22 June, 2008

Quickie Take on the Numbers

Some of these came out just before I went on vacation, but now I'm back with time to actually write up the basics.

PS3 got a small boost last month, presumably in advance of Metal Gear Solid 4. I've always admired the production values, but there is so much garbage (trial and error gameplay, ridiculous moralizing, pathetically sophomoric humor, scenarios so implausible they would make John Woo ashamed to have authored them) between the bright spots that I only bothered to play through MGS 1. I'm enjoying listening to the spoiler filled podcasts about MGS4 more than I would enjoy playing it (or rather watching it as it's mostly cut scenes).

The 360 and Wii both saw small declines, but nothing I'd imagine anyone is losing sleep over. GTA IV is still topping the software charts here in the US, with a bunch of Wii stuff and Pokemon for DS rounding out the top ten. Oh, and Iron Man for PS2 made the top ten, proving once again that licensed garbage sells. Meh.

12 June, 2008

Oblivion: Training Montage

The theme song for this post.

There's was much punching.




Bandits (with magic axes)

And there was blocking practice.

This made me very sad. First, the fact that I have to "farm" blocking skill is lame. But worse than that, I was level nine or ten, and between blocking and healing spells, I could not hold off a rat indefinitely. I believe a level nine character should no longer have to think at all about rats. But that's just the tip of the sad iceberg. Oscuro's Oblivion Overhaul mod was supposed to make certain areas more dangerous, and certain areas less so. But it doesn't seem to be working that way at all. Instead of rats. The low level areas are spawning packs of boars and half a dozen bandits. Dungeons that used to have Implings now have Trolls. I thought the whole point of Oscuro's was to make it so that old areas could be sailed through and new ones would force stealth and cunning. But since stealth in the game is broken, I guess it doesn't make much difference.

It's evenly broken. Once an enemy sees you outside, they always know where you are. But I can often stealth attack an enemy indoors, back off a couple meters, then move in and do it again. It's broken and stupid and no fun. That's becoming the mantra for the game. It crashes randomly. The video randomly goes blank apparently somehow related to where I'm standing and what direction I'm facing. The way many skills level up is ridiculous and, far more damning, boring.

Originally I wanted to level up because I wanted to advance the story, but the process has been so tedious and unrewarding I really don't want to play the game anymore. Finding out that only silver weapons hurt certain foes (whom I will undoubtedly see many more of if I try to go through that gate again) also made me feel like trying to continue the game as a monk would be a waste of time. Oblivion gave me a few good stories, and I appreciated the extra mod content. But in the end, the game isn't baked. Bethesda bit off more than they could chew, and not even years of devoted fan support could compensate for it. I hope Fallout 3 is using the Unreal engine, or something more stable than Oblivion.

11 June, 2008

A Brief Interlude: The Office

While my lizard man runs around punching people in the face, I offer to you a lightweight respite. The Office. I enjoy the show. The game is $9 on Steam. And my knuckles needed a break.

The basic premise to get everyone what they need to do their job. The problem is another office member is trying to beat you to it. And there's nothing more annoying than watching someone else take the credit by turning in a file you did most of the work on. The game does a good job of balancing a lot of elements. If you see your "enemy" pick up a fax, you go pick up a file folder. If there's coffee, grab it for a speed boost. If there's a prank ready, you can run over to Pam to activate it, taking your opponent out of the action. And you build a combo meter, so your score accumulates much faster if you can juggle all these things while still keeping everyone in the office busy. It's short, but spastic enough by the final stages that the length felt about right.

We now resume your regularly scheduled punching.

10 June, 2008

Oblivion: Remora Politics

While I've still been taking screenshots in Oblivion, there are too many little stories to tell. And many of them feel very much the same. The strong feed on the week. And I, still being quite weak, am mostly like a remora.

When I was a child, we had a book called "Fish Do the Strangest Things". One of the featured animals was the remora. It latches on to a shark using a suction cup on its forehead. When the shark eats, the remora gets the scraps. I feel very much like that fish. Let's list some examples.

