21 January 2015

The Last of Us

Naughty Dog's The Last of Us was one of the more talked about and generally respected video game releases of recent years. I never really paid it that much attention back when it was originally released, but now that I have a PS4 and the 'Remastered' version had been out for a while and I could get it for a fair price, I figured I'd finally give it a shot.

The Last of Us is a third person action-adventure game set 20 years from now in what's basically a fairly typical 'zombie apocalypse' setting. The monsters aren't called zombies, but 'infected', and have strange fungal growths and stuff, but basically it's still your average zombie apocalypse. Humanity's remnants are held up in quarantine zones under martial law, or loot the ruined cities in lawless gangs. Joel is cynical, middle-aged smuggler, who gets tasked with escorting a teenaged girl, Ellie, who's apparently immune to the infection and could thus be the key to humanity's survival...

Honestly, it all sounds terribly clichéd. It took me a while to really get into it. But it turns out the story is more about the characters than anything else, and the characters are pretty good, as is the dialogue and voice acting. The game succumbs to some video game tropes occasionally, but I mostly enjoyed its style of storytelling. Joel and Ellie's mission turns into an epic journey across America, with many twists and turns. You'll visit a nice variety of different environments, too, and fight your way through many tough scrapes... The game is also obviously targeted to a mature audience. It is very gritty and violent, and the story is not without tragic moments.

The Last of Us plays much like many modern third person action-adventure titles. There's an emphasis on stealth, facilitated by some neat features, like the ability to focus on listening, which allows you to practically 'see' through walls. There's a decent variety of different weapons at your disposal, too, of course. You'll face both infected monsters and regular human enemies, which'll require different strategies.

I played on normal difficulty and found some of the action sequences surprisingly challenging (though I should note that I'm generally pretty bad at action games). Sneaking past multiple enemies isn't always easy, and you can die pretty fast if you get swarmed by enemies. Also, while the game is fairly linear, it doesn't always do the best job of telling you what you're supposed to be doing. Especially in the earlier parts of the game I felt almost frustrated at times, but the action got more fun later with more weapons and tools to choose from. For those much better at this type of gameplay there are multiple harder difficulty settings as well. (I have no interest in trying those, though...)

Originally released for PS3, the 'Remastered' PS4 version presumably has at least a better resolution, though I cannot say how much it differs. The game looked fine to my eyes, anyway. Some of the outdoor locations especially were quite pretty, and the art direction and level design in general wasn't bad, nor was the audio.

The PS4 version also includes the DLC Left Behind, which delves deeper into Ellie's backstory. It was pretty decent for DLC content, though not hugely long. All in all I spent some 20 hours on The Last of Us Remastered, which is a pretty decent length for an action-adventure title.

So yeah, both in terms of story and gameplay, it took me a little while to really warm up to The Last of Us, but in the end I quite enjoyed it. It doesn't exactly reinvent the wheel in any way and it has its problems, but it's a fairly well put together action-adventure title, with nice atmosphere and storytelling. Will I ever replay it? It's one those games I think I could well replay some day, but in practise I know I rarely get around to... I'm glad I played it, in any case.

31 December 2014

The 2014 Post

So, it's New Year's Eve, and I guess it's traditional to take a look back at the past year. I'm not going to pretend 2014 was the greatest of years for me. My creative and social energies have been pretty low and I haven't accomplished much. (And, looking at my blog, I see I've only posted about half the number of posts I've written in an average year.) But let's talk about some of the highlights of the year, rather than mope around!

As anyone following my blog would know, video games have always been one of my greatest passions. I think I managed to play a reasonable number of games this year, by my standards. Finally getting a PlayStation Plus membership allowed me to try out several interesting games I might not have played otherwise. But I think two games really stand out when I look back.

The first was Dark Souls. I spent many an hour playing it last spring (and wrote several blog posts). This dark, challenging action RPG that I'd been somewhat sceptical about for many years turned out to be very much to my taste. And then there's the last game I played this year, another that surprised me with its addictive quality—Destiny. I've never been a huge fan of FPSs, but, as I wrote before, I think I've had more fun with Destiny than with any FPS I've tried since Doom.

I realise that both of these games have an appeal that is not necessarily easy to explain to others, and also not the types of games I've traditionally played most (being less narrative and more grindy experiences). They aren't perfect creations, but I've still greatly enjoyed them.

