Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Cyberpunk: Shadowrun Returns

This past weekend I finally got around to playing one of my oldest Kickstarter-backed games, the cyberpunk RPG Shadowrun Returns. Based on the pen-and-paper RPG series Shadowrun, the game was full of promise from the start and definitely delivered on that. It presents you with a futuristic RPG setting, which also contains a plethora of fantasy elements. I'll let the game's website describe it in more detail:

The year is 2054. Magic has returned to the world, awakening powerful creatures of myth and legend. Technology merges with flesh and consciousness. Elves, trolls, orks and dwarves walk among us, while ruthless corporations bleed the world dry. You are a shadowrunner – a mercenary living on the fringes of society, in the shadows of massive corporate arcologies, surviving day-by-day on skill and instinct alone. When the powerful or the desperate need a job done, you get it done… by any means necessary.

Think Blade Runner meets The Elder Scrolls, with combat looking something like the new XCOM. The first scenario is called "Dead Man's Switch", and sets up a very noir-ish detective story that morphs into something far larger towards the end game. I absolutely loved the atmosphere, drawing you into the seedy underbelly of futuristic Seattle, drenched in neon and grime.

You begin in your rather scummy looking apartment, receiving a message from an old friend, just calling to let you know that he's dead. He pre-arranged a message to be sent to you to investigate his death and bring his killer to justice. To sweeten the deal, he offers a big cash reward for completion. How could you refuse?

The campaign itself is a relatively linear affair, and what appears to be a simple murder becomes much more complicated the more you look into it. Uncovering each layer had me hooked right until the end, although the final act could have used a bit more work perhaps.

Your time is split mainly between chatting to the various characters you meet and going on missions to either gain money or information (usually both). For the missions themselves, you can choose from various characters to come along with you, although on occasion you are forced to take certain relevant characters. Most of these NPCs are brought along for either their skills or just for their muscle, as you will probably be doing rather a lot of fighting, unless you're smart (sneaky) enough to avoid it.

The combat itself is quite enjoyable, you have a wide range of possible skills to choose from and most builds seem to be viable. Good positioning is vital, making use of cover as best you can and to try and maintain a numerical advantage against your enemies. I chose a primarily combat character (street samurai), focusing on pistols, which seemed to be a good choice for this scenario.

Your other options include Decker (primarily for use in the Matrix, a cyberspace area), Rigger (use of drones to attack), Shaman (various spells but mainly summoning elementals) and Mage (your general magic user). Generally speaking you need to take a Decker with you on some of the missions, but going in guns blazing is usually a perfectly acceptable option if subtlety is not your strong point.

Making your way through this first scenario takes around 10-12 hours, which is a pretty perfect amount of time for me, and thankfully for those wanting more there's also the second scenario: Dragonfall (set in Berlin, with a new cast of characters, new locations, etc.). I've barely scratched the surface of Dragonfall, so I can't say yet how well it matches (or improves upon) Dead Man's Switch, but I can say I'm very glad to have backed it when I did.

A recent Kickstarter campaign for a Shadowrun: Hong Kong scenario was also successful, so it seems the folks at Harebrained Schemes have found themselves a receptive audience. Long may it continue! Also, as if that wasn't enough, there is even a scenario creator/editor to allow for fan-made campaigns. Already there have been attempts to recreate older games (there were Shadowrun games for both the Megadrive and SNES in the mid-90s), and to make entirely new campaigns. A good community can really boost the appeal of a game like this so it's always appreciated for a developer to include tools for modding and expansions.

Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Adventure Gaming: King's Quest V

King's Quest V was a landmark game, a big step forward for the series. While the previous game had been 16-colours and a text parser interface, Sierra really pushed the boat out with this one. The new 256-colour VGA graphics allowed them to create wonderfully detailed scenes, and the CD-ROM version gave them the space to use full voice-acting.

Your lovely home, soon to be miniaturised and put in a glass bottle by an evil wizard. Typical day in the life of a King!
It certainly amazed me at the time, and it was also a continuation of a series I had followed since the beginning. The story begins with King Graham finding his castle, and family, taken by a malevolent wizard by the name of Mordack. The motives for this are initially unclear, but a visit to a gypsy woman clues you in, it all links back to a previous entry in the series: King's Quest III. In this previous game, King Graham's son Alexander escapes from the clutches of an evil wizard by turning him into a cat. This wizard-turned-cat is named Manannan, and happens to be the brother of Mordack. It is up to you, taking control of the King, to save your family and defeat Mordack!