Shark Victim
Some bandits Porkins
Some skeletons Some bandits
A werewolf Some skeletons

Is a pattern becoming evident? I'm not killing anything, just running away from it until something bigger kills it for me. That's not always the case. I do occasionally find manageable enemies. But it's still pretty messed up to realize that most of my best gear has come form corpses of stuff I didn't kill. This was really driven home to me on the road to Kvatch. I barely got out of Skingrad before being set upon by three or four bandits. I might have been able to take them, but it would have been a long and unpleasant fight, and nightfall was coming, so I decided to ran. I kept running by more bandits and having them chase me as well. Then there was some crazy plant monster on my tail. I ran. Eventually, I outdistanced them. However, being unable to further the quest at Kvatch (as I was far too low level) I had to go back. I was unenthused.

The first thing I found on the road was a body. One of the bandits was dead. A little further on, I saw another dead bandit, but before I even reached the body to loot it, the plant creature attacked. Luckily (or thanks to my judicious spending of attribute points on my speed stat) I could outrun it. And thanks to loot menus stopping the clock on the game world, I got to loot the bodies of every bandit that had chased me to Kvetch, as the plant creature had killed them all. I may be quite weak, but I'm also quite wealthy. But I'm tired of running, so I'm going to head back to the starting areas to grind some levels. Fools will be pummeled.

09 June, 2008

Oblivion: On the Road Again

Meet Porkins. Okay, his name isn't really Porkins. But the game didn't give him a name, so I get call him Porkins after the short lived X-Wing pilot. He's warning me about Daedra (the demons of the game world) being around and to stay on the road. He didn't need to. I was going to anyway. Regardless, it's nice to know there are guards around.

And Magul apparently didn't get too far in the six hours I was asleep. But on closer inspection of her "Paint" horse, it appears to be made of painted concrete, so that's understandable.

[Encounter Not Pictured]
A cat man jumped out of a bush and demanded my money or my life. I have FRAPS taking screenshots automatically every sixty seconds. It took less time than that for me to evaluate his offer, refuse it, watch Porkins, Magul, and the other two nearby guards dispatch him, and loot the body. It's good to have friends (and dedicated civil servants).

After moving further up the road, I came to a small inn.

I talked to the guy sitting out front in the middle of the night. I asked him about the local rumors and he repeatedly told me that province so and so is the breadbasket of Tamriel. I don't know if he didn't like me, didn't really know anything, or just thought that this information was somehow crucial to a lizard man such as myself.

The inn patrons indoors had more interesting things to say.

Apparently there are demon worshipers on some island somewhere. And the innkeeper wants me to kill a Necromancer. I distinctly remember the readme file for Oscuro's saying Necromancers are level 20-25, so we won't be taking her up on that bounty any time soon. Nope it's time to hit the road again.

I downloaded better textures for more than just the scenery. It seems pretty stupid, but I actually found myself admiring the high res food textures. I probably would never have noticed the originals (as being good or bad looking) if I hadn't downloaded a mod specifically for them. I'm concerned about how using the mods has diverted my attention. If I'm spending my time evaluating the aesthetic merits of high resolution cheese instead of killing stuff, how can that possibly be an improvement?

Well, I got to write a sentence that included the phrase "aesthetic merits of high resolution cheese". That was pretty awesome. :D
**End Aside**

Oblivion: Back Inside

While looting the camp of the newly deceased brigands, I come across their bedroll. Great! I needed to level up! So I sleep and get some improved stats. Unfortunately, when I wake up, it looks like this.

Night sucks. I have no night vision and carrying a torch around at night is kind of like carrying around a neon sign saying "free lizard meat buffet". I'm going to explore the door I found under the ruins.

Oh look. Pretty blue stone. What a surprise.

I had gotten no more than a dozen steps into the place when a big jerk popped out and chased me outside. Yep. Jerks persist across load screens. Groo is unamused. After filling him with arrows I came back in and didn't get another dozen steps before I almost triggered a trap.

