Thursday, May 21, 2009

Zero Punctuation Reviews: Velvet Assassin

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Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Kotaku Preview: Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood

Over at Kotaku they've got a preview of the multiplayer aspects of the upcoming Call of Juarez prequel.

It looks similar to the multiplayer for the original COJ, but now you have to level up and unlock characters and abilities. Forcing online multiplayer unlocks is a pet peeve of mine, and I think if this stays in, this game just fell off my pull list.

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Monday, May 18, 2009

Champions Online Delayed


We wanted our fans to hear this from us first... We’re changing our Champions Online launch date from July 14th to September 1st of this year.

Why? Here’s what our own Bill Roper, Design Director and Executive Producer on Champions Online, had to say about it:

“It is critically important for an MMO to be as good as it possibly can be at launch. Through our constant dialogue with our vocal and supportive community of beta testers, we quickly realized that in order to implement certain features that we all considered important the development of Champions Online would require more time. So that's what we're going to give it. Cryptic has a proven track record of releasing solid games and we want to maintain that with Champions Online.”

I'm still grumpy I didn't get into the beta, personally.

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Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Review: Zatikon

Zatikon is a turn-based strategy game from small indie developer Chronic Logic, who some of you might remember made an incredibly fun little bridge building simulator called Pontifex (later called "Bridge Construction Set"). The folks at CL are here to show they're not just a one-trick pony, however, as the two games are completely different.

Being an indie game developed in Java, the graphics of Zatikon are rudimentary. The playing field and all units consist of tiled images with only the most very basic of animation occurring during moves and attacks. It is clear a lot more time and energy went into planning the "inner workings" of the game than into the visual experience. That said, the units are all visually distinct enough to identify them by sight alone (once you learn what each unit is, of course), and the game does not exhibit any of the glitching or artifacts common to many simple 2D games. While they won't "wow" anyone, they won't annoy either. This also of course has the happy side effect of making the game playable on just about any computer that runs, not needing a powerful graphics card.

There's not much to the sound of the game, either. Aside from a few sound effects of clanging weapons, arrow strikes and the like, there's not a lot to the auditory experience and the game can safely be played on mute without jeopardizing much. There's some contemplative background music going as well, in the classical style, which does help punctuate that you're playing a thinking game, not a reflex game.

Zatikon reminds me much of the strategy boardgames and wargames I would often play with my father and uncles at family gatherings in years gone by. It also throws in a bit of a collector card twist in that victories are rewarded with "gold" currency, which you can then use between games to buy new or additional unit types.

The game begins with a basic army and a tutorial which teaches you the fundamentals of play. The object of the game is to move one of your units into the enemy's castle tile, without allowing him to do the same to you. You start with some basic units of familiar configuration that allow you to get comfortable with how the game works before you worry about customizing your army.

Each "turn" of combat consists of you giving "commands" to your units. Some units can make more moves and attacks per turn than others, and depending upon your number of "commands" available to you and the size of your army, you may or may not have enough commands to move all of your units to their maximum potential. Players (or computers, if you're playing single player) take turns issuing all their commands until one side loses, surrenders, or both agree on a draw.

What really gives the game its replayability appeal is the ability to customize your army by purchasing units with the gold you earn from victories. To ensure balance between contestants, armies are limited in power to 1000 "points," with some units worth more points than others in a reference to relative strength. For instance, the "Ranger" unit is worth 200 points because he is a very powerful unit which costs no commands to use, gets many actions per turn and can attack from range as well as melee. For the same 200 points you could have 4 footmen or pikemen in your army, which depending upon your strategy may be more or less formidable. Once you have purchased a unit with gold, it is added to your deck, available for insertion into your custom army as you see fit to rearrange.

There are quite a number of unit options as well, affording a vast array of strategic options. The categories are Archers, Black Mages, Clergy, Commanders, Cultists, Horsemen, Nature, Scouts, Shapeshifters, Siege, Soldiers, Structures, White Mages and Wyrms (with multiple unit types under each category). Many units perform how one would expect given their names: Pikemen make good defensive melee units, Priests heal other units, Archer types generally do damage from a distance while being weak to being attacked themselves, and so on. Some also function as "wildcards," such as the "Possessed" cultist unit which has the fearsome ability to take control of any unit which kills it, the "Mimic" shapeshifter unit which can transform itself into a copy of any enemy unit on the field, or the "General" commander unit which gives you an extra command just for being deployed and reduces the command cost of deploying other units by 1. Each unit has its strengths and weaknesses, even if sometimes the only weakness is an extremely exorbitant point cost, such as the "Archangel" clergy unit which is a fearsome fighter, can instantly kill any unit which has killed another unit from any range, but costs a staggering 550 points... the equivalent of as many as 11 other units.

Once purchased, a unit remains at your disposal until you decide to sell it back (for reduced gold, of course), even if you decide not to use it. You can reconfigure your army as often as you like, and you can save configurations for later loading convenience. There is also a random "buy unit" button which sells you a unit at an extremely discounted rate, though you have no control over which unit you will receive.