The gypsy fortune teller, giving you all the information you need for your quest!
Reaching Mordack is no small matter, and in true adventure gaming style the journey includes everything from quaint little towns and mysterious forests to ice palaces and island lairs. Each location is beautifully painted, with amazing detail, and many areas have their own unique musical accompaniment. As usual for the series, the various places and puzzles draw from mythology and fairy tales but aren't usually just straight up copies unlike in the previous games.

Cedric. Does anything more need to be said?
For your travels you are joined by Cedric, a talking owl, who is helpful at times but is unfortunately rather an annoyance on many occasions. There is something reminiscent of the infamous "Clippy" about him, although Cedric cannot so easily be dismissed! You end up speaking with all manner of other creatures as you progress, but this is with the aid of Cedric's friend, the wizard Crispin. He gifts you a piece of white snake so that you can communicate with animals and also his old wand.

Crispin the wizard, apparently going as Gandalf for the office Halloween party.
The wand was a more major part of the game when I first played it, as it formed part of the copy protection system. Before the internet allowed games to be tethered to an external server to activate and validate, the copy protection systems of games had to be a little more creative. At various points during the older versions of King's Quest 5, there would be occasions that required the use of the magic wand. To use it, you needed to match a symbol found in the manual. Thankfully this is removed for the CD-ROM version!

The main town in the early game, filled with people, shops and an unreachable birds nest in the foreground
As is typical for the series, the initial stages of the game allow for a lot of exploration. The first section consists of a town and it's surroundings, the dark forest, the desert and of course Crispin's house, where you begin. You can initially travel to a large number of locations, but there are certain limits to the order in which you can approach the puzzles. It's a little bit of a shame that the later sections become far more linear, with King Graham passing through some wonderful locations far too briefly.

This is also a game that comes into criticism for some of its puzzles. There are certainly a few occasions where repeated deaths are necessary to figure out how to continue, but these I would consider to be part of the Sierra experience! A good example here is the problem with the inn, where the criminally-inclined innkeeper locks you in the cellar. Firstly, avoiding the encounter will get you stuck later, and secondly it requires quite a lengthy puzzle chain to have the correct items to gain your freedom.
King Graham is a little tied up at the moment.
Other puzzles do require rather odd logic to complete, for example the method by which you escape the dark forest. The dark forest is home to a wicked witch (of course), but the forest itself is tricky and upon attempting to leave you get lost. The way to escape is to pour sticky honey on the floor (in a particular location), and then tempt a hiding elf towards you. He gets stuck, you grab him, and in return for the emeralds he shows you out of the forest and gives you a perfectly made pair of shoes.
I forgot to take a picture of the forest, but here's Graham escaping via some sort of elf-made tunnel.
The puzzles themselves are often devoid of context too, with Graham happy to just randomly pick up things from the ground, help passing strangers, and generally just wander around solving problems. The greater story of the missing family and any potential time constraints have little bearing on the early game. This isn't unusual for the series though, as in true adventure game style a canny player will know that you should pick up anything that's not nailed down (and even then with the right tools...), talk to anyone and everyone (be they animal, mineral or vegetable!), and of course save the game regularly! Of course in the first game you were merely Sir Graham, and as a knight searching for stolen treasure it was your job to poke around in other people's business. When you are a stranger in a strange land though, this becomes less justifiable. For the desert in particular (a region which requires careful exploration in order to steal from desert bandits), I can't remember ever seeing a reason for visiting, except for it being an adventure game and therefore there must be something there worth taking!
Some life-giving water, in the middle of a desert.
The bandit's camp. Stealing from thieves is okay, two wrongs make a right?

A veritable King's ransom in gold (and then some), but we have what we need to better leave before we get trapped forever!
After you have pillaged the land for every possible useful item, you can finally leave the area and attempt to get to Mordack's castle. This begins with a lovely trek through the mountains, which is a relatively brief task. The snow-covered mountain trail is beautiful, as is the crystal cave (once you have used your powers of slapstick to get rid of the yeti). This is truly the most under-used location, a linear track with only a handful of puzzles. A shame, as the artists must have spent rather a long time on backgrounds which will be seen for so short a time! This is followed by another brief encounter, this time with a gigantic bird, before ending up on a beach, staring out at the sea.

