Friday, October 31, 2014

First Impressions - Monaco: What's Yours Is Mine

wysiwigbaby

Yes, I know this game is pretty old now - about a year and a half old actually, but bear with me while I go through my backlog of games released in 2013 :). I've now managed to clock about 4 hours of this game and played a few rounds with friends and the public too to get a feel of its multiplayer co-op capabilities. This is what I reckon about the game so far:

What I like

  • Characters: Each character seems to have a real personality that's revealed while playing the single player campaign. You've got the everyman Locksmith, the hobo Pickpocket (complete with pet monkey), the natural leader simply known as the Lookout, the silent but violent Cleaner, the dumb guy who likes to break down walls called the Mole, the 1337 h4x0|2 Hacker who talks at a hundred miles a minute, the seductive Redhead and the gentlemanly... er... Gentleman. Not only that, but each have their own strengths which are definitely greater than the sum of their parts.
  • Co-op: This is probably the main reason you got this game and I'm happy to say it works pretty well. The more friends you have the easier the levels will generally be (provided you've got something like to VOIP to coordinate your plans with) because you'll have more skillsets at your disposal.
  • Music: Austin Wintory is in charge of the soundtrack so it's no surprise that it's pretty good. The themes are mainly solo piano pieces reminiscent of soundtracks that accompanied silent films or comedy capers/heist films.
  • Level Editor: I haven't really dabbled with this but apparently there is a level editor where you can design and share your creations. Neat!
  • The citizens of Monaco speak French: IKR? Where's the English spoken in an outrageous French accent? Sacrebleu!

What I dislike

  • Confusing interface: I took me awhile to figure out the interface and I'm still a bit uncertain about how everything works (and this is after playing the tutorial) - however this maybe intentional since only by continually practising and experimenting with the levels and the different characters do you improve.
  • Graphics: I know that not every indie game has the budget to have superb graphics and while the graphics are most of the time passable for the kind of game it is, there have been times where the lack of detail makes me wonder what object I've picked up or what exactly I'm looking at. If you're not a fan of minimalist pixel art... well you would've probably already ignored this game!

Verdict

The game is fun and I don't suspect it will take much longer to finish. It's extra fun when you're able to play with a mate and chat to them on VOIP; that way it's easier to devise strategies and vocalise your panic when things don't go to plan. I'll likely play this game to the end of the campaign and then give a review.

[ LINK: Official Monaco website ]

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Puzzle Quest creators release new game called Gems of War

More match-3 action coming your way

Puzzle Quest creators, Infinite Interactive have just released a mobile game for iOS called Gems of War. What's this got to do with PC gaming? Well apparently the iOS version released today is for Australia only but will be followed by a worldwide release of the game on iOS, Android and Steam in 1-2 months.

As you can tell by the title, the game is similar to Puzzle Quest in that you're once again matching 3 gems together in order to do various things like attacking enemies or building up mana for spells/abilities. What is different however is that it looks like it's incorporated some elements from Puzzle Kingdoms as you're now able to bring some troops along to help you in battle. What's probably most exciting though is the multiplayer: apparently you can now play the game against other players or co-operatively with your friends on the same team. There will even be the ability to create and join guilds!

Another big change is that the game is going to be free-to-play which admittedly gave me some trepidation, although Infinite Interactive has assured us that everything in the game can be earned without micro-transactions, except for some cosmetic outfits for your avatar. Sounds good, provided that the things you acquire using micro-transactions don't make the game a Pay-to-Win title.

[ LINK: Official Gems of War website]


Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Where are they now? - Jordan Mechner

Jordan Mechner - Creator of Prince of Persia

Recently, I finished reading Jordan Mechner's journal called "The Making of Prince of Persia: Journals 1985 - 1993", which is highly recommended reading if you want to learn more about the life and times of a legendary PC game developer in the late 80s and early 90s. While I have a good idea of what Mechner went through during 1985 - 1993, there's still quite a few years before he became a gaming celebrity and the two decades after 1993 which I know little about. So how did Mechner start off as a game developer? What has he been up to until now? And what are his plans for the future?

Mechner was born in New York City in 1964 and started programming games on his Apple II when he was in high school in the late 1970s. It took him a few years before he was able to successfully have a game published and that game would be the critically acclaimed Karateka which was published in 1984 and managed to reach #1 on the Billboard software charts (I never knew Billboard did software charts...).

Mechner graduated from Yale with a BA in psychology in 1985 and during this time he was already working on his next computer game which was initially codenamed "Baghdad" but would eventually be known as Prince of Persia. Mechner was (and still is) keen on writing screenplays so at times it was a bit of a juggling act between him pursuing a career in film and developing computer games. Prince of Persia was finally released in 1989 for the Apple II but sales were initially poor due to the Apple II being a system at the end of its product lifecycle and limited marketing from Brøderbund, despite Prince of Persia being a critical success. When the game was ported to other platforms over the following years however, sales figures skyrocketed.

Mechner designed Prince of Persia's sequel which was released in 1993 but also setup a new studio in the same year known as Smoking Car Productions. Despite Mechner not typically being a fan of the adventure game genre, he decided to work on a CD-ROM adventure game using extensive rotoscoping for animations which would finally be released in 1997. The game received positive reviews but sold poorly (perhaps because adventure games were generally waning in popularity by that stage. Who knows?).

In 2001, Mechner worked with Ubisoft Montreal to reboot the Prince of Persia franchise and the result was 2003's Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. The game was a huge success receiving 12 nominations and 8 awards at the Interactive Achievement Awards (D.I.C.E.) and was instrumental in paving the way for several more sequels and spin-offs (over 20 million games sold to date), graphic novels, toys and even LEGO sets.

Speaking of LEGO sets, they were probably based off the Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time film which was released in 2010. Jordan Mechner is one of the few video game creators to adapt his own creation into a feature film, and not just any film, but an action blockbuster with a budget of $150-200 million, Jerry Bruckheimer as the producer and Hollywood actors such as Jake Gyllenhaal, Gemma Arterton, Ben Kingsley and Alfred Molina starring in it. The film unfortunately didn't do so well with the critics but it's still critically one of the best video game adaptations to date and it grossed over $335 million worldwide.

In 2012, a remake of Mechner's 1984 classic, Karateka was released, a game I played having never experienced the original (well not in its entirety anyway). After its release, Mechner hosted an IAmA on Reddit and when asked if the fans were going to see any new Prince of Persia games or remakes in the future, he remained hopeful. He also mentioned he was working on a screenplay because it apparently "helps save [his] sanity to keep switching between media".

In terms of recent achievements, Mechner wrote the New York Times best-selling, Eisner award-nominated graphic novel "Templar", illustrated by LeUyen Pham and Alex Puvilland, which was released just last year.

LINKS:
[ Wikipedia: Jordan Mechner ]
[ Jordan Mechner Official Website ]
[ Reddit IAmA with Jordan Mechner (6 Dec 2012) ]
[ MobyGames: Jordan Mechner ]

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Upcoming major update for Shadowgate will make game more accessible to newcomers

This lady creeps me out

As you may have read in my "first impressions" post regarding the 2014 remake of Shadowgate one of the things that I found frustrating was how difficult the game was. I'm quite aware that the game is meant to be difficult but even on the easiest settings it is quite a challenge and probably highlights how much gaming has evolved since the 1980s (or "devolved", depending on your opinion). Thankfully, it seems that Zojoi are going to create an even easier difficulty level for us "casual" players and they're planning to revamp the command system into something more user-friendly for today's audience. Hints are also being tweaked to be more helpful and there's even the ability to show all objects in the room.

The hardcore purists would probably scoff at the changes being introduced but I for one welcome them, and might give the game another go once the new changes take effect.

For a full list of the changes, check out the link below.

