same time, you have those Enslaved I mentioned above charging you. I tried to use my maxed Lightning Skill on the DragonKin, but they were tougher to kill than the level above. I died several times in this fight. This was entirely due to my play style. See, I had only carried 40 health and mana potions into the fight. I was trying to use them sparingly. After watching some fight videos on YouTube, I see some people are chugging down potions like it's breathing.

In the end, I beat Ordrak. This opens up the ShadowVault for this character. The Shadowvault is a never ending randomly generated dungeon.

Since one can't technically finish Torchlight, I'll say this.

I'm done with Torchlight. I've experienced all it has to offer. I haven't downloaded a mod, and don't intend to, unless I'm super bored with the other games I have, or there's a mod that cuts out 2 out of every 5 levels of the campaign and adds some surprises.

In conclusion, even though I was surprised by the final levels, it turned into grinding. My final recommendation still stands.

"Try the Demo. If you like it, don’t pay full price. Wait for a $5 Steam sale."

Now, on to Trine and the World of Warcraft Cataclysm Beta, if it ever finishes patching.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Bargain Hunter Review #1: Torchlight

Thanks to the recent Steam Sale, I have a few games to play and review. The game I first chose to play is Torchlight. I want to say that I normally finish all games before writing a review. However, I am writing before I finish, because the gameplay in Torchlight is repetitive. I don’t foresee any changes in the way I play. Now some could say the last two sentences are a good summary of the review and they would be right. Read on, if you want to pay me the courtesy of reading what I have typed.

I’m not going to get into the Story. I am playing the game as an Alchemist on Normal difficulty. Here we go.

One thing I need the reader to understand is that there are Levels and Character Levels. When you see me talking about Levels, I am using the term as the game does. Simply, how far down in the dungeon I have traveled. I am only on level 28 or 29 of 35. Everything you do in the first 5-10 levels is the exact same things you will be doing in the lower levels. The only difference is that you will be more efficient at it. In the beginning, my gameplay experience was one of entertainment and enjoyment that transitioned into playing out of sheer determination. The transition into grinding occurred around levels 22-24. This is Torchlight’s biggest flaw. At this time I started to get bored with it. I didn’t want to play it anymore. I began dreading even starting the game. It was like being presented with a meal I didn’t want to eat because it tasted bad. Every time I hit “Play” in Steam, it was like I was pinching my nose in order to kill any taste sensation I had just to stomach the experience. Naturally, I started to look elsewhere and so I began playing Trine. Even though Trine is a different genre of game, I think it is superior in its quality and presentation. Once this was set in my mind, I began to judge Torchlight by the example that Trine has set. Some people may think of this as comparing an apple to a strawberry. I’m actually comparing an ok apple to a great strawberry covered with whipped cream. If you are a game designer it should be your goal to make sure you never lose the attention of your players.

Visually Torchlight looks great. The stylistic cartoon look works. The colors are all rich and vibrant. Spell effects are great and explosions are nice.

Audibly, the sound effects are good. There’s nothing outstanding about the sound of lightning and the pistol I carry in my off hand. I’m not sure what I should be expecting in sound either. The sound effects are crisp, but there’s nothing that really stands out. This leads me to the soundtrack.

Many have compared Torchlight to Diablo. This is a fair comparison since the same people that made Torchlight, made Diablo. While some praise the game for this relation, I would consider it the biggest flaw. In another example of repetition, the musical style is the same as Diablo. The game has about 3 or 4 tracks of the same variation of the Tristram theme. If someone was simply listening to the game, one might think they were playing Diablo again. So not only does Torchlight repeat everything it tries to present as original, it also repeats Diablo. After playing this game, I have an image in my head that the Cube Farms of Runic Games looks like a Hall of Mirrors. This isn’t true by the way, their offices are actually nice.

Artificial Intelligence
The Artificial Intelligence in this game is very basic. Monsters simply run and cast at you. Some minions run away if you kill a fellow minion. But, they eventually come back. The one piece of Artificial Intelligence you will pay attention to is your pet. When you create a new character in Torchlight you can select a Cat or a Dog as a pet. This pet will melee attack enemies and has 2 spell slots where purchased spells can be put in. The pet will cast the spells at random and sometimes even when NPC’s aren’t around, as in the case of Heal and Silence. I was standing in the town and my pet kept casting Heal Self over and over. My cat ran out of mana just sitting in town. He was already at full health, why is he casting Heal Self? Another annoying bit is that the pet often gets stuck on some of the architecture of the dungeons. I’ll often be fighting a group and notice that things aren’t dying as fast as they should be. I’ll look for my pet and notice on the mini-map that he is two rooms back. You are probably wondering how you can lose your pet. During fights there are so many explosions and spells firing off that it becomes difficult to see exactly what is going on. Most of my fights involve me casting spells into a group, and the pet will go tank another group. I’ll toss some explosion spells over there to help it out and keep hitting stuff with chain lightning. The pet is so small he’s just easy to overlook in the mess. The pet, while a good tank and companion, often has path finding issues. It is very detracting from the game experience to have to go back and lead your pet through various obstacles as hard as a flight of stairs, to a simple overturned table or a pile of rocks.

