Sunday, July 6, 2014

Euro Truck Simulator 2: Misadventures Part 2


I did a couple missions to day in Euro Truck Simulator 2 today and it went pretty darn well if I may so myself.  So far I've been sticking to what I (er .. my trucker?) knows.  This means that there has been a lot of time spent in Lyon, Genève, and Dijon.  Interestingly enough I've found that the Lyon ->Genève route is pretty simple, but the Genève -> Lyon route is a major pain in the butt.  Also Genève ->Dijon route?  Screw you and your tiny turns. The damage that you, your countryside, your turns, and your stupid NPC driver AI cost me was not cool at all. It literally decreased my pay by 2/3rds. Just see if I ever take a Genève ->Dijon trip ever again ...

Today, for the first time, I finally got the nerve to leave France.  Sticking to countries that drive on the correct side of the road, we traveled into Zurich, Switzerland. Genève -> Zurich was a pretty decent drive, but there were a couple turns near the end that made it very clear the roads were not designed with big trucks in mind.  They might want to look into that.  



Also, Mr. Zurich car that ruined my perfect no-crash statistic for the day?  It was totally your fault.  I don't feel bad at all.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Euro Truck Simulator 2: Misadventures Part 1

It almost looks like a dream.  A dream that is a lie.
image: Gamefly

So I finally broke down and bought Euro Truck Simulator 2.  I've been eyeing the game since it was released.  Today I finally said "screw it" and took the plunge. Let me first say that I'm loving the game.  It has this really weird appeal that I can't exactly explain. I've not gotten very far in it yet, but I absolutely foresee myself continuing with it.  Building my own delivery truck fleet has never looked so appealing. Secondly let me say that I am (unsurprisingly) REALLY REALLY bad at it.  Okay, maybe I exaggerate.  I'm not terrible. I've even had a single delivery job that had no accidents and only a tiny bit of truck damage. Using Euro Truck as an example though, would I hire myself for a truck fleet?  Not a chance in hell.

For your enjoyment, here is a tiny glimpse of my misadventures in truck delivery:

The first clue that this might not be my calling in my life.  I didn't listen.
Whoopsy Daisy! No seriously.  I feel awful.
Somehow this has all gone so wrong.
I crashed in no fewer than five cars getting out of this mess.
In my defense the other drivers were idiots.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Let's Talk About - Dracula: The Resurrection

This man just ticked of Dracula!  We're screwed!
So I'm taking a well deserved vacation right now. In the absence of any significant plans, I have decided to start working my way through some of my every growing back catalog of games.  GOG conveniently released the fifth installment of the Dracula adventure game series last week, so that is my first target.  Don't know if I'll get through all of that (I may get distracted ... it's happened before) but I've at least gotten to the first game in the series. I'll be linking GOG's website for each of these titles so that they are easy to find in case anyone is interested in playing them.

The first installment of this series, Dracula: The Resurrection, was released developed by Index+, France Telecom Multimedia, and Canal+ Multimedia. It was originally published by DreamCatcher Interactive. Apparently an iOS/Android version is also now available.  It is being published by my beloved Microïds (which is now part of Anuman Interactive).

Taking place seven years after the end of Bram Stoker's Dracula, Mina has begun to feel the pull of Dracula's castle.  She departs in the middle of the the night, and mere hours later a frantic Jonathon Harker goes in search of her. Using a series of logic puzzles and NPC conversations, players guide Jonathon on his search to find his wife. At this point, I feel that there are two things that should be clarified.  Firstly, this is 7 years after Dracula the book and not that Coppola film from 1992. (Though since the in game Jonathan has the same hair as Keanu Reeves' Jonathan, I can see were confusion could arise.) Secondly, this game was released in 2000. The year 2000 doesn't seem like all that long ago ... until I look at games from then. That was 14 years ago folks. Wow, graphics sure have changed.  

Ghosts of pictures past
Resurrection may look dated, but I have no issues whatsoever with the actual design of this game.  In fact, I've found myself to be pretty impressed with its overall construction, and it's aesthetic appeal is very high. Let's break it down.