[ LINK: Shadowgate Kickstarter Page: October Update! ]

Monday, October 27, 2014

Choicest VGM - VGM #154 - Dune II - Rulers of Arrakis


Composed by: Frank Klepacki and Dwight Okahara

So we finally come to a game soundtrack that is not The Ur-Quan Masters, although the only reason I had so many tracks featured from that game is because they were all pretty damn good. This game's soundtrack, Dune II's soundtrack, was co-composed by one of my favourite game music composers of all time: Frank Klepacki. Frank is probably best known for the soundtracks of more popular games by Westwood Studios, such as Command & Conquer and Red Alert but he was working at the company a few years prior to them being released and Dune II was one of his earlier projects.

Why did I pick Rulers of Arrakis over other tracks? I think it's because this track, along with the others I will feature in the next couple of weeks, are considered classics, at least by Frank as they you'll hear them again in the remake Dune 2000 and quite possibly in Emperor: Battle for Dune, although don't quote me on that.

When I listen to the first bit of this track I could just imagine the base commander, looking in suspense as the spice harvester slowly crawls back to the base's refinery, vigilantly looking for any signs of Sand Worms or enemy forces. At 0:33 the track starts to rock and at this point I like to imagine the funds starting to trickle through and the base coming to life as you start pumping out more buildings and units for the upcoming battle.


Sunday, October 26, 2014

Face Noir Review


It was a dark and stormy night

  • Developer: Mad Orange
  • Publisher: Phoenix Online Publishing
  • Release Date: 17 October 2013
  • Time played: 9 hours

Once again I managed to grab a free game thanks to my Steam buddy Mix-Master and it happens to be a game from one of my favourite genres: point 'n' click adventures! Face Noir is advertised as a game that has the atmosphere of a Raymond Chandler novel or Humphrey Bogart film. When I heard that, I immediately thought "ZOMG! A film noir point 'n' click adventure game? That'd be so awesome" so I was pretty happy when I managed to get my hands on it. Unfortunately, ratings on Steam are "Mixed" at the time of posting (65% positive reviews) and Metacritic gives it an aggregate rating of 59. So is the game actually that mediocre? Or is this a case of adventure game haters being adventure game haters?

Plot (3/5)
As mentioned, this game has a film noir setting and is set during the mid 1930s in New York City. You play the role of a private eye with Italian ancestry named Jack Del Nero who is doing the usual unglamorous work private detectives do, such as taking photographs of people having affairs. It's not until Jack gets a call from an old colleague of his that his world gets turned upside down in more ways than one.

Overall, the plot isn't too bad and adopts many of the tropes or clichés you'd expect from the film noir genre, such as starting off on a dark, stormy night, and having a hardboiled detective protagonist who likes monologues. The only trouble is, the monologues are done really poorly. In fact the scriptwriting in general is pretty poor. There's quite a bit of clumsy dialogue and many instances of sentences approved by the "Department of Redundancy Department".

Also, it needs to be mentioned that Face Noir ends on a cliff-hanger and is apparently only the first chapter in what I can only assume is to be a series. It's only minutes before the end do you realise that there's more to this game than just being a tribute to film noir as it starts to cross over into other genres entirely. Unfortunately, since it's right near the end, you don't get the full story of what's going on and it's obvious you'll need to buy the sequel to learn more.

Gameplay (3/5)
This is your traditional point 'n' click adventure game, meaning you've got your inventory, your mouse cursor and that's about it. It does have this feature called "Reflection Mode" that they claim is "innovative" but I've seen similar concepts in other adventure games before (e.g. Resonance) and it's nothing more than another inventory with ideas or concepts.

Most puzzles in the game are actually straightforward, but somehow they're still difficult to solve. This might sound like a contradictory statement but Face Noir is one of those games where you might have the right tools available for the job but you need to look at something first in order to trigger the ability to use the item. This wouldn't be such a problem if the game wasn't so erratic in providing hints when you look at certain items or attempt to use them. Anyway, there were only a couple of times where I resorted to a walkthrough: One was for the situation I just described but another was quite ridiculous and would've only been solved by randomly trying every inventory item on screen hotspots.

The best dialogue in the game comes from the banter between Jack Del Nero and "Chon" the taxi driver

Sound (3/5)
The background audio in the game is fantastic but the same can't be said for the voice acting. Sometimes the voice acting is hammy and sounds like the actors are trying too hard (like Jack Del Nero trying to be a Humphrey Bogart). Other characters speak in a monotone such as the owner of the Red Tulip, Greta. Some words also have weird pronunciations such as "bitumen" being pronounced "bit-two-men" - I mean who pronounces it like that? The best voice acting in the game is probably done by the comic relief: a funny, yet cunning Chinese taxi driver nicknamed "Chon", but he's not even one of the major characters.

Music (5/5)
As you'd expect in a game based on the film noir genre, it has an appropriately moody and atmospheric jazz soundtrack to complement it and it's definitely one of the game's strengths. Best of all, the soundtrack is absolutely free with the game and easily accessible from your game folder at [DRIVE]\Program Files (x86)\Steam\SteamApps\common\Face Noir\Soundtrack (if you purchased the game off Steam).

Graphics (3/5)
As I mentioned in my First Impressions post, the character models do look a bit oldschool - similar to games in the early 2000s. However the actual backdrops aren't too bad.

Replay (2/5)
There were quite a few times where I got stuck and multiple times where I was very tempted to use a walkthrough. Fortunately, only a couple of times involved the use of a walkthrough and the other times I just gave the game a rest for awhile before returning with a fresh new perspective. Overall the game took me about 9 hours to complete and there are Steam Trading cards you can earn too. No Steam achievements though.

Polish (5/5)
I didn't encounter any serious bugs while playing and the interface seems functional. It probably helps that a purpose-built point 'n' click adventure engine was used (i.e. Wintermute).

Score – 7/10

Face Noir is a mostly entertaining but flawed point 'n' click adventure game that probably suffers from the developers not having English as their first language. The game's definitely got that film noir vibe to it but the immersion is broken whenever you hear the characters speak their clumsily-written dialogue. Also, the game ends on a cliff-hanger and expects you to buy the sequel before you learn more about the real conspiracy the game only touches right near the end. If there's anything nice to be said about this game though is that it has a delightful jazz soundtrack to accompany it. Oh, that and it was educational for me: I now know the Italian swear word, "DANNAZIONE!"

Face Noir is available from these retailers:

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

[ LINK: Official Face Noir website ]

Saturday, October 25, 2014

New Publisher on GOG tipped to be Lucasarts/Disney

Could Lucasarts be finally coming to GOG?

This is definitely some pretty big news if it's true, but unlike mere rumours that cropped up quite awhile ago now, it seems like there's a very good chance that GOG.com's next publisher will be a publisher behind many good old adventure games of the 80s and 90s. I'm of course talking about Lucasarts which was acquired by Disney not that long ago and all the classic adventure games of theirs such as Full Throttle, Grim Fandango, The Curse of Monkey Island and Day of the Tentacle.

I mentioned those games in particular since some of you might mention, "wait, doesn't Steam already sell some Lucasarts adventure games?". Yes, they sell some of them but as you can see by some of the games listed above, the selection they have on Steam is meagre and incomplete (why wouldn't you have those games). If GOG.com can manage to get more of the oldschool Lucasarts adventure games available for purchase again, I along with many other adventure gaming fans will be happy campers. However, Jennifer @ the International House of Mojo urges caution since the "proof" that Lucasarts is the next publisher (some fonts that are in the style of popular franchises) happen to be Indiana Jones, Star Wars and Monkey Island - all franchises that are already available on Steam - well sort of (there's only Monkey Island 1 and 2 available for example).

[ SOURCE: The International House of Mojo - The LucasArts GOG.com Rumor Is Here Again ]

Friday, October 24, 2014

First Impressions - Civilization: Beyond Earth

Whooooa. I'm an alien. I'm a legal alien. I'm an a-lien ea-ting planes.

