Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Why even the best PC RPGs are still too linear

Corey and Lori Cole made an interesting Kickstarter update recently about their upcoming game in Hero-U. They talked about how even the RPGs that tend to offer the player choices in terms of plot (I’m thinking the typical Bioware RPGs) tend to only in reality have two paths: a good and evil path. The Coles conceded this is a step up from a linear, non-branching story (which tends to be the norm in the gaming industry) but they reckon they can do better, because in real life that’s how things work.

I totally agree with them. One flaw for example with the game Knights of the Old Republic (awesome game as it is) is that your actions affect a bar between the Light Side and the Dark Side of the Force. Doing more “good” actions means you go higher up the scale towards the Light Side but “evil” actions means you’ll go lower. However what happens in the situation where you’ve accumulated a lot of “good” points by going around the galaxy doing menial deeds like delivering the newspaper, helping an old granny across the road etc. but then you eradicate the population of an entire village? Let us say that the scale has 200 points. 200 points and you’re basically an angel, 100 is neutral and 0 the epitome of evil. The funny thing is, on a binary scale, you may have accumulated 90 points doing all these little random acts of kindness but the one event of killing the villagers is a 30 point penalty. Sure you’re not as good a guy but you’ll still get the good guy ending which is pretty ridiculous. Being seen as a hero or villain is a bit more complex than that.

I think the best games so far to have meaningful endings or at least more realistic relationships are the original Fallout and Arcanum. Both of these split the game into different groups, settlements or factions which you can help or hinder. So depending on your actions in the game, the epilogue will change meaning a variety of different endings. Saved that village from their bandit problem? They hail you as a hero in the ending. Helped the mutants claim a homeland of their own? Well your character is actually a bit of a racist and doesn’t like mutants so he left them to their own devices. By making decisions about different groups or factions, you can create more interesting, complex and (most importantly) realistic characters. Most people in history aren’t heroes or villains but they usually sit somewhere in between. By having endings where some people you met prospered while others did not, seems to be a better way of creating an ending to a game – i.e. tying NPC relationships to the ending of the game, not a points spectrum.

It will be interesting to see if this is the approach that Hero-U will take however, what would make me ecstatic is if the Coles develop and even better model altogether. If anyone could do it, it’d be them.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Choicest VGM - VGM #67 - Jones in the Fast Lane - The Pawn Shop

I actually rarely visited this particular store in Jones in the Fast Lane. I mean if you don't spend beyond your means, why would you need to sell anything? Actually, that's probably why I always ended up not having enough money to buy clothes in the game.. damn.

Thanks to Sierra On-Line and Quest Studios for providing these memorable tracks.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Diablo 3 Soundtrack Review

  • Name: Diablo III Soundtrack
  • Label: Azeroth Music
  • Composer(s): Russell Brower et al.
  • Number of Tracks: 23

This is probably the first time I've bought a soundtrack from the Diablo series but it also happens to be the first without Matt Uelmen at the helm whose iconic Tristram theme has become synonymous with the Diablo series. As you've guessed, they still have a variation of the Tristram theme in Diablo III called New Tristram - you'd be stupid not to include this piece of nostalgia in a Diablo game.

However, besides this track, there's not much that really pulls my attention. Sure there's a lot of great orchestral music on this track and for those who are bigger fans of classical music than I, you may enjoy it more. However, I personally preferred the sound of wailing guitars that permeated in Diablo I and II - and I'm pretty sure Matt Uelmen had a big hand in that department. I've actually recently started playing Torchlight II which does have Matt Uelmen doing the music and it's almost like you're playing Diablo II again, except you're not in Sanctuary.

So are there any other highlights in this album? Well there are two for me: the dramatic theme that often plays on the main menu known as "And the Heavens Shall Tremble" and the angelic/heroic theme that is obviously dedicated to the Angel Tyrael, "I am Justice".

Score - 5/10

There are a couple of good tracks here but they tend to be the nostalgic ones. The rest is generic orchestral fantasy music, albeit quite despairing and dark orchestral fantasy music.

I originally got the soundtrack with the Collector's Edition but if you're into iTunes, you can grab it here.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Mass Effect 3 Review

Seems like I'm constantly apologising about late reviews but here's my Mass Effect 3 Review, finally! In keeping with the spirit of this blog, I've thoroughly played Mass Effect 3 and have finished it no less than 3 times and played the multiplayer, so you'll know when you're reading this review that I didn't just play the first 10 hours or so and pass judgement then (like a lot of game reviewers :)). It also helps me build an excuse for why it takes me so long to review games...