Tangentially related to gaming, discovering LoadingReadyRun was an important part of my year. This Canadian group produces a large variety of online comedy videos and also streams games live on Twitch. Their works have provided me with a lot of entertainment over the last year. They're also known for their charity gaming marathon Desert Bus for Hope, which I watched for the first time this year, and it was a blast. Speaking of charity marathons, Mario Marathon was another highlight of the year, as it has been for several years running.

The music year was a little slow for me, to be honest. I've been a little lazier than before in my listening, and I haven't really made many interesting new discoveries. I got to see Within Temptation live, which was fun. (And their new album was decent as well.) The highlight of the year for me, though, was probably the new Toehider album, What Kind of Creature Am I, which I backed in a crowdfunding campaign, on a whim, based on the recommendation of Arjen Lucassen. And I'm very glad I did—Toehider was a much needed breath of fresh air in my otherwise slightly stagnant year.

And I guess that pretty much wraps up 2014 for me. Hopefully 2015 will continue to bring interesting games and entertainment my way. And maybe, just maybe, I'll even manage to accomplish something sometime...

23 December 2014

The Destiny Post Part 2, featuring The Dark Below

I'm honestly a little surprised that almost a month after my previous post about Destiny, I'm still actually playing it. Having played through the story missions just before that post, I was momentarily unsure about what I wanted to do next. Usually I get bored with games around that point and move on to something new. But I fought through my hesitation and popped the game into the console again, and, lo and behold, I've been enjoying it ever since, even with all its repetitiveness and lack of obvious goals beyond improving my character.

So what I've been doing is pretty much just grinding. There are 'bounties' in the game that refresh daily, so I wander the planets, killing things and doing little missions, occasionally replaying story missions on harder settings etc. And I've managed to grind to level 30 doing pretty much just that. (The progression is much slower after level 20, which is where I was at when I finished the story missions almost a month ago.)

There are still aspects of the game I haven't really delved into, specifically the multiplayer content. I've only tried doing strikes (the slightly more demanding three player missions) a handful of times. It's been fun and I probably should be doing more of it, but I'm always very nervous about playing with strangers. (It's not like I even have to communicate with the other players, the missions are fairly straightforward, but still...) As for the Crucible, which is what the game's PvP portion is called, I tried it once recently, and soon discovered that fighting human players is very different than fighting AI. I failed about as miserably as it is possible to fail, and I don't really have any desire to try that again. Yeah, what can I say, I'm a scrub. (Which is a shame, since some of the better weapons in the game can only be obtained by playing Crucible...)

Also, a couple weeks back Destiny's first expansion was released, titled The Dark Below. Being heavily into the game at the time, I bought it, of course. Well, actually I bought the expansion pass that includes both The Dark Below and the next expansion when it's released. Something I've never done before—I've never really been in a huge fan of DLC in general, and rarely in a great hurry to obtain them...

The Dark Below adds a couple new story missions and a bunch of smaller objectives called 'quests', as well as two new strikes and a new raid, new bounties, plus new equipment (which I believe is available even if you don't buy the expansion). It also increases the level cap to 32. While playing through the missions as such won't take a huge amount of time, when you consider that the 'meat' of Destiny is largely in the repetition and grinding, any bit of added variety is obviously important. If it was a one time playthrough, the price of the expansion would seem a little bit steep, I think, but Destiny's nature probably makes it more worth it...

Anyway, the new material was pretty fun to play through, overall. The new missions are obviously higher level than the original story missions, with lots of enemies to plough through and keep that adrenaline pumping. The story's no deeper than the rest of Destiny—an old alien threat is about to rise again and you must stop it, etc. etc. But it builds on lore established in the original content, which is important. I'm already looking forward to seeing what the next expansion brings to the setting.

Now it's hard, as always, to say how long my interest in the game will last. I do have other games waiting to be played. But so far I've been enjoying Destiny... Even if I do take a break before too long, I'll obviously return to it eventually, since I've already bought the next expansion...