It's finally here. Sid Meier's Civilization: Beyond Earth is a sci-fi take on Civ V, obviously inspired by the likes of Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri aka SMAC. Just like in SMAC, you're responsible for a colony ship that has landed on a distant, alien world, and it's up to you to either embrace the planet's xenobiology or exterminate it, paving the way for a New Terra. Alternatively you can take another route and just evolve humanity by cybernetic means. Anyway, I've managed to clock almost 2.5 hours with Beyond Earth so far and here are my initial thoughts.

What I like

  • Quests: I'm really loving the quests system. It reminds me a bit of the ethical dilemmas you'd face in Galactic Civilization or indeed the random events you would encounter in Civ IV: Beyond the Sword. You usually get a choice of what you want to do which will give you different benefits for your faction. It definitely keeps the game interesting and helps immerse you into the role of colony administrator.
  • Ability to customise civ on the fly: Following on from the quests I was mentioning before, these (along with a more flexible civ creation system) means you're not only able to have more say in what your civ's abilities are from the start, but also during the game. This means your civ/faction can adapt to how the game plays out instead of you, for example, being locked in as Venice or the Mongols on a map with hardly any city states in Civ V. Your civ is no longer doomed from the start.
  • Raging Barb Aliens making the game more CvE than CvC: The aliens remind me of the Raging Barbarians mode in Civ V or the Native American tribes in Colonization: they're not to be taken lightly. Consequently this makes the game as much a Civilization vs Environment (CvE, to mangle an MMORPG term) game as the usual Civilization vs Civilization (CvC) game.
  • Radial tech tree instead of a linear one: In Civilization you have a linear tech tree. Sure you can pick different paths along this tree but you'd eventually reach the same endpoint: "Future Tech". So far, it seems that Beyond Earth is quite different. With a radial tech tree there's the opportunity to take quite different research paths in each playthrough of a game. I'm not sure if that will actually be the reality (I haven't played enough of the game yet) but I'm curious to find out!
  • Affinities: Yes, these may at first glance look like Civ V ideologies in different clothes, but there is a bit more to them than that. Picking a certain affinity path will not only alter how your units look but offer them different kind of promotions. For example, if you pick the Harmony affinity, your units can eventually benefit from the miasma that normally injures your units at the start of the game. Neat.
  • Music: Geoff Knorr returns to score the music for Beyond Earth and I think this is his best effort yet. He really knows how to make an epic science-fiction soundtrack and that's exactly what we have here. Too bad that on release fans weren't able to actually access the soundtrack as Firaxis claimed.

What I dislike

  • A lot of similarities to Brave New World: While Brave New World, the last expansion to be released for Civ V, is a good baseline to work from, it's obvious that many things have just been exported over and simply renamed or given a new coat of paint. For example, it didn't take me long to realise that this new thing called "health" is just another word for "happiness" from Civ V. I'm also disappointed that they've retained a very similar interface with respect to the notification pop-ups on the right-hand side. I still end up accidentally moving units whenever I right-click to close them!
  • Blandness of improvements/wonders: Yes, I know they've adopted a similar aesthetic to Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri with respect to the improvement and wonder icons, but again they come off as a bit bland
  • Differences are minor between sponsors: Sure you can tell which sponsor is better for particular play styles but the bonuses are potentially minor in the grand scheme of things and when you take into account all the other customisation options you have for the expedition to the new planet, you might miss the clear cut differences between civilizations in previous Civ games, or even the factions in Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri. In that you knew Sister Miriam Godwinson was the religious fanatic and Lady Deidre Skye was the one to pick if you wanted to co-exist with Planet. Not really the case in this one.
  • This is no Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri: Since I came in without any expectation this was going to be another Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri, this one isn't such a downer for me. For those of you expecting to be able to terraform to the extent you did in SMAC, you're going to be disappointed. Likewise if you expect to have more customisation options with your units.

Verdict

This is definitely no SMAC but it's a pretty good game in its own right so far and there's enough going on in the background here to keep me busy for awhile. Think of it as a standalone, sci-fi expansion to Civilization V if you will with a revamped tech tree, raging barb aliens, a quest system and limited unit customisation thanks to affinities. If that sounds like fun to you, you're likely to be happy with Beyond Earth.

[ LINK: Official Civilization: Beyond Earth website ]

Thursday, October 23, 2014

First Impressions - Jagged Alliance Flashback

BAR FIGHT (guns sold separately)

So another one of the games that I backed on Kickstarter has finally been released; Jagged Alliance Flashback, by Danish developer Full Control, is meant to be a prequel of sorts to the venerable turn-based tactics franchise, Jagged Alliance. The game is set in the 1980s on the Caribbean island chain of San Hermanos. As usual, a harsh and brutal dictator has taken over the nation which means the place is ripe for a revolution. Cue your squad of mercenaries that have come in to aid this revolution and bring an end to "The Prince" of San Hermanos.

So far, so good, if you're a Jagged Alliance fan. It sounds like the typical plot and setting and the game has more or less stuck to the franchise's turn-based tactics roots. So why the mixed Steam reviews?

Mixed reviews for Jagged Alliance Flashback a couple of days after release

Here's some food for thought after playing the game for 5 hours.

What I like

  • Music: They've definitely got the 80s action movie feel to the soundtrack which means it's perfect for this game.
  • I.M.P. Test is back: Yep, that humourous aptitude test that you had to complete in order to create your custom merc in Jagged Alliance 2? It's back.
  • It's turn-based tactics: Ultimately, this game is still a turn-based tactics game and boy do I love this genre. The game can be fun at times, like the many times I'm holed up in Spice's bar fending off a horde of the Prince's troops from the windows.

What I dislike

  • Frame rate drops: As you can see by the graphics, this game doesn't look like the most graphic-intensive of games, however occasionally I get some pretty bad frame rate drops while playing and I can't pinpoint the reason why.
  • Difficulty curve: The game seems quite difficult at the start - even moreso than Jagged Alliance 2. It doesn't help that there's no place to buy guns and equipment either like you could in Jagged Alliance 2. Eventually you get access to a guy in town that can sell you some weapons, armour and ammo but some of it is really basic stuff and he doesn't offer other things like bandages, medkits or repair tools - meaning the only way to acquire these is hiring a merc that has them. I miss Bobby Ray's.
  • Missing hotkeys: It's good to see the return of hotkeys like PGUP and PGDN corresponding to changing the stance of your mercs, however it's strange how they managed to bring that back but not others, such as "L" for turning your merc around: this is now done with the mouse.
  • Voice acting: This is one of my biggest peeves but it's probably a minor one by the standards of most fans. I know it would've been a big ask to get all the original voice actors to reprise their roles and I know Full Control probably lacked the budget to do so, but as a result some of the mercs you've come to love in the previous Jagged Alliance games, such as Ivan, sound totally different. There also seems to be a lot less dialogue as well. In Jagged Alliance 2, mercs would often comment on situations or even developments with the story's plot. They even compliment or whinge about other mercs in your squad. So far I haven't seen any of this in Jagged Alliance Flashback and I'm not sure if I ever will.
  • Lack of cutscenes: Cutscenes don't maketh the game but it's a glaring omission when compared to the previous Sir-Tech Jagged Alliance games which both had cutscenes. Really bad cutscenes by today's standards, but cutscenes nonetheless.
  • Ugly UI: Whenever presented with long names or lots of conversation text, the game seems quite content in lowering the font size in order to fit them in a preset box size. This means it's very hard to read the text sometimes which seems kind of lazy. Also the UI isn't the nicest - something similar to Jagged Alliance 2 would've been fine.
  • No authentic gun names: It's obvious what an N1 Dagrand rifle is or an Uci sub-machine gun but it would've been nice if they used the real names like they did in Jagged Alliance 2
  • No climbing on rooftops: On the plus side, this means enemies can't do it either.
  • No sneaking: I think stealth is meant to play a part in this but there's no actual ability to change the walking pace between walking, running and sneaking, at least I haven't seen the option yet.
  • No voice pack choice for custom merc: In Jagged Alliance 2 when you created your custom merc you were able to pick from three voice packs. This time you don't get a choice.
  • Female names for male NPCs: Unless the islands of San Hermanos are inhabited by a large demographic of cross-dressers, I think there may have been a mistake or lack of caring when it came to assigning the names from the NPC pool to the NPCs as there are a lot of male NPCs with female names.