Anyway, it's probably no surprise that I grabbed a copy of Mass Effect – I’m actually quite a big fan of the series since I love sci-fi RPGs – but don’t worry that doesn’t mean I go any easier in the reviews. In fact, sometimes fans can be the harshest critics ;). You may recall Mass Effect 2 being awarded Choicest Games Game of the Year in 2010, so Mass Effect 3 had some pretty big shoes to fill. So how did Bioware’s latest sci-fi RPG fare?

Plot (5/5)
Mass Effect 3 starts off with Commander Shepard being court-martialled for some reason back on Earth (you had to buy the DLC in Mass Effect 2 to find out why apparently – not very choice!). Anyway, Commander’s Shepard’s fears become a reality and the Reapers actually begin their invasion of Earth. Shepard reunites with Anderson only to bid him farewell as he orders Shepard to find allies to bring the fight to the Reapers while he stays back to lead the resistance on Earth.

What is great about this Mass Effect is that you finally get to visit the home planets/star systems of many of the races. You also get to learn the fate of many of the allies, friends and acquaintances you met in the previous two games. To top it all off, the climactic start to the final battle is one of the best scenes in sci-fi gaming history.

What almost let the game down though was the original version. The original version was great for 99% of the game but the final 1%, the crucial final 1%, was pretty abysmal. It provided no closure whatsoever, no indication of how your actions impacted the rest of the universe and left you with more questions than answers. It also felt pretty rushed and reminded me of the ending of Knights of the Old Republic 2, another game that was rushed out of the door and which also had a sloppy ending as a result. Thankfully, Bioware released the Extended Cut for free and resolved most of these issues, and while not everyone will still be happy about the ending, it at least gives more information and you finally know what the fate of the galaxy is.

Gameplay (5/5)
Third time’s the charm. Bioware finally managed a good balance between old school RPG mechanics ala Mass Effect 1 and streamlined gameplay ala Mass Effect 2. Modding of your weapons is back and you can equip scopes, extra ammo cartridges and heat sinks that will modify the weapon’s stats.

Also, Bioware have probably read up on Sid Meier’s "Covert Action Rule" which states that too many pesky, time-consuming mini-games breaks the flow of the main game and just ultimately annoys the player. No more attempts at scaling vertical mountains in the Mako or endlessly searching planets for minerals. You now have to scan for additional forces and credits on the galaxy map itself. If you scan too many times however the Reapers will find you and then attempt to intercept you. So it’s still a mini-game but it’s been integrated seamlessly into the galaxy map phase of the game, instead of requiring you to go down to a planet’s surface or spend several minutes scrolling your mouse over a wireframe planet.

Sound (4/5)
As always, there is great voice acting in this game and they managed to get most of the voice actors from the previous two games to reprise their roles – no small feat! Bioware also introduced some cinematic/dynamic audio thingy that’s meant to make sound effects sound choicer. While occasionally it does work, sometimes the difference in volume will blow your eardrums, so I unfortunately kept the setting off every time I played.

Music (5/5)
Unlike the previous Mass Effects, Jack Wall did not play a part in creating the soundtrack and instead Bioware brought Clint Mansell aboard. At first I was thinking “How dare they get rid of Jack Wall? He is what made the soundtracks to the first two games awesome!” Sure Clint Mansell may be an accomplished composer but could he possibly do better than Jack Wall? This initial animosity or cynicism resulted in distaste for the mellowing down of the soundtrack thanks to Mansell’s moody piano pieces – it just didn’t seem like Mass Effect anymore. But after thinking about this a bit, that was Bioware’s intention all along. The mood for the last game in the series was intended to be sombre, moody, depressing. After awhile however, the music did grow on me. It did make the series seem more mature and serious. And there was enough music that was similar to the original series (thanks to Sam Hulick and a whole bunch of other collaborators) that it’ll make Mass Effect veterans feel right at home.

If you want to know more, check out my review of the soundtrack.

Graphics (4/5)
The graphics in the Mass Effect series is starting to become a bit dated but it’s still good enough nonetheless. The animations in this iteration seem to be much more fluid than its predecessors.

Replay (4/5)
Mass Effect 3 has multiplayer! So this definitely helps in terms of the replay department. Before the Extended Cut it was extremely difficult (potentially impossible) to get the best ending in the single player campaign without at least playing a bit of the multiplayer. You see, somehow the number of matches you win in multiplayer reduces a penalty you get in single-player for your final fleet that you send in to defeat the Reapers. It’s a really stupid mechanic and thankfully I think it has been toned down since the Extended Cut (now you can get the best ending without needing to play multiplayer). Because of this link between single and multi player, I initially resented multiplayer. However, the multiplayer is kind of fun although it’s a bit laggy for us Australians so it’s by no means perfect.

