Monday, November 20, 2006

Whamadoodles Online

Several years ago, the MMO landscape was a scorched, bloody, cratered wasteland. Conceptual MMO games were popping up like mushrooms and crashing like houses of cards in an earthquake. Dawn proved to be nothing but vaporware. WW2O closed its doors after only a month or two. Anarchy Online had one of the worst launches on record. All in all it was a bad time for many in the MMO business. Such is the stage for a brilliant bit of comedy known as The Game Producers. A parody of "The Producers," it was a sardonic roast posted origionally on the now defunct "Slow News Day" news site (formerly belonging to Lum the Mad, but he pulled the plug from it as soon as their reviewers started getting critical of his new corporate masters, Mythic Entertainment). It found a temporary home again on, but it's gone from there now as well.

For a while, it looked like the "Springtime for Hitler" of online gaming that is Whamadoodles Online might slip away, forgotten.

Well, I am happy to say that with the kind permission and gracious assistance of the author, I have secured the files and have set up hosting once again for The Game Producers. Hope you enjoy it!

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Thursday, November 09, 2006

Review: Neverwinter Nights 2

Probably one of the most hyped titles of the second half of 2006, Neverwinter Nights 2 has been anticipated by a large number of... well... nerds. But will it live up to their often unattainable expectations? And can somebody who's never even held a D20 get into it?

You've probably read the now-pulled review that gave Neverwinter 2 a 5/10 on 1up. I know I did, but I'm trying not to let that predispose me to one way or the other for this review.

The important thing to remember about NWN is that, out of the box, it's really a toolset first, and a "game" second. Sure, it comes with a campaign, but what made NWN 1 such a sensation was people making their own modules and campaigns for it, to let others play.

The short story is, if you liked NWN 1, you will like NWN 2. If you didn't like NWN 1, you probably won't like 2 either. For 2, basically the developer made some incremental improvements to 1.

The big draw, first and foremost, is that it is an extremely versatile system for playing a Forgotten Realms D&D campaign without having to lug around 40 pounds of source manuals and a sock so full of enough varieties of dice that you could brain a moose with it. It's all about your characters and the stories, etc you put them through.

Let's get into my gripes about it, though:

1) Although the limits on the camera angles have largely been removed (you can actually see the goddamn sky this time, if you want to), the camera and movement controls are still archaic and a little awkward. A lot of people complained that NWN1 could only be played top down and zoomed way out, and I was one of them. I even wanted a first-person perspective. Well, we don't quite get that in 2, but it is a step in the right direction. However, the camera controls and movement controls are still all operating from the assumption that you are going to play watching the action from 90 feet in the air. Even in the new "Drive camera" mode, controlling the view and your character's movement from down in the action is clunky and prone to overcorrecting, and when close to your character, turning the camera is excruciatingly slow. Not enough time was spent getting the game to be enjoyable from a more immersive perspective, despite the models having higher polygon counts... speaking of which...

2) If you thought some of the face models in oblivion were ugly, wait till you get a load of these lumpy-sack-of-potato-faced models. I don't know who they got to make the models for their humanoid characters, but they need to beat him within an inch of his life with a crab mallet. They'd have been better off using the older, low-poly-count models from NWN1. I can appreciate that more detail now goes into my character and those around me, but when the highly detailed face of every single person in the game looks like they just tried to perform cunnilingus on a beehive, there's a problem.

3) The big draw of the game is supposed to be playing it with your friends, but the official campaign that comes with the box is extremely unfriendly toward multiplayer, unlike NWN1. While the campaign is allegedly "longer and more epic," the game almost seems to be going to special pains to ignore the fact that there is more than one protagonist. NWN1's campaign had special coding in all their npcs to change dialogue where appropriate to reflect the nature of your party, but NWN2 does not. Much more annoyingly, other players cannot do ANYTHING while any other player is talking to an NPC. They all stand still, can't talk, can't get in their inventory, can't view their character sheet, nothing. Additionally, any faction hits or alignment changes affect only the "speaking" player and none of the others. Many a big strike against multiplayer, which is supposed to be NWN's strong suit.