Verdict

Is this the Jagged Alliance sequel/prequel fans have been waiting for? So far, it doesn't seem so. While you'll see some familiar faces and some familiar gameplay elements (i.e. turn-based tactics, controlling towns in order to generate income, training militia to defend those towns, etc.) the game isn't the same due to a lack of personality with the mercs. I've mentioned a lot of negatives in this post but keep in mind many of them are quite minor and some may even be fixed by Full Control in future updates (they're already promising to fix the shop UI for example). At its core, the game is still a competent turn-based tactics game in the vein of recent titles such as XCOM: Enemy Unknown and that's a good thing. Just don't have very high expectations if you're a Jagged Alliance fan looking for a modern replacement. At least not yet.

[ LINK: Official Jagged Alliance Flashback website ]

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Where are they now? - Bob Siebenberg

A young Bob Siebenberg

Okay, so many of you who haven't listened to much music in the 70s are probably wondering who the hell is Bob Siebenberg? And now you're also probably wondering why am I talking about a musician when this a blog about gaming? Well, it so happens that Bob Siebenberg was drummer for the very successful rock band Supertramp which formed in 1969 and is still kicking around today. Apparently their music was initially classified as prog rock (gotta love that prog rock!) but they became commercially successful in the late 70s when they employed more popular elements to their music, culminating in their best-selling album in 1979, Breakfast in America which sold 20 million copies.

How is Bob related to the world of computer games? Well we'll get to that part. Let's first start at the beginning.

Bob was born in California in 1949. He was always interested in sport from a young age but he was also interested in music. In 1958, Bob joined the school orchestra and learned to play the snare drum. In the early 60s, Bob would join his first band called "The Expressions" that mainly played surf music in its early days but its line-up changed with the times. After "The Expressions" disbanded in 1966, Bob played in many bands across the USA for a few years before deciding to move to London, UK in 1971 to study at the Eric Guilder School of Music. For the next two years, Bob played with English pub rock band "Bees Make Honey" before getting his big break in 1973 when he got to meet the members of Supertramp. The rest as they say is history, but "how is he related to the PC gaming scene?" you're probably asking impatiently.

Well, during the 80s, Bob started to do some solo work and collaborations with other artists outside of Supertramp. This coincides with the time the band was temporarily disbanded between 1988 and 1996. Bob was living back in California at the time and while looking for jobs in Oakhurst's local paper, "The Sierra Star", he noticed a company called Sierra On-Line was looking for someone who was an expert with MIDI. Bob's credentials as a member of a famous rock band (probably) helped him secure a job at the company and he was put to use in composing the soundtrack of Space Quest III: The Pirates of Pestulon. The soundtrack turned out to be the favourite of many Space Quest fans and the game even won an "Excellence in Musical Achievement Award" from magazine Computer Gaming World all thanks to Bob Siebenberg. When interviewed in 1989 by Sierra Interaction magazine, Bob said he wanted to do more work with Sierra as he enjoyed working on Space Quest III. Sadly, it seems he never did any more work on game soundtracks again.



Bob continued to keep himself busy with music through the 1990s, 2000s and to this day, playing with numerous bands including Supertramp again. Last month Bob apparently just returned from a busy summer of travel, most of it spent in Mexico. He's apparently close to completing a new album with his son, Jesse, called "The Glendale River". He's also still involved with sports, coaching a baseball team in his spare time. He also doesn't have any news about future gigs with Supertramp.

Will Bob ever get involved in composing music for computer games again? Who knows? Whether he does or not though, we've always got the excellent Space Quest III soundtrack to listen to and him to thank for it :).

LINKS:
[ Wikipedia: Supertramp ]
[ Bob Siebenberg Official Website ]
[ From Supertramp to Space Quest III: An Interview with Bob Siebenberg (1989) ]
[ MobyGames: Bob Siebenberg ]

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Sid Meier's Civilization V Play For Free until the release of Beyond Earth

Shariiiif don't like it... rock the casbah! Rock the casbah!

It seems that Firaxis are banking on the fact that if they can managed to get even more people hooked to Sid Meier's Civilization that could potentially mean more fans willing to give Sid Meier's Civilization: Beyond Earth further down the track. Consequently, you can now play Civ V for free over the next couple of days leading up to Beyond Earth's release. I think a good majority of friends on my Steam friends list already have the game (there you go: 74%, almost 3 in 4 Steam friends) and considering the game has been on sale so many times over the past few years, it's understandable. However, the opportunity now presents itself to the remaining Civilization virgins to try out the game and finally understand what Civ fanatics mean when they say "just...one...more...turn..."

In other news, Beyond Earth is now available for pre-load for those of you that pre-purchased the game off Steam. Me? I'm still waiting for my Ozgameshop code by email which apparently won't arrive until the actual release date or the day before.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Choicest VGM - VGM #153 - The Ur-Quan Masters - Thraddash - Culture 19



Composed by: Riku Nuottajärvi
Remixed by: Espen Gätzschmann & Tore Aune Fjellstad

For those of you that are sick of the Ur-Quan Masters soundtrack that's been playing on Choicest VGM for the past few months (thanks to the change in policy I made where I'm only posting Choicest VGM videos on Mondays), rejoice since this will be the last of them for awhile. We're going to be ending this soundtrack with a bang thanks to this remix of the Thraddash theme by Espen Gätzschmann and Tore Aune Fjellstad. The Thraddash are a race of stubborn, hornless rhino-like beings who seem to enjoy smoking cigars in their cockpits. That's how badass they are. Not only that, but their race only respects force, so much so that their civilization have gone through so many dark ages that they're currently at "Culture" number 19 (which is what the title of the track alludes to). Pretty aggressive bunch aren't they?

The hard rock/metal style of this track is a perfect match for the Thraddash due to their aggressive, war-like nature. As Gätzschmann says "we added the guitars that the Thraddash have been practically begging for since Star Control 2 was first released."

Special thanks to The Precursors for remixing the classic Star Control II tracks and making them available for download.

Stay tuned next week for some music from the legendary Westwood RTS, Dune II.


Sunday, October 19, 2014

Cook, Serve, Delicious! Review


You want a BEER? At 9:16 in the MORNING?

  • Developer: Vertigo Gaming
  • Publisher: Vertigo Gaming
  • Release Date: 8 October 2013
  • Time played: 13 hours (INCOMPLETE)

Cook, Serve, Delicious! is another one of those games that were developed using Game Maker Studio and made a bucketload of revenue. Consequently, saying I was a bit curious as to what the game was all about is an understatement. So sometime in December last year when the game was super cheap, I bought it and tried it out... and I was hooked for several days straight. I unfortunately never finished the game though, hoping to finish it when I got some spare time (ahahahaha! "Spare time". Ahahahaha!). Anyway as I'm actually running out of 2013 games to review (I've still got a lot to actually start playing before I review them) it looks like Cook, Serve, Delicious! is next!

Gameplay (5/5)
The gameplay in Cook, Serve, Delicious! is pretty unique - at least I've never played a game like this before. However, the developer claims that he's taken his inspiration from a Japanese cooking game called Ore no Ryouri or "My Cooking" in English. Basically there are two elements to this game: managing a restaurant and cooking food for your customers. The management part of the game is easily done via mouse-driven menus. You can purchase new food to serve at your restaurant or even spend money on upgrading them which usually means more options for your customers but more revenue too. You're also able to spend money on items that make running the restaurant more efficient during the workday. Besides that you've also got an email client which besides offering humourous comments about your restaurant, sometimes gives you extra challenges. Later on in the game, you'll also be able to compete in Iron Cook challenges and do catering missions to earn some extra dough. Okay so that's the management part in a nutshell, got it?