The game also provides a lot of replay due to the multiple ways the story can unfold, not only depending on actions you make in Mass Effect 3 but of all the decisions you made in the previous two games. However, this could be a problem in itself since you probably miss out on quite a bit if you don’t buy the first two games and complete them and it also means Mass Effect 3’s replay value is heavily tied to what you did in the previous games.

Polish (4/5)
As with any RPG, there’s bound to be a few bugs but this is the least buggy out of the Mass Effect games yet. Sure the original ending felt rushed and wasn’t a high point for Bioware, but the Extended Cut thankfully fixed that.

Score – 9/10

It’s fortunate that Bioware released the Extended Cut otherwise the last 1% of the game may have resulted in ME3 being the worst game in the series. With the Extended Cut, ME3 is a worthy addition that manages to bring some closure to the many personal stories developed in the earlier games.

If you want to get the game, you can get it off Origin.

If you like this game, you might like...


Thursday, October 25, 2012

Choicest VGM - VGM #66 - Jones in the Fast Lane - Z-Mart

This is the place you went to if you wanted to buy discounted items! Yes it's Zee-Mart, a bit like K-Mart or Walmart. So why not have some music that sounds like it belongs in a 50s whitegoods commercial?

Thanks to Sierra On-Line and Quest Studios for providing these memorable tracks.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Choicest VGM - VGM #65 - Jones in the Fast Lane - Hi-Tech U

If you wanted to earn the big bucks in Jones in the Fast Lane, experience could only get you so far. You also required to educate yourself in order to unlock the better paying jobs. You would do so at Hi-Tech U where you had a professor who talked in a very strange manner - a bit like William Shatner actually. For example when your turn was finished and you attempted to study more he would say:

"No time..... is left..... to-go-to class!"


Anyway, hope you enjoy this next entry in the Jones in the Fast Lane soundtrack!

Thanks to Sierra On-Line and Quest Studios for providing these memorable tracks.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Where is my Guild Wars 2 soundtrack?

This is a question that many has pondered, and in my case, still pondering. It seems that the claim that shipping will occur "4 weeks from date of purchase" doesn't actually ring true for directsong as I ordered the GW2 soundtrack in early September and now it's late October - still no CDs. The status of my order hasn't changed to shipped either. How could it possibly take this long to get a CD ready to ship?

Well I asked this question of directsong support and this is the response I received:

Hi !

There has been a hold on shipping due to manufacturing delays. We understand the inconvenience this may cause and your cooperation, patience and understanding is greatly appreciated.

We will be shipping during the next five business days. We will send you an email confirmation with a tracking number which can be used at the United States Postal Services website once your CD's have been dispatched

The Guild Wars 2 Soundtrack CD's are now arriving from manufacturing so that they can be signed by the composer.

Please allow 4-6 weeks from the order date for delivery.

So I patiently waited another 5 business days and still no change to the status of my order. No tracking number was received. Apparently the response above is quite common and several other customers have received the same message according to a GW2 Guru post. In fact, some customers have been waiting just as long as I have if not longer for their CDs to even be shipped.

While I've had no issues with directsong before apparently many others have (just check out the GW2 Guru thread I linked earlier) - to the point that they refuse to buy Jeremy Soule's music if it continues to be sold via directsong. The way things are going with this most recent purchase, I can't say I blame them.

14/11/2012 EDIT: I finally received confirmation a few days ago that my CDs have been posted and on their way. So provided they don't get lost or damaged in the mail, I will probably see them in another month. D: It seems that digital soundtracks with directsong = okay. Physical ones = mixed bag.

16/11/2012 EDIT: Yay! CDs were on my doorstep when I arrived home today. So it was actually pretty quick in terms of the mailing part - the manufacturing and signing part was the killer... be warned!

Monday, October 22, 2012

Creator of Wing Commander, Privateer and Freelancer announces new space sim

That's right - it's another crowdfunding project! However, instead of it being an old Sierra developer coming out of retirement, it's Chris Roberts, producer of the classic space sims of yesteryear like Wing Commander, Privateer and Freelancer.

Roberts's latest project, Star Citizen, is apparently going to take a bit from the Wing Commander camp and a little bit from the Privateer/Freelancer camp. Apparently you can play single-player or co-op flying for Squadron 42 which is where you're a military pilot for the big, badass carrier in the videos. From the early videos you can tell the military inspired part of the story is definitely a spiritual successor to Wing Commander already. You've got the space carrier, the fighters that look very similar to Terran Confederation fighters, and enemy fighters that look a bit like Dralthis..