This picture (made extra bright for those of you with dark monitors) shows me using an arrow to trigger a pressure plate. This is a way of setting off a trap that doesn't involve my head caving in, so I support it's use. But between the jerk and the trap, I'm not feeling very welcome here.

Sure is pretty though. Too bad I eventually come to a large room with at least four jerks in it. I'm not going in there. Dark or not, it's time to hit the road.

Oblivion: Makin' Friends

I creep up to the ruins. Again, since I'm using Oscuro's Oblivion Overhaul, I have no idea what may be up here. I know there's going to be a point in the game where I need to run for my life, I just don't know when it is. I can hear voices. There are humans up here. Bandits would be a lot higher level than rats and goblins, I'd expect. I creep around a corner to take a look.

Aaah! JERKS!

Even though I was sneaking, this cleric saw me from twenty meters, cast a spell on herself and charged me, with her more heavily armored friend in tow. I ran. I ran a lot. I ran out of the ruins and up the hill. I came to a fork in the road. I looked down the hill and saw my pursuers still doing what pursuers do. I took the right fork and ran. I ran a lot. When I finally looked back and saw this...

I finally relaxed and stopped running.

Aaah! Orc lady on a horse!

Oh wait. She's nice. I can talk to her. What's this bribe button for? Oh! She likes me now! Great! At least one person in the kingdom of Tamriel doesn't want to kill me. Boss. Wait. Did I hire her? Is she my adventuring buddy now? No. She's just riding off down the road. Okay. I guess I should go back and see what those jerks in the ruins are up to now that it's getting light out again.

Now imagine yourself in my place. Hiding behind a rock looking down into the ruins, not knowing where the bad guys are, and not wanting to get any closer for fear that you might find out. The hard way.

You see something on your right. Oh no! It's the cleric! No. It's Magul. What's she doing here? She's headed right into the ruins. She's got a sword out. She's running in.

Oh crap! I better back her up!

I see the cleric. Time for some thunk thunk.

So here's me, trying to shoot arrows into the cleric faster than she can heal herself while my new orc friend is chasing her armored companion around like he was an unruly orc child.

And she beat him down!


I would like to take this opportunity to express my profound regret at not having purchased this game sooner.

Oblivion: Going Outside

Welcome to the outside. Yeah. I was expecting something a little more picturesque too. But at least my frame rate doesn't totally suck out here. It fluctuates pretty wildly between 30 and 60 with occasional dips into the mid teens. In an action game, that would suck, but the pace of Oblivion is generally pretty leisurely, so it's tolerable.

If you look closely, you can see that my character is covered with small white dots. That's because I have a mod that is supposed to make people look wet when it's raining (GetWet). But there are some issues with the mod, the dots on my hands in first person are very distorted and look more like magical energy. Even sillier is that the rain dots move upwards instead of downwards on my quiver, so in third person they look less like rain drops and more like disco ball lights.

Since you've seen me from the back now, you should probably have a look at my front.

Originally, I made a human avatar. I tweaked his features to look basically like me. Then I went rambling through the other races, seeing what they looked like. They all looked a little bit like me, except of course for this guy. Or maybe that's not true. Maybe that's exactly what I would look like if I were a lizard.

I liked the exotic look and the fact that I could breathe underwater. Since this is a game of exploration, that might be a useful skill to have. Unfortunately, it turns out that fish bite, and thanks to Oscuro's they bite hard.

Here is me shooting the crap out of a fish who nearly killed me. Revenge is a dish best served at high velocity.

But between the fish and some tiny flying demons, I should probably get moving. It looks like there are some ruins across the river.

Let's go check 'em out.

Oblivion: Killing Rats

Yep. It's an RPG. That means you start off killing ridiculously wimpy monsters like rats. Aww. I shot his widdle paw. I'm a meanie.

This is more like it.