The second part of the game, where some element of skill is involved, is the cooking part. In this part of the game you'll receive orders from customers early in the morning until late at night which you'll have to complete in order to keep the customers happy and bring in the dough. You're given a limited amount of time to satisfy an order and you'll have to make sure you don't make any mistakes with the ingredients. So for example, if someone wanted a triple serve of Mint Chocolate Chip, Vanilla and Chocolate Ice Cream, you'd hit M, V and C on the keyboard then ENTER to serve the dish. Completing orders using a combination of keys reminds me of typing tutor games like The Typing of the Dead or games involving Quick-Time Events (QTEs) and since I'm a fan of games which take advantage of my 1337 typing skills, Cook, Serve, Delicious! has already won me over.

At first, the game will seem a bit difficult since you're only starting to learn the key combinations for preparing the various recipes you start off with and it's definitely no picnic during "Rush Hours" (i.e. the periods around meal times) where you'll be receiving new orders every couple of seconds. Eventually though, you'll be surprised at how adept you'll be at pumping out the orders only to go back to square one and learn new recipes whenever you upgrade an existing food or purchase a new one.

The ultimate goal is to become a five-star restaurant I believe and you work up the ranks by completing various criteria, such as serving food for a certain number of days, passing a certain number of safety inspections and achieving a certain number of combos. The only criticism I have about the game is that it sometimes feels like there's too much grind in between restaurant levels and the cynic in me thinks it's done for the sole purpose of artificially inflating the playtime.

Occasionally, your restaurant receives humourous emails like this one

Sound (4/5)
No complaints about the audio. Although only basic sound effects are used they're the sounds you would expect to hear while boiling soup, deep frying hashbrowns or pouring a pint of cold beer. Oh if there's anything to fault is that there doesn't appear to be any proper volume control but that's probably because this is a game aimed for the mobile platform.

Music (5/5)
The soundtrack by Jonathan Geer is an eclectic mix of funk, jazz, muzak and even chiptunes. Surprisingly, it suits the game really well and if you're into any of that sort of music, I recommend grabbing it for $2.99 USD off his Bandcamp site. Hmmm, I'm tempted to get myself a copy actually...

Graphics (4/5)
The graphics are pretty basic and in a cartoon style but that's absolutely fine for a casual game about managing a skyscraper restaurant.

Replay (3/5)
I've managed to play for 13 hours so far and I'm about half-way through the game with a 3-star restaurant. I'm guessing overall, it'll probably take around 26 hours of gameplay in order to finish the game and there's also a whole bunch of Steam achievements to earn and challenges to complete to increase the game's longevity. There are also leaderboards you can compete on too.

Polish (5/5)
I didn't encounter any serious bugs or issues while playing the game.

Score – 9/10

I don't often give 9 out of 10 for a game, let alone an indie game, but Cook, Serve, Delicious! well and truly deserves this. I cannot find anything to fault about this game besides potentially too much grind between restaurant levels but everything else is top notch. The music is jazzy, the graphics bright and cheerful, and the gameplay is a perfect blend of restaurant management sim with fast-paced, typing-tutor-like action.

Cook, Serve, Delicious! is available from these retailers:

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

[ LINK: Official Vertigo Gaming website ]

Saturday, October 18, 2014

The Making of Prince of Persia: Journals 1985 - 1993 Review


  • Title: The Making of Prince of Persia: Journals 1985 - 1993
  • Author: Jordan Mechner
  • Publisher: Self-published
  • Number of Pages: 330

This will be the first time I've posted a book review on this blog - probably the first book review I've ever done one since high school to be honest. While with games there are several components you can rate it on (e.g. gameplay, music, audio, plot, replay value, etc.) and even films to some degree (e.g. cinematography, casting, acting, plot, etc.) there really isn't much to go on with books besides how well the author writes and whether the reader takes anything of value away after reading it; whether the reader is being entertained or gaining insight.

Another reason I've probably never done a book review until now is that there aren't actually that many books on the gaming industry as a whole considering how it's only really matured over the space of two or three decades. Most of the industry's pioneers have probably already taken to the Interwebs and posted their stories, making their experiences freely available to the world without the need to use this archaic medium.

While I'm sure Jordan Mechner, famous for Prince of Persia, The Last Express and Karateka has his fair share of interviews and stories online none are so intimate and personal as this book he published called The Making of Prince of Persia: Journals 1985 - 1993 (which I'll call The Making of POP from now on). In fact, I have a new found respect for Mechner being brave enough to publish his personal diaries from 7 years of his life, warts and all. If there's people he didn't like, he mentioned about them in unflattering terms; if there were insecurities he had about his love life, his persona or even Prince of Persia's success, it's in the book.

When I originally read the title of the book I was expecting a rather dry but informative account on how a veteran game developer went about designing and programming a hit computer game. What I ended up reading was something quite a bit different but thankfully a book that exceeded my expectations. Mechner's humourous anecdotes, occasional comments about historical events, brushes with other greats of gaming (e.g. Ken Williams, Richard Garriott, Eric Chahi, etc.) and even comments about mundane things like owning his first 486, helps transport the reader back in time, to the early days of the PC gaming industry and how it was like to be one of its major players. Sure there is the occasional journal entry that talks about the design process but this book is more about what goes through a legendary game developer's head: How does he feel about stuff day to day, how does he see the competition, what are his hopes, dreams and fears?

You also learn a lot about Mechner's other passions, such as filmmaking and can start to see how his games turned out the way they did. Prince of Persia's rotoscoping technique for animation was lauded by critics of the day and The Last Express used this method extensively to give it that extra sense of realism. Mechner always wanted his first priority to be making films so we're lucky he actually ended up persevering with games as long as he did.

The book also goes into quite a bit of detail about what was happening behind the scenes at Brøderbund and the amount of politics involved in providing resources for game development, something Mechner thought was lacking with respect to marketing of Prince of Persia.

Score - 8/10

So would I recommend this book to others? Yes, I'd recommend it to almost anyone, although it'll obviously be of more interest to those who grew up playing PC games during the 80s and 90s (like myself). There are so many familiar experiences, names and events that you'll recognise during this pivotal era in the PC gaming industry and besides the nostalgia that goes with reading it, it's actually a pretty insightful book too. The only criticisms I have is that the book might be a bit light on the technical details for those of you expecting that kind of stuff and Mechner mocked one of my favourite game companies of the era, Sierra On-Line (just kidding :), I won't hold that against you).

You can grab a physical copy of the book for $15.29 USD or a digital copy starting from $7.29 USD via Jordan Mechner's website. You can also read the first 41 pages for free.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Most of Democracy 3 Steam revenue was at full price


Cliff Harris, indie developer famous for games such as Gratuitous Space Battles, the Kudos games and the Democracy series, has revealed via his Twitter account that Democracy 3 managed to make 64% of its Steam revenue at full price:


19% of the Steam revenue was for when the game was at 50% off and 16% at 66% off. This tends to fly straight in the face of what many other articles by indie developers suggest about the effectiveness of Steam sales in driving revenue such as this one, this one and even this one.

Cliff hasn't provided any volume figures (yet) and you'd obviously expect at least high volumes during sales, but in the end a developer that is looking to make dough probably only cares about the revenue, unless of course you're planning to release heaps of DLC for your game... then having MOAR copies of your game out there means MOAR potential DLC purchases...

Also, the type of game, whether the game is a sequel or not, the developer's history and starting price, probably all have a part to play in determining how effective a Steam sale truly is. When you're comparing things that are a weird mixture of technology and art (i.e. computer games), you're not really comparing apples for apples (unless they happen to be Macs, huehuehuehuehue).

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Where are they now? - Corey Cole

Corey Cole - Game Designer and Programmer

As mentioned in last week's "Where are they now?" article, I'm a big fan of the games developed by Lori Ann Cole and Corey Cole, especially the games in the Quest for Glory series which they're undoubtedly most famous for. Last week was Lori's turn and now it's time for Corey's.