  1. Sound Design: Sound design is clearly low budget (one or two short sound clips per location), but the atmospheric effects are well chosen.  It's clear that they are looping, but the loop blends together well.  If it weren't for a small "pop" at the end of each clip, I might not even notice the loop all that much.  Sound clips are appropriate, and they give the game a lot of atmosphere. The inn felt sufficiently creaky. The cemetery gave me goosebumps. A feeling of suspense certainly surrounded me while in game world, even if I was not all that worried about dying.  The few stand along musical tracks that are heard during significant cut scenes were also very well done.
    Overall Score: A
  2. Voice Acting: I normally make a point of playing France Telecom, Canal+, Microïds, etc titles in French.  Not only is it a good linguistic workout, but their French localization (without fail) is always heads and shoulders above the English language option. The thing is though, I also like to play these games with French language subtitles on.  This ensures that I'm not missing any important spoken cues. With no subtitle option available for any of the languages, I opted to use English localization this one time.  And ... the voice acting is not bad.  We've all heard worse. Resurrection's actors sound properly surprised, properly outraged, properly spooky ... but was all a little bit off. I was left with the impression that the developers pulled people from their offices or maybe even called up friends to play these parts.  Voices aren't bad enough to distract from the game's overall mood, but they aren't good enough to be memorable either. They're unoffensively average. Overall Score: C
  3. Basic Visual Design: I mentioned above that Resurrection looks dated, and since it's 14 years old ... well that's kind of a "duh". I would still argue though that the game is still graphically well done and artistically tight. Overall Score: A+

    Colors and Lighting - Colors are appropriately muted.  The world outside Dracula's castle has a lot of grey, grey-blue, and brown. Meanwhile, the inside of Dracula's castle was grey (as one would expect) with the exception of Dracula's personal domain. For instance, Dracula's bedroom was predominantly decorated with faded, but undeniably rich, red fabrics. His personal effects (books, paintings, etc) were similarly colored with rich greens, purples, and blues.  Even with these jeweled tones though, the developers were conscious of the game's overall atmosphere.  Everything was lit or aged in such away that the environment remained sufficiently dreary.

    Scenery Detail - Detail was included for atmosphere sake.  The walls of Dracula's bedroom showed where pictures had once hung. Stained glass windows were set castle into walls. Ruined architecture wasn't just a collection of the same cut and pasted model for stone blocks or broken boards - at least three or four different shapes existed.  As with any game it was obvious that object models were reused here and there, but it was clear that the developers took pains to make the places look unique. For example, one would not mistake the inside of Broken Down Building A for the inside of Broken Down Building B.

    Cutscenes - One of the pitfalls of late 90s/Early 00s titles is that they can be a bit too enamored with 3D technology.  This can potentially result in unnecessary cutscenes.  The large number of cutscenes then, in turn, can results in cumbersome gameplay.  Resurrection, thankfully, is rather conservative with it's use.  Chapter transitions or major location changes featured some rather elaborate scenes that must have been breathtaking at one time.  NPC conversations featured cutscenes when questions were asked/answered (otherwise NPCs were image stills).  I'd like to note that the NPS conversations were very expressive,  and that their uncomfortably close camera resulted in a very unsettling atmosphere.  Scenes were also used when mounting and descending most stairs.  I am especially fan of this, because it minimizes the number of clicks the player must make.
  4. Character Placement and Movement - Resurrection is one of those titles where you stand in one place and use the mouse to look around or interact with the environment.  When you want to move forward, your mouse turns into an arrow, you click, and you find yourself standing still in another location. In my experience, titles like this have a few common pitfalls. The first of these would be figuring out where you can and cannot go. In this game, where you can/can't go is very easy to find. Not only does the environments clearly delineate where paths are/aren't, but the hitbox for the directional mouse cursor is of a significant size. No pixel hunting here. The second of these is the environment's composition.  One of the most annoying things about this type of game is that their environments are often designed to elicit the maximum amount of clickage. (They may not actually be dsigned that way, but it sure does feel like it some times!) In order to navigate a mere hotel room, players may have to click six times just to navigate the small space. If these environments were better planned out, and more was accessible to the player each time they moved, clicks could be reduced.  Resurrection did an excellent job of making your clicks matter. A large amount of each location is available to players each time they move. Each move covers a significant (but not disorientatingly large) space. More importantly, most "dead end" areas are not there "just because".  Dead ends either serve to direct player movement (i.e. you can't go in this door, so the one down there should be your focus) or to signify a puzzle location.  Backtracking is minimized, and I thank the heavens for it. As a side note, I also love the fact that the player's means of entering/exiting spaces is always logical. You never "phase" in and out of locations.  Descending or ascending a well?  There's a ladder built into the wall.  Climbing up through a hole? You'd better have a rope on hand for that. Overall Score: A
  5. Puzzle Design - Finally, the puzzle design in this game is fantastic. 1) Puzzles are logical. There are no rubber duckys here. 2) Puzzle pieces are easy to locate.  They aren't highlighted to show you can interact with them, but they aren't hidden in the scenery either.  In truth they look pretty much like anything else in the game.  I don't know how it is so clear what you can/can't pick up, but I won't question it.  If it works, it works. 3) The environment naturally dictates puzzles. Lighting is important. Did you walk to a dark corner with nothing in it?  It's probably a puzzle. 4) Puzzles are easy to find.  As with movement, the hitbox for "action", "action with inventory item", and "look closer" moments are of significant size.  No pixel hunting. 5) Progression is not game breaking. Puzzles are designed so that you cannot advance to Area B, get locked out of Area A, and then find you missed a puzzle back in Area A that you must have in order to move forward. It's impossible to skip ahead of yourself. Let's breath a sign of relief for that. Overall Score: A+
Not sure if this place is evil or not ...
In the end, I have nothing for praise for Dracula: The Resurrection - the first in this adventure game saga.  GOG sells it in a pack with two sequels for $9.99. If the second and third games in the "Dracula Trilogy" are as good as this one, then my money will have been money well spent. If I were a teacher and this game was my student, I'd give it a solid A in its assignment.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Guild Wars 2: The Zelda Principle