Beautiful snowy mountains!

Exotic Ice Palaces!

Meet interesting people!

See the Crystal Caverns! (paid for by the Serenia tourist board)

There's not much to do on the beach, there's a crowbar to pick up (for some reason), and a partially deaf man with whom you can't communicate right now. The only thing to do is to take the boat, handily moored on the shore with nobody to claim it. The first time you take the little sail boat out, you drown because of a hole in the hull, but by this point you should be used to that! Thankfully since I know the game like the back of my hand, I know to patch it up with beeswax.
A lovely island, surely no harm can come to me here!
Now, you might think that you can sail your way straight to Mordack's castle (dead, eaten by sea monster), or perhaps you just sail in pretty much any direction (dead again, sea monster). There is only one correct path, which leads you to a rather pretty island with some pretty horrible residents. The harpies try to kill Cedric (this is a bad thing), and argue over you (also bad), but thankfully you can distract them with a song from your splendid harp (the second time it gets you out of trouble). After taking anything you spot on the ground (including a lovely conch), it's time to finally talk to that strange old man at the beach.

Harpies, looking as horrible as they sound.
Armed with the conch as a rudimentary hearing aid, the old man helps heal Cedric (this is a good thing), and enlists the help of a mermaid to guide you to Mordack's castle. Graham's sailing skills leave a lot to be desired though, and you end up crashed on the rocks just outside the castle. The music in this area, both outside and inside the castle, is brilliant. Generally it's my favourite location of the game, filled with menace and foreboding, it's exactly the sort of lair that an evil wizard should reside in.
Mordack's island lair
A rather cheerful pair of statues
Being a bold hero, King Graham has no issues with breaching the castle via the sewers (a proper maze section!), although Cedric stays outside to "keep watch", the big coward. Although the dark atmosphere and creepy music might make you think otherwise, this initial section is relatively light on ways to die (but you did remember to save, right?). Your last place of relative safety is the kitchen, where you meet the lovely Princess Cassima (who is just about your son's age, how convenient!). After a little chat, you can explore the rest of the castle.

Princess Cassima
From this point onwards, the puzzles are unforgiving and the deaths come quick. The evil wizard Mordack can appear in most areas and kill you with ease, and seemingly does this at random. Furthermore, his brother Mannanan (turned into a cat by your son), will summon his brother if he notices you. Even the furniture is watching you, and it does certainly up the tension (and the possible frustration factor). What's more, there is a random even where you can be captured by a brutish blue creature, and put in the dungeon. If you fail to get captured, you miss an item needed to finish the game.
A creepy bedroom for a thoroughly creepy man.

Mordack's wand recharging station.
The last item you need to finish the game is Mordack's wand, which you steal while he sleeps (you hide in the library for this, and hopefully read a spellbook while you wait). Mordack has a rather nifty contraption to charge his wand, and it's just what you need to put some sparkle into yours. After placing the two wands on the pedestals, only the best dungeon-mousehole-aged cheese will power the machine. The power transfers from his wand to yours, and all is set for the duel - to the death! (multiple deaths perhaps for you, but importantly one death for him).

Your family's captor, the wizard Mordack! (he seems to be a little angry)

It's at this point that Cedric wanders back in through a window, and inadvertently takes a (magical) bullet for you, redeeming himself entirely. Somehow this doesn't slow Mordack too much, and you end up in a shapeshifting battle. Each move he makes can be countered, until finally you douse his flame with a small rainstorm. Cue celebratory music, and your family is rescued (as is Cedric). Roll end credits!
Some mystical spells

Dodging the dragon's breath as a nimble rabbit.
Playing through the game again it becomes a relatively short experience, I managed to finish it in a little over two hours (128 minutes, approx.). There's probably an argument in there about game length and value for money, but for me the experience will always be well received, as it's qualities more than make up for the length. Besides, the game's length is only short because I remembered the puzzle solutions so easily. Without that memory, there are several puzzles that would have had me perplexed for hours without easy access to a hint guide or walkthrough.
Graham, back with his loving family.
The next game in the series would see Prince Alexander take up the reins again, hopefully he'll manage to avoid pissing off too many powerful wizards. It also sees the return of Princess Cassima, and is generally considered to be the high point of the series. But there are plenty of other games in my queue before that!
Game complete! With maximum points too.