Before joining up with Sierra, Corey Cole was an avid Dungeons & Dragons fan, even managing to sell a module. Both him and his wife Lori were quite active with traditional roleplaying games back in the day but it was not until the late 80s that Corey would get his job at Sierra On-Line. Apparently, a friend that both Lori and Corey knew through science-fiction conventions did contract animation work for Sierra and during a meeting with Ken Williams, she overheard his desire for an "expert tournament-level dungeonmaster" to create a new RPG for Sierra. Lori and Corey's friend, Carolly, managed to organise a phone interview with Ken Williams and when Corey was asked what distinguished him from other game designers, Corey responded that he was an experienced programmer and working on an Atari ST project. Ken immediately invited Corey for a face-to-face interview but not for a designer role, but a programmer role. Corey's first roles at Sierra involved the porting of King's Quest IV (1988) and Space Quest III (1989) to the Atari ST. He would also put his programming skills to use for the entire time he was at Sierra, co-programming new iterations of the SCI engine for use in many Sierra games. By MobyGames's count, Corey is credited on 9 Sierra games where he had worked on its "game development system".

It didn't take long for Quest for Glory to become a reality though as it was only six months after Corey started working at Sierra when his wife, Lori was approached to design a game. Lori and Corey would develop the ground-breaking Hero's Quest: So You Want To Be A Hero (1989), which was renamed to Quest for Glory I to avoid potential copyright infringement. The fact the game was an RPG/Adventure hybrid not only meant it won fans from around the world (I was living in Abu Dhabi at the time), but it garnered critical success too receiving an Adventure Game of the Year award from magazine Computer Gaming World.

Corey would continue to be a programmer and designer for the sequel, Quest for Glory II: Trial by Fire (1990), and designer on Quest for Glory III (1992) and Quest for Glory IV (1993). Corey is also credited for being the "RPG System Engineer" for 1998's Quest for Glory V, the final Quest for Glory game. These aren't the only games he worked on at Sierra though; he was also the Lead Programmer on 1991's Mixed Up Fairy Tales, and Designer and Programmer for 1991's Castle of Dr. Brain (which is notable as being the only Sierra property to be licensed for use on television).

It's also worth nothing that Lori and Corey Cole didn't only develop games for Sierra but they also developed one for Legend Entertainment called Shannara which was released in 1995. It was around this time that they formed the development studio called FAR Studio which is nowadays used to showcase art, photography and website design by Lori Cole instead.

Corey's last role with Sierra was as a programmer for the game Hoyle's Casino which was released in 2000. In the years that followed, Corey worked on a couple of projects such as an open world project called Explorati (closed down after the September 11th attack), an online poker website (which was abandoned when the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006 was passed in the US), as well as a website/online community called "The School of Heroes".

Eventually, thanks to the success of other Kickstarter projects by Sierra alumni, Lori and Corey Cole setup their own on 19 October 2012, seeking to raise funds for a new game called Hero-U: Rogue to Redemption. Yes, you're no doubt aware that I'm a backer of the project and thankfully it managed to slightly exceed its funding goal of $400,000 on 21 November 2012.

Almost two years later and the game isn't quite ready yet, thanks to some earlier issues with development but Lori and Corey Cole are still hard at work on the game and fingers crossed we'll see a release of the game sometime next year (at least that's what I'm hoping :)).

LINKS:
[ Wikipedia: The Coles ]
[ Hero-U: Rogue to Redemption Official Website ]
[ Hero-U: Rogue to Redemption Kickstarter Page ]
[ Reddit IAmA dated 31 October 2012 ]
[ MobyGames: Corey Cole ]
[ Ham's Quest for Glory Blog: An Interview with Corey Cole (2011) ]

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

First Impressions - Marvel Heroes 2015

I am GROOT!

When I saw Marvel Heroes going Free-to-Play in June 2014 I was initially a bit apprehensive. As you already know, I'm a bit wary of games that use the Free-to-Play model (as that often means Pay-to-Win mechanics lurk beneath the surface), not to mention there were mixed reviews on its store page on Steam. A fellow contributor on this blog, who is a fan of oldschool comics, decided to give the game a shot and consequently I have taken the plunge as well. While I haven't had much of a chance to play multiplayer with my mate, I still ended up playing the game with some other players, meaning the levels aren't instanced just for your party like it was in Diablo. Anyway, I've played the game for about an hour now, so what's it like so far?

What I like

  • The Marvel universe: This is a pretty obvious drawcard. The game has managed to license the use of many of the characters from the Marvel universe. There's over 50 playable characters with hundreds of other characters too.
  • Free-to-play: Obviously you can't go past the price which is absolutely free. Sure you can use real money in order to purchase higher-level items later on but I believe they're all obtainable by grinding if you so choose.
  • Very much like Diablo II: For anyone who has played hack 'n' slash action-RPGs like Diablo II, you'll feel right at home when playing this. It's probably no surprise considering ex-Blizzard employee, David Brevik, had a big influence on Diablo's development. The tech trees look similar, the inventory looks similar, you have a personal stash, there's health and mana bars, need I go on? But...

What I don't like

  • Very much like Diablo II: This is also the game's weakness. It doesn't really offer anything new in terms of gameplay so depending on how you sit with Diablo II's gameplay this game can get boring really quick or you'll be loving its retro feel.
  • Voice acting: This is a minor quibble since most of the voice acting is pretty good and even authentic (Stan Lee as himself, Clark Gregg as Agent Coulston and even Steve Blum as Wolverine - he voiced the cartoon version of him). However, where they were unable to get authentic voice actors sometimes they've got actors that just don't sound the part. While I love Keith David as an actor he'll always be Captain Anderson from Mass Effect to me or one of his many roles on TV and film. He does not have the right voice (IMHO) for Nick Fury. I reckon they would've done better with Anthony Aroya who I thought did a really good Samuel L. Jackson impersonation in The Typing of the Dead: Overkill

Verdict

So far the game is a bit of mindless hack 'n' slash fun just like Diablo II was, and there's so much loot to collect. Will it be worthwhile playing once I complete the story? Probably not but I'm willing to pay the price of admission ($0) to find out.

[ LINK: Official Marvel Heroes 2015 website ]

Monday, October 13, 2014

Choicest VGM - VGM #152 - The Ur-Quan Masters - Starbase Commander - Corridor Nine



Composed by: Riku Nuottajärvi
Remixed by: Riku Nuottajärvi

This is a remix of the music which plays when you communicate with the Commander of the starbase orbiting Earth in Star Control II. The starbase is in dire need of repair but when they finally discover you're a human captain in charge of a whopping huge Precursor vessel that's able to clear the Solar System of alien threats, they're more than happy to help you out in your clandestine rebellion. The "Corridor Nine" is a reference to the "black ops" or "special operations" division of Star Control that were responsible for many covert operations behind enemy lines, including the discovery of the Precursor colony that allows the manufacture of the vessel the player captains in the game.

Once again, the humans are represented by dance music in this game and besides the gratuitous use of fart noises, I think the track is a perfect match for how the Humans are perceived in the Star Control universe (okay, maybe aliens think we're a bunch of flatulent apes too but I'm going to say they don't); the humans were apparently the industrial powerhouse of the original Alliance against the Ur-Quan and were quite proficient in developing weapons and ships, not to mention providing officers for the Alliance fleet. So a fast-paced dance track with a stomping beat and klaxons seems to work well.

Special thanks to The Precursors for remixing the classic Star Control II tracks and making them available for download.


Sunday, October 12, 2014

7 Grand Steps: What Ancients Begat Review

It's the Ciiiiircle of Liiiiife

  • Developer: Mousechief
  • Publisher: Mousechief
  • Release Date: 7 June 2013
  • Time played: 4 hours (INCOMPLETE)

So what prompted me to purchase 7 Grand Steps: What Ancients Begat and what is it meant to be about? Well for starters, the game has an awesomely pretentious title but why I really got the game was because it sounds unique. The goal of the game is to ensure your family survives several generations of Western Civilization and apparently the story changes depending on your choices. Customised, branching storyline dependent on your actions? Sold. Also, the fact that the game is set over many generations as you progress through various ages (e.g. the Copper Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age, etc.) sounds pretty epic.