Your Character
Character building is pretty generic. Every character has 4 stats, 3 Skill Trees and 4 Spell slots. The in-game Tooltips aren’t very specific or helpful when it comes to your stats. For Example, Dexterity increases the chance to hit and crit with a ranged weapon. It will even tell you how much, for example it says, “+9 to Critical Hit”. Is that 9/100 or 9/10? I don’t have a scale to compare this value with. Also, it is not presented how much Dexterity it takes to raise that value. Numbers don’t necessarily make a game for me, Trine has none for example. But, once a game starts displaying numbers it had better be ready to explain how they operate. Maybe, some of this explained in detail in the manual, but I sure don’t remember seeing it.

The Skills a character gains are spread into Tiers. Skillpoints are gained at a rate of 1 per character level and 1 per fame level. Fame is achieved by killing mini-bosses throughout the dungeons. The highest level Skills require a character level of 25. Since you can bank Skillpoints, I found myself saving up for the higher levels. Perhaps this lead to some of the repetition I suffered. If so, the skill trees need to be reworked to entice me to spend those points as I reached each tier. Some of the skills, while nice to have, did not particularly seem desirable or useful. It also seemed that I really only needed 2 of the 3 trees.

The 4 Spell slots might as well be 3 spell slots. This is a consequence of yet another repeated mechanic. Torchlight took the mechanic of using Town Portal and Identify Scrolls. The issue a player runs into is that you have limited bag space. Bag space is such a premium, it is much better to buy or loot a Spell of Town Portal and put it in one of your 4 slots than to take up a bag slot. Since Identify and Town Portal are used so often by characters, something desperately needs to change. From a Lore standpoint, if everyone uses these scrolls all the time, they should eventually know how to do it inherently. Simply put, the Identify system needs to just be scrapped. I hate to bring World of Warcraft into this, but the Identify mechanic doesn’t exist there. When you loot an item, if you meet the requirements, you should be able to use it. Before anyone argues about WoW being an MMO, Runic Games is about to begin showing us the Torchlight MMO. This leads to several questions, which I’ll go into later.

The pet you have following you around doubles your bag space. You have the option to send it to town to sell everything in your pets inventory. This is a convenience to keep the player moving forward. However, more often than not, you find yourself waiting for your pet to come back before proceeding. While the pet is away you can alt-tab out and take a break from the monotany.

Class Balance
Question: What is the difference between me casting a lightning bolt that jumps across 3 NPC’s and a Vanquisher that shoots a bow that shoots 3 NPC’s with a lightning attack? Answer: depending on the skill trees and equipment being used, there is no difference. Simply by being single-player, Torchlight hides the blurred lines the Classes share in Skills and gameplay. While you can specialize and try to play different styles, you inevitably wind up doing one of two things. You either stand at range and make funky lights and explosions, or stand in an NPC’s face and make funky lights and explosions. Here again, I can’t help but bring up Trine. You play three characters in Trine. Each one is distinct in their abilities. The Wizard can’t wield a sword and shield and melee effectively. The Knight can’t use a grappling hook, to swing around, probably all that armor and big gut. The Thief can’t create boxes or planks to solve jumpy puzzles. Class distinction actually matters and made Torchlight’s attempt at Class differentiation appear languid.

How could Torchlight be better? Well I’m not a game designer, but I know what I like. I think the game could have been better by being shorter. This goes for the number of levels in the campaign, character levels, and a pruning of the skill trees. Some of the enemies have resistances, but not many with immunities. Now, I am playing on Normal, so I don’t know if the higher difficulties have immunities. I only bring this up because in some Fantasy worlds Mechanical beings are immune to all forms of magic. Since, I am playing a caster, this would have required me to change to using my weapons. Conversely, there should be a phased NPC immune to physical attacks and requires magic. They could even have a mechanical NPC that alternates in and out of phase, requiring both types of attack. Since Runic Games has a Hall of Mirrors for an office, how about a magic mirror that spawns an evil version of the player? Or how about a boss that takes over your character and you have to play as the Boss to defeat your own toon to get your character back. Those are some ideas I just now came up with and would have really kept my attention. Any little changeup to the gameplay would have been an improvement.