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Indie Gaming: Torchlight 2

Starting Torchlight 2 was a strange experience for me. I had tried the first game in the series some time ago, but had bounced right off it almost immediately. The style and tone of the game seemed to lean towards light-hearted humour rather than the diablo-like grimdark I was expecting.

The second game was not that much different, only this time the plot assumed some amount of previous experience with the series. Even now, I don't really have much appreciation for the world or it's oddly named residents, as it is a little light on in-game explanations.

Mechanically though, the game is sound. It took very little time for me to happily start bashing evil dudes and getting that precious experience points and loot. I've even restarted the game entirely to swap my character class, and despite repeating the first sections of the game I enjoyed it almost as much the second time around.

The large, open environments are certainly part of the charm. The entire game is reminiscent of Diablo 2, but with it's own style running throughout. Of course this is to be expected with some common staff between the two games, but it doesn't suffer for this comparison. The music in particular I found excellent, a perfect match for the atmosphere the game creates.

It can be difficult to create a fantasy world these days, you can easily fail by either sticking too close to a Tolkien-like formula, or by straying too far away. Torchlight 2 departs from the normality of generic fantasy, and instead opts for a collection of disparate peoples. You are introduced to them as you progress through the world, but I feel like none have quite the impact that they could, beyond being different for differences sake. Perhaps had I played the first game I'd be more attuned to the lore of the game.

It's the mechanics which make the game stand out more, and the way each level and dungeon has been so lovingly crafted. Even silly side-quests have a lot of thought put into them, such as the pirate-themed, Goonies-referencing quest to defeat the ghost of One-Eyed Willy, or the occasional mazes and other puzzle sections.

While the evidence is there of things borrowed from the previous games the developers have worked on, they have also learned from past experience and looked to improve upon other games of this type. Each character class has their own unique abilities, but the level of choice allows you to tailor your character to suit your play style. I prefer ranged combat and passive abilities to boost my character, and began with an Outlander (with dual pistols), before switching to an Ember Mage (elemental magic).

To a certain extent, it's all about clicking, timing and so forth, but it's that myriad of small choices that typify this genre, and Torchlight 2 does it rather well. You can sacrifice attack speed for range or power, or perhaps rely on tailoring your attacks towards your enemies elemental weaknesses. Do you rain fire from far away, or get stuck into the thick of the action?

I found the most fitting style for myself was the magic using route, which combines ranged attacks with great visuals. The range of spells is based largely on four elemental forces, and I've chosen to stick with mainly fire and electric attacks. As with many skill trees (although this isn't exactly a tree, but certain skills unlock at certain levels), there are some skills that appear more useful than others and certainly it seems prudent to level up a small variety of skills rather than trying them all. You can respec to a certain degree, but you can't rely on that too much. I imagine on harder difficulties it would require a little planning ahead to get the best balance.

Equipment is as usual for such games, plentiful and varied. The basic stuff you find in abundance merely serves to provide a contrast for those more exotic pieces that occasionally fall into your lap. On top of that, there are a few ways to boost the usefulness of your existing equipment. Item sets give you bonuses for matching items from that set, but they generally are minor. Enchanters can be found to boost the stats on your items in a particular way for a stack of gold (for example, you might find one that will enchant items with fire three times, adding damage to weapons or resistance to armour). Finally there are the sockets. Some items come with sockets, and you can find ways to increase the amount of sockets, and they can be very useful. Socketable items range from the basic elemental types to rarer and unique ones. It's a minor variation of the Diablo II formula, but provides a similar experience. It's better in some ways due to unique weapons sometimes being able to be socketable, and I've usually tried to get at least one socket on each item I use (some have four!).

So far I've made it perhaps about half way through the game, two thirds at best. The game can get a bit repetitive at times, but I feel that's an issue I have with the genre in general rather than this game in particular. Sometimes the large maps with only a small variety of enemies can overstay their welcome. The big set-piece boss fights are very good though, and I only wish the filler content was a touch better at times.