26 November 2014

The Destiny Post

Not being a huge fan of either FPS games or online multiplayer games, I wasn't initially particularly interested in Bungie's new game, Destiny. But after recently getting a PS4 and watching the game streamed by members of LoadingReadyRun (who have previously inspired me to try several other games, like Dark Souls, that I've quite enjoyed), I figured I might as well give it a shot and bought a second hand copy. I ended up playing a not insignificant amount of hours of it over the last week or so.

Destiny was initially released to somewhat mixed reviews, but I think this was largely due to the fact that it had generated a lot of hype before its release. So it might not have been quite as ground-breaking as some might have hoped, but that doesn't mean it's necessarily a bad game. I've heard more than one person I respect comment that the criticisms the game received can't really be argued with, but it's still a fun game to play. As I write this, I've finished playing through the game's main story missions, but there are still aspects, namely the game's multiplayer elements, that I haven't tried. I may return to those in a future post, if I ever get around to playing them...

So what exactly is Destiny? It's actually a little hard to sum up in just a few words. Destiny is a sci-fi first person shooter with RPG elements. It's set in a distant, apocalyptic future. A long time ago, a vast alien entity known as the Traveler came to earth, bringing about an era of prosperity across the solar system. But eventually the Traveler's old enemy, a mysterious force known only as the Darkness, came and caused society to collapse. Humanity's last survivors now live in a single city on Earth, while the rest of the solar system is overrun by hostile aliens. You play as a Guardian, a warrior brought back from the dead by the Traveler's power, who must venture out into the world to fight these alien invaders...

While the game was obviously designed with multiplayer in mind, there is plenty to do on your own as well. A series of story missions introduces you to the game's locations and enemy factions. The story's not exactly very deep or complex, but that's fine. Destiny is clearly more about gameplay than it is about narrative, and I think its storytelling went well with the game's style and pace. Graham Stark of LoadingReadyRun once commented while streaming the game that it's not so much a game with story as it is a game with lore. And the setting is, indeed, pretty cool.

Which brings me to one of the game's features that caused some controversy. As you play, you unlock 'Grimoire Cards', little snippets of lore concerning many aspects of the game and its setting. However, you can't read these in the game, only by logging into Bungie's website or using the game's official mobile phone app. The possibility to read this background information online or on my phone, in and of itself, is a pretty neat idea, I think. But not being able to access it through the game doesn't really make any sense. It's not like we're talking about a huge amount of data...

But let's get on to the game itself! Destiny controls much like any FPS. The action is fairly fast and fluid, and pretty fun. There's a significant RPG element to the game as well, though. You pick one of three classes and three races. The latter choice is only cosmetic, but each class has slightly different abilities. As you play you level up and gain more abilities, and find or buy better gear. Loot is important, and items come in a range of different rarities. Once you hit level 20 you can only increase your level by acquiring better gear, up to an overall maximum of 30.

The game has four major areas (Earth, Moon, Venus and Mars), each of which features a fairly large, open public area and locations for several missions. Multiplayer is woven through the entire game. Each mission will usually see you travelling through a public area populated by other players as well, to the actual mission area, where you'll be alone—or with your 'fire team', if you're playing co-op—not unlike an instance dungeon in a MMORPG. Or you can patrol the public areas doing little side-quests and bounties and participating in random 'public events' that will have you engage a particular enemy or defend a location with any players that are around... Destiny's not really a MMO game, however, since you'll only ever be in a level with a handful of randomly selected other players.

Like I said, there's plenty to do on your own as well. Playing through the story missions, maybe doing a few patrols and bounties on the side, should get you close to level 20. According to the stats in the phone app I've spent some 16 hours doing just this (although I'm not entirely sure if this includes everything or just time spent in missions). Which is already a decent amount of content for an action game.

If you're interested in multiplayer, there are additional missions, called 'strikes', intended primarily for three player teams (and of course you can play any of the regular story missions and patrols with a team as well), as well as a lengthier 'raid' for a six player team. (More strikes and raids are to be added in DLCs, I believe.) And of course there are PvP modes as well—a fairly decent variety of content, all in all, catering to different tastes. (It should be noted that multiplayer content is not cross-platform, as far as I know.)