Afterwards though, you may decide military life is not for you. You can instead choose to become a merchant in a persistent world which sounds a bit more like Privateer or Freelancer. Oh and apparently there's not going to be any subscription fees, which is awesome!

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Quest for Glory creators start Kickstarter project

And yet another ex-Sierra developer enters the fold! Not only did the creators of Leisure Suit Larry, Space Quest and Gabriel Knight give Kickstarter ago, but it also looks like Lori and Corey Cole, creators of my favourite Sierra series, Quest for Glory are seeking funding for their next game.

Set in the same world as the original Quest for Glory series, Gloriana, this game is all about a rogue/thief that is forced into attending a hero academy known as Hero-U (which is the name of the game). Apparently he will later on get a choice to either take the good or bad path - but it's entirely up to you and your actions. The Coles also promise that a lot of effort will be put into making believable characters as they've all got their own motivations and agendas.

On the downside, some of the in-game graphics look quite basic (Zelda-like) but then it's mixed with other hand-painted screenshots that look awesome. I'm curious to know if both art styles are being implemented in the final product or not.

Anyway, being a big fan of the Quest for Glory series, I've contributed to the project.

I urge anyone who likes adventure/RPG hybrids to give this game a chance to see the light of day! Lori and Corey Cole are the best people I know when it comes to making this genre a reality! They're now at the $90,000+ mark (which is about $10,000 more than a few hours ago when I contributed). So they're almost at 25% in the first day of funding. Not bad!

Friday, October 19, 2012

A few sales on this weekend

There's quite a few sales going on at this weekend. You can choose how much to pay on Interplay titles and get a whole bunch of games as a result or you can buy Deponia and its upcoming sequel for 40% off. The latter offer is quite tempting since I especially like the animation style from the screenshots - looks like it comes from the Monkey Island 3 school of animation...

Strangely enough, it's the third offer where GOG is celebrating its first releases on the Mac platform that I'm most excited about. No, not because I have a Mac but because it's discounted games like Theme Hospital for an insane amount. Yes it's very cheap at the moment and you know what, I haven't played anything that can beat this game in terms of a humourous hospital management sim - and the game is over a decade old - crazy right?

And just for those Theme Hospital fans out there, here's a little tune that always gets in my head when I think of this game:

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Choicest VGM - VGM #64 - Jones in the Fast Lane - Le Security Apartments

After you got enough money, you were able to rent the swish "Le Security" Apartments. I believe they were named so since it was much harder for thieves to steal household items you bought with your hard-earned cash. The music is also appropriately pompous and pretentious.

Thanks to Sierra On-Line and Quest Studios for providing these memorable tracks.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Mass Effect 3 Soundtrack Review

  • Name: Mass Effect 3 N7 Collector's Edition Soundtrack
  • Label: EA Recordings
  • Composer(s): Various
  • Number of Tracks: 25

For each of the previous Mass Effect games, I've acquired the soundtrack and as a result, I've become even more of a fan of Jack Wall's work. Unfortunately, Mass Effect 3 doesn't have Jack Wall involved and instead has some subdued, mellow, piano music thanks to Clint Mansell. At first, I was going "What?! This isn't the Mass Effect I remember. Mass Effect is meant to have synth beats like you'd see in retro 80s sci-fi flicks!" However, I must admit that the music has grown on me and now Leaving Earth is now one of my favourite tracks and I daresay one of the iconic themes for this particular iteration of the series.

Fortunately, there is some continuity with the awesome music and themes created in the earlier games, thanks to Sam Hulick. Ones I particularly like are the epic The Fleets Arrive and the moving I'm Proud of You. The best of Sam Hulick's bunch of tracks has to be We Face Our Enemy Together which is played when Commander Shepard makes his last inspirational speech. It's also played during the main menu and is in fact based off the ME1 track, Victory.

The other artists (Cris Velasco, Sascha Dikicyan and Chris Lennertz) have also contributed some pretty solid tracks to this great sci-fi music album. The character creation music, aptly titled Creation, is probably the best character creation music in the Mass Effect series. It manages to incorporate the original Mass Effect theme yet make it sound fresh.

Score - 7/10

You can grab the album off Big Pond Music although it's not actually the Collector's Edition soundtrack (so it misses a couple of tracks). You could always buy the N7 Digital Deluxe Edition if you're planning on buying the game anyway, although it's $20 more - so it really depends if you want the other stuff.