I don't feel nearly so bad about turning a goblin berserker into a pincushion. You'll note one arrow in the stomach, two in the head, and one in the right arm (the goblin's right, not your right). Very gratifying despite the fact that head shots don't really seem to do much extra damage. I'm guessing a helmet reduces the damage, even if the shot lands directly in the eye. We are still living in the dark ages of computing in some ways.

Eventually the dark brown caverns give way to some pretty blue stone.

Very pretty blue stone.

Some important plot stuff happens in here, but who really cares? You want to see what the outside is like, don't you?

07 June, 2008

Oblivion: Patch List

After patching Oblivion to version 1.2 something something, here are the additional patches I'm applying.

Unofficial Patch 3.0
There were still a lot of bugs left in the game after the 1.2 patch. This patch includes fixes for things like "game crashes on level up". It's not very heartening to think that a bug that bad wasn't worth an official patch.

Quest Popup Remover
Apparently Oblivion likes to remind you of what quests you're on. By remind I mean nag. I'll have none of that. I'll find the quest log when I need it.

Oblivion Script Extender
Some other mods need this.

Wrye Bash
Ditto. Also WryeBash uses Python and some Python modules I had to download as well.

It was at the top of a top ten list of Oblivion mods. Apparently it improves the UI significantly. I downloaded a couple other interface mods, but I'm trying to keep this blog post semi-readable. So let's skip ahead to the big stuff.

Oscuro's Oblivion Overhaul
So Oblivion sucks by default. You can beat the final boss at level three. And once you hit level 20, roadside bandits wear some of the best armor in the game. That is because Oblivion always makes your enemies the same level as you to even out the challenge. It's also because they didn't have time to put in any content after level 20, so they just had the player fight the same monsters, but tougher. In Oscuro's, certain levels and types of monsters live in certain areas. This means certain areas are inaccessible until the player can fight, sneak, or run through them. It also modifies a lot of other elements, like game economy, weapon timing, AI, and more stuff than I understand.

Part of me doesn't like the idea that I won't be playing what the designers intended, but I also don't want to be fighting brigands with armor so expensive there would be no possible reason for them to need to rob people.

Martigen's Monster Mod
As I mentioned, the game only has content for twenty levels, but goes to level 50. Martigen's monsters are integrated with Oscuro's mod to give me a lot more stuff to fight.

All +5
When you level up in Oblivion, the player can raise three attributes of their character. But they can only be raised the maximum amount (five points) if the character has been doing appropriate actions. This lead to bizarre behaviors like knights in full armor hopping across the landscape to improve their agility and mages carrying heavy shields around to improve their health. In other words, it made no sense. This mod makes it so that I'll be able to add a full plus five to any attribute my character has used in the last level. Considering all the warnings Oscuro's has in its text files about how difficult things are going to be, I'm thinking this will be a simple and effective way to go.

Unique Landscapes
A lot of Oblivion looks generically beautiful. With these, it should look more specifically beautiful, or at least the 13 areas the project has currently managed to cover should.

NPC Faces
It takes some tweaking with WryeBash to make it work, but since these selfless modders updated 1,201 NPC faces to make them more distinct, it seemed like the least I could do.

Seasonal Weather for More Sky Climates
Yeah. Crazy name. There are half a dozen recommended weather replacements for the game. SWfMSC, combined with OC Darker Nights and Phinix Waterfix, seemed the best compromise. This will probably be one of the first things I disable if I have stability issues. Oscuro's has a cool feature where I'll automatically drop my torch when I pull out my weapon, so I think the darker nights will be great for atmosphere. And the Phinix Waterfix was the recommendation of dev/akm who also has a very nice web site with Oblivion mod lists.

Almost Everything Visible when Distant
It'll be a performance hit, but when I'm on top of a mountain, I want to see stuff!

Qarl's texture pack 3 (Redimized)
This is the bulk of my downloading. Gigs of high resolution textures which add a lot of detail to the world. Unfortunately, it has to be repacked in a special Oblivion format before I can use it. Oh well. I can finish this article while I wait.