I have read that after finishing the game you unlock the infinite dungeon mode. Yay! My award for getting through the repetitive gameplay is more repetitive gameplay.

What are some of the questions we have about the Torchlight MMO? Will it still be action based? To be action based, there should be no cast timers with health and mana potions a-plenty. Cooldown timers are ok, but no Cast Timers. It is so easy to fall into the familiar combat stylings of WoW. Will there be the Trinity of Tank-Healer-DPS? I keep hoping some company will kill this forced bi-polar co-dependent relationship. Will it maintain the stylistic cartoon graphics? I hope so. Can Runic Games create an actual living environment to explore? Torchlight takes place in a small mining town and the mine it sits on top of. This is a much easier environment to design than a forest or a coastline. Will you still have a pet in the Torchlight MMO? Will your pet go back to town for you and sell items in the MMO?

I paid $5 for Torchlight on the Steam Sale. Did I get my money’s worth? Yes. Would I recommend someone else buy it for $5 on Steam? I am iffy on this. By trying the demo, you will get the same gameplay, but you would not have the option of playing the different classes to see which one fits your personality.

My recommendation is try the Demo. If you like it, don’t pay full price. Wait for a $5 Steam sale.

Torchlight on Steam

Friday, July 9, 2010

Blizzard says Woops

Blizzard recants

This is the first time I can remember Blizzard reversing a decision like this.

I did read an article that they implemented this due to a Korean Law.

My wife asked why they can't just implement that change in Korea. Working for a software company, I told her it should be easy. We change which labels clients use for the same field all the time in our DB.

I'm guessing some Junior Executive that doesn't know how the Internet, technology, or the culture works decided to try and save money from maintaining different code for the forums in different cultures.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Blizzard's New Forum Policy

There is a thread on the WoW Europe Forums regarding their new forum Policy. Basically they are going to make sure everyone uses the RealID system. This will require people to post with their first and last names.

There are many discussions about this.

This is a moot point. Blizzard developers don't read the WoW forums. They go to Elitist Jerks

There is also a mistaken belief that jerks refuse to identify themselves. On the contrary, many of these flamers will be happy to tell you who they are. It is surprising that Blizzard doesn't know this, given their recent arrangement with Facebook. Elitist Jerks allows for nicknames. They are probably better at moderating their boards though. It's a more High Class version of the Blizzard forums. Even though that bar may not be high to begin with.

The Steam “Perils of Summer” Super Bargain Bin Sale

Steam had another awesome sale this last week. In the original design of Steam it was to be a multiplayer service. Thankfully, Valve has transformed it into much more. As much as I have enjoyed playing Team Fortress 2 multiplayer on Steam, my favorite feature of Steam is the Store. The most remarkable thing about the store is that Sales can happen at random. They have NO aggressive advertising. Instead they put the sales on their webpage and on the Steam Launcher. When gamers login they see the sales and start telling each other. News of the sale traveled at near the speed of light. If you are invested in racing, whether NASCAR or Formula1, find a consumer and put them in the driver seat and tell them there is a sale ahead. You will have a winner every time.

Now everything I want to talk about is for the gamer on a budget. This isn’t for people who intend buying up every bargain or pack. Even though some of the packs are great deals, I don't want to spend $70-$80 for a pack. I wanted to share some of my thinking on the sale. A few things you need to consider when looking at a Steam sale. For what purpose should you use the Steam sale? How should someone handle a Steam Sale? And most importantly, what did I get for the Summer Sale?

The number one thing you need to use the Steam Sale for is to get a bargain on a great game. That sounds obvious, but many people are buying Full Price games at 33-50% off, instead of setting a ceiling cap on what they are willing to pay, this goes into how you handle the Steam Sale. For example some games have been marked down from their $49.99 - $59.99 initial price to $39.99-$49.99. During the sale they are reduced 50% to $19.99-$24.99. This is not really a bargain. You want something that’s been doubly reduced. Set a cap on an individual game. For me this was $9.99. Now, some games were on sale for $10.16. While I can accept that price point, I wasn’t interested in any of those games.