The Zelda Principle in action

We've all done it in Zelda titles.  Don't even try tolay innocent, because you know exactly what I'm talking about.  While Link wanders though town twirling around and going "yah!", he accidentally kills a chicken.  The ex-chicken sqwaks, feathers fly, and it's pretty freakin hilarious.  It's so hilarious in fact, that you have Link do it again. And again. And again. And again. If he kills enough of the feathered fowl, their egg-laying brethren decide that enough is enough. Link must die, and it is them who shall seek revenge. This is what I personally call the Zelda Principle

It's not just chickens that have targets painted on their backs though.  Rabbits also fall victim.  In Skyrim, the player stats even keep count of how many fluffy bunnies you have slaughtered.  In Guild Wars 2, you sometimes earn daily achievements for their demise. Killing rabbits with ice in GW2 also has highly amusing results. The cold damage causes them to freeze solid before they topple over like fallen statues.  It's as if the developers encourage this kind of senseless violence!  Listen carefully and you can hear their maniacal laughter echoing throughout the world.

The problem with slaughtering adorable wildlife though is that they seek revenge, and these critters never do things half way.  Like in Zelda, the animal players should be most wary of is the chicken.  In inXile's Bard's Tale, a large, angry mama bird will attack the the PC if he slaughters too many of her children. She has an insane amount of health for the level, and will kill the Bard dead if the player isn't careful. Being the sharp-witted RPG parody that A Bard's Tale is, this game's inclusion of the Zelda Principle speaks volumes regarding the prevalence of player perpetuated poultry massacre. 

Needless to say, if you ever boot up Guild Wars 2 and find yourself in the company of Angry Chickens, please tell them that Callaidbhroin and Lizard Breath wish them well.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Guild Wars 2: Taking the Leap

callaid-bhròin means "funeral wail" or "elegy"

The world has ended methinks, because the impossible has happened.  I've started playing an MMO.  For years I've sworn that this day would never occur.  I swore off all MMOs, and I've been very good at abiding by my self-imposed ban.  That said, for years I've also toyed with the thought of playing Guild Wars. (Can one silently "rebel" against The Man, when The Man is also yourself?) Guild Wars/ Guild Wars 2 particularly caught my interest because of its approach.  It offers a "solution" for the major issues tend to make MMOs so distasteful to many single player only gamers.
Problem 1: Monthly subscription fees.
Solution 1: They don't have them. 
Problem 2: Other gamers constantly encroach upon your gaming space.  This messes with the experience and ruins suspension of disbelief and/or immersion.
Solution 2: Guild Wars 2 promotes the fact that one can successfully traverse the world in single player without untoward interference from others.  Interaction with others is for the most part voluntary. 
Problem 3: Gamers can spend months and years paying for a subscription based model, only to have the title turn Free to Play (and generally Pay to Win).
Solution 3: There doesn't appear to be any real danger of the Guild Wars series turning F2P since there are no subscription fees to begin with.  You buy the game/expansions and you are done. While there is a system in place where items can be purchased with IRL money (the Gem Store), participation doesn't appear to be necessary for one to fully enjoy the experience.  (That could be different in PvP). This seemingly prevents it from joining the P2W camp.

In the past, I have come this close to purchasing Guild Wars (and subsequently Guild Wars 2). Having been single player for so long though, taking that final step and actually committing to a MMO was a pretty scary concept.  I'm not going to lie. Until I created my first GW2 character and actually started playing, there was a significant amount of anxiety present.  Having shared game worlds with only NPCs, entering a realm where other sentient beings roamed (who can talk to you!) was a weird prospect. After all, I knew that I had developed idiosyncrasies over the years and that I wasn't always the most deft person around ... but did everyone else have to know too?  I'd get laughed right out of Tyria.

Last weekend, a friend unexpectedly gifted me Guild Wars 2.  With a copy in my possession, I had no other choice but to jump in both feet first.  Provided my dinosaur of a computer actually ran it (which it does!) there were really  no excuses left. The end result?  So far .... it's been a pretty darn good ride.