Destiny looks and sounds pretty good, in my opinion. The soundtrack has a lot of variety, ranging from epic orchestrals to fast electronic segments, all of which fit the game pretty well. (And I recently learned Paul McCartney himself worked on some of the tracks, which is pretty interesting.) I'm not the best at evaluating the graphics of modern games—I don't feel like Destiny is especially ground-breaking in that department, but I certainly had no complaints. Performance (on PS4) was always pretty smooth. The only technical complaint I had was that, because of the online elements, Internet connection hiccups might cause the game to kick you out, making you restart at the last checkpoint. This happened to me a few times, but overall it's a relatively minor annoyance.

Admittedly I haven't played a ton of FPS games, but, honestly, I think I had more fun playing through Destiny's story missions than I've had with any FPS since, well, Doom (though of course the RPG elements and level structure make it pretty different from most typical FPS games). It may not be the deepest gaming experience I've ever had, but it's a fun game with a cool setting. What more would I want?

With its multiplayer elements it's a game one could theoretically keep playing indefinitely, although the number of missions is somewhat limited and I imagine they could get pretty repetitive after a while... Like I said, I haven't really tried the multiplayer at all yet. I honestly don't know at this point if I will. This tends to be the point in many games when I lose interest and move on to new things... We'll just have to see whether Destiny repeats this pattern—though even if it does, I feel I've gotten my money's worth from the game already.

14 November 2014

Child of Light (Game Review)

So I finally got myself a PS4! I say 'finally', although honestly a year after release isn't that long for me, quite possibly the earliest I've ever gotten a new console. But I knew I would have to get one eventually, so here we are...

So, brand new console out of the box and hooked up, but no actual games in my shelf yet, I turned to the PSN store to look for a cheap game to try. Child of Light caught my eye. I've been meaning to try it out for a while. It's available for PS3 as well, but obviously I was going to play it on PS4 now that I had one (buying it on PSN actually gives you access to both versions). Of course I can't say if there's any difference in appearance between the two, since I've only played it on PS4.

Child of Light was developed by Ubisoft Montreal, but it's not a typical large western studio production. It's a cute (some could even say twee) fairy tale game that combines features typical of indie sidescrollers and Japanese RPGs.

Aurora is a girl from 19th century Austria, who due to an illness succumbs to a deathlike sleep. However, she awakes in a magical land called Lemuria, where a dark queen has stolen the stars, moon and sun. Naturally it's Aurora's destiny to fight the queen and save the land from eternal night... The story's hardly very deep or original, but it goes very well with the style of the game. The characters are all fun as well. Most of the dialogue in the game is written in rhyming verse. Honestly, it's often a little awkward and could have been improved with just a little effort, but I still think it's quite charming.

Aesthetically the game is quite pretty. It has a 2D hand-drawn look that goes very well with the game's themes. The music, composed by Canadian musician Béatrice Martin (aka Cœur de pirate), is quite good as well.

The 'overworld' part of the game plays much like a 2D platformer (although quite early on you gain the ability to fly, so it's not really about 'platforming'). There are some puzzle elements, many involving your 'firefly' companion that can be controlled with the right stick (or the PS4 controller's touchpad), who can interact with various objects.

Coming into contact with an enemy triggers a turn based battle sequence, much like typical JRPG battles, although there are original twists as well. Timing plays a crucial role in combat. Time advances between actions, and you can follow characters' progress on a graph at the bottom of the screen. Different actions take a different amount of time to complete, and if you hit an enemy (or you yourself get hit) in this 'casting' phase, the action is interrupted. The firefly companion is used in combat as well. It can slow down enemies, heal allies etc.

Over the course of the game you'll acquire several allies. Only two characters can be in combat simultaneously, but you can switch characters at any time. The characters all have unique abilities, of course, that develop as you gain experience. There's no equipment management per se, but you'll find gems that you can equip for additional bonuses.

The game has two difficulty modes, 'casual' and 'expert'. I went with 'casual' for my first playthrough, looking for a primarily relaxing experience, and the game was mostly pretty easy. (I only died once, and that was due to environmental hazards rather than combat, and I very rarely had to use any of the many healing items I picked up.) However, even on this easy setting, I felt the battle system encouraged me to think about what I was doing, which is naturally good.

The game wasn't very long (at least by RPG standards). I played through it over the course of a few days. (Alas, no in-game timer, as far as I could see. Seriously, game devs, it can't be that hard to include one!) Then again, it's not very expensive either. And I may want to replay it in 'expert' mode some day, too...