You can either play against a computer opponent or other players. You are "ranked" by your record of defeating or losing to other players, and computer opponents do not affect your rank but still award you gold for defeating them. Defeating a computer opponent means the next computer opponent will be 1 order of magnitude more difficult, and losing to a computer opponent has no negative effect (other than decreasing the difficulty of your next computer opponent). Finding an online human opponent to play is very simple.

The basic game is free to download and play (you can also play the online version of the client here, which naturally requires the Java runtime environment to be installed on your computer). However, the free version does not grant access to all the units in the game, though you will still go up against them. Access to these other restricted units is granted through buying "expansions" for the game, which are $12 and $8 for the first two, respectively, with a third expansion on the way.

Despite being of modest appearance and production, Zatikon is very heavy on the strategy, particularly when playing against other players. I have to admit I was a little skeptical going in, as I'm not much of a turn-based game fan and I have a deeply-rooted animosity for the inherent problems of the Java programming language. However, my misgivings were for naught and the game is an intellectually intense contest of strategy and planning with unlimited replay value. I'd recommend it to any fan of strategy or war games, and since the cost to get your feet wet is zilch, you've got nothing to lose from trying it.

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

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Zero Punctuation Reviews: Valkyria Chronicles

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Monday, May 11, 2009

Alleged Duke Nukem Forever Footage

May be moot now, since 3DRealms has closed its doors, but interesting to see none the less. If you're at work, be advised there are boobies.

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Thief 4 is coming


Hope eidos-montreal doesn't muck it up like Ion Storm did for Thief 3.

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Saturday, May 09, 2009

Review: The Tomorrow War

Seems like there's a lot of games coming out of Russia these days. The 1C publishing company has released 3 of the last 4 games I've reviewed: Cryostasis (which was good), Necrovision (which was so bad it should have incurred criminal charges), and now "The Tomorrow War."

The Tomorrow War is a space/flight sim based in a hypothetical 27th century galaxy, where it has been eons since humans have left Earth for the stars.

The game has some very nice visuals, out in space. Since space sims generally aren't very cluttered, the game takes advantage of the spare video processing power with high poly fighter models (though some of the capital ships are a wee bit simplistic) and expansive environments. The planet surfaces however tend to be a little more on the sparse side, reminding me of a flight simulator from approximately 10 years ago. The cloud rendering is particularly disappointing, since a cloud consists of a single 2D white polygon that doesn't even turn to face the camera... it gives the effect of somebody having cut a cloud out of a sheet of paper and left it hovering in the air for you to be disappointed in. Also, on the first mission of the game, you are tasked at one point to fly through the rings of saturn, which are comprised of giant chunks of rock and ice. Flying around the rings is pretty... flying into the rings is also pretty except for one thing - the "transition" between rendering the rings as solid bands of color, distant 2d rock sprites, and a wall of true 3D asteroids you need to fly around and between is pretty apparent and almost immersion-breaking. There's also some severe range-clipping issues with these things, but I suppose it can't be expected to render every asteroid in the rings at all times and all distances. Still, when flying through them at low warp speed, the "poof an asteroid appears" effect is pretty obvious. The portions of the game that take place inside the crew areas of ships (as well as the rendered insides of your cockpit) have textures that are a little on the low quality side, and there's lots of sharp angles on objects.

The sound requirements for a space sim aren't very demanding. You need sounds for the weapons, the engines, some explosions, and some ambiance. They have all these, and they do the job. The music isn't bad either but can get kind of repetitive. But my oh my, does this game fall flat on its face in the department of voice acting. Not only has the translation from Russian not gone particularly well, the voice actors also telegraph that they are reading lines from cards with no knowledge of context or proper emphasis. Thus, when your character approaches the flight deck engineer to inquire about his ship and says "Where is my hunk of iron?" it sounds like he is irately inquiring about a ferrous slug which has gone missing from his apartment, rather than playfully asking about the location of his ship. It also seems that most of the dialog meant to play during missions has been entirely left out. Maybe the translation didn't get done or something, but often the face of a wingman or officer will pop up chattering away in the corner of your viewscreen, but no words come out and the game doesn't give you a caption of what they say. To top it all off, in the cut scenes which involve talking, the movements of the models' lips do not even remotely sync to the words. They look like they're syncing to SOME words, just not the words they're saying. Honestly, the effect is even worse than in the old Wing Commander games... at least then the computer knew to stop moving the lips of the people when the sentence was over.

The first thing you find about this space/flight sim is that the learning curve is very steep and helpful directions are practically nonexistant. By the time you slog through the dozens of cutscenes between you and your first mission, somebody STILL has yet to actually inform you about important things such as "you will be expected to target your wing leader and press 4 to join his formation before anything else." So once you figure that out, which may take any number and combination of wandering off and running out of fuel, crashing into your wingmen, accidentally shooting your wingmen until they get pissed off and destroy you, etc... you'll eventually learn how to target your wingleader and press "4" to join his formation.

Once you're in formation, you and your buddies fly around looking at how pretty the universe is. And I'm not just talking about the first mission any more... an extraordinary amount.. check that, an excruciating amount of your game time will be spent flying in formation across hundreds, if not thousands of kilometers of scenic empty space. You practically need a second computer on your desk, so you can play something else while the autopilot keeps you flying in picture perfect unity with your wingmen.

