Archive for the ‘Computer Games’ Category
Fallout 3. Has it really been 10 years since we last trod the glowing wastes? The Fallout franchise has attracted a cult following over the years, and I’m certainly not alone in my longing to return to the world of Nuka Cola and Stimpaks. The story of the life and hibernation of this popular series is a saga unto itself. (you can read about it here.) When I heard that Bethesda had picked up the franchise and was developing a sequel, my reaction was a combination of elation and fear. Bethesda was using the same engine that drove their popular and yet deeply flawed game “Oblivion”, and I had some serious concerns. 2 days in, I’m happy to report that these fears and concerns seem to be unfounded.
The game comes on 1 DVD, and installation is reasonable. I was up and running in under 15 minutes. I’m running the game on quad-core Mac Pro under a 100gig Vista partition. I’ve got 4 gigs of memory and an ATI x1900 graphics card. Starting the game, the recommended performance settings were “medium”. I haven’t tinkered with anything (it’s not apparent from the menus how to do so) but performance seems good.
In an interesting analog to Oblivion, character creation is a lengthy, scripted event. It literally begins at your birth, and the choices you make through the various stages of your early life determine the type of character you’ll be running. Fortunately, you have the option to change all of these settings using hard numerical figures before you leave the Vault. Those familiar with Fallout 1 and 2 will immediately feel at home with the system of SPECIALs, Skills, and Perks. While many of the options are new to Fallout 3, there are enough of the oldies to bring a smile to your face. Lady Killer and Bloody mess are two obvious examples.
Graphics are amazing, if your system is up to snuff. If it isn’t, the game seems to do a good job at recommending acceptable settings. I run full screen on a 30 inch monitor and everything is smooth as silk. Textures and effects like fire, smoke, and water are on-par with what we all expect for games of this generation.
There is music but as I immediately turned it off, I’ll not comment on that. Ambient sound is solid. You can hear the wind blowing, creatures skittering around behind doors, and people in towns holding conversations (which evidently go on whether you’re there or not.) Eavesdropping is an amusing diversion as you look for your next quest, and all of the NPCs which you can have meaningful interaction with (quest givers, for example) have a speech component. While you will make your conversation selections via a mouse click, the characters respond quickly and verbally. Rather than wait for 10 minutes for an NPC to complete a lengthy paragraph, you have the option to read the subtitle and skip ahead with another mouse click. This option is very welcome and works well.
There are a LOT of quests in this game, and a remarkable number of ways to solve them. You pick up quests in various ways, but it usually involves talking to someone. The depth of the writing really shines here. What seems to be an easy delivery quest rarely turns out to be quite that simple. It’s truly remarkable how open the game system is. You can solve a problem by shooting, talking, or sneaking. You can barter or use diplomacy. The entire skill system comes into play. Lacking the art of conversation, I ended up having to shoot my way out of one particularly gnarly situation. Hopelessly outnumbered, I used a series of well planted mines and grenades to lure my opponents to their doom. Had I spent points elsewhere, I would’ve likely been able to avoid combat entirely. I think that this game has a lot of replay value in that way.
Defeating opponents and completing quests nets a player “experience points”, and eventually the ability to “level up”. Players can then allocate points to various skills (Strength, Endurance, Charisma, etc.) You can also select a perk. I’m not going to go into the Perk system, it’s described well here. The leveling up process is smooth, and you can back up and undo a mistake before committing to it.
One of the things I disliked about Oblivion was the interface. It was written with the console market in mind, and had an over-simplistic, almost tacked-on feel. In Fallout 3, the chief interface is the Pip-boy 3000. The Pip-boy is an over-amped PDA. Strapped to your left forearm this thing tracks your quests, stats, inventory, maps, and notes. It even has a built-in radio which can receive the various “pirate radio” stations that are broadcasting out in the wasteland. The Pip-boy is simply fantastic…I love it, love it, love it. I want one in real life. Someone should write an iPhone app that simulates it. 🙂
(The Pip-Boy 3000)
The designers have done a fine job with the combat portion of this game. People will assume that Fallout 3 is a first person shooter based on screenshots and videos of gameplay, but the VATS system is a new paradigm. Clearly a nod to the phased combat of the original 2 episodes, the VATS system utilizes the concept of action points to queue up aimed combat strikes at various targets. When you initiate the vats system, gameplay pauses and you see a close up view of your enemy – with an overlaid grid of percentages for success for your attack on various parts of their body. Each of your attacks consumes a certain number of action points. So say if you want to take shots at an enemy’s leg, you may only get 3 aimed shots off before the round ends. Action points regenerate over time, so many times it’s a game of finding cover, waiting for action points to accumulate, and then leaning out to take another round of shots. The game animation for this is greatly entertaining.