Ubisoft isn't one of my favourite game publishers due to their attitudes toward DRM and recent debacles concerning diversity, buggy game launches etc. The game bugs you to register with their entirely unnecessary Uplay platform. Thankfully it's optional, though. The reminder when starting the game is only a minor annoyance. Still, it was one of the few things that really bothered me about this game.

So yeah, in summation, Child of Light is a very pretty, unique RPG with a fairy tale feel, and an interesting, well balanced battle system. The cute look and themes obviously may not be for everybody, but fans of fantasy RPGs might get a kick out of this game. I know I enjoyed it myself.

21 October 2014

Hatoful Boyfriend (Game Review)

So I'd never really played a 'visual novel' style game. Then I watched members of LoadingReadyRun stream some of Hatoful Boyfriend on Twitch. I watch a fair amount of LoadingReadyRun's streams and other online videos. They're a cool bunch, and they stream a wide variety of interesting games. In the past they've inspired me to play at least Dark Souls (which I love) and XCOM: Enemy Unknown (which I never actually got around to beating, but it was still an interesting experience). Hatoful Boyfriend looked like an... interesting and funny game, and it wasn't terribly expensive either, so I decided to give it a shot.

Like I said, Hatoful Boyfriend is a 'visual novel' game, meaning it's primarily presented through dialogue sequences, occasionally requiring you to make choices about your actions or replies, which in turn determine the storyline and ending you get. A little like the 'choose your own adventure' books of old, I guess... The game was originally release in Japan in 2011, but a new 'HD' remake was released this autumn, and is available on Steam and other online services.

The game puts you in the shoes of a Japanese high school girl, following her life through a school year. You'll have to choose what extracurricular activities you take, which boys you hang out with etc, as you'd expect in this kind of game, except... all the other characters in the game are birds. Mostly pigeons or doves of various kinds. Yes, you are the only human pupil at a school for intelligent birds! And there's other weird stuff going on, as well. Like, early on in the game, it's revealed you live in a cave, and you're apparently a 'hunter-gatherer'...

Some of the storylines the game takes you through are relatively mundane, romantic stories. That is, except for the fact that they're between a human and pigeons! Other stories go into... weird and sometimes dark places (don't worry, it's not a 'hentai' game, but it does have some horror elements). There's a lot of humour through the game (obviously, there'd have to be in), and a lot of references to Japanese culture, games etc.

Each playthrough only takes an hour or two (probably less once you've played through it a few times and can speed through repeated dialogue). There's more than a dozen different endings, though, so you'll be playing through it a bunch of times to see all of them. Which is also what, in my mind, makes this a 'game' and not merely a story. You'll want to unlock all those endings, and you need to find the right choices to get you to each of them. (Most of them were fairly easy to get, though I did look up hints for a few endings—most of which were simply alternate versions of endings I'd already gotten that hinged on relatively minor details.)

It sounds crazy and random, and I guess it is, but there is actually a surprisingly detailed backstory to it. However, through much of the game you'll only be given hints about what's going on and why the world is like it is. After you've unlocked the game's other endings, you unlock a special ending—a long (like, literally several hours) story sequence that explains a lot of what's actually going on and ties together loose ends. All in all it took me some 15 hours to complete Hatoful Boyfriend, which I think is a respectable amount of entertainment for the game's price.

Technologically speaking the game's hardly impressive. There's virtually no animation, just static character images superimposed on simple backgrounds. The character images are actual photographs of birds (though when you first meet major characters, you have the option to see a manga style representation of what they might look like if they were human)... There's no voice acting, and the music is, for the most part, quite generic (largely making use, I believe, of public domain tracks). There was also a fair amount of typos in the text, and occasionally the game would crash when trying to load a saved game. But none of this really matters, the game's real value is in its crazy story and concept.

So yeah. Hatoful Boyfriend is a weird, insane, sometimes silly, sometimes dark and even gruesome, often hilarious... thing. It's actually quite hard to explain its appeal, and I'm sure it isn't for everyone. It wouldn't necessarily be my first recommendation to people who aren't already into Japanese games and culture, at least. On the other hand, I don't think you need to be a fan of other visual novel or dating sim style games to get a kick out of it.

Also, pudding.