So you formate, you fly out to where something to shoot is, you shoot it, you formate back up, fly back to the carrier and land on the carrier (which is also handled via autopilot). Frankly, I'm a little surprised they didn't just include a combat autopilot as well... you could start the game and go to the movies while your computer plays for you, then. Cutcene, rinse, repeat, and apparently there you have your game.

The controls are a little unintuitive as well. You have the option to make your mouse the targeting reticle, which sounds neat but it doesn't always behave as expected. 9 times out of 10, instead of your weapons shooting where your mouse reticle is, they will fire straight ahead anyway, making you wonder what the hell the point is of giving you a mobile reticle if the weapons don't train on it.

The story, or what little of it I could make out through the bad translations and worse acting, is also laughable. It deals with an interstellar war bent around the 27th century rediscovery of Zoroastrianism. It feels a little silly that peace in the 27th century is threatened by the resurgence of the proto-religion that eventually gave us the "big 3" standard religions. That'd be like a nuclear physicist suddenly deciding that pulleys and levers are a neat way to generate energy. I understand it's based on a book famous in Russia, but that didn't help "Hard to be a God" either.

The final breaking point for me with the game was when on the 3rd or 4th mission or so, I returned to formation after succeeding in the mission, only to have my wingmates sit like lumps, refusing to fly anywhere. Getting bored of that after 2 minutes, I broke off and flew back to the mothership by myself. But despite the fact that the next item on my mission list was "return to the carrier," I was not allowed to land because I didn't arrive via formation with my wingleader. I tried a manual landing (they do give you the manual controls to lower your landing gear and land yourself) but despite the ever so gentlest of touchdowns, the moment my fighter contacted with the flight deck I exploded in a giant fireball of sucky russian game.

While it is neat to finally play a flight simulator that has a "seamless" transition from stellar to atmospheric flight, it's not enough to carry this game. It's awful. It's not as bad as Necrovision, but it's still way too terrible to bother with. I want it off my computer, out of my memories, and I want those few hours I spent playing it refunded to me.

Grade: D-.
And that's the word from Bandit camp...

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Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Zero Punctuation Reviews: Chronicles of Riddick - Assault on Dark Athena

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Friday, May 01, 2009

Warhammer Online: Bad Live Event, Bad Patch

Recently Mythic had the "Beyond the sands" live event, and also patched to version 1.2.1. I don't think they did a very good job with either.

First, the live event was buggy and poorly planned. Part of it required every single person to pick up 2 crates. Each tier had its own location where the crates spawn, and that location was always in "contested" ORvR territory. So far so good. But here's where the problem starts... the location is an airship crash site, and the crates you need could be anywhere in the vicinity, though there will never be more than two "spawned" at any time for the taking. That means, even if one faction masses up and invades the crash site and holds it like a fortress... they still have to squabble amongst themselves, wait in line, play "ninja grab" for the dumb boxes. Another part also involved lining up and waiting for your turn to kill a single mob in the capital city. Furthermore, the third chapter of the event's quest was bugged so many couldn't get it (though it was eventually fixed). To top it all off, the rewards for the event were completely cosmetic and largely meaningless.

WO's past live events have been much better than this. Despite the "kill 9 billion snotlings" part, I loved the Keg End event. The battlebrew backpack was a genius reward. Heavy Metal featured an excellent new Scenario, as did Bitter Rivals. The Night of Murder valentine's event featured an excellent "marked for death" quest dynamic that was lots of fun. All these events also had their downsides as well (I never want to be told I have to kill so many hero/champion ogres, for instance), but they all had something to commend themselves. This was not the case for Beyond the sands.

As for the 1.2.1 patch, it made two major mistakes: First, it increased the difficulty of attacking a claimed and upgraded keep without first addressing the fact that even unclaimed and unupgraded, the keep siege dynamic already overwhelmingly favors the defenders. Since the patch, I've seen entire warbands and more wipe on undefended keeps that were upgraded to rank 5. At least on my (ORvR) server you can move down a tier so higher levels can help, I can't imagine what those poor schmucks on core servers are going through. Second of all, it introduced "medallions" which are granted as a consolation prize for taking keeps but not winning loot and also randomly drop off of enemy players. They serve as a form of currency to acquire the rewards of keep takes (armor sets) in an alternate fashion if you're the world's unluckiest random number generator. The problem is that the "prices" are set TOO HIGH on the gear. A single piece of Devastator (the tier 2 armor set) costs 135 medallions. You get 2 medallions per keep take, and at best 6 for flipping an entire zone's control to your side. You can pretty much write off medallions dropping from enemy players, because they drop on about 1 kill per 50 and then you have to roll against your whole warband for one. By the time you've gathered even half the medallions required for one piece of gear (and let's not forget, the gloves and later the shoulders are pieces that HAVE to be bought, not won or found), you've outleveled it and need to start working on the next tier's armor set instead. The medallions also bind on pickup, so you can't even donate them to friends/guildmates or auction them off on the auction house.

Mythic has really been dropping the ball lately. It's still the best MMO out there though.

And that's the word from Bandit camp.

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