The full price of the game at $20 USD seemed a bit too much as a gamble so I managed to get it when the price was discounted (probably $10 USD). I actually played a bit of the game when I first bought it but I've only managed to get the motivation and time to type up a review now. I did want to finish the game before reviewing and I think I was about half-way there (Whoooooaaa!! Livin' on a Prayer!) but alas 2014 is almost over and I still haven't reviewed all the 2013 games! That backlog. Anyway, here's my review.

Plot (3/5)
The game is set during ancient times and presumably follows the rise of Western Civilization from the Copper Age, to the Bronze Age and into the Iron Age. I'm not sure if it goes any further than that since that's as far as I got (before a reformat resulted in the save game being deleted). You basically guide your family over several generations, ensuring they are able to survive and maybe even prosper through the many ages.

Just as it is with games like The Sims or even Kudos 2, the "plot" in 7 Grand Steps is one that is developed by you and your actions. You choose the personalities of your children and their children and the numerous generations to follow. There will also be occasional story events where you'll be able to choose how one of the members of your family proceed. Your actions will determine if they achieve success or fail abysmally.

Gameplay (3/5)
7 Grand Steps is basically a digital version of a board game and the closest board game I've played that is similar in theme to 7 Grand Steps is the 2007 game Agricola. In Agricola you're responsible for developing a farm, raising a family and becoming prosperous. 7 Grand Steps has similar goals in that you're trying to make your family wealthy and prosperous but goes about it quite differently.

7 Grand Steps has a wheel with 4 rings on it representing different classes of society (the ruling class, nobles, artisans and labourers, if I recall correctly). On each of these rings there are spaces where player pieces can sit, which includes your player pieces and those of computer opponents. The player pieces represents families and your goal is to collect beads that randomly spawn on the spaces which will increase your "legend" points. Once you gain a number of "legend" points you successfully complete your objective, whatever that objective may be, such as discovering a new technology or becoming a hero. These usually help you to advance to the next ring in the wheel which means your family improves their standing in society. Landing on a space with another piece already on it (provided it isn't crowded) will generate tokens, tokens that you can use to move your pieces next turn or for educating any children you have.

This brings me to one of the most interesting aspects of the game which is an example of an abstract game mechanic actually mimicking life's struggles very closely. Tokens in the game are used for two things: moving the patriarch and matriarch of the family forward in the hope of collecting beads or educating your children in certain skills. Moving the patriarch and matriarch of the family around the wheel, catching beads will definitely make the current generation of your family prosper but if you spend too much time doing this, the parents will eventually die off leaving uneducated children for the next generation. Alternatively, you can sacrifice all your tokens to ensure the children are well prepared for the next generation, although without any surplus tokens, they will be effectively penniless and unable to get a good head start. They'll have to be self-made men/women. Also investing too many tokens on the children means less tokens for your pieces to move around the board, which runs the risk of your pieces being eaten by the crocs - being eaten by the crocs apparently symbolises falling into poverty. Basically, just like life, there has to be a balancing act when it comes to providing enough skills and wealth for the next generation to succeed, while also ensuring you don't suffer too much either.

Also, once you're in the ruling class this opens up a mini-game each turn where you're able to actually rule the country in what is an obvious nod to the classic text-based BASIC strategy game, Hamurabi. So that was definitely a pleasant surprise and it keeps things interesting, even if it is text and numbers based.

Overall, the game is reasonably addictive and fun to play, but then again, I like board games so maybe my tolerance for these sort of games is higher than your average computer gamer.

Occasionally you get to choose how your family's story unfolds through prompts like this one

Sound (3/5)
The game has some basic sound effects such as the sound of beads and tokens jingling but that's about it. There's also no voice acting in the game but it's not exactly necessary either.

Music (4/5)
Music consists of either epic scores or folk music using instruments that sound a lot like Arabian lutes (aka Aouds). The music, while not exactly memorable, suits the game.

Graphics (2/5)
It looks like the developers decided to use default Poser models or something similar for the characters in the game; many of the characters don't look very realistic as if they were all just mannequins. I think the game would've actually benefited with simple 2D drawings or paintings instead to be honest.

Replay (2/5)
I actually enjoyed the time I played with this game and it can actually become quite addictive, almost to the point where you'll be uttering "Just...one...more...turn...", even though you're not playing Civilization. The addictive nature comes from ensuring your family increases their social standing as they go up the different rings of the circular board. Would I play it again if I finished it? Probably not because there's a lot of effort involved in ensuring your family makes it throughout the ages, and while there will be some differences between each playthrough, the motivation is basically the same.

Polish (5/5)
I didn't encounter any serious bugs while playing the game and the user interface is adequate.

Score – 6/10

If you like board games and fancy giving a shot at leading your family to greatness, 7 Grand Steps is the game you've been looking for. Unfortunately, the game isn't too attractive thanks to the low-budget character models and while there are some opportunities to affect your family's story, it seems to be determined by chance more than anything else, not to mention it turns out to be of secondary importance compared to raising your family's social standing.

7 Grand Steps: What Ancients Begat is available from these retailers:

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

[ LINK: Official 7 Grand Steps website ]

Saturday, October 11, 2014

First Impressions - Face Noir

An idealist eh?

Face Noir is a film noir detective point 'n' click adventure game set in 1930s New York. With only that sentence, I'm already pretty interested in what this game has to offer and thanks to my mate on Steam, Mix-Master, I managed to get a copy for free. Unfortunately, I haven't really played the game as long as I usually do before typing up a "First Impressions" article, only about 20 minutes, but I think it's still a sufficient amount of time to post some preliminary thoughts on the game.

What I like

  • Jazz soundtrack: I'm a big fan of jazz music in games, one of the best has to be SimCity 3000's soundtrack by Jerry Martin. The jazz was so good that my father mistook it to be some music by Miles Davis. Anyway, the little I've heard so far of the Face Noir soundtrack is perfect considering the game's setting, 1930's New York.
  • Ambient sound: The noises made by nearby planes, trains and automobiles (no I'm not talking about the movie) sound surprisingly authentic and really helps with the immersion.

What I don't like

  • Dialogue: I can't remember any of the dialogue right now, but all I know is that some of it is really bad. I think one of the reasons why it's bad is because they use redundant language with their similes. I know they're trying their best to do the cool monologues that are a common trope in film noir, but things like "the ground was wet, like a wet sponge", just sound clumsy (I made that one up mind you, but you get my point). To be fair though, I'm guessing the developers aren't native English speakers as they are based in Italy. Could also explain why the detective utters the Italian expletive of "Dannazione!" all the time.
  • I'm already stuck: I'm only about 20 minutes into the game and I'm already stuck. I know what I need to do but it seems like the most logical solution (in this case using lockpicks to unlock a locked gate) isn't the right solution. I mean, come on guys, seriously? Either the solution is really convoluted or there's something minute I've missed.
  • Character models: The character models are a bit oldschool - think early 2000s in terms of graphics. Graphics don't maketh the game but with point 'n' click adventures, it's usually pretty important.

Verdict

I really like the setting and the ambience that Mad Orange have developed with Face Noir and so far I'm intrigued to learn more about the plot (especially after the dramatic introduction). I just hope the game doesn't turn out to be too difficult or the low-budget visuals and dialogue, too jarring.

[ LINK: Official Face Noir website ]

Friday, October 10, 2014

Gravity Badgers Review

Badgers! Badgers! Badgers! Badgers! Badgers! Badgers!

  • Developer: Wales Interactive
  • Publisher: Wales Interactive
  • Release Date: 28 November 2013
  • Time played: 2 hours (INCOMPLETE)

Once again, thanks to the generosity of Steam friends (thanks Mix-Master), I managed to grab a copy of an unusually named game called Gravity Badgers The game looked interesting and while I've only played 2 hours of the game so far, I'm past the half-way mark in terms of the campaign so I thought I'd give the game a review regardless.