15 October 2014

Batman: Arkham Asylum (Game Review)

The Arkham series of Batman video games has been fairly popular, but I never really got around to looking into it, even though I do think of myself as a Batman fan (but then again, who doesn't)... However, when the first game in the series, Batman: Arkham Asylum (from 2009), was recently offered as a PlayStation Plus member download, I figured I might as well give it a shot.

The story begins with Batman delivering a recently captured Joker to Arkham Asylum. Lo and behold, Joker breaks free and begins taking over the facility. Naturally several classic Batman villains are released in the process, who Batman will have to deal with on his way to defeat Joker... Honestly, I found the story mediocre at best, a collection of Batman tropes to ferry you from level to level. And I wasn't hugely impressed by the dialogue and voice acting either, even though the game was written by Paul Dini—who worked on Batman: The Animated Series—and several original Batman: The Animated Series voice actors (most notably Mark Hamill as the Joker).

The actual gameplay, however, is somewhat more interesting. At its core it's nothing really original, deeply rooted in the 3rd person action-adventure genre. But there are many little features that make it fun to play. Naturally Batman has a variety of gadgets to help him, from batarangs and explosives to grappling guns. Which adds variety to the game, even though the controls for some of the gadgets felt unnecessarily clunky. Mobility plays a large role in the game, as Batman can grapple to high platforms to escape enemies and the like. An important element is also a special 'Detective Vision' mode that gives you additional information about your surroundings.

Combat is fairly straightforward and fluid. You gain experience that unlocks more powerful combo moves etc. Nothing really new there, but nothing wrong with it either. The regular combat sequences could feel a little repetitive, though (as did many of the boss fights), and some of the more interesting scenes were stealth oriented sequences where you have to pick off enemies one by one, using a variety of tactics, including sneaking behind them or dropping down from above.

I had no complaints about the look and feel of the game, aesthetically. It did feel... Batman-y enough. Interior level design, of course, can feel a little 'game-y' sometimes and not always exactly realistic. Not that that's much of a surprise. A particular pet peeve for me was the frequent use of gargoyles... on interior walls. Sure, they were quite practical as a gameplay element, but the point of real gargoyles was to funnel water from a roof so it doesn't run down walls. Not something you'd want inside a room...

The game didn't have a timer, as far as I could see, but the length felt fairly typical for this kind of game. For the obsessive completionist gamers there's a ton of secrets and collectible items scattered through the game, but, as usual, I couldn't really be bothered with that stuff...

In summary, Batman: Arkham Asylum was a reasonably fun little action-adventure game, but, despite some interesting features, didn't really stand out from other games in the genre, and felt like it had potential for more, in terms of narrative and gameplay variety. I don't really see myself replaying this game much, with so many other interesting games out there. But I could consider picking up the sequels, should I run into them at an affordable price...

23 September 2014

A Weekend With WoW

So, almost a decade after the game's release, I finally did it. I actually tried World of Warcraft.

I've been mildly curious about MMORPGs as a phenomenon for a long time. A few years ago I even tried playing a handful of free games, but all of those turned out to be either uninteresting to me or suffered from poor performance on my system at the time. But that was a long time ago, and, on a whim, just for kicks, one boring Friday night I decided to try if WoW would run on my current Debian laptop, using Wine. I figured what the hell, it's free up to level 20, I have nothing to lose. Perhaps a little to my surprise, it actually ran. Not at huge frame rates or on full graphical settings, of course, but smooth enough to be perfectly playable.

A few days later I reached the Starter Edition's level cap. Those 20 levels... actually succeed at giving new players a fairly decent glimpse of the variety and scope of WoW. There's a vast world to explore, a variety of different enemies and quests, and loot to pick up. You can do solo quests, or even try out instanced dungeons with a group.

So those would be some of the pros of the game. The cons, however... Yes, the world is vast with a multitude of different environments, and there are tons of quests. However, a lot of that world is, to be honest, a little on the bland side, not exactly teeming with detail. (Well, the game is ten years old, after all...) And while there is some variety, a lot of those quests are hopelessly repetitive. Go here, kill X creatures, report back... The controls also seem a little awkward and I don't think I've still quite gotten used to them. (Perhaps this is partly due to my mostly console background—playing third person games with a mouse feels weird. And speaking of which, boy has my hand been hurting, I'm so not used to using a mouse these days...)