Thursday, 5 February 2015

Civilization V: A Few More Turns...

So I recently bought a lovely new laptop, one that can play most relatively modern games (nothing too fancy, but so long as I don't push the detail levels too high everything is fine!). The first thing to do when playing around on a new computer is to install a few games and check out how well everything runs on the new hardware, so I installed and played a few games that are part of my backlog.

Then I hit Civilization V.

I'd bought the game a long while ago, in some steam sale or other, and had been buying the DLC when it got really cheap. I knew my old laptop would struggle with it, but this new one should easily cope. Over 1000 turns later, I think the testing phase has long finished!

I still haven't formed a full opinion of this fifth version versus the previous games I've played in the series (Civ2 and Civ4). With all the DLC I have, it certainly presents an awful lot of interesting mechanics, but I have yet to fully grasp the benefits and drawbacks of the different possible playing styles.

Currently with Egypt, I'm just about the world-leading power, something I have accumulated by generally avoiding war and accumulating new technology and culture. A culture victory seems very far away though, so I might just try for the spaceship victory. I potentially could go to war, but I'm not overly sure how easy that would be.

Until then, I wonder whether picking "marathon" for my first game was truly the best choice...

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Winter's Greetings, Seasonal Salutations and so forth.

It has been months (months!) since I last updated this blog, and to be honest I feel like I've let my loyal readers down (all two of you). I am hoping to have a few more reviews, and general thoughts about gaming in the coming months (starting January, perhaps).

My current list of games to finish and write about is still slowly increasing, although thankfully I have avoided spending much on the winter sales so I can hopefully get things under some amount of control.

I have recently been playing Torchlight 2, and will probably write about that at some point, although I feel bad now for having dismissed the first Torchlight after only ~20 minutes of play. Anyone care to comment if it's worth going back to take a look?

The other game that has completely consumed my time is GTAV, which unfortunately is on my shiny new PS4, so I feel it doesn't quite conform to the usual content of the blog, which has been primarily PC gaming focused. I am toying with the idea of extending the blog towards television, films and the like, so perhaps I will update more often if I can discuss a more varied set of topics.

So until next year, I hope you all eat more than you should, have plenty to drink and generally have an enjoyable time, wherever you might be.

Sunday, 21 September 2014

Kickstarting: Star Command

All pictures from http://www.starcommandgame.com
Star Command interested me immediately as soon as I'd heard about it. In it's current mobile version, it puts you in charge of a small starship, and lets you explore strange new worlds and so on and so forth. The Star Trek influence is perhaps most strong, but the game has plenty more to offer. It's a little bit X-COM, a little bit FTL and also vaguely reminiscent of Star Control.

You begin by gathering a crew together, and assembling your choice of ship and it's components. You have a limited ability to upgrade your ship and it's rooms, all based on a token system. Those tokens are also used when hiring new crew members, and come in three varieties: Red for weapons/tactical, Blue for science/medical and Yellow for Engineering/Repair. The colour coding is maintained throughout crew uniforms and room d├ęcor, for easy reference.

I have played through a few missions and have enjoyed the touch-screen interface and even enjoyed the mini-games required for ship weapon firing (unusual for me, I usually detest mini-games!). The game has a great atmosphere, putting you in a variety of interesting situations with various aliens that you meet along the way (usually involving some sort of fight).

The art style and music are top-notch, and the background art in particular is brilliant. There are plenty of little humorous parts too, generally when reading the descriptions about equipment upgrades.

My main reason for backing the game is to see a full PC version, which unfortunately has been delayed. The main reason for this though is the vastly improved scale and scope of the PC version, which has the full name of "Star Command: Galaxies". This should mean a user interface more suited to a mouse than a touchscreen, and more opportunity to explore and upgrade your ship. Modding support was also a kickstarter goal which was reached, which can only be a benefit for this sort of game.

To bide my time between now and whenever in future Galaxies comes out, kickstarter backers were given a copy of the mobile version and will receive a port of the mobile version for PC/Mac when that is released (hopefully before the end of 2014).

The promises have sounded fantastic so far, and given that they have excelled themselves in delivering on a great mobile game I have high hopes for the PC version.