Plot (1/5)
I was tempted to not even include a plot section for this game since there is so little to go on. In fact, I'm still not quite sure what's going on even though I'm more than halfway through the game. Not that you'd normally think this matters - this is a puzzle game right? Who cares if it has a good story or not? Under normal circumstances, I would agree but unfortunately, Wales Interactive decided that Gravity Badgers deserved a story when in reality the game may have been better off without it.

From what I can tell, you play a badger in space who somehow loses all his crew to some bad guys, or maybe giant space worms, or.... who knows. The problem is there's only two sources of information in the game with respect to story: (a) the cutscenes which just involve a camera scrolling right across a painting and (b) conversations between the badgers at the end of each "episode". Both methods don't tend to reveal much if anything at all.

Gameplay (3/5)
Gravity Badgers is a gravity puzzle game where you're given a whole bunch of levels to complete that are spaced out over five episodes. At the end of each of these episodes (at least that was the case for the first three) you're able to rescue another of your badger crew members. The aim of each level is to use sources of gravity and anti-gravity in order to guide your badger towards energy cores and the exit. There are also obstacles like asteroids and space monsters to avoid so some of the levels can prove quite difficult, especially later on (they definitely required several retries from me, let's just put it that way). You're able to control your badger like a slingshot, in a similar fashion to how you launch birds in Angry Birds. You pick the direction and how powerful your shot will be and then pray you follow the right trajectory. You get three lives for each level and if your badger dies, next time he/she respawns the game shows you what trajectory was previously taken and how much power was behind the shot.

The game has a simple enough premise but it's difficult to master, mainly because the gravity and anti-gravity sources are unpredictable with respect to their strength, even if visually they appear larger or smaller. You can also tell that this was a game made-for-mobile and is in fact just a port for PC. Consequently, just like Angry Birds, this kind of game would be better suited for the mobile market but it might seem a bit too casual for most PC players. It's not bad to play when you've only got a few minutes to spare though.

Apparently, Southern Belle Badgers do exist

Sound (5/5)
No complaints about the audio. Sure, there's not really any voice acting but the sound effects that are there seem fine.

Music (3/5)
Most of the music encountered during the levels proper is decent enough though nothing memorable comes to mind. The main menu theme on the other hand is an entirely different story - you'll find it very hard to get the Gravity Badgers theme out of your head thanks to it sounding like something from the Power Rangers or Thundercats.

Graphics (2/5)
The art style is fine and the cutscenes, while not making much sense, are aesthetically pleasing. The game suffers from very basic animations though. For example, whenever one of the badgers turns, it's just like flipping a cardboard cut-out.

Replay (2/5)
While I didn't finish the game before I wrote this review, I intend to do so once I have a bit more time. While the plot is lacklustre at least the gameplay can be somewhat addictive. At times, I couldn't stop playing until I managed to beat particularly challenging levels.

Polish (4/5)
I didn't really encounter any serious bugs, but occasionally the game would seem to freeze for a few seconds when I hit the level retry button.

Score – 6/10

If you're a fan of artillery games like Worms or mobile games such as Angry Birds, Gravity Badgers could very well be a game you'd be interested in. It happens to have addictive gravity puzzle gameplay and there's quite a few of them to complete. However, besides saying that, there's not much else I can recommend about this game. Wales Interactive shouldn't have even bothered with the plot, the music is merely okay (except for the rockin' main title theme) and animations are quite basic too. It does happen to be a good distraction from other more time-intensive games but I have serious concerns about the game's longevity once you've finally finished the campaign.

Gravity Badgers is available from these retailers:

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[ LINK: Official Gravity Badgers website ]

Thursday, October 9, 2014

First Impressions - Star Trek Online

What's Daniel Jackson doing in Star Trek?

After playing Guild Wars 2 I've half-heartedly made a promise that I wouldn't be sucked into the world of MMORPGs again, since obviously they tend to be a huge time sink but also because most games in the genre don't tend to be very innovative. A couple of MMORPGs based on franchises I'm a fan of (namely Star Wars: The Old Republic and Star Trek Online) went free-to-play over the past couple of years and while I was tempted to give them a go (because of the universes they're based on) I didn't cave in, thinking that any MMORPG that's had to go free-to-play is obviously not doing too well in terms of numbers.

Anyway, seems like I couldn't hold out any longer and on a whim, I decided to download Star Trek Online because I was getting the urge to go "Star Trekkin' across the universe" and here I am, 30 hours later with some first impressions on a game that's been out for almost 4 years.

What I like

  • Star Trek Universe: This was the big drawcard for me and I guess many Trekkies as well, since there's a whole galaxy to explore with people, organisations and locations from the TV shows. There's a lot of cameos by familiar characters and some characters are even voice acted by the original cast (e.g. Leonard Nimoy, Michael Dorn, Chase Masterson, Denise Crosby, even the late Majel Barrett who sadly passed away in 2008).
  • Free: The game is free-to-play which I would normally steer clear from since it often translates to Pay-to-Win, however from what I've played of the game so far, it doesn't seem to be one of those games.
  • Character Customisation: Surprisingly you can do quite a bit with your chracter customisation, almost on par with games such as The Sims or The Elder Scrolls. You're even able to create your own alien species if you're that way inclined.
  • Lengthy campaigns: As mentioned, I've played for around 30 hours so far and I haven't even finished one of the story arcs, despite there being 7 for the Federation, which also excludes the tutorial. Then there's always the Klingon and Romulan campaigns to complete meaning there's potentially hundreds of hours of gameplay here.

What I don't like

  • Some inconsistencies: There are some situations in the game where as a Trekkie you'd be scratching your head at how they came to pass. For example, one mission involves escorting an emotional Vulcan to another star system. Wait, an emotional Vulcan? Doesn't that ring any alarm bells? Apparently not which isn't very consistent with Star Trek lore.
  • Inconsistent audio: Some characters have voice acting while others do not. Others start off being voice acted but then aren't later. I think they would've been better off to not have voice acting at all except for some additional cutscenes.
  • Lack of music from the shows: You can tell Kevin Manthei is doing his best to mimic the themes from the show and having them play at the appropriate times, and before I go any further he must be commended for a job well done. He really manages to make the soundtrack sound like it fits in a Star Trek show. However, it would've been nice to hear the actual themes and music used on the shows. I think hearing the Deep Space Nine theme when approaching the station in-game would be priceless.
  • Graphics: The ships generally look fine but when you're on the surface of a planet, there's something not quite right about the graphics and they look rather dated. The game does happen to be almost 4 years old though.
  • Ground combat sucks: Ship combat is definitely where it's at and is far superior to ground combat. Having said that though, I usually have no idea what I'm doing in either ground combat or ship combat mode and often just end up spamming abilities. It would've been nice if they had a system similar to Guild Wars where it's not about the quantity of skills but the quality (i.e. how to build an effective build when you only have limited slots) but alas, a missed opportunity.
  • Lazy mission design: The way that missions progress tend to be very predictable and follow the same formula: enter system, attack Klingons. Land on planet, attack Klingons. Beam back to ship, attack Klingons. Rinse, repeat. Frankly I would've liked some more missions that didn't rely solely on combat - since after all, the Federation is meant to find the peaceful solution first right?

Verdict

Judging by the number of hours I've already invested into the game, you can tell I'm pretty keen about this game, at least for now. I'm guessing this game would appeal to Star Trek fans and science-fiction fans in general, since science-fiction tends to be poorly represented in the MMORPG world (with fantasy obviously taking the lion's share). As I'm already Level 50 (the maximum level) I'm interested to see if the experience starts to become stale since there's always a bit of excitement associated with unlocking new things each time you level up. The end-game will now be tested but considering I'm more of a player that appreciates a good story, I might be sticking around for a long time regardless considering I'm only about 1/7th the way through the campaign.

[ LINK: Official Star Trek Online website ]