Oblivion Stereo Sound Overhaul
Among some other sound mods, this should make the sound in Oblivion significantly better. I'm particularly looking forward to the improved bow sounds. I wanna thwack a fool. The addition of appropriate weather sounds indoors should also be a nice touch.

Now the only question is, can I actually get Oblivion running with all these mods installed. :P

Oblivion: Pre Game

I finally decided to grab a used copy of Oblivion. I've installed it and patched it and downloaded mods for it. Actually, I'm still downloading mods. Oblivion was a large and ambitious game, as such, the mod community has vastly improved the game over the two years since it's release, from such small things as a keyring to help me not have to hunt through my inventory for keys, to such large things as expanding the games stock 7 weather types to 41 different types. Just to give you an idea, I'm downloading 3 gigs of add-ons to a 4.4 gig game.

I probably won't install all of them. Luckily there's a nice guide to help me know which of the most important mods tread on each other's toes. I'll produce a full list of what I'm using when I'm ready to get started.

A Little More Grinding: Age of Empires 3: Asian Dynasties

I spent some more time unlocking cards in Asian Dynasties, and just in case this is somehow news to you, I like goofy stuff. Here is a screenshot of a particularly delightful moment.

It's not just delightful because I'm pummeling an enemy's city. It's not just delightful because my clan is named after a cartoon rabbit and the currently selected character is Dr. McNinja. No, the icing on this particular cake is that I had my music library on random play and the triumphant marching section of Monty Python's "Every Sperm is Sacred" was blaring away as my cannon's blazed.

That's one thing I take for granted on the PC. I can listen to any music while playing any game. It's a small thing, but for creating a moment like this, it is priceless. And I'm so looking forward to capping fools in GTA IV for the PC to Braggadocio I can hardly contemplate it. I know. Crime Spree would be more appropriate. I'm sure it will have it's time in the sun too. But who doesn't want to be blowing up cop cars with an RPG when the lyric "I stand seventy seven feet tall" is defiantly declared?


That's who.

Back to Asian Dynasties, I'm actually getting a little sick of playing the Japanese. Ninjas are a cool idea, but in the game they're not so cool. Yeah. It's fun to disrupt enemy supply lines by harassing the peasants with ninja archers. But it's too much micro management. If you go up and look at that screen shot again you'll see that I've got tons of resources I'm not using. I don't have time to wage war and screw around trying to assassinate enemy explorers, which aren't much of a threat to begin with.

It bears mentioning at this point that this is why StarCraft is still the greatest cooperative RTS ever made. By letting multiple people control the same team (instead of multiple teams fighting together), it allowed for divisions of labor. Someone could do recon and assasinations. Someone could just build bases. Someone could manage the air force. Most RTS games are just too much for me to absorb. But with the StarCraft model of cooperative play, they were much more manageable. Everyone could explore and learn to exploit their particular area of the game, compare notes, and improve quickly as opposed to constantly jumping all around the interface and getting frazzled. If Company of Heroes had had this type of play, we probably wouldn't have abandoned it after one LAN party. I've been listening to Shawn Elliot of 1UP (formerly of Computer Gaming World and Games for Windows Magazine) go on for almost a year about how much he's enjoyed the multiplayer in the game. Admittedly, he's playing against people and not the AI, like we do at our LAN parties, but I still feel like we're missing out on the game when I hear him talk about it.
**End Aside**

Plus my samurai always break formation and run off to get themselves killed. They're dumb. And finally, the monks I start the game with are moderately cool, but I think the only way I can hire more is to recruit them as mercenaries (for way too much gold). I want more, and more awesomer, monks. So I'm switching to Chinese.

And yes, I was just listening to Monty Python's "I Like Chinese" while playing. :D

06 June, 2008

Keepalive: Rise of Legends, Age of Empires 3: Asian Dynasties. Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess

After the surprising amount of realtime strategy (RTS) at the last LAN party, I'm spending some time boning up on some modern RTS games. For the most part, I find RTS games a pain. Becoming skilled generally requires a lot of experimentation and math, which is dull, or going to read a FAQ, which is cheating. It's basically the same reason I don't play fighting games much.