4) The AI for the NPC groupmates is often dumb as a post. Many times a fight has started and one of my "allies" either stood there doing nothing, or ran into the next room, drawing the attention of even more enemies, which then consequently slaughtered us. The dumb tiefling rogue girl is especially bad about this, though the dwarf has his "moments" as well. The casters are particularly bad about running into a doorway and standing there casting, thus clogging up the path for anybody else who might want to get into the room.

Now, it's not all bad. Here are some of the good points:

1) The world is much more world-like. It doesn't look so "assmbled from tilesets" like the first one, at least outdoors. Indoors it still does, but that is to make it easy for the layplayer to design dungeons and stuff, and it isn't a big problem.

2) A lot of people have complained about technical problems playing the game, but I can't say I've experienced any. Maybe it is because I have an ATI card and the complainers all seem to have NVidia. Sure, the game taxes your system a little, and if you alt-tab out it will crash, but other than that I haven't ever had the game exit without my instruction to do so.

3) From a single player standpoint, the included campaign isn't bad, abarring above concerns. The story is similarly engrossing to past bioware fare, though after you play these games for 20-someodd years you often can predict what is going to happen next. That's not really the game's fault though... more our fault for being RPG nerds. For all the hype, it isn't "Longer and more epic" than NWN1's, but the plot is acceptable, and the ending leaves you hanging a little less than NWN1's did... but only just.

4) For all my griping about the multiplayer, it's pretty easy to just set up a server and get your buddies in on it with you. You start the game, your friends connect to you, and bam, you're on your way. Including the option for Direct connect via IP address was a sound decision on the developer's part.

5) The game lets you have as much or as little of the "behind the scenes" dicerolling and character building as you want. It will show you all the "rolls" that go into deciding what happens in combat, and just like in NWN 1, complicated things like attacks of opportunity, saving throws and other rolls are all handled seamlessly, automatically and transparently. Plus, if you're not into lovingly crafting your character's unique skills, feats, spells and talents... there's the handy dandy "recommend" button which will automatically get you the best cookie cutter stuff to make for a good adventuring character.

6) A vast improvement over past bioware titles is the new death paradigm. If a character is KO'd in combat, they fall down. If it is you, you fall down and you can switch easily to another character in the party to control directly. If everybody in the party gets ganked to 0, it's game over and you have to load a saved game or start over... but here's the difference: If even one party member survives to the end of the fight, the others (even you) get groggily up to their feet as if merely shaking off a terrible hangover. Sure, they'll be at 1 hp, but it's a far cry better than having instant game over for the protagonists' death or having to haul a body (and all that body's gear) to a temple to get him revived, or even having to return to base to get your henchman revived. Definite kudos for a progress-friendly method of handling death.

Well, that's about the size of it. As I said at the beginning of the article, if you liked NWN 1, you'll like 2 (and probably like it better than 1). If you didn't, probably safe to steer clear of this one. It's definitely a niche game, but members of that niche will gobble it up.

Rating: B-. And that's the word from Bandit camp...

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Monday, November 06, 2006

The Infamous "Pulled" 5/10 NWN2 Review has pulled the review, but I managed to find a quote from it over on Evil Avatar.

As everything-the-original-did -- and more -- follow-ups go, Neverwinter Nights 2 deserves a banner&something like "mission accomplished." Think the sequel to Jurassic Park, where Spielberg's all "You want more dinosaurs? I'll show you more dinosaurs..." As a contemporary CRPG, on the other hand, NWN2 leaves a lot to be desired, and that's too bad, because these are the guys who brought us Planescape: Torment and Icewind Dale 2...and therefore they are the guys I'm least inclined to take issue with.

But issues exist, and defining them is really no more complex than saying, "Hello D&D superchrome, buh-bye storytelling and character development (you know, those things you're supposed to "immerse" yourself in)." The idea seems to be that we're meant to rah-rah about a superabundance of feats, spells, races, prestige (advanced) classes, and math-equation tickers full of the usual "I attack you with a +4 sword of --" booooooring. Fine, sure, dandy...but when is a "role" not a "role"? Simple: when it's a rule to a fault.

Ever loyal bites
I'm cruising for a bruising (don't I know it), but NWN2 is a splash of cold water to the face: A revelatory, polarizing experience that -- in the wake of newer, better alternatives -- makes you question the very notion of "RPG by numbers." It foists Wizards of the Coast's latest v3.5 D&D system (a molehill that's become a mountain at this point) onto your hard drive with stunning fidelity, then tacks on dozens of artificial-looking areas vaguely linked by forget-table plot points you check off like grocery to-do's.