So my feelings about WoW are somewhat mixed. It feels like a world with a lot of potential, but on the other hand it could obviously be much more interesting. Still, just exploring the world and doing quests has been pretty entertaining for these past few days.

Then there's of course the social aspect of the game, which is a whole other story. And one I can't really comment on much. I only did one instanced dungeon before hitting the level cap, and it was fun, but kind of a hectic blur, and I didn't really interact with the other players at all. (I know some of my friends have played WoW in the past, but I'm not sure any are currently active, and I doubt they'd be on the same server anyway—I just picked the first one the game recommended for me, out of quite a few).

So the big question is: is it worth paying a monthly fee for? Right now, sure, I could see myself paying for one month and trying out the game a little longer. When you think about it, a month's subscription isn't a whole lot of money, if you actually play the game on a fairly regular basis. Compare it to, for instance, buying a new single player game. It'll likely cost more, and mostly I don't play a game like that after I beat it, which rarely takes much more than a month, often considerably less. But would I be interested in WoW in the long term? That... I'm a little sceptical of. I've never really played a single game for extended periods in the past. I'm always moving on to new experiences. Ideally I think it would be something to occasionally kill a little time with. But paying a not insignificant monthly fee for something like that just doesn't seem like a viable option.

One more observation, relating to a theme in recent blog posts: this game could really use a manual. If one is provided anywhere with the download or in-game, I haven't found it. And the guide at Battle.net isn't nearly as helpful as the one for Diablo III was. It doesn't really go into the basic controls and mechanics at all...

EDIT: Well, I actually found a downloadable PDF manual, in the account section of Battle.net under my WoW details. Wish someone had pointed that out earlier... Mind you, the file is very unoptimised for computer screens and quite hard to read...

I guess that wraps up my admittedly brief experience (so far) with one of the world's most famous games, so I'll just leave you with this: for the Horde!

16 September 2014

A Moment of Nostalgia with Heroes of Might and Magic III

I recently bought a copy of Heroes of Might and Magic III (1999) when it was on sale at Good Old Games. I was a little surprised to find it works almost flawlessly on my GNU/Linux machine using Wine. (I also installed an unofficial HD mod to make it run in bigger resolutions.)

Back in the 90s, I had a copy of Heroes of Might and Magic II. I recall it was probably one of the first games I bought after my family got a new Pentium computer. It was a cool fantasy strategy game, with pretty graphics and great music. Right up my proverbial alley at the time. Before that I'd been playing Master of Magic a little, but Heroes' more polished, modern aesthetics, and perhaps also the slightly more streamlined mechanics, quickly won me over.

But I was never very good at it, or should I rather say not patient enough. I never got very far in the campaign, mostly playing single scenarios on easy difficulty settings and sometimes hot-seat multiplayer with friends. (I never was very patient with games back then—I hardly ever 'beat' games until a little later when I got into more story-driven stuff, like JRPGs...) Even so, I might go as far as saying that Heroes II is the game I remember most fondly from the 90s (together with TIE Fighter).

So, I started up Heroes III, and I felt right at home. Even though I didn't play it back in the day, the game's similar enough to it's predecessor to feel instantly familiar and intuitive. I still love the aesthetics and feel of the game, so many years later. I started up a scenario, played it for several hours... and then I drifted off to other things and haven't been back since. Yup, that sounds very familiar as well.

It's a problem I've had with many classic games, and perhaps particularly strategy games. There would be a ton of content to play through in Heroes III (the GOG version includes the two expansions as well). But alas, it seems more like an itch that needs occasionally scratching than something I'd be really motivated to stick with. (I'd still heartily recommend it to fans of classic strategy games, though. Even when not on sale, the game's only ten bucks at GOG.com, which seems like a bargain.)

11 September 2014

Diablo III: Ultimate Evil Edition (Game Review)

Blizzard's Diablo and Diablo II are among those classic computer games I never played. Thus I was only vaguely aware of the hype surrounding Diablo III when it was finally released a couple years ago, and the maybe somewhat lukewarm reception it had. But when the expansion, Reaper of Souls, was released earlier this year, and people were saying how it improved the game, coinciding with when I was getting into watching more gaming streams and thus exposed to a wider range of games, my curiosity grew.