One that I played specifically because we didn't play it at the party was Rise of Legends. Rise of Nations is my favorite RTS, mostly because it has the best features for managing my empire. Being able to simply hit the tab key to cycle through all buildings with upgrades available lets me know I'm never neglecting anything. Rise of Legends isn't quite as simple, but it's got robots.

Age of Empires 3: Asian Dynasties is kind of the opposite of Rise of Nations, despite the fact that the same company developed both. Everything feels like it's in the wrong place. I can't garrison troops. I can't put a gate in my wall, so I have to just leave a gaping hole the enemy can run through. There's a card collecting and deck building component which seems really bizarre. Plus I have to split my attention in the crucial early stage of the game between establishing my economy and using my explorer units to grab treasures. I guess that's to encourage more recon, something many beginning (and sometimes intermediate) players neglect. But it felt like a hassle.

I think I've about petered out on Twilight Princess. I just finished the Sky Dungeon, and while I appreciate the design of the Twilight Dungeon, it's boring to play. I had the same problem with Ocarina of Time, quitting in Gannon's castle. I think Link to the Past and Wind Waker are the only Zelda's I found fun enough to finish.

Just A Couple Screenshots: Penny Arcade Adventures, Devil May Cry 4

First, here's the version of me that I created in the Penny Arcade game. As a male, I couldn't find any long hair. Given the early 1900s feel of the game, I guess that makes sense. So I just went for the one with the most receedingest hairline.

And here's a screen shot of the boss you can fight in the Devil May Cry 4 demo for PC.

Yeah. He's big.

Overall I'm pleased with the demo. Nero (the guy in the coat) moves more slowly than I remember Dante (the hero from the older games) moving. I think that's to encourage the player to use his special yoink power to grab enemies and bring them to him. But I prefer being a jumping bean.

It's also not as satisfying to play on the PC. Sure, I can play at a resolution higher than most HD TVs, but the truth is we're still a long way from photorealism, and high resolutions just make that easier to spot. Look! That floor texture looks painted on! Look! Those pipe textures are super low resolution! Look! See how the snow meet a curved surface in a perfectly straight line! I guess it's the uncanny valley as it applies to scenery.

We probably won't get past that until we have the video memory (and art budgets) to give every surface in the game world high resolution texture, bump, and specular maps. And even then, there'll probably just be new issues. For as far as it's come, the technology has a long way to go.

04 June, 2008

Why Must I Be Sad? (Lego Indiana Jones)

Lego Indiana Jones is a mediocre game. That means that, compared to its predecessors, it's crap. Co-op is fine, because co-op is always fine, but single player is pathetically average.

The combat is no fun. In Lego Star Wars, combat was really easy, but it was fun. Jedi's could easily reflect attacks, and blaster characters could easily dodge them. I've seen one character dodge an attack in Lego Indy and I'm halfway through the third movie, so it's not coming. As such, the game is all about offense. Too bad that's not fun either. It mostly consists of wading into the standard three to five bad guys and flailing away. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn't. The best tactic is often to let your AI buddy run up to the bad guy and dizzy them before moving in. This is especially true of the rocket launcher bad guys who kill you in one hit. Unfortunately, half the time you'll dodge the rocket only to have it hit your AI buddy and kill you with splash damage.

Puzzles (which are understandably more prevalent and complicated than they were in the Star Wars games) aren't much better. In multiple cases, I found myself frustrated because the game wouldn't allow me to do something because a later stage of the puzzle I hadn't even seen yet would require another character. This resulted in far more confusion and wandering around than a Lego game should have. The Lego games also feature paths only certain characters can use so that they can only be explored on replays of the levels. The problem with those levels in Lego Indy is that you can often accomplish the first step or two of the puzzle before suddenly hitting the bit that you need a character you don't have for which is an annoying waste of time.

At the end of the day, the game is probably a three out of five, but I'm so disgusted at how far the series has fallen that it feels like a two or worse. I am extremely disappointed and would very much like my money back.