With the caveat that I am only 2 days into this game, I have found Fallout 3 to be a stable experience. I have had 1 crash to desktop. I would also say that the player animations leave a lot to be desired. When in the 3rd person view, the player’s character looks like he is stiffly lurching, gliding, or skating along the ground. This seems like something that was tacked on at the end of the development process and not fully tuned. I will sometimes flip to 3rd person to see what new armor that I have acquired looks like, but then I immediately flip back. The animations are pretty awful. Interface-wise, there are a lot of shortcuts that are poorly documented that are of great help to players once they become aware of them. One of these is the “Pip-boy flashlight.” Holding down on the tab button turns on the flashlight. It’s also possible to map weapons to keys 1-9 by holding down a number and left clicking on the weapon in your inventory.
Fallout 3 is a completely different game than it’s predecessors, but the tone is right. It’s as though Bethesda decided to create a film from the Fallout book. There are differences in the translation, but the feeling is there and there’s no doubt it’s a Fallout game. If you enjoyed Fallout 1 and 2, this is a no-doubt, no-brainer, first-day must buy.
The new agers dig their beach and forest sounds. But if your teen years occurred in the 80’s, arcade noise is where it’s at. Take an aural journey back to your childhood courtesy of the Arcade Ambience Project.
Download hour long ambient mp3s from 1981, 1983, 1986, and 1992. It’s interesting to hear how the sounds changed over the years.
1981 is what does it for me.
A new MMORPG went live yesterday called “Age of Conan.” I decided to check it out. Here’s a brief review (or overview):
Installation: Lengthy. The game is huge and comes on 2 DVDs, so the installation reflected that fact. It took almost an hour to get up and running, and then the game began downloading a patch the first time I started it. That killed another 15 minutes.
Character Creation: Detailed. You begin with no memory of your past, aboard a slave ship bound for somewhere in a storm. First you select your race from 3 possible choices: Aquilonian, Cimmerian, and Stygian. Aquilonians are “the wealthy, cultured city dwellers”, Cimmerians are rough woodsmen, and Stygians are mysterious practitioners of the dark arts. Each race has a variety of classes which are it’s own version of popular MMO standards MMO. For instance the Aquilonian healer is called a “Priest of Mitra.” For Cimmeria, you can play a “Bear Shaman”, and Stygians get the “Tempest of Set.” Each is roughly analogous to the Priest healer of World of Warcraft. The archetypes include additionally: Rogue, Mage, and Soldier. Next, you can customize your avatar, tweaking a dizzying array of sliders until your “alter-self” looks just the way you like. I found the available hairstyles to be somewhat disappointing, but other than that there’s not much to dislike. Unlike many RPGs, there’s no initial point allocation to be done. Once you select your race, gender, profession and “look”, you’re on your way. Point tweaking comes later.
Graphics: As has been widely reported, graphics in AOC are very good, and a marked upgrade over WoW in nearly every way. Water glistens and ripples realistically. World terrain is incredibly complex and detailed. There is some repetition with man-made objects (campfires, tents, crates, etc) but the buildings and towns are unique. In WoW there are maybe 5-10 standard building types that are repeated over and over again. Where AOC falls down graphically is in character modeling and animation. Players and NPCs kind of glide along. Running is stiff and unrealistic, and when a character assumes a battle-stance, it is splay-legged and unnatural. Players and NPCs run around stiffly. With lag, player spawned minions look like they’re sliding and skating around. Much of the “charm” that makes WoW what it is is missing. Think Oblivion “online” with out the excellent writing and character facial animation and you won’t be far off. Everything is cold and static. Swimming is possible, and a “breath bar” appears when you dip below the surface. Occasionally graphics glitches can be spotted. In once case there’s a particularly buxom NPC who is literally bursting from her outfit, bare skin clipping through her clothing in an most unseemly manner.
Cut scenes seem to be well handled. At the beginning of the game was a segment that was every bit as good as anything that Blizzard has delivered. Performance note: I have a quad core machine with 4 gig of memory and an ATI x1900, and I had to scale back the resolution a bit. 2560×1600 was a bit much at max quality. Now getting more than 30 frames at 1600×1200.
Sound: I turned the music off after 5 minutes. It seemed like standard fantasy MMORPG fare. Voice acting was several solid notches below that found in WoW.
Quests: NPCs with quests to give have a large exclamation point floating over their head. These NPCs are also conveniently marked on the player’s map. When quests are completed, the exclamation point turns into a question mark – exactly as it does in WOW. Maps come with coordinates built in, which is something that WOW players have had to install mods to accomplish. Hovering your mouse over a player who has something to say changes the cursor to a “chat bubble” and right clicking the NPC moves the POV to an up close static aspect. Players are then presented with a series of questions they can ask the NPC, and the NPC will respond. The responses are all voice acted, which can get annoying in a hurry. When an NPC’s response is several sentences long, players will typically read ahead rapidly. This results in many unfinished sentences, as players impatiently click the next question. So you get a very odd-sounding game. It should be noted that this sort of quest interface is standard fare in RPGs, and will be immediately familiar to most gamers.