Stay tuned for adventures to come. You can also follow my experience on twitter @photoleia

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Surprise Tea Deliveries



No one expects surprise packages from Design a Tea, especially not me. The company is being extremely tight lipped about who sent this package along, and the only clue I have from Brian Pfeiffer is: 
"Been sworn to secrecy - sorry! Maybe if you ask for the culprit to show their face via a blog or two ... that's all you're getting from me!"
So here you go. I'm posting a "thank you" everywhere I can in hopes that whoever sent this my way knows that I'm thankful for the gift. What a delightfully delicious way to end the week. Cheers!

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Reexamining DA2: Mark of the Assassin

"I suppose nothing ever goes as we plan, does it"
(Pretty much the story of this chick's life.)

So I just finished playing the Mark of the Assassin DLC and was very pleasantly surprised. The dialogue was witty, the conversations weren't awkward (much), there was actual playier choice involved, and what was said in dialogue actually kinda mattered.  Like the core game, MotA made a few shoutouts/references to Dragon Age: Origins, but unlike some (not all!) of the ones in DA2 they didn't feel forced. Sometimes the reference, as seen with Bann Teagan's cameo, didn't even mention the previous game. Those were perhaps my favorite since they knew players would make the connection all on thier own. There were also a number of major fights that actually involved some level of strategy to win.  The final fight was a challenge, but it wasn't an unfair one.  A lot of fighting was involved with this DLC, but I never felt like the devs were throwing enemies in there just for the heck of it.  In fact, for the most part, there were not a lot of spawning enemies.  If I saw fifteen bad guys, then I was fighting fifteen bad guys.  I cannot express how much I hate the spawning enemies in Dragon Age 2.  I really, really hate it.  When you have wave after wave of enemies coming after you, sometimes with the "big" character (chief, commander, etc) not showing up until the second or third wave, the amount of strategy the player can actually employ is limited.  When, however, you know that all the baddies onscreen are all you are going to see, then the player can actually plan out which moves they will make.  Who will they take out first? Who will the PC focus on?  Which group of characters will best utilize each companion's skill set? I really miss that part of Dragon Age: Origins.  In DA:O, the only spawning of bad guys you saw happened during major boss fights.  At that point, waves of them were scripted to appear in between boss attacks. That kind of "spawning" is pretty much par for the course, and once a wave happened, that was all you had until after the Boss attacked again.  

I know I've been hating an awful lot on Dragon Age 2 even though I said that i was going to give it a fair go.  I'm still trying  to give it a fair play, but it's so hard when things like spawning enemies annoy me to no end. Mark of the Assassin is proof that the DA2 devs could have done so much better.  In MotA there were new environments and interesting things to see.  There were only one or two non-doors, but that is no more than you would expect in any other game.  The doors weren't blocked to make a reused map "new", they were blocked b/c they were just dummy doors.  Nothing to see there.  Combat was interesting, and I actually enjoyed it rather than dreaded it. The story was perhaps a bit contrived, but not enough to warrant censure, and certainly no  more than the genre normally allows.  The main puzzle made you think, but was not impossible.  I normally could do with out them, but this were a nice change of pace. I will mention that there is a very poorly done stealth sequence in-game, but players have an option to forego stealth in lieu of all out bloodshed.  I did give the stealth portion an honest to God effort, but it was more headache than it was worth.

Perhaps the best thing though, is that the companions finally ceased all their moaning and groaning. With a rescue-from-prison sequence, we also witnessed a brief return of the companion buddy comedy from DA:O's Fort Drakon. (In fact, come to think of it, about 50% of this DLC reminded me of the Fort Drakon story arc). Fenris stopped whining about mages and how hard life is.  Anders almost stopped moaning about the Chantry and the Templars. Gloriously, the one time he did make a snide comment, Tallis called him out on it. Even better, however, was the fact that Anders and Fenris actually sorta kinda got along!  There was one moment where Anders actually deferred to Fenris for an answer about [some plot centric thing], and disregarded Tallis (even though she knew more about it) because he didn't trust her. 

I also really liked the way this DLC used the Varric storytelling ploy to bookend its narrative.  Despite the fact that he is the one telling DA2's tale, the game very rarely reminds us of this fact.  In fact, it reminds us of it so little that the first time I played DA2 I was a little shocked to see Varric pop up in between game chapters. I do have to hand it to the devs thought.  When Dragon Age 2 does acknowledge Varric's storytelling role, they do so to great effect.  

So all in all, I really liked Mark of the Assassin.  I won't say it's the best thing I've ever played, but it is a far cry better than anything else I've seen in Dragon Age 2 so far. Despite my general hate for DLC, this one was actually well worth the money I paid. MotA shows that the DA2 team was capable of so much more than what they presented in the core title.  I just wish they'd taken advantage of that fact before hand, and not waited until a  DLC release to show their hand.

Find some Mark of the Assassin comment-as-I-go tweets after the jump.