Sure, the interface is sleeker with context-sensitive menus and a smart little bar that lets you more intuitively toggle modes like "power attack" and "stealth," but with all the added rule-shuffling, NWN2 seems like it's working twice as hard to accomplish half as much. Worse -- and blame this on games like Oblivion -- NWN2's levels feel pint-sized: Peewee zones inhabited by pull-string NPCs with no existence to speak of beyond their little playpens. Wander and you'll wonder why the forests, towns, and dungeons are like movie lots with lay-about monsters waiting patiently for you to trip their arbitrary triggers. As if the pencil and paper "module" approach were a virtue that computers -- by now demonstrably capable of simulating entire worlds with considerably more depth -- should emulate. It's like we're supposed to park half our brain in feature mania and the rest in nostalgic slush, and somehow call bingo.

The dungeons feel especially stale, so linear and inorganic they might as well be graph-paper lifts filled with room after room of pop-up bogeymen (Doom put them in closets; NWN2 just makes the closets bigger). Maybe you'd rather chat with the dumb NPCs that speak and sound like extras in a bad Saturday morning cartoon? Oh, boy -- there's the portrait "plus" sign! Time to shuffle another party member (improved to four simultaneous) through the level-up grinder, which you can click "recommend" to zip past...but then, what's the point?

Rule-playing game
In all fairness, it's not entirely developer Obsidian's fault. D&D certainly puts the "rule" in role-playing, and a madcap base of D&D aficionados is no doubt ready to string me up for suggesting that faithful is here tantamount to folly (to these people, I say: "Go for it, NWN2's all you've ever wanted and more"). Call me crazy -- I guess I'm just finally weary of being led around on a pencil-and-paper leash and batting numbers around a glorified three-dimensional spreadsheet in a computer translation that should have synthesized, not forklifted.

That five-of-10 is actually a hedge, by the way. For D&D fans who want to play an amazingly thorough PC translation of the system they're carting around in book form, it's proba-bly closer an eight or nine. But if, like me, you want less "rules for rule's sake" and more depth and beauty to your simulated game worlds, you can certainly find more exciting prospects. Part of the reason we call them "the good old days" and think fondly of games past is that it's always easier to love what we don't have to play anymore.

It certainly is eloquent for a review that "doesn't meet standards." I call BS on this one... they pulled it because they didn't want to lose Ad revenue, in my not so humble opinion. However, I think it could also be argued that they DID, in fact, basically assign a guy who hates football to review Madden '06. In other news, I've actually started playing it myself, and it isn't THIS bad. Review to follow in the next few days...

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Sunday, November 05, 2006

Optimus Prime in City of Villains

Apparently, on the test server, a very familiar looking (at least to those of us who were kids in the 80's) red semi with a silver/blue trailer was spotted in sharkhead isle. Hope it goes live.

Pictures here.

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Review: Sid Meier's Railroads!

Everybody has a little squirt inside them that loves to play with toy trains... and that's why Sid Meier's train games keep selling. Of course, it doesn't hurt that the latest entry into that foray is graphically appealing and immersive.

I wasn't one of the folks who was absolutely enamored with Railroad Tycoon. Long story short on Railroads! however, is it's a fun, solid title... if it would just maybe not crash so much (the program, not the trains).

The gameplay is smooth, although there's a bit of a fierce learning curve. The first few times you play you will end up with all your locomotives staring angrily into eachother's headlamps, each refusing to budge to let the other pass on the track. But once you get the hang of setting up multiple tracks and laying down crossover points every so often on them, that problem largely goes away.

The game comes with many scenarios and they're all fun to play with. It also has a multiplayer mode I haven't really experimented with yet.

It would be the textbook example of a perfect release if not for the fact that it crashes on me at least once an hour, once the game really gets going into heavily congested parts of the game (IE, the last couple decades before you win). That gets very frustrating.

But, so long as you remember to save often, it's a solid title worth adding to your library. Get it for your Dad, he loves trains, right? Rating: A-.

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Thursday, November 02, 2006

A Little Side Project

A little side project I have going on... Founded a wiki to catalogue every single darn video game "babe" that ever existed. If you wanna, have a look.

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