When the expansion was released for consoles recently, bundled together with the main game as the Ultimate Evil Edition, I decided it was time to finally check out the series and bought the PS3 version. (It's also out for PS4, but I don't have one yet...)

I'm sure many people reading this will already be aware of the Diablo series, but for anyone who's not, the games are isometric hack-and-slash style action RPGs, with a focus on randomly generated content and loot. The story is set in a dark fantasy world called Sanctuary, and deals primarily with the war between angels and demons, with the player taking the part of a human hero going up against the demon lords, particularly their leader, the titular Diablo. Diablo III takes place 20 years after the previous game. Diablo has supposedly been vanquished, but the remaining demon lords are again spreading evil in Sanctuary. You set out to investigate a mysterious falling star and the dead rising from the graves...

The gameplay itself is quite simple, on the surface. Basically you hit buttons until the monsters die. The console version, out of necessity, has vastly different controls than the PC version. Where the PC games have always been heavily mouse oriented, the console version plays more like a standard third person action game (you use the left stick to move, buttons to attack etc). The menus and inventory management were also completely overhauled to work better with controllers.

Despite the simple premise, Diablo III has a surprising amount of depth, for a hack-and-slash game. You can pick one of six different classes, each with unique abilities, which are unlocked as you level up. Most of the locations you explore are random generated. Each time you start up the game they change, so you'll never have the exact same experience twice, even if you go back to locations you've visited before. Difficulty seemed something of a mixed bag. I played much of the main game on the maximum allowed difficulty, and didn't die once, which was a little surprising. After beating the main game (i.e. up to Act IV) you unlock higher difficulties. Playing the expansion content on the next higher setting seemed more suitable for me, except now some of the bosses felt a little too hard, and I ended up lowering difficulty for them... But at least you can change the difficulty at any time, which is good.

The game's reasonably long, too. (As far as I can tell, there's no timer in the game that would tell me how long it took to beat it, which is a shame. I find that kind of information interesting.) It doesn't end with beating the campaign, either. After that you unlock 'Adventure Mode', which lets you freely travel the word hunting down randomly generated 'bounties', and exploring randomly generated dungeons. Character level is capped at 70, but after that you can continue to improve your character by gaining 'paragon levels'. I'm not quite that far yet, so I can't really comment on what that entails.

And then there's the loot. Dropped by enemies and discovered in chests, or bought from merchants, or crafted by a blacksmith... So much loot, most of which is also random generated, so you'll find an endless number of equipment with different combinations of magical properties. There are several levels of rarity in items. Though, honestly, this seems a little unnecessary. Not long into the game it became obvious that 'rare' (and above) items were much better than more common items, and plentiful enough to simply not bother with picking anything else up (except occasionally to salvage for crafting materials).

The game looks very nice, even on the PS3, which probably has lower resolution than the PS4 or higher end PCs (I noticed some occasional slight slowdown too, but nothing that really detracted from the experience). There are lots of different environments, and tons of cool monsters. The music, on the other hand, was... well, background music. It's well enough done and suits the atmosphere of the game, but not exactly what I'd call memorable.

Another aspect the Diablo series is famous for is the multiplayer. You can team up with up to three other players for co-operative play. In the console version you can even play local multiplayer. I haven't had a chance to try it out yet, but I'm sure it, together with the randomly generated content, greatly increases the game's replay value. (As far as I know cross-platform online play isn't available, and for local multiplayer I assume each player needs a local username and save file, which slightly limits the potential. But it's still a cool thing.)

Now, I've listed a lot of positive things about Diablo III Ultimate Evil Edition. I certainly had fun playing it on my first playthrough, and I'm still having fun checking out Adventure Mode. But when it comes down to it, the core gameplay is quite repetitive, and the story is hardly very deep or original. While in theory it's one of those games you could keep playing indefinitely, how long it can keep me interested after 'beating' it once is a question I can't answer yet. (My past experience with games with a lot of 'post-game' content doesn't exactly speak for me sticking with it. Always moving on to new experiences...)

One last complaint  I have (which I touched upon in an earlier blog post) is that the game came with virtually no manual, beyond a simple controller diagram. It turns out there's a game guide on Blizzard's Battle.net website, which answered some of the questions I had. But this guide was not mentioned anywhere in the packaging, as far as I could see...