You also probably need to define a great game. Find a game that you have finished and really enjoyed. Find reviews for the game which match your own, including play styles. Find other games the reviewer may have enjoyed and just write out a list of what they considered a great game. Seeing as how it's 2010, it was easy for me to find reviewers and bloggers with lists for "Best games of the decade". Set up a list of games you are looking for. Steam has Metacritic scores, if they have them, posted on each games section in the store. This is to help you find a game that has good reviews.

The second thing you need to do for any “sale” is to set a budget. For the Steam sale I set myself a budget of $20-$25. Why did I have a range? Some games have an odd price which you will see later.

Here is the list I made with the prices I was looking for with some reasons why.

“Dead Space” for $9.99
Supposedly it was listed for this price two weeks ago and I missed it, grr. The main reason I am interested in this game is that former members of Looking Glass studios worked on this.

“Crysis” for $9.99
They put Crysis on sale, but it was 14.99. That was over the individual cap that I had.

“Freedom Force Freedom Pack”
I have seen many people call this series some of the best games ever made. This was made by Irrational game who made System Shock and Bioshock. They have a good reputation.

“Torchlight” for $5
I tried the demo and didn’t think it was worth the original price they asked for. They had “Torchlight” for this price during the Christmas sale and I wish I had picked it up then.

“King’s Bounty”
Bill Harris over at Dubious Quality considers this one of the best games he has ever played.

So what did I wind up getting:

“Freedom Force” and “Freedom Force vs the Third Reich”: $5.61
These games went on sale two days after I picked it up and I lost out about $3. $5.61 is still a great price for these games.

“Torchlight”: $5
I have already spent 14 hours playing this game. I still haven’t finished the campaign. I already got my money’s worth out of this one.

This was an opportunity purchase. I tried the demo and the only word I can use to describe this game is charming. This is game is full of quality. I can see why so many players love it. I plan to play it right after I finish “Torchlight”.

“Red Faction: Guerrilla”: $5
This was another opportunity purchase. I’ve seen some people, in particular Bill Harris mentioned above, call this one of the best games of 2009, or whatever year it came out. I really like it so far. Try to imagine if Borderlands met Grand Theft Auto. Borderlands drops you in a mission hub and the world around you is just dead. There is life, but it is mostly things you shoot. There aren’t many other people around. When you do interact with people you get a Mission Log thrust in your face with an “Accept” or “Cancel” option. On the other hand, “Red Faction: Guerrilla” gives you a purpose and engages the player actively. This is key for any game, but “Red Faction: Guerilla” does a better job of it than many other games I have played. The world around just seems alive with all the people walking and driving around, going about the business of mining and manufacturing. The production value is just better.

“King’s Bounty the Legend”: $3.24
The “King’s Bounty Gold Edition” had both the first and 2nd game in the series for $9.99. If I had purchased the pack, I would have spent $29.60, which would put me over budget. So I bought the first game and if I like it, I’ll get the 2nd game during another sale. If I don’t like it, I’ll save myself a few dollars.

So what was my total spent for the sale? $22.85

That’s about $3.81 cents, rounded up, per game. I think I made a lot of good choices while staying in my budget. I hope I spend a lot of time with each of these and can get some of them finished before the next sale.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Next Generation has finally arrived.

E3 2010 has shown us something exciting. It has shown us that finally after 6 years of the World of Warcraft era of MMO's, the Next Generation has finally arrived. Here, take a look at the following trailers.

Star Wars: The Old Republic

Warhammer 40k Online:

DC Universe Online:

I think the next-generation of MMO's have finally arrived. Not simply because the Warhammer trailer actually says that, but because two of these games look like they are fun to play. Which game do I think doesn't look like fun?

Star Wars the Old Republic.

I'm sorry, but the Gameplay Trailer, makes it look like it is still using turned based timing attacks. The other two games look like they are action oriented. Here is the gameplay, complete with a mission.

I think Star Wars, as a universe is a Dead Horse that everyone keeps beating. Bioware may make a great and successful MMO, but it is still a Dead Horse. I think the Mass Effect Universe is more compelling than Star Wars, but that's just my preference.

There have been MMO's released since WoW, but none have reached the standard that WoW has set. Some have directly copied World of Warcraft and became a moderate success. But, that is all they are, moderate. I think now, for the first time in over 6 years, other MMO's actually look good and exciting. They have finally reached up to WoW's standard and have just begun to push it up.

I hope for Blizzard's sake they show their Top Secret MMO project at this years Blizzcon. If they wait another year, the masses may leave World of Warcraft and begin to build guilds and social networks in other games. Once the river overflows in another direction, it is near impossible to get back.