Leveling up: An experience bar runs across the bottom of the screen, and as the player slays creatures and completes quests, the bar “fills up”. When the bar is completely full, the player gains a level and the bar resets. In addition to the bar is a little circle with a number inside. Each day, the first 10 kills (of a level close to the player) result in an experience bonus. This is similar, I suppose, to WoW’s “rested” experience bonus. Some levels, players are rewarded with an additional “move” or skill. Players also get a number of points that they can allocate to things like “bandaging, mana-regen, etc.” The list of modifiable skills starts out small and grows larger as you level.
Interface: AOC presents players with a task bar. Tasks 1, 2, and 3 are attacks…1= Attack Left, 2=Attack overhead, 3=attack right. These attacks are executed by pressing the appropriate number key on your keyboard. As you gain new attacks, you can drop them into additional buckets to the right of the “big 3.” Early on, I earned a sweeping attack, which I dropped into bucket ‘4’. Players have health, mana, and stamina bars. Some attacks use mana, stamina, or a combination of both. There’s a map in the upper right corner which can be zoomed in and out. There’s a day/night indicator there as well. At the top middle of the screen there are tabs which you can press to look at various things…stats, quests, etc. There are additional “buckets” to the left of the “big 3” action buttons, and players can drop potions and other consumables there to be accessed via mouse-click. There is an online help “thesaurus”. Video, sound, and other configuration options are modified by pressing the “ESC” key and selecting the appropriate item from a menu.
Combat: Combat in AOC is a button-mashing affair. You select your opponent by clicking on them or tab-targetting. A big arrow appears over their head, and a circle surrounds them. Then you click 1, 2, or 3 to direct your attack at an appropriate part of your opponent’s body. Enemies will seek to actively block your attack, and there are floating ‘shield’ indicators to give you an indication of which side the enemy is seeking to defend. If you attack a sector with 3 shields up, you’ll do much less damage than if you slide an attack into an undefended area. There are combo moves as well, where you string together special attacks with standard ones to deliver bonus damage. Some enemies will drop bags or chests on the ground which can be looted by right clicking. Players can loot other player’s kills…an important distinction from WoW. I was able to ghetto loot many bags from other players as they were occupied in killing multiple mobs. I’m not real clear on how aggro works yet, although I have noticed that when you lure one close-by mob into attacking you, they’ll bring their nearby friends as well.
Inventory: Pressing “I” brings up the inventory screen, and a “paperdoll” of your player character. Similar to WOW, you can equip head, hands, legs, chest, boots, rings, and more. There are 3 different bag options…general inventory, a bag for quest items, and a third bag for crafting components. Gear is discarded by dragging it out of your bag and clicking an empty space on your screen. Items can be sold to vendors for coin. Some vendors sell food, others potions or other types of items.
Miscellaneous: Player and NPC avatars occupy space. As such, they cannot be run through, unlike WoW. This presents some interesting dynamics in group combat, with tank characters forming literal walls to protect casters. However in crowded indoor areas, it can be very difficult to navigate. One time I needed to go up a flight of stairs to talk to an NPC, but it was embarrassingly traffic jammed by player bodies trying to do the same. The game is heavily instanced…most buildings are zones require loading to enter. Similarly, switching from multiplayer day to single player night will also require a load. Players have their names, level, and guild name in text over their head. Creatures have their name and level over their head as well (in red text.)
Communication: Communication is handled through a chat dialog box on the left hand side of the screen. There are several different channels, including a guild channel.
Conclusion: AOC is off to a solid start. It’s too early to tell if it’ll make serious inroads into the dominance of Blizzard’s World of Warcraft, but if nothing else it will provide an interesting diversion until Wrath of the Lich King is released.
As many of you know, I attended a lan-party last weekend near Albany, NY. The game was “Counter-Strike: Source“, and there were 16 or so players in attendance.
A great time was had by all, and I was able to show off my HUGE monitor and Mac Pro to all the dorky PC gamers. Unfortunately I was forced to boot the thing into Windows Vista (gag) to play the game, but sometimes sacrifices must be made.
Between the pixelated mayhem, we enjoyed scads of pizza, wads of chicken “fingers”, drams of dark beer, intermittent shots of Royal Crown whiskey, and an abundance of leftover (but not yet stale) Halloween candy.
Stats for the contest can be found here. You’ll notice that “Squidly” finished 5th. I would point out that a 5th place showing isn’t too bad considering I hadn’t touched Counter Strike for 3-4 years.
I would also point out that Bribo finished 6th. 6th place is worse than 5th, for those counting along at home.
So long as I beat out Bribo, it’s a win in my book.
In addition to finishing Half Life 2, Episode 2, I also completed one of Valve’s newest games, Portal. Both games were great, great, great. A couple of the most memorable gaming experiences I’ve ever had.
The end game screens and song for Portal are really funny as well (provided you’ve played the game and know the storyline.)
(Playing this is somewhat of a spoiler…but worth it…)